Program Requirements: Ph.D.


Below is an overview of degree requirements for the PhD in History of Science. The full requirements may be found in the History of Science section of the GSAS Policies web site.

First and Second Year of Graduate Study


Students must be in residence for minimum of two years of full-time study. While in residence, students are expected to attend the department seminar.

Years 1 & 2: Coursework and Research Papers

Course Requirements

Sixteen four-credit courses or the equivalent, including:

• Two seminars: Historiography in History of Science (HISTSCI 303A) and Research Methods in the History of Science (HISTSCI 303B)

• Six additional graduate seminars (HISTSCI 200-level or seminars “primarily for graduate students” in other departments), of which:

• Four must be offered by the department

• One must fulfill the pre-1800/post-1800 requirement (Students writing dissertations on post-1800 topics must take a pre-1800 course, and vice-versa)

• One must be outside the department

Note: Courses in the history of science include courses taught in other departments by members of the history of science department, courses cross-listed under the history of science, and graduate courses in the Science, Technology, and Society Program offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; of these a maximum of three may be taken at MIT. All other courses count as outside the department. Graduate Reading courses do not fulfill graduate seminar requirement.

• Eight electives, of which up to five may be graduate level reading courses in history of science or other divisions, departments, or committees

Note: The department does not accept transfer credit. Students who matriculate into the doctoral program after receiving an AM degree in History of Science or who take graduate courses as Special Students in the department are eligible to transfer up to eight four-unit courses.

Research Papers

In the first two years of graduate study, students must write two research papers, at least one for a departmental course. Papers must be between 7,500 and 10,000 words (exclusive of notes and bibliography); each must earn a grade of at least A-. One must display a serious engagement with archival or other primary sources (which may include printed and/or digital materials and objects); the other may be based on fieldwork observation (e.g. ethnographic, participant-observer) or involve media production (e.g., interactive web, audio, video/photographic, museum exhibition). The student’s advisor should read and discuss at least one of the papers with the student, whether or not the paper was produced for the advisor’s course.

• Paper #1 must be submitted via email to the graduate program coordinator by June 1st of the G1 year, with the course instructor cc’d.

• Paper #2 must be submitted to the graduate program coordinator by April 1st of the G2 year.

Both papers must be graded before the general exam.

Grades and Assessment

Eight four-credit courses must be passed at a grade level of B or above in the first year of study. Each of the two research papers must achieve a grade of “A-” or higher. The grade of Incomplete is given only in extraordinary circumstances. The decision to give an incomplete is at the discretion of each faculty member. Students with more than one INC on their record at the end of a semester will receive a letter of warning from the department and are at risk of being placed into "unsatisfactory status." GSAS policy requires that academic work must be completed and the grade converted to a letter grade before the end of the next registration period (e.g. coursework for an incomplete received in the fall of 2016 must be completed before the first day of registration for the fall of 2017). A petition for an extension of time for incomplete work signed by course instructor and director of graduate studies must be submitted to the GSAS Dean of Student Affairs Office for any course work completed after the end of the next registration period. All courses must be graded before a student is permitted to teach. Students with outstanding course requirements are not permitted to sit for the general examination. Students’ progress is reviewed each year by the department at a May faculty meeting in which a determination is made of students’ qualification for continuing graduate work in light of both departmental and GSAS requirements.

Advising and Course Planning

The director of graduate studies (DGS) serves as primary advisor to first year students. In addition, all first year PhD candidates are assigned a continuing graduate student who acts as a peer mentor, helping new students acclimatize to departmental expectations and routines. First and second year students meet with the DGS at the start of each semester for the first two years to discuss their plan of study. Students also meet with the graduate program coordinator at this time, and must submit to the coordinator a completed History of Science Department PhD Degree Requirements Worksheet. This is to ensure that students are fulfilling the necessary requirements. Students should take seminars with faculty they might ask to serve on the general examination committee.

The chair of the student’s general examination committee together with the DGS serve as primary advisors to second year students. Students are encouraged to start planning to fulfill their course distribution requirements, to meet the language requirement, and to define the three “fields of study” that they intend to submit for the general examination (see section on the General Examination below) upon entering the program. Study programs, courses, seminars, and fields of study are selected in consultation with students’ advisors (as explained above).

