The Department of History of Science offers a comprehensive graduate program focused on the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the History of Science; students seeking a Masters Degree in the History of Science may be considered on a case by case basis. The objective of these programs is to train students to examine the development of science from a wide variety of perspectives through a course of study that will enable the candidate to lay a broad and sufficient foundation for teaching and research in various areas of the history of the natural and social sciences, behavioral and brain sciences, technology, mathematics, medicine, and allied health. In addition to courses in history, history of science, and the sciences, related work is often selected from fields such as philosophy, government, literature, sociology, law, and public policy. Courses from the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may be taken by cross-registration.

In the history of science program the methods of historical research are employed to explore the genesis and evolution of the sciences and to analyze the growth of science as part of the intellectual and social experience of humankind. Science is its subject and history its method. To pursue advanced work in the field, therefore, it is desirable to have some preliminary training in the natural and social sciences and in history.

Students in the doctoral program are eligible for financial support administered under the direction of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, as described in the application for admissions and in Financing Graduate Study. Harvard grants are awarded for the first and second years primarily on the basis of financial need as determined by the Graduate School at the time of application. Ordinarily, living stipend support is limited to the first two years, including summer support, and tuition grants are limited to five years.

After the completion of two years in residence, candidates for the PhD degree in history of science ordinarily are eligible for appointments as teaching fellows in the history of science to serve as tutors in the undergraduate program of history and science. A candidate may also lead discussion sections in departmental courses and courses given under the Committee on the Core Program. Doctoral candidates making satisfactory progress are eligible to apply for completion-year funding from the Graduate School. Applicants are encouraged to apply for non-Harvard fellowships, such as those offered by the National Science Foundation, the Jacob Javits Fellowship Program, and the Mellon Foundation.

Students in the master’s program must show the capacity to finance themselves without University help.

Master of Arts (AM)

This program is suitable for postbaccalaureate students in other disciplines and professions who wish advanced training in the history of science. It also is appropriate for students who are advanced degree candidates in foreign universities.

Academic Residence — The minimum residence requirement is one year of full-time study (eight half-courses or equivalent). Of the four full courses required, the student must include the half-course Salon (History of Science 310hf)), two half-courses offered "Primarily for Graduate Students" (not including "Graduate Courses of Reading and Research"), one half-course offered "Primarily for Graduate Students" (not including "Graduate Courses of Reading and Research") outside the department, and two additional half-courses in the history of science. The remaining two half-courses may be chosen from offerings in science, history, the history of science, or other related fields. An average of B must be maintained throughout the year.

Languages — Applicants for admission to the A.M. program must affirm in their statement of purpose that have the requisite language skills to conduct research on their proposed topic in the original language of principal sources.

Essay — An essay of 7,500–10,500 words (roughly twenty-five to thirty-five pages), exclusive of bibliography, on a subject to be determined in consultation with the student’s advisor, must be submitted to the department toward the end of the second term, but no later than the last day of Reading Period. A paper written for a seminar may be revised or expanded for this requirement.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Prerequisites for Admission — Undergraduate training should ordinarily include courses in history and a major or strong minor in natural science. Any student who, in the opinion of the department, has not had sufficient scientific or historical preparation will be required to make up this deficiency by appropriate course work, which may be counted toward fulfillment of the residence requirement. The GRE General Test is required.

Academic Residence — The minimum residence requirement is two years of full-time study (16 half-courses or equivalent of which ordinarily a maximum of four may be "Graduate Courses of Reading and Research"). During the first two years at Harvard the candidate must pass sixteen half courses, with an average grade of B or above. These courses must include: the half-course Salon (History of Science 310hf); six additional half-courses in the history of science, of which at least two must be offered "Primarily for Graduate Students" (not including "Graduate Courses of Reading and Research"); one half course offered "Primarily for Graduate Students" (not including "Graduate Courses of Reading and Research") outside the department. Students writing dissertations on a post-1800 topic are required to take two history of science courses on pre-1800 topics, and vice versa. A candidate who maintains a record of high distinction in the first year at Harvard may petition for academic credit of up to four half-courses for graduate work of high quality done at another institution, provided these courses are in accepted fields.

