Frequently Asked Questions

Answers By Elsie M. Sunderland.

Are there any postdoctoral positions available that I can apply for now?

Postdoctoral positions are available from time to time and are advertised on Harvard's online portal for academic hiring.

I am happy to help you prepare applications for external postdoctoral fellowships if there is a strong connection to our ongoing work.

Will you be accepting new graduate students this year?

I typically accept one new student each year. Please send a CV and brief statement of interest outlining your background and research experience me to me by email if you are interested in our program. I will respond if you seem like a good fit for the group. I receive a lot of email so am unable to respond to all statements of interest.

What is the typical duration of a PhD program?

Approximately 5 years. For more detail please see my Alumni page.

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

I prefer applications through SEAS because this is my primary appointment. You can also apply through the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. I no longer accept students through the Harvard School of Public Health so you should look for a suitable advisor among primary faculty there if that is your interest area.

Do I need to take the GRE?


What background should I have to do well as a graduate student in your group?

My graduate students have diverse academic backgrounds. Historically, many (but not all) have had related work experience and all of them are passionate about the application of science to help inform public policy and protect public health. Applicants must have a reasonable background in math and chemistry.

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

The application deadline is sometime in mid-December for admission the following fall semester. Please check the departmental web site link above for the exact date. The application folders are shared with faculty by mid-January. Decisions on admissions are made in early February and applicants are informed of the result shortly thereafter.

What are the most important criteria for admission?

I consider past research experience, work experience, and past academic performance fairly equally when selecting new students.  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 are committed to gender and racial diversity in the group and encourage applications from women and under-represented minorities.

When should I visit Harvard?

Harvard hosts an admitted students day in the spring and will cover your travel expenses.

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

Yes. You can decide (especially during your first year) that another advisor is a better fit to your interests and switch research groups if they can fund your work. It is also often helpful to have another professor as your co-advisor because multiple faculty can provide diverse perspectives and expertise. Many of my prior students have benefited from these types of arrangements.

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 (as examples) 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.

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

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


[return to top]


Sunderland Lab

Group Administrator: Robert Stanhope

Address: 29 Oxford Street, Cambridge MA 02138

E-mail:  stanhope [at]