Guide to Graduate Studies

The PhD Program
The Ph.D. program of the Harvard Department of Mathematics is designed to help motivated students develop their understanding and enjoyment of mathematics. Enjoyment and understanding of the subject, as well as enthusiasm in teaching it, are greater when one is actively thinking about mathematics in one’s own way. For this reason, a Ph.D. dissertation involving some original research is a fundamental part of the program. The stages in this program may be described as follows:

  • Acquiring a broad basic knowledge of mathematics on which to build a future mathematical culture and more detailed knowledge of a field of specialization.
  • Choosing a field of specialization within mathematics and obtaining enough knowledge of this specialized field to arrive at the point of current thinking.
  • Making a first original contribution to mathematics within this chosen special area.

Students are expected to take the initiative in pacing themselves through the Ph.D. program. In theory, a future research mathematician should be able to go through all three stages with the help of only a good library. In practice, many of the more subtle aspects of mathematics, such as a sense of taste or relative importance and feeling for a particular subject, are primarily communicated by personal contact. In addition, it is not at all trivial to find one’s way through the ever-burgeoning literature of mathematics, and one can go through the stages outlined above with much less lost motion if one has some access to a group of older and more experienced mathematicians who can guide one’s reading, supplement it with seminars and courses, and evaluate one’s first attempts at research. The presence of other graduate students of comparable ability and level of enthusiasm is also very helpful.

University Requirements

The University requires a minimum of two years of academic residence (16 half-courses) for the Ph.D. degree. On the other hand, five years in residence is the maximum usually allowed by the department. Most students complete the Ph.D. in four or five years. Please review the program requirements timeline.

There is no prescribed set of course requirements, but students are required to register and enroll in four courses each term to maintain full-time status with the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Qualifying Exam

The department gives the qualifying examination at the beginning of the fall and spring terms. The qualifying examination covers algebra, algebraic geometry, algebraic topology, complex analysis, differential geometry, and real analysis. Students are required to take the exam at the beginning of the first term. More details about the qualifying exams can be found here.

Students are expected to pass the qualifying exam before the end of their second year. After passing the qualifying exam students are expected to find a Ph.D. dissertation advisor.

Minor Thesis

The minor thesis is complementary to the qualifying exam. In the course of mathematical research, students will inevitably encounter areas in which they have gaps in knowledge. The minor thesis is an exercise in confronting those gaps to learn what is necessary to understand a specific area of math. Students choose a topic outside their area of expertise and, working independently, learns it well and produces a written exposition of the subject.

The topic is selected in consultation with a faculty member, other than the student’s Ph.D. dissertation advisor, chosen by the student. The topic should not be in the area of the student’s Ph.D. dissertation. For example, students working in number theory might do a minor thesis in analysis or geometry. At the end of three weeks time (four if teaching), students submit to the faculty member a written account of the subject and are prepared to answer questions on the topic.

The minor thesis must be completed before the start of the third year in residence.

Language Exam

Mathematics is an international subject in which the principal languages are English, French, German, and Russian. Almost all important work is published in one of these four languages. Accordingly, students are required to demonstrate the ability to read mathematics in French, German, or Russian by passing a two-hour, written language examination. Students are asked to translate one page of mathematics into English with the help of a dictionary. Students may request to substitute the Italian language exam if it is relevant to their area of mathematics. The language requirement should be fulfilled by the end of the second year. For more information on the graduate program requirements, a timeline can be viewed at here.

Non-native English speakers who have received a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from an institution where classes are taught in a language other than English may request to waive the language requirement.

Upon completion of the language exam and eight upper-level math courses, students can apply for a continuing Master’s Degree.

Teaching Requirement

Most research mathematicians are also university teachers. In preparation for this role, all students are required to participate in the department’s teaching apprenticeship program and to complete two semesters of classroom teaching experience, usually as a teaching fellow. During the teaching apprenticeship, students are paired with a member of the department’s teaching staff. Students attend some of the advisor’s classes and then prepare (with help) and present their own class, which will be videotaped. Apprentices will receive feedback both from the advisor and from members of the class.

Teaching fellows are responsible for teaching calculus to a class of about 25 undergraduates. They meet with their class three hours a week. They have a course assistant (an advanced undergraduate) to grade homework and to take a weekly problem session. Usually, there are several classes following the same syllabus and with common exams. A course head (a member of the department teaching staff) coordinates the various classes following the same syllabus and is available to advise teaching fellows. Other teaching options are available: graduate course assistantships for advanced math courses and tutorials for advanced undergraduate math concentrators.

Final Stages

How students proceed through the second and third stages of the program varies considerably among individuals. While preparing for the qualifying examination or immediately after, students should begin taking more advanced courses to help with choosing a field of specialization. Unless prepared to work independently, students should choose a field that falls within the interests of a member of the faculty who is willing to serve as dissertation advisor. Members of the faculty vary in the way that they go about dissertation supervision; some faculty members expect more initiative and independence than others and some variation in how busy they are with current advisees. Students should consider their own advising needs as well as the faculty member’s field when choosing an advisor. Students must take the initiative to ask a professor if she or he will act as a dissertation advisor. Students having difficulty deciding under whom to work, may want to spend a term reading under the direction of two or more faculty members simultaneously. The sooner students choose an advisor, the sooner they can begin research. Students should have a provisional advisor by the second year.

It is important to keep in mind that there is no technique for teaching students to have ideas. All that faculty can do is to provide an ambiance in which one’s nascent abilities and insights can blossom. Ph.D. dissertations vary enormously in quality, from hard exercises to highly original advances. Many good research mathematicians begin very slowly, and their dissertations and first few papers could be of minor interest. The ideal attitude is: (1) a love of the subject for its own sake, accompanied by inquisitiveness about things which aren’t known; and (2) a somewhat fatalistic attitude concerning “creative ability” and recognition that hard work is, in the end, much more important.