Program Requirements

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.


Courses — A student must successfully complete at least twelve four-credit courses, of which eight must be in political science. At least ten of these twelve four-credit courses and seven of the eight four-credit courses in government must be listed in the catalogue as 1000- or 2000-level courses. Courses cross-registered with Harvard's Divinity and Law Schools, the Fletcher School, or MIT can be used toward these requirements. Prior approval from the Director of Graduate Studies is needed for courses from the Harvard Kennedy and Business Schools.

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

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

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 have the instructor and DGS approve the petition for an extension. 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. Only one of the three papers may be co-authored. 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.

Quantitative Methods Requirement— Every student, during their first or second year, 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 government department and other Harvard/MIT courses regularly updated by the Graduate Policy Committee.

Political Theory Requirement — Every student, during their first or second year, 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 Graduate Policy Committee.

Research Tools Requirement — Every student must submit to the director of graduate studies, by the end of his or her first year, a written Research Tools Plan outlining intentions to acquire tools and methodological expertise connected to his or her 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 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 the fourth year). The required seminar, “Approaches to the Study of Politics,” and the required graduate course in quantitative social science methods count for two units within this total. Students may count language training in various formats (e.g. semester courses; intensive summer sessions) toward fulfillment of this requirement. The Graduate Policy Committee will determine what counts for 1.0 or 0.5 units.

Research Workshops — The government department offers a series of research workshops, in each of the four fields (American Government, International Relations, Comparative Politics, 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 semester, when in residence. Research workshops do not count toward the requirement to complete twelve four-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 three faculty not known in advance. The ninety-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 Theory), plus an additional focus field defined by the student. A student may substitute either Formal Theory or Political Methodology for one of the two major fields. For the focus field, each student will submit by a date designated by the director of graduate studies 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 Theory 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 Political Methodology or Formal Theory by completing four (4) courses from a pre-approved list with a grade of B+ or higher. The course out option in methods requires students to take all four courses in the methods sequence -  Gov 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. One substitution wil be allowed, but students must discuss their plans with the methods field coordinator and receive approval in advance. 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, seminars (research) papers, quantitative methods and political theory 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 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, he or she 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 semester of the third year, to discuss an approximately ten-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 semester 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 director of graduate studies, by no later than early November of the fourth year.

By May 15 of each year, each student, third year and above, 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.”


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) and the GSAS dean of admissions and financial aid.

PhD students are awarded a financial support package at admission that includes guaranteed teaching (two sections per term) for four terms. This teaching is guaranteed and enables PhD students 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. All graduate students will normally be required to teach a minimum of two sections in departmental courses sometime during the period that they are in residence. To ensure diversity of experience, one section will normally be in an introductory course and one section will be in an advanced course (such as a 1000-level course).

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 sixteen term-fifths may be appointed in a fifth year up to that total.

All first time Teaching Fellows must enroll in Gov 3002: 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 meets five times in the fall semester. Between meetings, you will have the chance to apply what you learn through peer observation, having your section videotaped, and watching your section with the Departmental Teaching Fellow. The ultimate goal of this course is to help you to become a good teacher and an effective speaker.


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 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 The Form of the PhD Dissertation.

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 re-take 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 available to the Harvard-MIT Data Center all of the quantitative data they have compiled in machine-readable form (together with accompanying explanatory materials) upon which the findings in their dissertation depend. 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 Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) policy has been established that students ordinarily will not be permitted to register beyond their tenth year in the Graduate School. However, exceptions to this rule may be made for students who have taken medical or parental leave or for students with other special circumstances. However, according to GSAS policy, the number of G8s and above may impact the number of offers made during admissions. Students who are administratively withdrawn are free to apply for readmission to GSAS, so as to re-register for the purpose of receiving the degree, when their dissertation is completed.