The purpose of the dissertation advisory committee (DAC) is to help set research goals and directions, while assessing progress toward the completion of an original body of research appropriate for completion of a PhD dissertation.
OVERALL, THE MAJOR GOALS OF THE DAC ARE TO:
- critically assess the student’s progress in both a specific research project and development as a scientist;
- provide advice and assistance to the student to overcome hurdles to progress in both areas;
- assure that the student’s research project remains focused within a reasonable scope;
- guide the student toward completion of the project in a timely fashion, usually resulting in at least one first-author primary research publication.
The DAC is a group of faculty selected by the student and mentor to provide guidance and direction on the student’s dissertation research and assess both the progress of the project and the development of the student scientist. In addition to providing practical and technical assistance to the student, the DAC also serves to moderate the mentor-student relationship and any non-scientific issues hindering progress. It is, therefore, important for the students to have committee members they trust and with whom they feel comfortable discussing such issues. Students select DAC members in consultation with their dissertation advisor, who must agree to the make-up of the committee.
The membership of the DAC must be approved by the BPH Program Office. Students should submit the DAC Membership Form to the BPH Office as soon as they have assembled a potential committee for approval. The requirements for the DAC composition are the following:
- The DAC is composed of three or more faculty members who have complementary and relevant expertise to fit the student’s dissertation project.
- Additionally, the dissertation advisor must attend each DAC meeting but is not an official member of the DAC.
- The Chair of the DAC is required to be a BPH faculty member, usually with the same departmental affiliation as the student’s advisor.
- At least one member should be from outside the BPH program, from another Harvard-affiliated institute, or an unaffiliated institute (e.g., MIT, Brown University, University of Massachusetts, etc.).
- The other DAC member(s) should have Harvard-affiliated faculty positions.
- Unless otherwise approved by the BPH Program Office, all members should be tenure track faculty or equivalent.
- All DAC members should be present at DAC meetings unless there are extenuating circumstances.
PREPARING FOR THE DAC MEETING: STUDENT TIMELINE AND PROGRAM PROCEDURES
- The first DAC meeting should be scheduled within six months of completing the PQE and prior to the beginning of the sixth semester. Subsequent DAC meetings should be scheduled about every six to nine months to assess student progress.
- DAC meetings will be more frequent for students G4 and above. All students must demonstrate to the DAC committee a plausible track towards degree completion by year five or they may not be allowed to continue in the program. The BPH Program Director may attend DAC meetings for students in the G6 year and above to assess whether appropriate progress towards degree completion is being made.
- Students bear primary responsibility for setting up the DAC meetings. Students must notify the BPH Office about all meeting dates and times as soon as these have been set. Additionally, students should include the BPH Office in any material distribution in advance of DAC meetings.
- Seven to ten days prior to each DAC meeting, the student assessment and advisor assessment portions of the DAC Report Form should be completed and sent to the DAC along with any relevant materials (e.g., progress report). NOTE: For the first DAC meeting, students will submit a dissertation proposal—please see the directions below for more details. Additionally, students should send the DAC guidelines/overview to the committee before the first DAC Meeting.
- After each DAC Meeting, the DAC Chair will complete the rest of the DAC Report Form and all DAC members sign it. The completed form should then be submitted to the BPH program, shared with the entire committee and filed in the student’s record along with all materials from that respective DAC meeting. These materials document progress to date and recommendations for further work, which are required by Harvard Griffin GSAS.
- The DAC Report Form contains three sections:
1. student self-assessment of progress
2. an advisor/mentor assessment of the student’s progress
3. the DAC’s assessment of the project and student’s progress
- The first two parts of this form are completed by the student and advisor, respectively. The DAC assessment part of the form is filled out during or just after completion of the DAC meeting. As an additional component of the DAC report, the student is asked to provide two “elevator-pitch” statements of four sentences or less, one that is more technical for non-expert scientists and one that is in lay language for non-scientists. The purpose of these statements is to improve science communication skills to different audiences.
- The DAC Report Form contains three sections:
- The BPH program is required to give the Harvard Griffin GSAS an accounting of student progress via Satisfactory Progress Reports, a key component of which is regular DAC meetings for G3 students and above. Unsatisfactory progress will be reported for any student who fails to have DAC meetings at six-to-nine-month intervals. However, this may be changed to satisfactory progress at the submission of a DAC report to the BPH Program Office.
