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Questions about these requirements? See the contact info at the bottom of the page. 

Candidates for the PhD in political science are expected to complete the required coursework during their first two years of graduate study and take the general examination at the end of the second year. A typical schedule consists of these two years, followed by three or four years of work on a dissertation, combined with supervised teaching.


Courses — A student must successfully complete at least 12 4-credit courses, of which 8 must be in political science. At least 10 of these 12 4-credit courses and 7 of the 8 4-credit courses in government must be listed in the catalog as 1000- or 2000-level courses. Courses cross-registered with Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Law School, the Fletcher School, MIT, or Brown University can be used toward these requirements. Prior approval from the director of graduate studies is needed for courses from Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School.

Students must complete six four-credit courses by the end of their second term in residence and nine by the end of their third.

Directed Reading/Independent Study – A student may receive academic (or course) credit for one Gov 3000-level directed reading with a relevant faculty member provided the arrangement produces a gradable seminar style paper.  While one Gov 3000 directed reading may count toward the overall 12 courses for the degree, it may not count toward the 8 (of the 12) that must be in political science. 

Course Requirements for Students Admitted for Fall 2021 and beyond 

Beginning in fall 2021, a student must complete three out of the four field seminars: American government (Gov 2105), comparative politics (Gov 2305), international relations (Gov 2710), and political philosophy (Gov 2093) and one course in quantitative methods. Students in political theory have the option to be exempted from the methods course requirement.

Course Requirements for Students Admitted prior to Fall 2021 

Every first-year student must enroll in the Department of Government graduate seminar, Gov 3001: Approaches to the Study of Politics. The course, offered each fall, is to be taken SAT/UNSAT for a full term of credit.

Quantitative Methods Requirement — During their first or second year, every student must successfully complete, with a grade of B or better, at least one graduate-level course in quantitative social science methods relevant to political science from a list of appropriate Department of Government and other Harvard/MIT courses regularly updated by the Curriculum and Educational Policy Committee. 

Political Theory Requirement — During their first or second year, every student must take a minimum of one graduate-level four-credit course (or section) in Political Theory chosen from a list of courses approved by the Curriculum and Educational Policy Committee. 

Additional Requirements for all students 

Incompletes — A grade of Incomplete can be converted into a letter grade if the student completes the work before the end of the term following the one in which the course was taken. If an Incomplete has not been completed within the period, the student must have the instructor and director of graduate studies (DGS) approve a petition for an extension of time. No grade of Incomplete can be used to satisfy any departmental requirement.

Seminar Papers — In order to ensure that students secure adequate training in research and writing, at least three seminar-style research papers must be completed. The usual means is through enrollment in seminars, but the requirement may also be satisfied by reading or lecture courses in which papers of this type are written. Only one of the three papers may be co-authored. Additionally, only one of the three papers may be written outside the department. It is the student’s responsibility to obtain written verification from the instructor that the completed paper is of seminar quality.

Research Tools Requirement — By the end of their first year, every student must submit to DGS a written Research Tools Plan outlining intentions to acquire tools and methodological expertise connected to their areas of research interest. The Tools Plan also should list the courses, modules, or workshops the student intends to take in order to meet the research tools requirement.

Every student must complete a minimum of 3.5 4-credit course-equivalent units of research tools and methods courses, modules, or workshops by the end of their seventh term in residence (middle of the fourth year). The graduate course in quantitative social science methods count for one unit within this total. Students may count language training in various formats (e.g. term courses; intensive summer sessions) toward fulfillment of this requirement. The Curriculum and Educational Policy Committee will determine what counts for 1.0 or 0.5 units.

Research Workshops — The Department of Government offers a series of research workshops in each of the four fields (American government, international relations, comparative politics, and political theory), applied statistics, and political economy for graduate students to present and discuss work in progress. Every student should attend at least one research workshop each term when in residence. Research workshops do not count toward the requirement to complete 12 4-credit courses.

The General Examination

Every student will sit for a general examination in May of their second year, with the exam administered orally by faculty not known in advance. The 90-minute exam will cover two of the four major substantive fields in political science (chosen by the student from among: American government, comparative politics, international relations, and political philosophy), plus an additional focus field defined by the student. For the focus field, each student will submit by a date designated by DGS a five- to eight-page statement outlining a special area for examination. This area may encompass a special literature; an area of the world; a realm of special interest spanning subfields or disciplinary boundaries; or a research approach. Political philosophy and social policy students are not required to submit focus field memos.

Students are allowed a “course-out” option instead of taking a minor field oral exam in either quantitative methodology or formal theory by taking four courses from our methods sequence with an overall grade of B+ or higher. At most, one course outside the methods sequence may count toward the course-out requirement, but those who want to use outside classes should consult with a member of the methods faculty (such as the methods field coordinator) before taking those courses for approval. Students who choose to course out will sit for the other two 30-minute exams as usual.

