FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS BY PROSPECTIVE GRADUATE STUDENTS

Answers by Daniel J. Jacob represent personal views and not necessarily the official Harvard policy!


Will you be taking any new students into the Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group next year?

Yes. I typically take 2 new students each year.

Should I apply to the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) or to the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS)?

It makes essentially no difference as far as the research you'll do, the admissions process, the stipend you'll get, the office you'll be in, the students you'll hang out with, or the general requirements for the Ph.D. The only differences are in (1) the courses you'll be asked to take (even there the difference is slight), (2) the teaching requirement (see question on teaching requirement below), (3) the administrators you'll interact with, and (4) the label of your Ph.D. SEAS students generally apply in the Environmental Science and Engineering (ESE) area, though I have had a few coming in through Applied Math or Applied Physics (the only difference here is in the courses you may be expected to take). The current graduate students in the group are split almost 50/50 between SEAS and EPS. Browse through the SEAS and EPS web pages and decide where you'd feel most at home.

I don't have chemistry in my background (or I don't have much physics, or meteorology...). Is that a problem?

Not necessarily. Atmospheric chemistry is an interdisciplinary science. My graduate students come from a diversity of backgrounds from applied math to chemistry and everything in between. Some students come in with zero chemistry; others come in with little physics. Many have had little or no exposure to atmospheric science, while others have had quite a bit. 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 two years of college math.

I don't have much programming experience. Is that a problem for entering the Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group?

No. Most incoming students have little or no scientific programming experience. This is best learned on the job, like laboratory skills.

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 sites (see links above) for the exact date. The application folders get to the 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.

What are the most important criteria for admission?

The ideal applicant (1) comes from a well-known institution, (2) has very good grades, (3) has substantial research experience, (4) has a strong letter of recommendation from someone I know. If you have any three of these four you are in very good shape. I will often take students with weaker grades if they have demonstrated talent for research. Although the Harvard application form allows you to be ambivalent about which professor you wish to work with, in practice I get so many applications that I only look seriously at the ones that express a clear intent to work with me (your statement of purpose is important for this). I also look for students with clear interests in atmospheric chemistry modeling - if you think you want to do experimental work or atmospheric dynamics then you shouldn't apply with me. 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.

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. There is no turf issue. 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, and although there are some pitfalls that can work very well.

Should I apply to work with you or with Loretta Mickley?

Loretta and I co-lead the Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group. We have somewhat complementary research interests and approaches, as you can see from our web pages and publications. You can decide which fits your interests best. In practice, Loretta and I talk all the time and often share students depending on projects, so you can very easily end up working with the two of us. We also share notes about applicants so you shouldn't worry about compromising your chances to work with one by applying to work with the other. Students working with either of us belong to the same group, share offices, work together, etc. There's no distinction.

What kind of research projects will I be able to get involved in the Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling 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 our current research 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?

It's not very productive to discuss future projects with much specificity at the time of your application, because I generally don't have projects "on ice" —it wouldn't make much sense to keep something interesting on ice instead of working on it right away. That being said, if you need to discuss specifics of future projects for a fellowship application or for your own agenda then sure, let's talk. I recommend that you browse through the current research 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 truly 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 admitted to SEAS or EPS are guaranteed tuition and stipend, i.e., a graduate fellowship, for the normal duration of their time at Harvard. During the first academic year the funding comes from Harvard, after that it comes from my research grants. I encourage my students once at Harvard to apply for external fellowships, because they look good on your CV and of course it brings some relief to my research grants. But that's not always feasible and I fully expect to be able to support you out of my grants in any case.

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

If you want to work with me you need to apply to the Ph.D. program. In fact there is presently no relevant MS program to which you can apply in SEAS. Ph.D. students can pick up their MS degree at the end of their coursework if they so wish, 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, EPS for two - EPS has a stiffer teaching requirement but makes it up with an extra financial bonus for students. 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 atmospheric classes, for example EPS133 which I teach. Once you've fulfilled your requirement you can teach more classes if you wish and get paid for this (on top of your stipend). Most of my students do the requirement and no more, but a few have taught for a number of semesters because they liked it and liked the money. This is not a problem with me as long as you maintain productivity in your research and that's always worked out fine.

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 (at which point you'll typically have completed all or almost all 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. Just betweeen you and me, I have never seen anyone fail the exam - sometimes a student may be asked to take an additional course to address an apparent gap, and in rare cases a student may be asked to retake the exam. So it is really more an opportunity for the student than a selection tool for the faculty. We can afford not to be selective at the qualifying exam level because we are highly selective at the admission level. The duration of the Ph.D. is typically 5-6 years. We shoot for five.

What is the typical career path of alumni from the Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group?

I have graduated many Ph.D. students over the course of my career. Most have gone on to become university professors or research scientists. Some have become program managers or have taken their skills to industry or to non-governmental organizations. I encourage you to browse through my alumni directory to see the variety of paths taken by my former students.

Can I contact graduate students in the group for more information?

Yes, and they'll be happy to help. See the group list. I encourage you to check out their web pages to see what they're working on.