The Department of History of Science offers a comprehensive graduate program focused on the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the History of Science, primarily as preparation for an academic career. History of Science students employ the methods of historical research 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.

Our approach is ecumenical and inter-disciplinary. Faculty research and teaching covers a wide range of subject areas in the history of the natural and social sciences, biology, behavioral and brain sciences, medicine and public health, physics, earth and environmental sciences, and technology. We draw on approaches anthropology, philosophy, government, sociology, literature, law, and public policy, and science itself.

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 undergraduate program and General Education courses. 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 Dumberton Oaks 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)

The department does not currently run a formal masters degree program. External students seeking a Masters Degree in the History of Science may be considered on a case-by-case basis.  Example of students who may be accepted to study for a Masters degree include those pursuing a Ph.D. in another Harvard department and students who are advanced degree candidates in foreign universities. In exceptional cases, faculty may invite students to complete a Masters degree as a possible first step towards entering the Ph.D. program.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Prerequisites for Admission — All applicants for admission must have completed an undergraduate degree, and submit transcripts and the GRE General Test results. There is no specific requirement in terms of undergraduate training. Our students come with diverse backgrounds. Typically students have some background in the natural sciences, social sciences or medicine, and at least some course work in history, history of science, or Science and Technology Studies. However, students have been admitted and thrived in the program with backgrounds in anthropology, sociology, philosophy; neither an undergraduate degree in science or history is required. On arrival, students work with their advisors to develop a course of study that is appropriate to their background and interests.

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. Courses from the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may be taken by cross-registration.

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. Students should discuss foreign language skills essential to their dissertation topic with their advisors.

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. 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 student in consultation with her or his advisor determines the number and definition of the fields. 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.

Dissertation — After passing the General Examination, a candidate for the doctorate is required to submit to the department a dissertation prospectus, generally in the 5th term. 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 graduate program coordinator will arrange for the whole faculty to review the prospectus at a faculty meeting.

A student collaborates with her or his advisor (who often serves as dissertation committee chair) in selecting other members of the dissertation. 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 members of the dissertation committee have approved the dissertation.

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 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 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 him or her 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 discussed 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 (DGS) and the department chair are available at all times to provide additional support and advice at any stage of the graduate student program. Students should seek help from either the DGS or Chair if the advising process isn’t working well.

Further information regarding courses and programs of study in history of science may be obtained by contacting:

Director of Graduate Studies OR Graduate Program Coordinator
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