The PhD Program in Social Policy is a collaboration between the government and sociology departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the social policy faculty at Harvard Kennedy School leading to a PhD in government and social policy or a PhD in sociology and social policy. The program is designed for students whose research interests engage questions of economic inequality, neighborhoods and spatial segregation, poverty, changing family structures, race and ethnicity, immigration, educational access and quality, political inequalities and participation, and comparative and institutional studies of social policy, particularly in the US and Western Europe.

In the course of their PhD training, students acquire the analytical tools to connect scholarship in their disciplinary field to problems of social policy, bringing the combined insights of economics, political science, public policy, and sociology to bear on social issues that defy disciplinary compartmentalization. The “discipline-plus” structure of the program means that students complete all the normal requirements for a PhD in government or sociology, plus an intensive program of study in social policy. In this way, they are fully trained in the theory, methods, and substantive concerns of a traditional academic discipline, building a strong foundation for extending inquiry in social policy to other disciplinary domains.

Like most social-science PhD programs, the joint PhD Programs in Social Policy are fundamentally about research—often research in highly specialized domains. The skills that students cultivate are principally the analytic and research capacities that will enable them to identify important unanswered questions and to devise research strategies that enhance our understanding of social problems. Students seeking the flexibility to pursue research careers in university departments of political science or sociology, in graduate schools of public policy, or in policy think tanks, other non-profit organizations, and the public sector may find this degree especially suitable.

Institutionally, social policy doctoral students can lay claim to the best of both worlds within their graduate program. They participate as full members of both the larger, disciplinary-based department and a smaller cohort of doctoral students in social policy. Doctoral students are taught and supervised by faculty from government, sociology, and social policy, and may enjoy greater exposure to a network of scholars outside the home discipline and to colleagues with applied policy interests than they might otherwise experience in a single disciplinary department.

Students in the PhD Program Social Policy are enrolled in and receive a PhD from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, even though they may work primarily with Harvard Kennedy School faculty. 

Those whose professional goals are more practice-oriented may wish to explore other degree options further. The Harvard Kennedy School offers a master’s in public policy, which is designed to train future practitioners in the analytic, management, and advocacy skills for effective public service.

Admissions Requirements

We encourage prospective applicants to look closely at the program’s substantive research domains and faculty research interests to assess whether this program is suited to their scholarly objectives. The programs do not focus in any sustained way on social policy in the developing world. While it may be possible to combine study of developing countries in the disciplinary department—government or sociology—with the analytic framework acquired in social policy, the social policy curriculum itself focuses almost exclusively on the issues and experiences of advanced industrial countries.

Students gain admission to the program in a two-stage process of review by both a multidisciplinary admissions committee in social policy and the admissions committee of the relevant disciplinary department. From the very beginning of their graduate careers, then, students are regarded as future contributors to the advancement of scholarship in their home discipline, as well as emerging leaders at the intersection of disciplinary boundaries in the study of social policy.

More information is available from the PhD Program in Social Policy and the GSAS Student Handbook details program requirements.

Theses & Dissertations

Theses & Dissertations for Social Policy

Social Policy Faculty