Graduate Program



Requirements Prior to General Examination

Candidates for the PHD in Government 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.

First-year students are not permitted to serve as teaching fellows. Second-year students may teach with permission of the director of graduate studies (DGS).

Courses — A student must successfully complete at least 12 half-courses, of which eight must be in government. At least ten of these 12 half-courses and seven of the eight half-courses in government must be listed in the catalogue as 1000- or 2000-level courses.

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

Minor Course — Students must enroll in one government department half-course, ordinarily at the 2000-level, in their minor field. The department is organized into four fields: American government, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. Two of these four fields will be assessed during the General Examination (see below). The minor field to be fulfilled through one half-course may be either of the remaining two fields not assessed during the General Examination.

Students are permitted to apply a Gov 3000 directed reading toward the 12-course requirement provided the independent study produces a seminar-style research paper.  However, a directed reading can not be counted toward the requirement for eight courses in Government, nor can it be counted toward the minor course requirement.

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 that in which the course was taken. If an Incomplete has not been completed within the period, the student must petition the Administrative Board of the Graduate School for an extension. University rules allow only one Incomplete to be converted per term. 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 be satisfied also by reading or lecture courses in which papers of this type are written.

It is the student's responsibility to obtain written verification from the instructor that the completed paper is of seminar quality.

One of three seminar papers must be submitted to the graduate office (after grading by a faculty member) for assessment for the general examination.

Students who wish to submit graduate seminar papers written outside the government department should consult the director of graduate studies. In order to receive credit, each paper must be read and evaluated by a faculty member designated by the director of graduate studies.

Language Requirement — Every student must demonstrate competence in a language other than English. (In many cases, of course, the student's research interests will make additional language competence desirable.) Competence in a language is defined as the ability to translate from the foreign language into English approximately 750 words of a political text in one hour with the aid of a dictionary. The translation should accurately capture the essential meaning of the original text and be free of major grammatical and syntactical mistakes. A student may choose to be examined in any language in which there is substantial political science literature, such as French, Spanish, German, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, or in any other language specifically appropriate to the student's doctoral program and approved by the director of graduate studies. Students whose native language is not English must also satisfy this requirement even if that language is specifically appropriate to their doctoral work.

Quantitative Methods Requirement — Every student must also successfully complete, with a grade of B or better, a course in quantitative methods, such as GOV 2000: Quantitative Methods for Political Science I, or with the approval of the director of graduate studies, an equivalent course.


The General Examination

The General Examination consists of a 90-minute oral examination plus the submission of one written seminar paper, and is structured as follows:

1. Major Field

This part of the examination covers one of the four areas of political science: American government, comparative politics, international relations, or political theory.

2. Focus Field

This part of the examination covers in greater depth one subfield within the student's major field, or, if the student chooses, it covers either the field of empirical political methodology or the field of formal political theory. Examples of appropriate focus fields other than empirical political methodology or formal political theory are listed here.

Major Field Illustrative Focus Field


American Government  

Law and Courts
Urban Politics
Political Parties
Interest Groups
American Political Development
Public Opinion and Elections


Comparative Politics   

Government and Politics of (a major foreign country or region)
Comparative Political Development
Comparative Legislatures
Comparative Executives
Comparative Bureaucracy
Comparative Elections and Party Systems
Comparative Political Economy
Comparative Public Policy
Comparative Political Behavior


International Relations

Foreign Policy of (a major country or region)
International Conflict
International Political Economy
International Law and Organization
Nationalism and Imperialism


Political Theory   

All students whose major field is political theory will be examined in both ancient/medieval and modern political thought.


The director of graduate studies, in consultation with the chair and other relevant faculty members, may authorize alternative focus fields, defined in other ways, but comparable in scope to those listed above. Requests for the approval of alternative focus fields must be approved by a member of the faculty and submitted to the department at least three months before taking the examination.

Students are welcome and encouraged to discuss any questions they have about the General Examination with any member of the faculty. Students are expected to have developed with a member of the faculty a focus field within their major at least three months before taking the examination.

3. Political Theory

All students must include political theory as one part of the General Examination. Students not majoring in political theory are expected to have a basic knowledge of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics in addition to the writings of major political philosophers from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Such students should take Government 1061 and the GOV 2030 field seminar in political theory or have equivalent preparation.

The examination for students for whom political theory is a minor field has two parts. One part of the oral examination deals with concepts (such as those discussed in Government 2030); students are not expected to be familiar with the work of any particular contemporary writer. The second part of the exam covers Plato, Aristotle, and major theorists since Machiavelli.

Students whose major field is political theory must take one minor field in the government department on the General Examination. This part of their General Examination covers a second one of the areas listed in section 1 (with the exception of political theory and of the minor field where the requirement will be met by means of one half-course), but in somewhat less depth.

Every student must submit one of the three required seminar papers which will serve as a basis of questioning for the General Examination. This seminar paper will ordinarily pertain principally to the student’s focus field but, with approval of the DGS, it may pertain to any of the four fields or to a combination thereof. The paper must be graded (on a seminar paper form) by the professor for whom it was written and submitted to the graduate office no later than one month before the beginning of oral examinations. The paper must be one that was written since the student’s matriculation in the government department.

The director of graduate studies will then distribute the paper in its original form for assessment by the appropriate examiner on the student's examination board. The paper will count as 20 percent of the final General Examination grade.