Program of Study — Students must plan both their course distribution requirements and the three or four "fields of study" that they intend to submit for the general examination (see section on the General Examination below). Study programs, courses, seminars, and fields of study are selected in consultation with her or his faculty advisor. By the end of the first term, but not later than the end of the second term of residence, all students must complete with their advisor a written plan for fulfilling the department’s requirements. At the end of each year, the student’s progress is reviewed by the department, and a determination is made of the student’s qualification for continuing graduate work in light of both departmental and GSAS requirements.

All or part of these requirements may be waived if a student can present an equivalent preparation successfully completed elsewhere.

Languages — All students must demonstrate proficiency in at least one language other than English by the end of their third year. The language(s) in question should reflect their research interests and ordinarily will be agreed on in consultation with their advisors at the beginning of their first year of graduate study; the list may be revised as necessary to reflect students’ changing intellectual trajectories. Some students may enter with all the language preparation they will need for graduate study in their chosen fields. Others may have an elementary or intermediate knowledge of a language or languages and may improve on that knowledge by taking additional coursework.

Students can demonstrate proficiency in various ways, but most often by taking third-year coursework in a language other than English and/or using non-English-language texts in one or more seminar papers or in the preparation of their general examination fields and prospectuses. The development of oral skills is also encouraged. Proficiency is assumed in the case of native speakers and bilingual students, as long as they are skilled in both reading and speaking; the language in question must be relevant to their research fields.

As students’ fields of study develop, they may find that they need to acquire new languages or further develop their skills in ones they already know. This should be discussed by students and their advisors on a regular basis as part of the advising process.

Teaching — As part of the program that prepares students for careers in teaching and research, the department requires each student to participate as a teaching fellow or course assistant in at least one course offered by a member of the department faculty.

General Examination — The General Examination, which is oral, is to be taken at the end of the fourth term, or the very beginning of the fifth term. No encyclopedic command of detail is expected. Rather, the general exam committee will seek evidence of an understanding of the main intellectual developments within a field of science, familiarity with the chief historiographic traditions associated with a particular content area, and the ability to set a particular field of science within its institutional, political, and social contexts.

The general examination includes ordinarily three or, occasionally, four fields. The number and definition of the fields is determined by the student in consultation with her or his advisor. At least two (2) fields should be in history of science and directed by faculty in the department or people otherwise designated by the department. All general examinations must include at least one outside field. Possible combinations include (but are not limited to):

  • Two fields in history of science and two fields in history
  • Two fields in history of science and two fields in literature
  • Two fields in history of science and two fields in sociology
  • Two fields in history of science, one in philosophy of science, and one in science
  • Two fields in history of science, one in history and one in anthropology
  • Three fields in history of science, and one in history


Dissertation — After passing the General Examination, generally in the fifth term, a candidate for the doctorate is required to submit to the department a dissertation prospectus. The proposal should follow the departmental Dissertation Proposal Guidelines. The student discus­ses a draft of the prospectus with the Dissertation Prospectus Committee, which gives its recommendation for the approval of the dissertation, subject to specified revisions. The coordinator of graduate studies will arrange for the whole faculty to review the prospectus at a faculty meeting.

A prospective fourth-year student must have obtained approval of a prospectus.

When the whole faculty approves the pro­spectus, the selection of the dissertation director and other members of the committee is ordinarily also approved at the same time. The names of faculty members available for the direction of the PhD dissertation are listed in the course catalogue under History of Science 300. The director of the dissertation must be an eligible member of the department. Dissertation committees comprise at least three members. The department requires that two members of the committee be members of the department. Students in the History of Science are encouraged to include junior faculty on their dissertation committees.

