IB Research & Thesis

Intro to the IB Thesis Process (Presentation for Juniors, Apr 28 '22)

Slides (from '22) and Video (from the May '21 presentation)

Thesis in IB

A thesis is not required for the IB concentration, but is necessary if you aspire to highest honors. (Honors and high honors are obtainable without a thesis, but require a high within concentration GPA.  For more information on Honors calculations, click here). There are in addition many research opportunities within OEB that permit you to do some serious research without necessarily submitting a thesis.

Doing research?

Research can be exhilarating, but it can also be time-consuming, tedious, and frustrating. Before committing yourself to a major research project (e.g. a thesis), we recommend that you take time to gain the requisite experience to determine whether or not research is for you.

To get a sense of the kind of research done by IB and OEB students over recent years, check out the listing of recent Senior Theses.  If you're interested in obtaining a pdf of one or more of these theses, send email to James Poolner.

A typical undergraduate research career at Harvard would look like this (but this is only one of a very large number of possible research paths through Harvard):

Freshman/Sophomore years. It is not essential to start research this early, but many students do, and find it a rewarding experience. Find a lab whose work interests you. For advice on finding a lab, consult with Assistant Head Tutor, Andrew Berry, or Director of Science Education Dr. Logan McCarty.

Some students "spam" the faculty by broadcasting email to every professor.  This is not the way to go!   You are far more likely to get a positive response from faculty to whom you express a specific, focused interest.  Figure out what may interest you and, via their lab websites, find faculty members whose interests are aligned with yours.  Once you have found a long list of potential faculty, shorten the list by reading in more depth about each lab's research.  Faculty websites will link to PDF's of recent publications.  You probably won't be able to follow every word of a highly technical article, but reading up in such detail should give you a real sense of whether or not you want to do research on these topics.  This reading will also help when finally you approach the faculty member: rather than being a spammer, you have actually made a considerable effort to investigate the research going on in the lab.  The email you send should additionally include information about yourself and why you and the lab are a good match.  Attach a scientific c.v.  A faculty member isn't necessarily interested in your non-scientific accomplishments, so don't over-emphasize these.  Don't worry if you have no previous lab experience.  List courses that you have taken, such as LS 1a that include a considerable lab component.

To start with, most people start life in a lab as a volunteer.  It's during this phase that you'll gain a sense of whether the lab is really for you, and also it's when you'll get trained in some of the basic techniques used in the lab.

Summer research. Many students use their summers to do research. There are many fellowships that make this an affordable option.

Junior/Senior years. Typically, research gets more serious at this stage and students will often gain credit for a semester of research. This is known as a 99r (where 'r' stands for 'can be repeated for credit,' not research. Note, however, that only one 99r is counted as contributing to fulfilling IB's "two advanced courses in biology" requirement). For details, see the information that comes with the 99r form. If you plan to do a thesis, you must submit a thesis abstract form at the beginning of the semester in which you are submitting your thesis (typically Senior Spring). Students doing theses typically enroll in 99r for both their senior semesters. 99r usually requires a 10 page or so final report; for the last semester, the thesis substitutes for this.  If you're writing a thesis, check out the IB Thesis Writer's Guide.


Sources of Financial Support: HCRP, MCZ GUR, HUCE.


There are several sources of funding available to support research, both over the summer and in term time.  Harvard College Research Program is a major source of support.

Further sources of funding, including deadlines, are listed here.

Unique to IB, the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) awards small grants in support of faculty-supervised research by Harvard undergraduates. Projects in any subject area are eligible for support, although priority may be given to projects that utilize the MCZ's research collections, laboratories and other facilities, and to related field work. Projects that facilitate senior honors theses or associated preliminary studies are particularly encouraged. Applications must include a brief research proposal (maximum 500 words) and identify a Harvard faculty member who has agreed to supervise the project. The proposal should describe the project's goals, the specific plan to accomplish those goals, and the role of the faculty sponsor. Awards range from $500 to $2500 and may provide support for the academic year (fall and spring semesters) or summer.  

Writing a thesis?  Check out the IB Thesis Writer's Guide