Language Requirement

All students must demonstrate proficiency in at least one language other than English upon submission of the dissertation prospectus in November of the G3 year (see below). The language(s) in question should reflect students’ research interests and ordinarily will be agreed on in consultation with the DGS and intended dissertation director at the beginning of the first year of graduate study; the list may be revised as necessary to reflect students’ changing intellectual trajectories. Some students may enter with all the language preparation they will need for graduate study in their chosen fields. Others may have an elementary or intermediate knowledge of a language or languages and may improve on that knowledge by taking additional coursework, including first-, second-, or third-year language courses and/or the reading courses offered by some departments, whether during the regular academic year or in summer.

Students may demonstrate proficiency in one of following ways: 1) completing two semesters of foreign-language coursework, and receiving a grade of A- or higher in the courses; 2) completing a summer Reading Knowledge or other summer language course approved in advance by the DGS, and receiving a grade of A- or higher; 3) completing upper level coursework in a language other than English; 4) making substantial use of non-English texts in one or more seminar papers or in the preparation of general examination fields and prospectuses; or 5) passing a language exam offered by the department. Proficiency is assumed in the case of native speakers and bilingual students, as long as they are skilled in both reading and speaking.

To document proficiency, students must email the graduate program coordinator, cc’ing the advisor and the faculty member who certifies the student’s language skills; students should list the language(s) and the means by which proficiency has been demonstrated. Students taking language reading courses at Harvard Summer School or in an external institution should have a transcript sent to the graduate program coordinator.

Year 2: The General Examination

The general examination is usually scheduled for the spring of the second year. Examination committees do not expect encyclopedic command of detail but, rather, seek evidence of students’ understanding of the main intellectual developments within a field of science, familiarity with the chief historiographic traditions associated with a particular content area, and an ability to set a particular field of science or the science of a particular period within its institutional, political, and social contexts. The general examination is oral, and includes three fields. The number and definition of these is determined by the student in consultation with the DGS and the student’s advisor. At least two fields should be in history of science and directed by faculty in the department or faculty members otherwise designated by the department. All general examinations must include at least one field outside the department. Once the fields for the general examination have been set, the three faculty members who will be working with the student to prepare her or him for the examinations are consolidated into a formal generals advising committee.

In November of the second year, students submit a general examination application and a completed History of Science Department PhD Degree Requirements Worksheet to the graduate program coordinator, who forwards these to the DGS and the department faculty for review. To pass the general examination, a passing mark must be earned in each field. General examination applications from students with outstanding incompletes or course requirements cannot be reviewed or approved by department faculty, and the students will not be permitted to sit for the examination. A rising third-year student who has not passed the general examination will be allowed one semester in which to complete any outstanding course and writing requirements as well as to sit for and pass the examination. The department may ask students who do not return to satisfactory standing and pass the examination to withdraw from candidacy.

Third Year of Graduate Study

Year 3: Teaching and the Dissertation


All students are required by the department to participate as Teaching Fellows or course assistants in at least one course offered by department faculty. Students may not teach during the dissertation completion fellowship (DCF) year, so should plan accordingly. Rising G3 students must attend the fall Bok Center Teaching Retreat as well as the department teaching retreat held in late August/early September. The Bok Center offers numerous teaching workshops and resources to enable teaching fellows to hone their teaching skills.

Faculty course instructors hold weekly meetings with teaching fellows to guide them in leading discussion sections and grading assignments and exams. In addition, teaching fellows should consult faculty course heads about any undergraduate students who may be struggling with course material/assignments/personal issues. Please consult the Department Teaching Manual for additional information.

The Dissertation Prospectus

Following successful completion of the general examination, students must attend a prospectus “boot camp,” held in late May/early June and led by the DGS and another faculty member. The boot camp serves to introduce students to the process of writing the dissertation prospectus. Faculty leaders will work with students to explore possible archival and other resources to explore during the summer months; departmental funding is available to facilitate archival summer research. At the start of the fall semester, the faculty and students will meet once again to discuss students’ summer progress and draft prospectuses. At this point, students will constitute a dissertation prospectus committee in consultation with their general examination committee chair/primary advisor and the DGS, as necessary. (See Dissertation Prospectus Guidelines for additional information.)

