Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC)

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:

  1. Critically assess the student’s progress in both a specific research project and development as a scientist;
  2. Provide advice and assistance to the student to overcome hurdles to progress in both areas;
  3. Assure that the student’s research project remains focused within a reasonable scope;
  4. Guide the student toward completion of the project in a timely fashion, usually resulting in at least one first author primary research publication.

DAC Committee Membership
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 student to have committee members that s/he trusts and feels comfortable discussing such issues with. Selection of the DAC members is made by the student in consultation with their dissertation advisor, who must agree to the make-up of the committee.

The membership of the DAC committee must be approved by the BPH Program Office. Students should submit the DAC Committee Membership Form to the BPH Office as soon as they have assembled a potential committee for approval.  The requirements for DAC Committee 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 committee
  • 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, UMass, etc.)
  • The other DAC member(s) should have Harvard-affiliated faculty positions
  • Unless 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: Student Timeline and Program Procedures

  • The first DAC meeting should be scheduled within 6 months of completing the PQE and prior to the beginning of the 6th semester. Subsequent DAC meetings should be scheduled about every 6-9 months to assess student progress.
  • 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.  The BPH Program Director may attend DAC meetings for students in year G6 and above to assess whether appropriate progress towards degree completion is being made.
  • Students bear primary responsibility for setting up the DAC meetings. Students should notify the BPH Office about all meeting days and times as soon as they have been set so as to not to conflict with other major BPH milestones such as PQEs and Defenses.  Additionally, students should include the BPH Office in any material distribution in advance of DAC meetings.
  • 7-10 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 committee along with any relevant materials (e.g. progress report). NOTE:  For the first DAC meeting, students will be submitting 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 committee members should sign it.  The completed form should then be submitted to the BPH program where it will be scanned, electronically sent to 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 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 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 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.

DAC Content and Materials

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 3 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 7-8 pages in length (excluding references) and 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)

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.

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 3 to 5 pages in length (not including figures):

  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.  Figures of key pieces of data and working models should be included.
  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.

Organization of the DAC Meeting

To provide an opportunity for both student and advisor to communicate with DAC members on a confidential basis, each meeting starts with the student leaving the room and then the advisor leaving the room upon the student’s return. 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 P.I. 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 he/she needs. 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 at least 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 arising 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.

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.

The DAC meeting is not an exam, but a scientific discussion geared at critically assessing current data and discussing next steps and 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 their development as a scientist.

Moreover, 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.

The DAC chair will complete the committee’s section of the DAC Report form, which the BPH Program Director will review.  Other concerns arising during the DAC may also be communicated to the BPH Office.

5. DURATION OF DAC MEETING. The overall DAC meeting usually lasts about two hours.

DAC Oversight for Granting the Ph.D.
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, the vast majority of 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 committee 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 in to the timing of this decision.

When the DAC committee concludes that the student has met the requirements for earning a Ph.D. 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 6 months of the date on which the box is checked.