Social Policy is a PhD program offered in collaboration between the Government and Sociology Departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Social Policy faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School. The program is designed for students who wish to combine the full disciplinary depth of a PhD in political science or sociology with a multidisciplinary program of study on issues of social policy.

Applicants indicate their primary discipline (government or sociology) at the application stage and are offered admission leading to the PhD in Government and Social Policy or the PhD in Sociology and Social Policy. The program is “discipline-plus” in its philosophy, meaning that the ideal candidate will be deeply grounded in the primary academic discipline, but with substantive interests in the domain of social policy, where the very best research is often cross-disciplinary in nature—drawing liberally from economics, political science, sociology, and public policy.

Substantively, social policy encompasses questions of poverty, inequality, and economic mobility, broadly defined. The program is structured around eight major research domains, which are meant to be illustrative of the scope of the program, rather than exhaustive or mutually exclusive categories. These include:

1. Work, wages, and markets
2. Urban poverty and residential segregation
3. Family structure and children
4. Race, ethnicity, and immigration
5. Educational access and quality
6. Crime, incarceration, and inequality
7. Political participation, political inequalities, and distributive politics
8. Institutions, policy, and comparative welfare state analysis

For some students, the appeal of the Social Policy program will be the opportunity to explore somewhat more applied policy interests, conducting careful social science research to help solve important social problems. To others, it will be the opportunity to pursue a set of substantive research interests (not necessarily policy-oriented) within their discipline, combined with a complementary program of study that draws insight from the ways other social science disciplines approach these research questions. The Social Policy PhD program welcomes both types of students.

It is important to recognize, however, that the Social Policy PhD program is fundamentally about research, research that will be strongly rooted in the academic discipline of political science (government) or sociology. The “discipline-plus” structure of the program means that students are fully integrated into their departmental home, members of a larger cohort in Government or Sociology, while also part of a smaller multidisciplinary community in Social Policy. Social Policy students fulfill all the same requirements as candidates for the PhD in Government or Sociology, plus a set of requirements specific to the Social Policy program.

The admission process likewise reflects this discipline-plus perspective. Applicants apply for admission to Social Policy, indicating in the application subject field whether they seek admission for the PhD in Government and Social Policy or for the PhD in Sociology and Social Policy. Applications are reviewed in two stages, first by members of the primary discipline and the committee at-large in Social Policy. Strong candidates for admission are then forwarded to admissions committee in the relevant disciplinary department (Government or Sociology), where they undergo independent review as part of the broader admissions process in that department.

From the very beginning of their graduate careers, then, students are viewed as contributors to the advancement of scholarship in their home discipline, as well as future scholars at the frontiers of disciplinary boundaries in social policy. Although the Social Policy PhD program is administratively housed at the Harvard Kennedy School, the program is fully integrated with the Ph.D. programs in Government and Sociology and coordinated through a Committee on Higher Degrees composed of faculty from all three bodies. Students enroll as students of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

This degree is intended for students who have central interests in problems of economic inequality, urban poverty and residential segregation, changing family structures, immigration, race and ethnicity, educational inequality, political participation and inequalities, distributive politics, crime and criminal justice, and historical and comparative studies of inequality in the United States and abroad (especially Western Europe). It will be of particular interest for students who wish to combine solid training in the fundamental theoretical perspectives and methodological traditions of either government or sociology with advanced study of policy responses to these social problems. Students who would like the flexibility to pursue academic careers in political science or sociology, schools of public policy or other advanced research-oriented careers in social policy may find these joint degrees especially suitable.

Course of Study

Students are expected to complete all of the required courses and examinations in government or sociology (outlined below in "Degree Requirements in Each Social Policy PhD Program"), which ensures that joint degree candidates will be thoroughly grounded in the theory, methods, and a key substantive area of the traditional discipline. Applicants are urged to consult the government or sociology department listings for more information regarding the degree requirements in those departments. The government department requires that the general, oral examination be taken at the end of the second year. The sociology department requires that a written examination be taken in September preceding the second year.