Over the course of the G3 year fall semester, students are expected to discuss a draft of the prospectus with the dissertation prospectus committee, which will approve its submission to the department faculty as a whole. Prospectuses are to be submitted to the graduate program coordinator at least one week before the December history of science faculty meeting; that is, by the Thanksgiving break. The faculty will discuss prospectuses in depth at this meeting and vote on their approval. After obtaining faculty approval, students present their prospectuses to the History of Science community in a department seminar, usually in the spring of the G3 year. Students are expected to submit their prospectuses in the fall of the G3 year; in all cases, however, approval must be obtained before the end of the G3 year.   Starting in the G3 year, students and advisors together complete an end-of-the-year progress report, which is submitted to the graduate coordinator by April 1st.

A rising fourth-year student must have obtained approval of a prospectus.

Fellowship Applications

G3 students often apply for year-long traveling fellowships beginning in the late fall of the G3 year as well as other external and internal fellowships which often have early February deadlines. Please see Funding Overview section for additional information. Department Faculty and the GSAS Fellowships Office offer workshops to assist students in the application process. Please note: all students should give faculty advisors and other faculty recommenders at least a three week notice of application deadlines and submission details. Students applying for multiple fellowships should prepare an Excel spreadsheet with all the relevant information, deadlines, fellowship, address, etc. required to process and submit LOR.

Starting in the G3 year, students and advisors together complete an end-of-the-year Progress Report which is submitted to the graduate coordinator by April 1st

Fourth Year: Post-prospectus

Apply for External and Harvard-sponsored Fellowships (GSAS Fellowships Office)
Teaching Dissertation Research and Writing

Submit Progress Report in conjunction with dissertation advisor, on dissertation progress. Annual progress report is due every April 1st.

Fifth and Sixth Year of Graduate Study

Students usually apply for a dissertation completion fellowship (DCF) the year before they plan to finish the dissertation. Students are not permitted to teach during the DCF year.


Timetable for submission of the dissertation: Students must submit a final, complete draft of the dissertation to their committees no later than 6 weeks prior to the “Dissertations are due on” date specified by GSAS (this date changes by year; please find current deadline listed here).

Committees will read and comment on the dissertation draft, and ask for any revisions, no later than 3 weeks prior to the same date.

Students will make any necessary changes and submit the dissertation in its final form to the committee and to the department no later than one week prior to the “due on” date.

Students planning to graduate in March, May, or November, should meet with the graduate program coordinator in person, by Skype, or phone to review the graduation process. Students need to provide the coordinator with vital information to ensure the dissertation acceptance certificate may be processed to meet GSAS deadlines and the degree application approved.

The dissertation should be an original contribution to knowledge. It must conform to the online description, The Form of the PhD Dissertation, on the FAS Registrar’s web site​​​​​​​. 


The dissertation defense will ordinarily take place after the members of the dissertation committee have approved the dissertation. Although the dissertation defense is not required to receive the doctoral degree, students often find the forum useful as they further their research. The graduate program coordinator will assist students in setting a defense date.


Work for the degree should be completed within a total of six years. Students generally have an additional year to complete the dissertation after taking the dissertation completion fellowship. An extension beyond the one-year limit may be considered by the department and the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid in extraordinary circumstances.


  • 1st year – Director of Graduate Studies (DGS)
  • 2nd year – DGS and Generals Committee Chair
  • 3rd year and beyond– Prospectus Committee Chair; upon acceptance of prospectus, Dissertation Committee Chair


Students are encouraged to seek guidance from faculty whose research interests correspond to their own as they embark on their graduate studies. We hope students will become a part of the department’s community of scholars as well as seek out mentors in related Harvard departments and fields.

The DGS and the department chair are available at all times to provide additional support and advice at any stage of the graduate student program. Students are encouraged to seek help from either or both of these individuals if any part of the advising process seems not to be working as it should.

Questions? Concerns?

Please contact Linda Schneider, Graduate Program Coordinator at or 617-495-9978