Defense and Dissertation Overview

Once a student’s box is checked, the BPH student should set up a one-on-one “Defense Packet Meeting” with the BPH Associate Director to review the Defense and Dissertation Process, which includes reviewing all required materials, logistics, timing, FAS/GSAS Form of the Dissertation, sample forms, and to answer student questions related to these processes.

A defense committee must be approved by the BPH program and the student’s advisor, with membership listed on the Dissertation Defense Committee Form. By GSAS rules, all members must hold academic positions of Assistant Professor or higher. There are 4 members of the committee, which should meet the following criteria:

  • Defense Committee Chair: One member of the student’s DAC, often the DAC chair, is required to chair the oral defense. This required holdover from the DAC serves the purpose of providing insight to the examiners regarding the path the student has taken in completing the dissertation research. Their primary role is to assess committee satisfaction with the written dissertation, administer the exam, arbitrate any problems that may arise, and make final recommendations for completion of necessary corrections and additions to the dissertation. No other DAC members can serve on the defense committee.
  • At least one member should be a BPH faculty member, often from the same academic department.
  • One member should preferably be from outside of Harvard University.
  • The fourth member should be from either BPH or another Harvard-affiliated program.
  • Co-authors and collaborators cannot be members of the Defense committee


  • Overall, students should reserve 3 hours for his/her defense: 1 hour for the public seminar and up to 2 hours for the private oral examination. The title, time, date and place of the exam will be announced by email to members of the BPH community and publicized throughout HSPH (and outside labs if a student is in a HILS-affiliated lab). It is worth noting that the public seminar can be in a different room than the private exam depending on what rooms are available.
    • Students should notify the BPH Program as far in advance as possible with the details of the exam especially as the BPH Program attempts to avoid conflicts with all milestone scheduling such as PQEs, DACs, and Defenses.
  • The student is required to notify the BPH office no later than 3 weeks in advance of the defense with the final dissertation title.
  • At least two weeks before the date of exam, defense members should be sent copies of the dissertation for review. A copy of the dissertation should also be sent to the BPH program. NOTE: When sending the dissertation to the Defense Committee, the BPH student should ask the committee members if any of them want a printed version of the dissertation, in which case the BPH Program can help the student produce those.
  • If any defense committee member foresees problems with the exam, they should contact the chair of the defense committee in advance of the meeting. If major problems are found with the written document, the Committee can decide to postpone the oral defense until satisfactory changes are made. While rare in our program, these occasions can involve the insufficient or improper use of statistical methods, grossly overstated conclusions, insufficient background or discussion, or evidence of plagiarism.
  • More details about the timing and format are provided in the “Defense Packet Meeting” held with each student.


Part 1: Public Seminar
As part of the exam, the PhD candidate will present a public seminar followed by a private oral examination.  The public presentation lasts no longer than 1 hour, which includes time for the advisor’s introduction, the student’s oral presentation and acknowledgements, and time for audience questions and answers.  The Defense Committee is required to attend the public seminar; however, it is customary for members of the defense committee to hold their questions until the private oral exam.

Part 2: Private Oral Examination
A private oral examination follows the public seminar.  Initially, the student will be asked to leave the room for several minutes, along with the dissertation advisor if the dissertation advisor has decided to remain for the private exam.  During this time, the committee will discuss the merits of the dissertation, any issues with the dissertation, and areas they may want to focus on during the oral exam.  The student (and advisor if present) is then asked back into the room for the exam.

Each member of the defense committee will direct questions to the candidate based on their review of the dissertation and presentation of the seminar. The Defense Chair will moderate the discussion between the panel and the student.  The closed defense takes up to two hours and involves detailed technical questions as well as broader questions on the conclusions, impact, and limitations of the research.  Dissertation advisors may be present, but they must not participate in the exam (e.g., answer questions posed by the committee).

At the end of the examination, the student (and advisor if present) is once again asked to step out of the room for several minutes.  The Committee will discuss any revisions needed for the thesis and whether these revisions need to be reviewed and by whom.  Once the committee determines the outcomes, the student will be asked back into the room and the Committee provides the student with any [minor] changes needed to the dissertation. While it is extremely rare for the student to fail at this stage, the committee will provide recommendations to the student on their research, communication skills, and development as a scientist, as well as delineating the required changes to the dissertation.


Students preparing to write and defend their dissertation must review University requirements as outlined in “Dissertations” with guidelines published at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Students are also welcome to visit the BPH Student Lounge (Building 2, Room 113) to look at copies of previous BPH bound dissertations.

Writing the Dissertation
Each student must write a comprehensive PhD dissertation on their research topic and the original results of their research. There are a variety of ways a dissertation can be composed, but the core elements described below must be included. The dissertation must show original treatment of the subject, contain a scholarly review of the pertinent literature, provide evidence of independent research of publishable quality, and be clearly, logically, and carefully written. In addition to a compendium of the student’s research, including detailed methods and results, the dissertation must contain a thoughtful discussion of the conclusions, impact, and limitations of the research. The completed work should be critically reviewed by the dissertation advisor before being submitted to the Dissertation Defense Committee.

In some cases, the student has done all of the work in the dissertation; more often portions of the dissertation result from collaborative research. In all dissertations containing collaborative results, the dissertation should indicate concisely who contributed to the work and how.  For example, a chapter containing multi-authored, published work must include a complete reference of the publication and a brief description of the candidate’s and the colleagues’ contributions. For work that is not published but which resulted from multiple researchers, the contributors must be named and respective attributions made clear. This policy allows stylistic flexibility; depending on the amount of collaborative work in the dissertation and the status of publication(s), the attributions can be, preferably, on or accompanying the cover page for each chapter or within an extended acknowledgements section at the end of each chapter. It is recommended that if figures or figure panels are included that are the work of others that the figure panels be clearly identified and the work properly attributed. It is permissible for more than one student to include work from the same collaboration or publication as long as the required attributions are clear, justified, and complete.

Individual chapters can be that of published articles as long as there are also comprehensive Introduction and Conclusion chapters written by the student. While the text can be the same, use of journal reprints as a chapter is not permissible. A word document of the published article must be used, and the pages in the dissertation must be consecutively numbered. Furthermore, the figures and accompanying figure legends must be integrated into the main body of each chapter, preferably following the first mention of the given figure, not clustered at the end of the chapter. Any dissertation that varies significantly from the Graduate School or FAS guidelines, or is not neat and readable, is subject to required stylistic revision before acceptance by the University. (For further information, please visit


Dissertation Acceptance Certificate
Before the examination, the BPH Program Office will provide the Defense Committee Chair with a copy of the official Dissertation Acceptance Certificate. This certificate must be signed by all readers of the dissertation at the end of the examination and returned to the BPH Program Office. This certificate will be scanned and sent to the student so it can be inserted as page one of the dissertation prior to the online submission. The student must submit the one original, official copy to the Registrar’s in Cambridge by the appropriate deadline.

If extensive corrections are to be made, the BPH Program Office will hold the certificate until the Defense Committee Chair, and/or assigned reviewer(s) provide a written notification to the BPH Program to confirm that the corrected work has been reviewed and approved.

Dissertation Defense Exam Report
The Dissertation Defense Exam Report is completed by the members of the Dissertation Defense Committee to provide a record of any comments or recommendations they may have. The report must be signed by all members immediately after the private exam. The completed report must be submitted to the BPH Program Office at the same time as the Dissertation Acceptance Certificate.

Sample Dissertation Title Page
Please click here to see a sample BPH Dissertation Title Page.  Again, please refer to the Dissertation website for guidelines about how to format your dissertation.