Frequently Asked Questions By Prospective Graduate Students

Answers By Elsie M. Sunderland represent personal views and not necessarily the official Harvard policy.

Will you be taking any new students in the Biogeochemistry of Global Contaminants Research Group in 2021?

Yes. I typically take one new student each year.

Should I apply to the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) or to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)?

My primary appointment is in SEAS, so this is typically what I prefer. Occasionally I accept students in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) and we can discuss if this is your strong preference.

Do I need to take the GRE?

No. Even if you did, you are not expected to submit the scores.

I don't have chemistry in my background (or I don't have much math, statistics or public health background). Is that a problem?

Not necessarily. We are a highly interdisciplinary group. My graduate students have diverse backgrounds from analytical chemistry to environmental policy and everything in between. Some students come in with little chemistry and others come in with little math. Many have had little or no exposure to environmental science but a background in physics. Gaps are expected, and the purpose of your courses at Harvard will be to fill these gaps. I do expect applicants to have had at least a basic background in math and chemistry and to be passionate about our research area.

I don't have much programming or lab experience. Is that a problem for entering the Biogeochemistry of Global Contaminants Research Group?

No. Most incoming students have little or no scientific programming or lab experience. These are skills that can be learned as a student. Most students in our group tend to focus on either a modeling or laboratory/field based track for their research, and all students learn statistics and data analysis.  It is important that you feel enthusiastic about learning chemistry, programming, and data analysis techniques.

When is the application deadline? When will I hear about admission?

The application deadline is sometime in December for admission to the following fall semester. Check the departmental web site link above for the exact date. The application folders are shared with faculty by mid-January - I don't see them before then. Decisions on admissions are made in early February and applicants are contacted immediately after the decision whether it is positive or negative.

What are the most important criteria for admission?

The most important criteria are research experience and passion for the field demonstrated by prior activities and/or work experience. I will often take students with weaker grades if they have demonstrated talent for research and public engagement. In your Harvard application, your statement of purpose must express a clear intent to work with me and explain why you find our research interesting and how it is a good fit for your own career goals. We do not conduct research in traditional environmental engineering areas so if you are interested in wastewater remediation or technology development, our group is not a good fit. I strongly encourage you to email me before your application to express interest, so that I can give you feedback on your preparation and also look out for your application. I am committed to gender and racial diversity in the group and specifically encourage applications from under-represented minorities.

When should I visit Harvard?

Once you are admitted you will be officially invited by Harvard for a visit and Harvard will cover your travel expenses. Visiting prior to admission is not expected, do it only if convenient and useful for you. You can send me an email and if you seem like a promising applicant I will arrange a meeting and will also have you meet with some of my students.

Can I switch research advisers or work with more than one adviser during my PhD?

Yes. If your admission letter identifies me as your adviser it's because I have expressed willingness and commitment to support you. You may decide during your first year that another adviser is a better fit to your interests and if so that's perfectly fine, all you need is for that other adviser to agree to commit to you. It gets a little more complicated after the first year because by then you should really be engaged in PhD research and preparing for your qualifying exam - it can be done, it's just more difficult. Another possibility is to have another professor as co-adviser - I have had a number of students co-advised with colleagues.

What kind of research projects will I be able to get involved in the Biogeochemistry of Global Contaminants Group? How soon will I be able to start my research?

You will have a lot of freedom to choose your own project within the general sphere of activity of my group. The group web site should give you a good idea of our research directions. Check out in particular the research projects web page. I generally encourage students in their first year to take just 3 regular courses a semester (a full load is 4 courses) plus a "reading and research" course with me that is an opportunity to start thinking about research. The summer after the first year is an important time in which to get started on your Ph.D. research. In the second year you typically take 0-2 courses a semester and can begin to really spend time on your research, and after that you're 100% research.

The current research web page describes ongoing projects. What about new projects for me to get involved in?

I recommend that you browse through the current research projects web page to get a sense of the general research areas that we are engaged in, as it is likely that your future project will build on those. We'll get serious about defining your project when you actually start. The range of projects for you to choose from is wide open and not limited by funding. In fact, beginning graduate students often start on projects for which I don't have external funding—if it's a good idea then we will eventually get it funded.

What financial support can I expect?

All Ph.D. students are guaranteed tuition and stipend support for the normal duration of their time at Harvard. In SEAS, during the first academic year the funding comes from Harvard, after that it comes from my research grants. I encourage my students to apply for external fellowships like NSF because they look good on your CV.

Can I apply for a Masters instead of a Ph.D.?

There is presently no relevant MS program to which you can apply in SEAS. Ph.D. students can obtain an MS degree at the end of their coursework, and can also get MS degrees in Computational Science or in Data Science (to name two popular options) by taking a few extra courses. Students who enroll in the Ph.D. program and decide after 1-2 years that this is not for them have the opportunity to leave with a MS or ME degree.

Are there opportunities or requirements to teach?

A requirement of your graduate fellowship is that you serve as Teaching Fellow (TF) during your time at Harvard. SEAS requires that you do it for one semester. TFing a class means teaching a section, grading homeworks, and having office hours. It is expected to take no more than 10h/wk. You can satisfy the requirement by TFing one of the undergraduate courses that I teach. Once you've fulfilled your requirement you can teach more classes if you wish.

Is there a qualifying exam on the road to the Ph.D.? When can I expect to graduate?

You have to take a qualifying exam in the spring of your second year when you have typically completed most or all of your coursework. This exam consists in an oral presentation of your Ph.D. research proposal. This is an excellent opportunity for you to get feedback on your research direction from a faculty committee.  The duration of the Ph.D. is typically 5 years.

What is the typical career path of alumni from the Global Biogeochemistry of Contaminants Research Group?

My former students and postdocs have diverse careers that you can browse through on our Alumni page. These include academia, government positions, and industry.

Can I contact others in the group for more information?

Yes and they will be happy to talk with you. See the list of current group members for more information.

How should I get in touch with you?

If you are serious about applying to our program, please email Prof. Sunderland directly and include a brief statement of interest, prior research experience, and a current CV.


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Sunderland Lab

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