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Social Policy

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

PhD Programs in Social Policy

  • Government and Social Policy
  • Sociology and Social Policy

The First Two Years

Students are expected to develop a strong disciplinary foundation in government or sociology, as well as multidisciplinary expertise and research in the area of social policy. Students pursue these twin objectives by fulfilling all essential components of the PhD program in government or sociology, plus a complementary program of study in social policy offered in collaboration with the social policy faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

The requirements in each of the two social policy tracks, government or sociology, are summarized below. Students should refer to the relevant entries in the government or sociology sections of this handbook for more detailed guidelines concerning the disciplinary requirements:

Government and Social Policy

Students in the government disciplinary track must successfully complete twelve four-credit courses, eight of which must be in government. At least ten of these twelve four-credit courses and seven of the eight four-credit courses in government must be 1000- or 2000-level courses.

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

In the first year, students will complete required courses in the Department of Government. In the second year, students must complete the Proseminar in Inequality and Social Policy I and II, the first two four-credit courses in the three-term social policy sequence. Students should note that while the proseminar in Inequality and Social Policy courses may be used to satisfy the overall twelve four-credit course requirement noted above, they do not count toward the eight four-credit course requirement in government since the proseminar sequence is meant to be the multidisciplinary complement to the disciplinary foundation in government.

  • Seminar Papers—Students must complete three seminar-style research papers, one of which should fulfill the social policy program’s requirement to complete a research paper in a topical area with major literatures in government and social policy. This latter paper is ordinarily developed in the course of the Proseminar in Inequality and Social Policy course sequence.
  • Quantitative methods requirement—Every student must successfully complete during the first or second year and 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 government department and other Harvard/MIT courses regularly updated by the Government Department Graduate Policy Committee.
  • Political philosophy requirement—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 Government Department Graduate Policy Committee.
  • Research tools requirement—Every student must submit to the director of graduate studies by the end of the first year a written Research Tools Plan outlining intentions to acquire tools and methodological expertise connected to their areas of research interest. In meeting this requirement, each student must complete a minimum of three and a half four-credit course equivalent units of research tools and methods courses, modules, or workshops by the end of their seventh term in residence (middle of fourth year). Students may also count language training in various formats toward fulfillment of this requirement.
  • Research workshops—The government department offers a series of research workshops in the major political science subfields and related areas for graduate students to present and discuss work in progress. Every student should attend at least one research workshop starting in the second or third term in residence. Research workshops do not count toward the requirement to complete twelve four-credit courses.
  • General examination—Every student will sit for a general examination in May of the second year, with the exam administered orally by three faculty not known in advance. The ninety-minute exam will cover two of the four major substantive fields in political science (American government, international relations, comparative politics, political theory), plus an additional focus field, which will be social policy for students in the Social Policy PhD program. A student may substitute either formal theory or political methodology for one of the two major fields. Students may substitute formal theory or political methodology for one of the two major fields, with a “course out” option in which students may complete an approved set of formal theory or methods courses in lieu of an exam in this area.

Sociology and Social Policy

Students in the sociology and social policy track must complete fourteen four-credit courses in sociology.

Seven of these four-credit courses will be required methods and theory courses, the first four of which are normally taken in the first year in residence:

  • Soc. 2202: Intermediate Quantitative Methods (Students who arrive with sufficient training may waive this course if they can satisfy placement procedures designed by the Soc. 202 instructor.) 
  • Soc. 2203a: Advanced Quantitative  Research Methods  
  • Soc. 2204: Sociological Theory: Seminar
  • Soc. 2205: Sociological Research Design
  • Soc. 208: Contemporary Theory and Research: Seminar 
  • Soc. 209: Qualitative Social Analysis

In lieu of Soc 310a/b: Qualifying Paper, which is counted as a four-credit course in sociology, social policy students will substitute the Proseminar in Inequality and Social Policy I and II—i.e., the first two four-credit courses in the three-term social policy sequence. These two social policy four-credit courses will thereby satisfy the four-credit course 310a/b requirement and one of the six electives noted below.

Students take six additional four-credit courses in sociology of which up to two may be workshops. Courses from other departments may be counted only if they are cross-listed in the catalog under sociology. Social policy students are encouraged to select electives that will contribute to development of a field specialization within one or two closely-related research domains of the social policy program, which include: (i) work, wages, and markets; (ii) urban poverty and residential segregation; (iii) family structure and parental roles; (iv) race, ethnicity, and immigration; (v) educational access and quality; (vi) crime, criminal justice, and inequality; (vii) political inequalities, participation, and social capital; and (viii) institutions, policy, and comparative welfare state analysis.

Soc. 305: Teaching Practicum, ordinarily taken prior to one’s first assignment as a teaching fellow.

