Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC)

The purpose of the Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC) is to help set research goals and to monitor progress toward the completion of degree requirements. Ordinarily, the DAC is composed of three faculty members, in addition to the Dissertation Advisor, who serves in an ex-officio capacity. At least one member must be outside the student's department and at least one member must be part of the BPH faculty. Selection of the DAC should be made by the student in consultation with his/her dissertation advisor and the membership of DAC communicated to the BPH Program Office. Ordinarily, the DAC chair will be a member of the BPH Program. Students bear primary responsibility for setting up the DAC and ensuring that it meets every six months to assess student progress. At each DAC meeting the student shall meet privately with the committee, with the Dissertation Advisor out of the room, and visa-versa for the Dissertation Advisor, with the student out of the room. A formal report must be filed with the BPH Program Office after each meeting documenting progress to date and recommendations for further work.  This report includes a self-evaluation by the student, feedback from the dissertation advisor, and recommendations from the DAC committee.

Dissertation Proposal

Students submit a written dissertation proposal to the Dissertation Advisory Committee within six months of successfully completing the Preliminary Qualifying Exam. The DAC and student will meet to discuss the proposal, and committee members will provide the student with feedback, guidance and suggestions to help define the dissertation project in terms of scope, direction and general quality. A copy of the dissertation proposal should be attached to the DAC Report and submitted to the BPH Program Office. At this initial DAC meeting, it is not expected that extensive preliminary studies have been completed, but the scope and focus of the dissertation research should be defined.  A clear plan for completing all of the work required for the PhD dissertation within 5 years should be presented.  While it is understood the plans will evolve over the course of dissertation research, especially since highly creative projects engender some risks and delays of unexpected nature arise, students are encouraged to strive for this goal.  The proposal should include the following sections:

  1. Abstract
  2. Specific Aims
  3. Background and Significance
  4. Experimental Design, including expected results and interpretations
  5. References (author, title, journal, inclusive pages, year)
Timing of DAC meetings

Prior to the beginning of the 6th semester, all students are expected to have completed their PQE and to have had a DAC meeting to discuss their proposal. Unless these conditions are met, students may not be allowed to register. The BPH Program is required to give the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences an accounting of student progress via Satisfactory Progress Reports, a key component of which is regular DAC meetings for students in G-3 and above. Unsatisfactory progress will be reported for any student who fails to have DAC meetings at 6-9 month intervals. However, this may be changed to satisfactory progress at the submission of a DAC report to the BPH Program Office. In addition, students are strongly encouraged to monitor their course/grade records to ensure that they are complete and accurate.  It is anticipated that DAC meetings will be more frequent for students G-4 and above. All students must demonstrate to the DAC committee a plausible track towards degree completion by year 5 or they may not be allowed to continue in the program.  Beginning in year G-6 and above, the BPH program director should be invited to attend all DAC meeting to ensure that progress towards degree completion is being made.

Organization of the DAC meeting

1. Student and faculty alternately leave the room. To provide an opportunity for both student and advisor to communicate with DAC members on a confidential basis, the meeting will start with the student leaving the room and then the advisor leaving the room upon the students return. In the absence of the student, the advisor will have a chance to present his/her assessment of the student’s progress and whether the student is on course to graduate in a timely fashion. The student self-evaluation form should be discussed (this should have been reviewed by the student with their P.I. prior to the DAC meeting). In the absence of the advisor, the student may likewise communicate his/her own assessment of his/her progress and whether the advisor and the laboratory environment provide the support that he/she needs. Again, the student self-evaluation form can help frame this discussion. This is also an opportunity to sharewith the committee any other problems of a confidential nature with which the student needs help. 

2. Student presentation. The main part of the meeting will consist of a 20-40 minute presentation by the student of results and plans. Committee members will typically interrupt the presentation with questions, and the presentation is followed by a discussion of progress and future plans. The advisor should interject minimally so that the student has the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of their field and scientific maturity surrounding ongoing and future work.  The second and subsequent DAC meetings should include a written 3-page Research Progress Report: 

  1. Specific Aims: If the aims have been modified from the original DAC meeting proposal, the revised aims should be presented and the reasons for the modifications.
  2. Studies and Results: The studies directed toward specific aims and the positive and negative results obtained should be presented, as well as any technical problems encountered and how addressed. 
  3. Significance: A brief discussion on the significance of the findings to the current state of the scientific field. 
  4. Plans: A summary of plans to address the remaining Specific Aims, including any important modifications to the original plans.  