Students then embark on a complementary program of study in social policy. Starting in their second year, students move into a three-term Proseminar based at the Kennedy School which focuses on the study of social policy, with an emphasis on the manifestations of inequality (residential racial segregation, educational attainment, differential political participation, immigration, race and gender segregation in the labor market, etc.). In the course of this seminar, students prepare original research papers that serve as qualifying papers (in sociology) or research papers (in government). Students in Government and Social Policy must elect social policy as their “focus field” in satisfying their government requirements.

Students must complete a prospectus for the doctoral dissertation for a three-person committee composed of faculty from Government or Sociology and Social Policy. Ordinarily the prospectus is completed by the end of the third year in residence.

The final draft of a student’s dissertation is evaluated during a public oral defense before the dissertation committee. The outcomes of this hearing are pass, pass conditional on minor revisions, or fail. The final manuscript must conform to the requirements described in The Form of the PhD Dissertation.

Degree Requirements in each Social Policy PhD Program:

Sociology and Social Policy PhD

• Two-term sequence in classical and contemporary theory.
• Two-term sequence in quantitative and qualitative methods, and one advanced course in quantitative methods.

Sociology General Examination

Qualifying examination taken in September following Year 1, to cover theory, methods, organizations, and political sociology, plus an elective area.

Post-General Examination Program

Beginning in the first year and continuing on thereafter, all students must complete 14 term courses at the 200 level with an average of B or better. Five of these courses must be the the theory and methods courses listed above.
• Research apprenticeship, one term
• Completion of Sociology 305, the Teaching Practicum
• Service as teaching fellow in one sociology course
• Completion of three terms of Social Policy Proseminar
• Completion of research paper in topical area with major literatures in sociology and social policy. This paper should emanate from the Social Policy Proseminar and may be used as the basis for the qualifying paper.
• Completion of an oral examination in the student’s area of special interest, which is expected to be the area in which the dissertation will fall.

Government and Social Policy PhD

• Twelve 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 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. One of the government department half-courses, ordinarily at the 2000 level, must be taken in the student’s minor field, which is either of the remaining two fields not assessed in the General Examination.
• Completion of two of the three terms of the Proseminar in Social Policy.
• Students must complete three seminar style research papers, one of which should fulfill the social policy program’s requirement to complete a research paper in a topical area with major literatures in government and social policy. This latter paper should emanate from the Social Policy Proseminar and may serve as the basis for the qualifying paper in social policy discussed below.
• Competency in one language other than English. Must be demonstrated via language examinations.
• Completion of one course in quantitative methods (with a grade of B or better), or, with the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies, an equivalent course.

Government General Examination

General examination taken at the end of year two, to cover two major fields of political science (American government, comparative politics, international relations, political theory), and a focus field in social policy.

Post-General Examination Program

Completion of third term in Social Policy Proseminar.

Advanced Studies in Social Policy: Required for all students

  • Qualifying paper in the specialized field. Supervised by committee drawn from participants in the joint degree program (normally including member of the student’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) department). May be based upon paper completed for the Social Policy Proseminar.
  • Completion of dissertation prospectus (including oral defense).
  • Teaching fellowship. Students are encouraged to serve as teaching fellows in government, sociology, or Kennedy School social policy courses. • Completion of dissertation.

Financial Aid

Harvard intends that all graduate students should have support adequate to enable them to complete their studies while enrolled full-time. Those offered admission are generally awarded a six-year funding plan consisting of tuition coverage, stipend support, summer research funds, and teaching and research fellowships.

All students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences must continue to make satisfactory progress in order to be eligible for any type of financial aid. The joint doctoral programs in Government and Social Policy and Sociology and Social Policy observe the general guidelines outlined in The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook.


For the degree of doctor of philosophy, a minimum of two years (four terms) of full-time graduate study in residence in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is required. It is expected that students generally complete all the requirements for the PhD degree within six years after admission.

Academic Review

The Committee on Higher Degrees in Social Policy is charged with monitoring the progress of students in both joint programs. Together with academic advisors and the director of graduate studies in the respective departments, the committee is responsible for ensuring that students are progressing through the degree requirements in government or sociology and in social policy.


Applications for admission and financial aid are available from the Admissions Office, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center 350, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138. We require online submission of the application. See the website.

Further information about the joint degree programs may be obtained from the program website. Questions should be directed to the office of the director, Pamela Metz, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or correspondence addressed to her attention at the Kennedy School of Government, 79 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.

Faculty List