After the prospectus has been approved, the student, in conjunction with her or his advisor, is required to submit a brief annual report on the progress of the dissertation each year. The annual report form is due in September following a discussion between the student, the advisor and, ordinarily, at least one other member of the committee.

The dissertation defense will ordinarily take place after the dissertation has been approved by the members of the dissertation committee.

Work for the degree must be completed within a total of five years, or in certain fields where additional preparation is necessary, a total of six years. An extension is considered only upon submission of a petition to the department, showing just cause.

Advising — A student entering the program is assigned a preliminary, provisional advisor, who serves as her or his primary advising resource during the first two or three, semesters. In addition, all first year doctoral candidates will be assigned a continuing graduate student (post-generals) who will act as a peer mentor during the first year, helping the candidate to acclimatize to departmental expectations and routines. Within the first semester of the first year, the Director of Graduate studies will meet with each student to assess “fit” with her or his provisional advisor.

Once the fields for general examination have been set, the three or four faculty members who will be working with the student to prepare her or him for the examinations are consolidated into a formal Generals Advising Committee. Following the successful completion of the general examination, this will be replaced by the Dissertation Prospectus Committee, which will supervise the preparation of the prospectus, overseen by the primary advisor.

When the student’s dissertation prospectus has been vetted by the Dissertation Prospectus Committee and approved by the ­department, a Dissertation Advising Committee will be set up. This will generally consist of the primary advisor/dissertation director and at least two additional dissertation consultants. Two members of the dissertation committee must be members of the department. Together, these three individuals act as a collective intellectual resource for the student.

The director of graduate studies and the department chair are available at all times to provide additional support and advice at any stage of the graduate student program. Students are encouraged to seek help from either or both of these individuals if any part of the advising process seems not to be working as it should.

Further information regarding courses and programs of study in history of science may be obtained by contacting:
Director of Graduate Studies
Department of the History of Science
Science Center 371
Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 495-9978

For information concerning admission, grants, tuition, and registration policies:
Admissions Office
Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center 350
1350 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 495-5315
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

We encourage online submission of the application. See the GSAS Admissions website.

Selection of PhD Dissertation Titles

  • "The American Subject: The New Math and the Making of a Citizen"
  • "A Body Made of Nerves: Reflexes, Body Maps and the Limits of the Self in Modern German Medicine"
  • "Broken Pieces of Fact: the Scientific Periodical and the Search for Order in Nineteenth-Century France and Britain"
  • "Commercial Visions: Trading with Representations of Nature in Early Modern Netherlands"
  • "The Dead Room: Deafness and Modern Communication Technologies"
  • "Dinosaurs: Assembling an Icon of Science"
  • "Experiments in Democracy: the Science, Politics and Ethics of Human Embryo Research in the United States, 1978–2007"
  • "Habits of Knowledge: Artisans, Savants and Mechanical Devices in Seventeenth-Century French Natural Philosophy"
  • "Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Animal Skin and the Media of Reconnaissance (1859–1945)"
  • "The Invention of Infrastructure: Measurement, Mapping, and Global Development, 1860-1930"
  • "Knowledge and the bomb: Nuclear secrecy in the United States, 1939– 2008"
  • "Life Out of Sequence: An Ethnographic ­Account of Bioinformatics from the ARPANET to Post-Genomics"
  • "Managing American Bodies: Diet, Nutrition and Obesity in America: 1840–1920"
  • "Manuscript Technologies: Correspondence, Collaboration, and the Construction of Natural Knowledge in Early Modern Britain"
  • "Ordering Knowledge, Re-Ordering Empire: Science and State Formation in the English Atlantic World, 1650–1688"
  • "A Place of Work: The Geography of an Early Nineteenth Century Machine Shop"
  • "Towards a Final Story: Time, Myth and the Origins of the Universe"

Current Members of the Department of the History of Science