3. Comments/feedback given to student by DAC.  The DAC should comment on student’s progress on experimentation and whether it has the potential to lead to one or more first-author publications.  The committee should evaluate the student’s ability to think independently, including development of hypotheses, practical approaches for testing hypotheses, critical interpretation of data, understanding relevance of results in light of current thinking in the field, and judging how to effectively pursue the line of investigation. 

4. Reporting student’s progress.  The BPH program director will review the DAC committee meeting report, but confidential concerns of the DAC should be directly communicated if they arise. These communications do not need to be shared directly with the student or dissertation advisor, and may be verbal or written.  

DAC oversight for granting the Ph.D.

GSAS requires each student to complete a body of primary research of publishable quality. While a first-author research paper is not required to attain the degree, the vast majority of graduating students will have at least one published first-author, peer-reviewed, primary research paper at least submitted or largely prepared prior to graduation. In addition, the DAC committee should evaluate the scientific maturity, independence and original thinking in considering the student’s readiness to graduate. When the DAC committee agrees that the student has met the requirements for earning a Ph.D. and is ready to begin writing his/her dissertation, the Committee will "check the box" on the student's DAC meeting form that indicates this. The student's dissertation defense must take place within 3-6 months of the date on which the box is checked.

Dissertation Defense

Students preparing to defend their dissertation must review University requirements as outlined in “Form of the Doctoral Dissertation” with guidelines published at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.  http://www.gsas.harvard.edu/publications/form_of_the_phd_dissertation.php

A defense committee must be approved by the BPH program, with membership listed on the Dissertation Defense Committee Form. One member should be outside of HSPH, and preferably outside of Harvard University. All members must hold academic positions of Assistant Professor or higher. One member of the defense committee (often the chair) should be a member of the student’s dissertation advisory committee. The defense committee chair may participate in the defense, but their main role is to administer the exam and arbitrate any problems that may arise. 

The title, time, date and place of the exam will be announced by email to members of the BPH community and publicized throughout HSPH. At least two weeks before the date of exam, defense members should be sent copies of the dissertation for review. If defense committee members foresee problems with the exam, they should contact the chair of the defense committee in advance of the meeting.

As part of the exam, the PhD candidate will present a seminar followed by an oral examination.  Each member of the defense committee will direct questions to the candidate based on their review of the dissertation and presentation of the seminar. Dissertation advisors may be present, but they must not participate in the exam (e.g., answer questions posed by the committee).

Dissertation Acceptance Certificate

Before the examination, the BPH Program Office will provide the Chairperson of the Exam Committee with two forms. The first of these forms, the Dissertation Acceptance Certificate, must be signed by all readers of the dissertation at the end of the examination and returned to the BPH Program Office. The BPH Program Office forwards this certificate to the GSAS Registrar's Office in Cambridge. If extensive corrections are to be made, the BPH Program Office will hold the certificate until the Chair of the Examination Committee notifies them that corrections have been made and approved. The second form should be completed by the Chairperson, constituting the official record of the examination for the BPH Program and should be returned to the BPH Program Office.

Application for the Degree

BPH Department Approval Form: Signed by the BPH Director and the Dissertation Advisor. This form certifies that the candidate is entitled to file an application for the Ph.D. degree.

GSAS Application for Degree Form: Signed by the BPH Director.

Student then files BOTH forms with the Registrar’s Office in Cambridge by the appropriate deadline.

Degree applications can be completed using the online submission tool found at http://gsasdegreeapp.fas.harvard.edu. Degrees are awarded in November, March, and May. The exact dates by which the degree application is due at the Registrar's Office via the online submission tool can be found in the GSAS Handbook.

Binding and Delivery of the Dissertation Following the Examination

Following the examination, the student, with the help of the Dissertation Advisor, should make any necessary corrections to the thesis. It is then the student's responsibility to make four copies of the thesis (one digital and three bound paper copies), to be delivered in the following manner:


  1. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) requires both one bound paper copy and one digital copy, submitted electronically through ProQuest: www.etdadmin.com/gsas.harvard

Both copies must meet the specifications described in Preparation of the Dissertation, a section of the Form of the PhD Dissertation. A dissertation that does not conform to the minimum standards set by GSAS may have to be reformatted and resubmitted. In that event, the degree cannot be awarded until a dissertation in satisfactory form is completed and deposited with the Registrar.

2.   One bound paper copy to the BPH Program Office.

3.   One bound paper copy to the Dissertation Advisor's Department (if required).