All seminar papers must represent substantial research. The seminar paper to be submitted for assessment as part of the General Examination should identify a significant research problem, nest it within the pertinent scholarly literature and arguments in its field, and conduct original research to address the problem. The student has the right to choose which seminar paper will be submitted for the purposes of the General Examination. If the student has completed just one seminar paper prior to the normal date for the General Examination, then this paper will automatically serve as the General Examination paper. An assessment of a seminar paper is a prerequisite for taking the oral examination.


A student who chooses to offer empirical political methodology as a focus field on the General Examination must write one of these three seminar papers combining empirical political methodology with work in a substantive field.

The 90-minute oral examination covers all three of the fields being presented by the student. The oral examination is conducted by three faculty members, two of whom are ordinarily professors with whom the student has worked. The student is normally informed of the composition of his or her General Examination board seven days before the oral examination.

The department regularly offers "field seminars" introducing each of the four major fields of the discipline. However, no examination field is coterminous with any one course, or even with any group of courses. The student is held responsible for preparation in the field and should not assume that satisfactory completion of a course or courses dealing with the material in that field will constitute adequate preparation for the examination. The student should consult faculty members in each field to ensure such preparation.

The General Examination must be taken by May of a student's second year of study; in exceptional cases the student may petition the department for special permission to take the examination in December.


Progress toward the Degree after the General Examination


Students in their third year and beyond spend most of their time researching and writing the PhD dissertation. These students 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 papers. Some research assistantships are also available from individual faculty members and research centers.

In the third year, most teaching fellows devote two-fifths TIME to teaching, the remainder to work 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 three-fifths TIME for four years, with the following exception: those who have taught fewer than 16 term-fifths may be appointed in a fifth year up to that total.

Requirements relating to courses, seminar (research) papers, languages, and quantitative methods 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 the fulfillment of two half-courses or two of the following until after the General Examination:


    * one seminar paper

    * one half-courses

    * the quantitative methods requirement

    * the language requirement, although work toward fulfillment of the language requirement should be under way, in any case, prior to the General Examination.

Within six months of passing the General Examination, the student must have fulfilled one of these deferred requirements. Within 12 months, he or she must have completed both deferred requirements.

Within 16 months of passing the General Examination, each student shall discuss and receive approval of his or her written dissertation prospectus with at least three faculty members at an informal prospectus conference. These faculty members, one of whom must be non-tenured, are chosen by the student with the approval of the director of graduate studies. The student shall inform the department of the composition of the committee and will arrange the conference. Students may receive formal consent for the proposed dissertation topic at that conference, but final approval must be obtained no later than 18 months after the General Examination. Students must petition the director of graduate studies for any exception to this rule. (The prospectus, typically 10- 20 pages in length, should set the proposed topic in an appropriate theoretical framework, allude to relevant literature, and describe the proposed research methods.) Students who have not received final approval of their dissertation prospectus by 18 months after the General Examination may not be appointed as teaching fellows until they have had their dissertation prospectus approved. The dissertation title and name(s) of the advisor(s) must be registered with the director of graduate studies. By May 15 of each year, each student must submit a progress report, approved by his or her major faculty advisor, to the director of graduate studies.

If these conditions are not met, the student will be classified "not in good standing" by the Graduate School and the department and will become ineligible for a teaching fellowship, other financial aid, or employment within the University. After completing these requirements, the student may petition the department to be reinstated "in good standing." However, in the case of students for whom the necessary language training is unusually burdensome, if the student has made a good-faith effort to master the language in the allotted time, the director of graduate studies may grant one extension of up to an additional 12 months for meeting the language and/or dissertation conference requirements.


Dissertation and Final Examination

Dissertation — 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, with the approval of the dissertation committee, by a dissertation in the form of three publishable papers.  Dissertations must be approved by three committee members, two of whom must be members of the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The chair must be a member of the government department. Any member of the committee who is not a member of the department must be approved by the director of graduate studies. Before a student can defend, the dissertation committee must have received a copy of the dissertation and agree that it is ready to be defended. The final copies of the dissertation must conform to the requirements described in the booklet The Form of the PhD Dissertation. Any student who wishes to be considered for one or more of the available prizes should submit an extra copy of the completed dissertation to the department graduate office.

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 which the student presented in the general examination, or an approved portion of that field. At the defense a student will be expected to show such mastery of the special field, and such an acquaintance with the literature, general and special, bearing on it, as needed to qualify to give instruction to mature students. The defense of the dissertation is open to the faculty of the Government Department of Harvard University. Unless the candidate prefers a closed defense, the defense of the dissertation will also be open to graduate students in the Department of Government. Questions of the candidate will be asked initially by committee members. Others in attendance may then ask questions as long as the defense does not exceed two hours in length. The dissertation defense is announced to faculty and students and a one-page abstract is circulated to the faculty in advance of the defense.

Students who defend their dissertation later than six years after taking the General Examination must retake the focus field of the General Examination. Students who defend their dissertations more than eight years after taking the General Examination must retake two fields 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 available to the Harvard-MIT Data Center all of the quantitative data that they have compiled in machine-readable form (together with accompanying explanatory materials) upon which the findings in their dissertations depend. These data will be made available to other users five years after receipt of PhD or sooner, if the PhD recipient permits.

The director of graduate studies will consider petitions for exemption from or modifications of this requirement, if reasonable extenuating circumstances are given.

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