HOS Program of Study and Guidelines

First Two Years


During their first two years, students pursue a pattern of courses, seminars, and independent work designed to prepare them for the General Examination, to satisfy their language and research paper requirements, and to train them in the research techniques of professional scholarship. The precise pattern may vary considerably between individuals, and each student should plan their course of study in close and frequent consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies for History of Science. It is nonetheless possible to give some general sense of the usual course of study, which comprises nine courses (excluding language training).

Program students typically take three courses during each of their first two semesters. Of these, at least one course each semester should be a graduate seminar in history of science. No later than the second semester, at least one course each term should be in other areas of history. Students usually split their remaining three courses among their final two semesters, either taking three the first semester and zero the second, or two in the first and one in the second, in order to allow time for the completion of requirements and preparation for the General Examination, which is ordinarily taken at the end of the second year (during the first two weeks of May). In each course, students will receive a grade and a written evaluation from the faculty member offering the course.

Students without formal background in the field are strongly advised to attend, as early as possible, at least two undergraduate survey courses offered in history of science, medicine, or technology, and to participate in associated graduate precepts when offered. These courses provide an introduction to the major issues and sources in the history of science, technology, and medicine from antiquity to the present, and can also be recommended for students who arrive with more substantial backgrounds in these fields. We expect all students to achieve a basic proficiency in a general knowledge of history of science, as exhibited through courses, submission of prior work, bibliographic essays, or other means that meet approval of the Program faculty.

Language Requirement

All Program students must demonstrate a reading knowledge of two major foreign languages pertinent to their research in the history of science. (Typically, these languages are French and German, although students are able to modify their choices to suit their research interests and linguistic needs.) By Departmental statute, the language requirement must be met before the student takes their General Examination or is admitted to a third year of graduate study. We may deny reenrollment for a second year of study to any Program student who has not yet passed an examination in at least one of the two required languages.

Especially for students who enter the Program without prior command of at least one foreign language, it is crucial to move swiftly toward meeting the language requirement. Failure to do so has been one of the major obstacles to timely progress toward the General Examination. The student should seek approval of their language choices from the Director of Graduate Studies as early as possible in the course of study. Examinations are administered by the History Department at the beginning of every semester, and special introductory courses for reading knowledge in French and German are offered during the summer. (The History Department usually covers tuition charges for these courses.)

Writing Requirement

We believe it important for students to write, and to have their writing criticized, long before they begin the dissertation. All students are therefore expected to write several short pieces—e.g., book reviews and bibliographic, historiographical, or interpretive essays—in connection with seminars or other courses. In addition, students are required to write two research papers based on primary sources before sitting for the General Examination. Students often write one of these research papers in the context of a graduate seminar, and another based on independent research.

According to the History Department guidelines, first-year students who have not submitted their first research paper by June 15 will not be advanced to enrollment for a second year. For a useful description of the definition of and expectations for a research paper, and the full schedule of due dates, see the pertinent section of the Department’s Guidelines for Graduate Study in History. The second research paper must be submitted by 1 April of the student’s second year, and approved by the faculty supervisor before the student is permitted to sit the General Examination.

The General Examination

The General Examination, normally taken at the end of the second year of study, consists of written and oral examinations in:

  • a major field in the history of science, medicine, or technology;
  • a minor field in another area of history; and
  • a third field, such as one of the following options:
    • a second special field in the history of science, medicine, or technology;
    • a second field in another area of history; or
    • a field in some related subject, e.g., philosophy of science, anthropology of science.

Precise definitions of fields, and special concentrations within them, are worked out in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies for History of Science and appropriate faculty members in the field before the beginning of the fourth semester of graduate study. The major field in the history of science should be defined so as to have a topical or chronological breadth equivalent to that of an undergraduate lecture course within the specialty—e.g., the Scientific Revolution (1500-1700), the modern physical sciences, the history of biology since 1750, the history of East Asian science, etc. We discourage students from framing a generals field that could not reasonably be taught as an actual survey course.

Since this major field will normally be the one within which the proposed dissertation falls, students should be prepared to treat some aspects of the field at the level of critical scholarly research. They should also be prepared to discuss how the issues arising in their special field are related to the general historiography. The minor field in general history should consist of a broad study of a major period or topic—e.g., the Middle Ages, environmental history, 20th Century U.S. history, Modern Chinese history. The student will find it helpful to choose a period or topic that relates to their special field in the history of science and potential dissertation topic. By the end of the second year, each student should have developed their field through graduate courses and in consultation with a pertinent member of the History Department, who will usually serve as the main examiner for this part of the General Examination.