In addition, every first-year social policy student will enroll in Social Policy 303: Introduction to Social Policy research, to be taken SAT/UNS. This course will not count toward the fourteen four-credit courses in Sociology.

Written examination—Every student takes a written general examination in August preceding the second year, which is a four-question essay exam designed to ensure a working knowledge of the range of subfields that comprise the discipline of sociology. Students should be prepared for a broad range of questions; they are given a reading list and sample questions from previous years. The results of the examination will be honors, pass, conditional pass, or fail. The grade of conditional pass is used when one of the four answers is found not acceptable; the student is permitted to rewrite that particular answer under faculty guidance. A student who fails the written examination will be permitted to take it a second time at a later date.

Research paper—A special research paper, sometimes called the Qualifying Paper, is required by the end of the fifth term in residence. This paper is ordinarily developed in the course of the Proseminar in Inequality and Social Policy course sequence and should be of the same length, quality, and finish of a paper acceptable to the major sociological or social science journals. Once the topic and research design have been agreed upon with a primary advisor, the student should petition the Sociology Committee on Higher Degrees (CHD) for appointment of three readers who ultimately approve the final version.

Master of Arts (AM)

The PhD Programs in Social Policy do not offer a terminal AM degree. Students may apply to receive the AM degree in government or sociology upon completion of the relevant department’s requirements for the master’s degree.

Progress toward the degree after the first two years

All social policy students will complete the third term of the Proseminar in Inequality and Social Policy course sequence during the fall of the third year.

Government and Social Policy

Government and social policy students should normally complete all other requirements pertaining to courses, research papers, languages, quantitative methods, and political theory prior to 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 two of the following until after the general examination:

  • one seminar paper
  • one four-credit course

Within six months of passing the general examination, the student must have fulfilled one of these deferred requirements. Within twelve 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. (government and social policy students should consult the government section of this handbook for further guidelines of these meetings):

  • An initial “Research Consultation Meeting” with three to four faculty consultants must convene in the fall term of the third year to discuss an approximately ten-page statement with 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.
  • A second “Prospectus Evaluation Meeting”, involving the same three to four faculty or a different set where appropriate, will convene to discuss and approve the student’s written dissertation prospectus. This 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 names of the committee registered with the director of graduate studies by no later than early November of the fourth year.

Sociology and Social Policy

Special Area Examination—For sociology and social policy students, the final qualifying requirement is an oral examination on a subfield within sociology that represents the student’s special interest, generally in the same area as the likely dissertation topic. The field should be broad enough that it would be possible to teach regularly an upper-level undergraduate class in the area. The student prepares a field statement, not longer than ten double-spaced pages of ten-point type, to define the area in which the examination will be given. When the field statement and bibliography have been prepared, the student submits them to the CHD along with a petition to appointment a Special Area Examination committee. The Special Area Examination committee is expected to be taken no later than the end of the term following the completion of the research paper.

Dissertation Prospectus—Sociology and social policy students develop a dissertation prospectus of twenty–thirty pages in length, which should state clearly the objectives of the study and specific set of questions to be explored, review the relevant literature, and indicate the ways in which the student intends to make a contribution to existing ideas on the subject. The research methods and design, the data to be employed, and the plan of approach should be included as well. When the final draft of the prospectus has been prepared, the student schedules a prospectus defense. The purpose of this meeting is to ensure that the dissertation project is viable and that the student is prepared to begin their research. The prospectus must be approved before the end of the fall term of the student’s fifth year in residence.


Students are encouraged to serve as teaching fellows in government, sociology, or in the Harvard Kennedy School. Students in the government and sociology program will normally be expected to teach at least one section in a departmental course sometime during the period that they are in residence.


Students in the social policy PhD programs will have two advisors at the beginning of their graduate studies, one from the traditional disciplinary department, government or sociology, and one from the social policy program. The departmental advisor will be assigned according to the prevailing practices of the relevant department. The social policy advisor will generally be the director of graduate study. During the third year, the student will choose an advisor in accordance with their research interests, with an eye toward composing an eventual dissertation committee.

Students in the social policy PhD programs will be reviewed formally by the Committee on Higher Degrees on Social Policy every year at the conclusion of the spring term. This review will require a brief commentary from the advisors indicating the student’s progress and highlighting any special concerns or achievements of which the committee should be aware.


Typically, the dissertation committee shall be comprised of one member from the traditional disciplinary department (government or sociology), one member from the HKS social policy faculty, and a third member who may come from either domain. Two of the members of the committee must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes, for dissertation committee purposes, HKS social policy faculty who serve on the Committee on Higher Degrees in Social Policy.

Contact Info 

Social Policy Website
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

Nicole Tateosian
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