The department regularly offers “field seminars” introducing each of the four major fields of the discipline. However, no examination field is co-terminus with any one course, or even with any group of courses. The student is responsible for preparation in the field and should not assume that satisfactory completion of a course or courses dealing with the material in the field will constitute adequate preparation for the examination. The student should consult faculty members in each field to ensure such preparation. All students who choose a field are responsible for the same range of materials.

Progress toward the Degree after the General Examination

Requirements relating to courses and seminars (research) papers should normally be completed before the general examination, that is, during the first two years of graduate work. In special circumstances, a student may defer fulfillment of two four-credit courses or one four-credit course and one seminar paper until after the general examination.

Within six months of passing the general examination, the student must have fulfilled one of these deferred requirements. Within 12 months, they must have completed both deferred requirements.

Following completion of the general exam, each student will engage faculty advisors through a two-stage process of research exploration and prospectus approval, marked by two meetings as follows:

  • An initial “Research Exploration Meeting” must convene in the fall term of the third year to discuss an approximately 10-page statement from the student, which, as appropriate, may either present a potential research question for the dissertation or set forth alternative possible research questions for consideration and development. The student may consult the director of graduate studies to identify three or four appropriate faculty consultants, if these are not readily apparent.
  • Involving the same three or four faculty, or a different set where appropriate, the second “Prospectus Evaluation Meeting” will convene to discuss and approve the student’s written dissertation prospectus. These faculty members are chosen by the student with the approval of the director of graduate studies. The evaluation meeting will preferably be held in the spring term of the third year and in no instance later than October 1 of the fourth year. Whenever this meeting is held, there may be a one-month follow-up period for final changes in the prospectus. To be in good standing, therefore, all students must have an approved prospectus, with the dissertation title and name(s) of the advisor(s) registered with the Graduate Program Office, by no later than November 15 of the fourth year.


First-year and second-year students are not permitted to hold Teaching Fellow appointments.

Students may not teach or take on other employment if they are receiving a PhD dissertation completion fellowship. 

Students in their third year and beyond are eligible for teaching fellowships, which enable them to participate in Harvard’s undergraduate tutorial program, teach sections in the introductory government courses, or assist undergraduates in middle-group courses by leading discussion sessions or directing senior theses. 

In the third year, most graduate students are teaching a full load (two sections) and working on the dissertation. The fourth year may be devoted entirely to writing the dissertation or to a combination of teaching and research. 

Students who have passed the general examination may teach the equivalent of three standard sections time in a single term (or six sections per academic year), with the following exception: Ordinarily, no graduate student may hold a teaching fellowship for more than 4 academic years regardless of whether the appointment is for 1 or 2 terms within the same year; students who have taught fewer than 16 standard sections in 4 years will be permitted to teach a 5th and 6th year up to the total of 16 standard sections.

All first-time Teaching Fellows must enroll in Gov 3002a: Teaching and Communicating Political Science. This is a required course for government PhD students who are teaching in the department for the first time (typically G3s).  The course has an orientation and six required meetings in the fall term. Between meetings, students will have the chance to apply what they learn through peer observation, having their section videotaped, and watching their section with the department’s Pedagogy Fellow. The ultimate goal of this course is to help the student to become a purposeful, effective, and efficient teacher.


A student is required to demonstrate ability to perform original research in political science by writing a dissertation that makes a significant contribution to knowledge in the field. The requirement may also be fulfilled in the form of a three-article dissertation by approval of the dissertation committee.

Dissertations must be approved by at least three committee members, two of whom must be faculty members of the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The chair must be a member of the Department of Government. Any member of the committee who is not a member of the department must be approved by the dissertation chair. Dissertations must be approved for defense by the committee. The final copies of the dissertation must conform to the requirements described online in Dissertations.

Special Examination

After the dissertation has been approved, and after all other degree requirements have been met, a student will take the “special” oral examination, or defense. This examination is focused on the dissertation and on the relevant special field, which is ordinarily one of the fields that the student presented in the general examination, or an approved portion of that field.

Students who defend their dissertation later than six years after taking the general examination must retake the focus field of the general examination. Approved parental leave extends this period by one year per child, but no other reason for leave does.

Depositing Dissertation Data

Students are required to make all of the quantitative data they have compiled to reach the findings in their dissertation available to the Harvard-MIT Data Center. This data must be in machine-readable form (together with accompanying explanatory materials). These data will be made available to other users five years after receipt of PhD or sooner, if the PhD recipient permits.

Ten-Year Enrollment Cap

An overall policy has been established that students ordinarily will not be permitted to register beyond their 10th year. However, exceptions to this rule may be made for students who have taken medical or parental leave or for students with other special circumstances. Students who are administratively withdrawn are free to apply for re-admission, so as to re-register for the purpose of the defense and the awarding of the degree, when their dissertation is completed.


First-year students are assigned two faculty advisors by the director of graduate studies. In subsequent years, students may either remain with the first-year advisor or choose an advisor (or advisors) on their own.

Before the end of the second year, students must ask a faculty member to serve as their third-year advisor and submit a signed “third-year advisor form” to the Graduate Office. This faculty member has the responsibility for guiding a student through the pre-prospectus meeting and the process of forming a committee. 

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