DAC CONTENT AND MATERIALS
THE FIRST DAC MEETING: DISSERTATION PROPOSAL
In addition to completing the specified portions of the DAC Report Form noted in the “preparing for the DAC” section, students submit a written dissertation proposal to the dissertation advisory committee within six months of successfully completing the preliminary qualifying exam. 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. Students should present a clear plan for completing all of the work required for the PhD dissertation within approximately three years. While it is understood the plans will evolve over the course of thesis research, especially since highly creative projects engender some risks, and delays of an unexpected nature may arise, students are encouraged to strive for this goal. The full proposal should be about seven to eight pages in length (excluding references) and should include the following sections:
- specific Aims
- background and significance
- experimental design, including expected results and interpretations
- references (author, title, journal, inclusive pages, and year)
The DAC and student will meet to discuss the dissertation 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. Please see the “Organization of the DAC Meetings” section for more details.
SUBSEQUENT DAC MEETINGS:
In addition to completing the specified portions of the DAC Report Form noted in the “preparing for the DAC” section, students submit a written Research Progress Report of three to five pages in length (not including figures):
- 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.
- 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. Figures of key pieces of data and working models should be included.
- Significance: A brief discussion on the significance of the findings to the current state of the scientific field.
- Plans: A summary of plans to address the remaining specific aims, including any important modifications to the original plans.
ORGANIZATION OF DAC MEETINGS
1. FACULTY AND STUDENT ALTERNATELY LEAVE THE ROOM. To provide an opportunity for both the student and the advisor to communicate with DAC members on a confidential basis, each meeting follows this format: 1) the DAC meets with the student while the PI steps out; 2) the DAC meets with the PI while the student steps out; 3) the student gives a presentation on their project to date, everyone discusses, and the DAC makes recommendations. In the absence of the student, the advisor will have a chance to expand on the written comments in the DAC Report form, present their 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 PI prior to the DAC meeting) along with any issues perceived as hindering the student’s progress. In the absence of the advisor, the student may likewise communicate their own assessment of their progress and whether the advisor and the laboratory environment provide the support that they need. Again, the student self-evaluation form can help frame this discussion. This is also an opportunity to share with the committee any other problems of a confidential nature with which the student needs help or that the DAC should be aware of in assessing progress. In this manner, the DAC serves to moderate the student-advisor relationship and recognize hurdles to progress that the student faces that may be arising from their interactions with the advisor, or lack thereof, or within the laboratory environment. If needed, the DAC chair will bring issues that arise to the attention of the Faculty Director, or encourage students and advisors to do so, for further mitigation. After these private meetings with the DAC, the DAC, the advisor, and the student will proceed to the student presentation portion as described below.
2. STUDENT PRESENTATION. The main part of the meeting will consist of a 30–40 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.
3. COMMENTS/FEEDBACK GIVEN TO STUDENT BY DAC. The DAC meeting is not an exam but a scientific discussion geared toward critically assessing current data, discussing next steps, and discussing the overall direction of the student’s project. The student does not present an exhaustive set of data generated since the previous DAC but rather summarizes the core findings and conclusions, alternative interpretations, and impediments to progress. Typically, the committee will spend much of the time on technical hurdles or key decision/branch-point experiments in the project, along with a broader discussion of the novelty and impact of the findings. The collective expertise of the DAC, advisor, and student are employed to help set or reset the course of experiments, focusing on the student recognizing the highest priority experiments and developing a plan of action to complete those experiments. Rigor and reproducibility should be points of emphasis in the DAC meeting, accompanied by a critical discussion of quantitative approaches and proper use of statistical methods. In addition to providing constructive comments and point-by-point suggestions on the science, both during the meeting and in the written report, the DAC assesses and documents whether the student is on a good track toward graduation and the progress of the student’s development as a scientist.
Moreover, the DAC should comment on the 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 DAC chair will complete the committee’s section of the DAC Report form, which the BPH Program Director will review. Other concerns that arise during the DAC meeting may also be communicated to the BPH Office.
5. DURATION OF DAC MEETING. The overall DAC meeting usually lasts about two hours.
FINAL DAC AND PERMISSION TO WRITE THE DISSERTATION
It is ultimately the DAC’s decision, in consultation with the student and advisor, when the student may begin writing their dissertation. The core requirement for this milestone is that the student must have completed a body of primary research deemed to be of publishable quality. While a first-author research paper is not required to attain the degree, our hope is that graduating students will have at least one published first-author, peer-reviewed, primary research paper or at least one that is largely prepared or submitted prior to graduation. In addition, the DAC considers the scientific maturity, independence, and capacity for original thinking in considering the student’s readiness to graduate. Career aspirations and immediate future plans can also factor into the timing of this decision.
When the DAC concludes that the student has met the requirements for earning a PhD and is ready to begin writing their dissertation, the committee will “check the box” on the student’s DAC Report form at the completion of the final DAC meeting. The student’s dissertation defense must take place within six months of the date on which the box is checked.