Questions About Eligibility - Major, research, degree type

Do I need research experience? Do I need publications?

Showing a strong interest in research is an important part of the application. Research experience is perhaps the best way to demonstrate an interest in a research degree. While it is common for admitted SSQB students to have significant research experiences, it is understood that not all valuable undergraduate research experiences lead to publications. Several current SSQB students did not have publications when applying.

Is it ok if I’ve never done quantitative research? Is it ok if I’ve never done biological research?

Yes, to both! Students come to the SSQB program with a variety of academic backgrounds. Some have never set foot in a life sciences lab, while others come from a more traditional biology background. The program embraces the various perspectives provided by our student body.

What are my odds of admission?

The admission rates of the program vary year to year so we cannot provide a specific odds/percent.

Questions About Program Fit / the HILS ecosystem

What is the difference between the SSQBio program and the Systems Biology department?

SSQBio and the Systems Biology department are two related but distinct entities. SSQBio is the name of the Systems, Synthetic and Quantitative Biology PhD program, while “Systems Biology” refers to the affiliated Department at Harvard Medical School. While we are most closely associated with the Systems Biology department at the Medical School, we are also closely linked to several departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences including the Molecular & Cellular Biology department as well as the NSF-Simmons Center for Mathematical & Statistical Analysis of Biological Systems.

Can I apply to multiple programs in Harvard Integrated Life Sciences (HILS)?

Please refer to:

What distinguishes SSQB from other programs in HILS? What other programs might be of interest? (Biophysics, Chemical Biology, MCO, Biological and Biomedical Sciences…)

The SSQB program is a research-focused degree program emphasizing quantitative and interdisciplinary approaches to biological problems. There are a few features of the program that distinguish it from other Harvard biology PhDs.

First, the students in the program come from a broad variety of academic backgrounds and work in labs with a wide array of interests. So, there is not any particular emphasis on the type of biology you do, but rather on how to address biological problems quantitatively. In short, we don't focus on a particular field of biology in favor of developing more general mathematical/computational thinking.

We do have a set of core faculty that most students end up working with. These faculty are listed on our webpage,  and we encourage you to explore their lab pages and papers to see if your interests strongly align with any of them.

The course electives are flexible. This is meant to enable students to spend more time on their research and to take classes of that align with their research interests. Since students are working on very different things, they should be allowed flexibility in how they specialize.  Additionally, this allows the program to cater to students with a wide variety of backgrounds.

Students in the program may join any Harvard life sciences lab, which includes groups both on the main campus and most of the Harvard affiliated teaching hospitals.

Which professors can I work with?

SSQB students are generally given the freedom to work with any labs they are interested in at Harvard (including Harvard-affiliated hospitals).

How do I find out about professors’ research?

To find more information about what a lab is doing, we recommend reading their recent publications (on Google Scholar, for example) and their lab websites. Also, many professors are responsive to emails concerning their work so consider getting in touch if you are interested.

Should I contact professors ahead of time?

Contacting professors prior to applying is not a requirement, and it does not increase your chances of admission. If you have specific questions about a professor’s research or their availability as an advisor, sending them a short email may be appropriate.

Questions about program requirements

Many of the questions in this section are also answered in more detail (here).

What are the course requirements?

Students are required to take SB214: Science Communication and Ideation (fall G1); SB220: Quantitative Measurement and Analysis (spring G1), SB300: Introduction to Systems, Synthetic, and Quantitative Biology (all year G1), MedSci300: Conduct of Science (fall of the G2) and three science courses chosen in consultation with their class advisors. This flexibility allows students to take the courses most appropriate for their backgrounds and research interests.

Can I defer my admission?

This is decided on a case by case basis, and also varies each year, depending on applicant pools and class sizes.

How long does it take to graduate?

There is no set timeline for the PhD program.  Most students take 5-6 years, but shorter or longer PhDs are not uncommon. It is rare to take more than 6 and to take fewer than 4.

What is the teaching load?

Students are required to teach one semester.

What is the format of qualifying exams and when do students take them?

SSQB students take two qualifying exams referred to as the preliminary qualifying exams (PQE) 1 and 2. PQE1 occurs in the spring of students’ first year. For this exam, students carry out a theoretical or computational project which they present in a chalk-talk format to a committee of three program faculty. The second exam, PQE2, takes place in the spring of year two. At this point, students will have finished rotations and joined their PhD lab. For PQE2, students propose and defend the work they intend to do in their chosen labs to another committee of three faculty.

How many students are in a given year?

Cohort sizes vary year to year. Cohort sizes range from around 8 to 11 students.

How do students choose a lab?

SSQB students typically complete 2-4 rotations in different labs over the course of their first year.  Following these rotations students officially join a lab and begin their thesis research.

Questions about how to apply

How should I apply ?

In order to apply you will need to fill out an application that you can find here: Note that all Harvard Integrated Life Sciences (HILS) use the same application and you may apply to more than one program. The application also requires a copy of your transcripts. GRE scores are not required for admission.

Should I apply directly to professors?

No, prospective students apply to the SSQB program directly. Students in SSQB are not committed to a professor when they join the program. Rather, they try out 3-4 labs in their first year to figure out a good fit. This is different than in the European system where students usually get a masters and then commit to doing a PhD under a pre-selected professor.

Should I apply for fellowships?

The decision to apply for one or more fellowships, in addition to applying to a PhD program, is going to be dependent on an applicant's specific situation. That being said, we generally recommend applying for fellowships for several reasons. Writing a fellowship application is generally good practice for the graduate school application process.

Fellowships are not required for admissions into SSQB.

How should I apply for a fee waiver?

From the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) website: “Waivers are available to those for whom payment of the application fee would be financially challenging. Applicants can determine eligibility for a fee waiver by completing a series of questions in the Application Fee section of the application. Once these questions have been answered, the application system will provide an immediate response regarding fee waiver eligibility.” See:

How does applying to multiple HILS programs work?

Adapted from the Harvard Integrated Life Sciences (HILS) website: “While prospective students are encouraged to carefully choose the HILS program that best fits their academic goals, interested applicants may apply to up to three programs and pay only one application fee.

The fee waiver for additional applications is ONLY available for those applying to multiple programs in the HILS federation.

After you submit your first application and pay the application fee, the fee will be waived for subsequent submissions.”

What should my statement of purpose look like?

The official parameters for the statement of purpose can be found at the GSAS website (here) . In addition, SSQB current students run an application assistance program for students from groups underrepresented in the sciences, which can be found in the admissions section of the SSQB website.

We are incredibly grateful to SSQB students for running the application assistance program. Please be aware that working with the application assistance program does not guarantee admission into the SSQB PhD program.

Who should write my letters of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation should be written by faculty (or other principal investigators) who can attest to a student’s research and academic potential in the sciences. 

UCBerkeley’s Career Center offers more insights here:

Questions about funding and support

How much does it cost?  Are students funded?

Admitted students who accept their offer of admission (including international students) are guaranteed support (payment of tuition, health insurance and a competitive stipend).