PHS Milestones



The Ph.D. in Population Health Sciences is intended to be a four-year program grounded in one of the five primary Fields of Study shown below. The desired Field affiliation is identified by each applicant at the time of PHS application submission to the Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences:

  • Environmental Health
  • Epidemiology
  • Global Health & Population
  • Nutrition
  • Social & Behavioral Sciences

Each PHS student is typically assigned a faculty advisor by the designated Field of Study at the time of PHS admission, although, specific timing and procedures vary individually by Field. In most cases, advisor assignment changes are possible but require consideration and sign-off by the Field of Study and the PHS Program Office before finalization.


With the faculty advisor’s guidance and using PHS milestones, interdisciplinary core requirements, and individual Field requirements as a blueprint, each student designs a degree plan toward the PhD while taking the initial coursework required and desired that will, ultimately, both inform and help to form their research topic and dissertation.

At the end of year one, students will complete a Prospective Program Form. This form lists each student’s plan for coursework, including both years: one and two. The Prospective Program should reflect the Area of Specialization within the Field and any minors, if required. Students in the GHP Field (only) take the first of two Preliminary Qualifying Exam (the PQE I) written exams, focused on Field content, at the end of the second semester.


Students continue with coursework using their degree plans, while solidifying preparations/studies for the two-part Preliminary Qualifying Examination (PQE).

The PQE I: Content Knowledge Exam is managed by the individual Field. It typically occurs at the end of year two, and for students in the GHP Field-only, one taken at the end of year one and the other at the end of year two.  The first part of the PQE may be either written, oral, or a combination of both, as determined by Field.

The following chart represents individual PQE parameters by Field and G-year:

PQE Parameters by Field and G Year


The PQE II: Dissertation Proposal Exam, also known as the Orals Exam, is the dissertation proposal segment of the PQE and must be completed by the end of the fifth semester (typically, the end of the Fall term in the third year). This part of the exam is oral with a student-written dissertation prospectus for each Field.

Within two weeks of successfully completing the PQE II, participants finalize general research topics and identify a dissertation advisor who will help with the nomination of a formal Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC). The dissertation advisor is almost always the student’s academic advisor, and the DAC typically consists of the same

advisors who serve on the PQEII committee. In some cases, changes and substitutions may be warranted depending on the direction of the research. The DAC serves to mentor the student through the dissertation candidacy process and defense. At this point, the student is officially recognized as a PhD candidate and begins doctoral research and dissertation writing in earnest, including in-person DAC progress report meetings every three months, up until the time of the dissertation defense. For additional information, please reference the later section of this handbook, entitled, DAC Composition Guidelines.


Each candidate continues with research and dissertation writing, including required in-person DAC progress report meetings every three months. It is expected that the candidate’s doctoral research will result in three completed papers that are of publishable quality by the end of year four. It is encouraged and highly looked upon, but not required that the papers be published before that time. Following completion of doctoral research, candidates must also write and defend a dissertation before being awarded the PhD in Population Health Sciences by the end of year four.


While PHS remains a four-year PhD, the program does allow for up to one additional (fifth) year of research toward a dissertation defense and degree conferral, assuming there is agreement and sign-off among the advisor, committee, field of study, and the PHS director. If approved for a fifth year, the PHS student would be required to complete an additional 2.5 (fall term-only) or 5 (full year) credit equivalents of TF/RA work during the additional time beyond the original four-year program commitment. These additional credits are required as a fifth-year add-on to the 12.5 credits already completed in years 1-4.


All PHS students are required to be working toward their research and dissertation during all summers in which they are enrolled in PHS and receiving their regular, monthly PHS stipends. Students should continue with research, writing, and in a limited capacity (especially between years two-and-three and years three-and-four), holding positions such as research assistants, interns, and/or teaching fellows.

PHS students should typically not be working for outside organizations with no Harvard University affiliation and this is particularly true for PHS-enrolled international students. All decisions on non-research/dissertation-related summer work must only be taken after the student/advisor consults regarding a summer research plan.

Additional Notes on PHS Milestones:

  • The overall four-year timeline depicted above may differ for students entering the PHS PhD from a Harvard Chan MS or MPH program.
  • All PHS students are allowed to continue with tuition-free coursework toward their research during years three and four of the PhD program – and the additional fifth year, if approved (see above).
  • PHS students are not eligible to take Harvard-offered summer courses, with the exception of language courses offered through Griffin GSAS.

*Note: PhD students entering FAS are assigned a Graduate Year number, often designated using a G-# format, i.e., G-1 (Graduate Year 1), G-2 (Graduate Year 2), etc. Continuing Harvard Chan students often enter PHS with a G-2 or G-3 designation based on prior completion of PHS core coursework and/or core requirements in a chosen Field of Study and when taking into consideration program and facilities expenses.

However, four fully-funded academic years (tuition, fees, healthcare, and stipend) remain allotted to all PHS students in completing their research toward dissertation and defense.