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Public Policy

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

The Public Policy PhD is awarded by the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (Harvard Griffin GSAS) but is administered by the Higher Committee on Public Policy.  Students enroll in one of four tracks: Economics, Judgment and Decision Making, Politics and Institutions, or Science, Technology and Policy.


The economics track in the PhD program in public policy provides a curriculum for doctoral students seeking rigorous disciplinary training, with a focus on applying the tools of economics to the study of major public policy issues.  Graduates will be prepared for academic teaching and research positions in schools of public policy, economics and other disciplinary departments, as well as policy positions in national governments and international institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and in some cases, various roles in the private sector. HKS has a strong core of faculty specializing in a diverse range of subfields of economics including labor, public and applied microeconomics topics, behavioral economics and decision sciences, environmental economics, international trade, economic development, and other subjects. The program embeds formal economics training within a unique interdisciplinary atmosphere of scholars and practitioners who are working on problems of practice in a wide range of settings. In addition, the PhD program offers teaching and research opportunities for students with leading scholars at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and elsewhere at Harvard.

Judgment and Decision Making

The judgment and decision making track in the PhD program in public policy provides a curriculum for doctoral students seeking rigorous interdisciplinary training in psychological science, behavioral economics, and decision science, with a focus on understanding and improving public policy.  A typical program of study includes emphasis on descriptive and normative approaches as well as prescriptive interventions. Graduates will be prepared for academic teaching and research positions in public policy schools, interdisciplinary programs (e.g., management, decision science), and traditional behavioral science departments (e.g., psychology) as well as for analytic positions in industry, think tanks, government, and international institutions.  HKS has a strong core of faculty specializing in judgment and decision making research as well as faculty specializing in applied policy domains where students may wish to focus.  Intrinsic to the program are teaching and research opportunities with leading scholars at HKS and elsewhere at Harvard.

Politics and Institutions

The politics and institutions track provides a curriculum for students interested in a rigorous program of study and research on international or domestic politics and institutions as these issues relate to major public policy issues in the US and around the world.   Graduates will be prepared for academic research and teaching positions in schools of public policy and disciplinary departments such as, but not limited to, political science and history, as well as policy positions in national governments, research centers, and international institutions.  HKS offers a strong cadre of faculty across multiple social science disciplines specializing in politics and institutions, renowned and dynamic research centers, and a unique interdisciplinary atmosphere of scholars and practitioners with expertise in diverse fields. In addition to research opportunities with leading scholars, the PhD program offers training in teaching as well as in public policy writing and communication.

Science, Technology and Policy Studies

The science, technology and policy studies track provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, drawing on methodological tools from science and technology policy, science and technology studies, policy analysis, political theory, law, and economics. At HKS, students have access to leading scholars from across Harvard in the social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering, with specialties in areas such as security studies, energy policy, innovation and development, environment and climate, biotechnology, data science, and information. The HKS faculty includes practitioners with wide experience at the highest levels of government and industry in science and technology policy. Graduates are qualified for academic teaching and research in public policy schools, interdisciplinary programs, and traditional social science departments, as well as for leadership positions in national and international science and technology policy in both the public and private sectors.

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.  Each track has specific course requirements, outlined below: 


  • Two courses in microeconomics theory (Economics 2020a and Economics 2020b) 
  • One course in political theory 
  • One course in analytical methods, or completion of a qualifying exam 
  • Two courses in empirical methods 
  • Two doctoral research seminars (API 901 and API 902)

Judgment and Decision Making   

Please see the Public Policy Web site for updates course requirements    

  • Two courses in economic theory 
  • One course in normative theory 
  • Three courses in empirical methods 
  • Two doctoral research seminars (API 901 and API 902)

Politics and Institutions 

  • Two courses in political theory 
  • One course in normative theory 
  • One course in analytical methods 
  • Two courses in empirical methods 
  • Two doctoral research seminars (API 901 and API 902)

Science, Technology and Policy 

  • Two courses in political theory 
  • One course in normative theory 
  • Two courses in analytical methods 
  • One course in empirical methods 
  • Two doctoral research seminars (API 901 and API 902) 


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 program 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 either at HKS or the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. 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 (which may be a paper or a slide deck) 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 Harvard Griffin GSAS-appointed faculty member.

Field Requirements and Qualifying Examinations

In order to advance to PhD candidacy, a student must demonstrate PhD-level proficiency in the required track areas covering 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 a primary field and the secondary field.

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 Harvard Griffin 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 normal course.

General Oral Examination

The general oral examination determines whether the student has sufficient grounding in the literatures of the primary and secondary fields. 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.

For students matriculating in fall 2025 or later: Students are required to take at least one of their oral fields within their track, and it is strongly recommended that both of the fields are within the student’s track.  An approved list will be posted in the student handbook. 

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 confirmed by the director of graduate study. 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 Harvard Griffin GSAS and the PhD committee.

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

A prospective fifth year, or a 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. Each track will provide guidance of the norms/expectations regarding dissertation authorship including any limits or other requirements regarding coauthorship.  It will be left to the dissertation committee chair to determine the number of coauthored papers allowed in the dissertation.

Details on the format of the PhD dissertation are published in the Policies

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 of the dissertation. 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. The dissertation defense is ordinarily 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.

AM in Passing 

The Public Policy PhD program in coordination with Harvard Griffin GSAS will award an AM (Masters of Arts) degree in passing or terminal AM to students who have satisfactorily completed two years of course work and completed the oral general examination.  Students must also fulfill the Harvard Griffin GSAS requirements for an AM degree in passing. 

Contact Info 

Public Policy Website

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