Public Policy

The First Two Years

Students are expected to complete required coursework and sit for the oral general examination. Approval to take the oral examination is predicated on successful completion of the required courses with requisite grades.

Credit for coursework done elsewhere is not granted.

There is no language requirement.


In order to convert a grade of Incomplete to a letter grade, the student must complete the requisite coursework by the end of the term following that in which the course was taken. No grade of Incomplete can be used to satisfy any departmental requirement.


Teaching is not required. A maximum of sixteen term-fifths over a period of five years is permitted. During the third year, a combination of teaching and research, not to exceed three-fifths TIME, is recommended.


First Two Years

Students are assigned an advisor, taking into account each student’s stated research interests at the time of admission. If the research focus changes, students are encouraged to seek out new advisors on their own; however, the director of graduate studies will intervene as needed to facilitate new links to different faculty.

The major effort expended during the first two years is on coursework. By the end of the second year, students are expected to affiliate with a research center at either HKS or FAS. Research assistantships and, in some cases, teaching fellowships often lead to a close relationship with a faculty member that will develop into an official advisor/advisee role.

Third Year

The primary hurdle of the third year is completion of the dissertation prospectus, and an oral presentation of either one chapter, (or one paper and an executive summary of the second and third papers, in the case of a three-paper dissertation), to two members of the dissertation committee. A copy of the prospectus, with written approval from both advisors, is then submitted to the program office by the beginning of the fourth year. In addition, students must complete the PhD Research Seminar (API 902), where work in progress on the dissertation is presented.

Fourth Year

By the beginning of the fourth year, all students must have chosen two members of the dissertation committee. The dissertation committee will include at least three faculty members. Affiliations of these faculty members will include one member of the PhD Standing Committee, one HKS-appointed faculty member, and one GSAS-appointed faculty member. No readers are assigned by the chair of the PhD committee unless one of these affiliations is not met.

Field Requirements and Qualifying Examinations

In order to advance to PhD candidacy, a student must demonstrate PhD-level proficiency in six areas: analytic methods; economics; politics and management and normative theory; quantitative empirical methods; advanced methodology; and a special field of the student’s election. Students must complete at least two PhD-level courses in the primary field and the secondary field. Students must take Economics 2020a and b and one course in politics and management and one course in normative theory. In Analytical Methods, students may demonstrate proficiency by taking two courses or API 302 and a written qualifying examination. In the case of empirical methods and qualitative methods, successful completion of one course in each field will suffice. Students must also take API 901, the first term of the PhD seminar in research methods. 

The purpose of the primary and secondary field requirement is to establish a solid foundation for future research. Students should seek PhD-level courses that broaden and deepen their knowledge in a special field. Since many HKS courses and seminars are targeted toward practitioners rather than scholars, at least part of the special field work will normally be done at GSAS (in courses at the 2000-level), or at other graduate units outside the HKS. A plan of study that includes the syllabus for each proposed course in the special field must be submitted to the program office for approval. Only in exceptional circumstances (where, for example, the field of one’s research is not well developed), will the PhD committee grant a petition to substitute a Reading and Research course for a basic methodological course.

Qualifying examinations, the equivalent of general examinations, are offered once a year: Analytic Methods in January. There is no general examination in Empirical Methods. Failure in one examination or in written work in one field will disqualify a student from PhD candidacy. Only one retake of a single failed examination is allowed.

General Oral Examination

The general oral examination determines whether the student has sufficient grounding in the literatures that are likely to be most pertinent for the dissertation. More broadly, the exam provides an assessment of the student’s academic preparation and aptitude, as well as the student’s interest in and prospects for a successful career after completion of the PhD.

In the middle of the second year the student identifies a primary and secondary field critical to the dissertation research, and works with two faculty examiners whom the director of graduate study confirms. The student meets with the examiners to agree on the nature and scope of the fields and develops a reading list that provides adequate coverage of the fields. The exam is scheduled before the beginning of the third year.


The candidate is required to demonstrate their ability to perform original research in an area of public policy by writing a dissertation that represents a significant contribution to knowledge in that field. Three faculty members supervise the writing of the dissertation. One member of the committee must come from the HKS. The other two must come from a combination of the GSAS and the PhD committee.

Note: A member of the Committee on Higher Degrees in Public Policy may represent the GSAS at a dissertation defense.

A prospective fifth year, or more advanced, student must have produced at least one acceptable chapter of the dissertation each year beginning in the fifth year. This chapter must be submitted to the dissertation committee for its approval. Evidence of satisfactory progress may also include manuscripts submitted for publication, or abstracts of papers delivered at professional meetings, or other evidence as specified by the dissertation committee chair.

A dissertation may be written in book form or it may take the form of three publishable papers. Permission to include one co-authored paper may be granted only by the chair of the PhD committee.

Details on the format of the PhD dissertation are published in The Form of the PhD Dissertation, available online or at the public policy program office.

Dissertation Defense

After the candidate has met all other degree requirements, they must pass an oral examination focused on the dissertation. This examination is given when the final draft of the dissertation has been completed. Dissertation examiners will normally include the three supervisors to the dissertation. However, if a member of GSAS cannot be present, a member of the Committee on Higher Degrees in Public Policy will represent the GSAS at the defense. The purpose of this examination is to assure the committee that the methodology and basic approach of the dissertation are sound and that the student has received critical advice at the most appropriate stage of their advanced research. The dissertation must be accepted before the formal application for the degree can be activated. Note: The dissertation defense is open to the public.

Length of Time to Degree

Average time to completion of the PhD is five years. Except by special vote of the committee, all work for the PhD degree must be completed within five years of completion of the general written and oral examinations.