In addition to preparing for the General Examination, students are advised to take seminars in the history of science that do not fall within their examination fields. For example, students focusing on European or American science should consider taking at least one course that deals with science, medicine, or technology in the non-Western world, and vice-versa. We also encourage students to look beyond our Program as they pursue suitable coursework or language study related to their particular scholarly interests. For example, graduate students may study with appropriate specialists at cooperating programs in the history of science at other universities such as Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Columbia, or Yale. At the same time, none of these special arrangements can fully replace participation in the Program's own graduate seminars. (In addition, enrolling in courses at other universities is generally only permitted by the Graduate School after the first year.) We also firmly believe that a graduate seminar on any topic in the history of science offers an opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills that are of general value to the aspiring scholar in the field, including the chance to engage in collective critical discussion of primary texts and historiographical issues. And in any case, we discourage the sort of narrow specialization that can result when a student restricts attention solely to courses and graduate seminars pertinent to their major field and dissertation topic.

Last Three Years


The course of study outlined above is designed to enable the student to devote the last three years of graduate work entirely to research and write the dissertation (along with the opportunity to gain some teaching experience). Quite apart from the intrinsic value of such concentrated effort, it is desirable for purposes of job placement that the student complete their dissertation by the end of the fifth year of study, and in any case essential that the Director of Graduate Studies for History of Science be in a position during the fifth year to give prospective employers a firm sense of the progress being made toward that end.

During their fourth semester, i.e. before taking the General Examination, each student should begin the process of selecting a dissertation adviser and topic. The official dissertation adviser should hold a regular faculty appointment in the History Department at Princeton. In considering various topics, the student and adviser will bear in mind the limited time available for research and writing and the importance of finishing expeditiously. Since the dissertation usually forms the basis of a scholar’s early publications and research program, the chosen topic should also be capable of extension beyond the limits set by the dissertation. By the time the student completes the General Examination, they should have defined the domain of the dissertation and should be prepared to discuss it in general terms.

By December 1 of their third year of enrollment, each student is required to submit a detailed dissertation prospectus and outline for faculty approval, naming the adviser and first reader of the dissertation; the deadline for students who take the General Examination at a time other than May of the second year will be arranged in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies. To facilitate this requirement, the Department of History offers two important sources of summer support. In the summer following a student’s first year, funds are available for travel to archives to explore possible materials on which to base a dissertation prospectus. Following successful completion of the General Examination, normally in the second year, all students are required to participate in a summer seminar aimed at preparation of the dissertation prospectus. The seminar meets for nine sessions scheduled over several weeks (usually starting in June). All students are required by the University to take an intensive course in Responsible Conduct of Research, to be offered immediately before the summer prospectus seminar begins. Further information about in absentia status and leaves of absence in the department's Guidelines for Graduate Study in History.

Research & Dissertation

By the beginning of the fourth year, the student should provide the dissertation adviser with at least one draft chapter for criticism and revision. As the dissertation nears completion, the Director of Graduate Studies, in consultation with the student, confirms the designated adviser and first reader and names the second reader (typically, but not always, a member of the Department). A third, external reader, from either outside the Department or outside the University, will also be named by the Director of Graduate Studies and formally invited to join the committee. In accordance with the regulations of the History Department and the University, only the first reader may call for major revisions in the dissertation once the adviser decides it is acceptable. When the adviser and the first reader are satisfied that the dissertation merits the Ph.D. degree, the student arranges for submitting copies to the other readers. At that point, the second and third readers may make suggestions for further improvements, but cannot require such improvements to be made before the dissertation is presented for public scrutiny. The adviser and each of the official readers prepare a written evaluation of the dissertation and submit a formal recommendation as to its acceptability. These evaluations are made available to the doctoral candidate.

Final Public Oral Examination

Upon receipt of the recommendations and a request from the Director of Graduate Studies for History of Science, the Graduate School authorizes a Final Public Oral Examination, at which the student defends the dissertation.

Additional Features of the Program

Program Seminar

As part of their training in scholarship, all students are expected to participate in the Program Seminar when enrolled and in residence. The Seminar meets on Monday afternoons from 3 to 4:30pm throughout the teaching semester, primarily to discuss pre-circulated works in progress. These papers may include, for example, research papers by those in their first and second years, dissertation prospectuses by those in their third year, draft dissertation chapters by students in their fourth and fifth years, and draft articles or book chapters by faculty. Other sessions may be devoted to the discussion of recent publications of historiographical importance, or address general matters of interest to the discipline at large or to members of our Program.

In addition to the Program Seminar, all students in residence are expected to participate in the Colloquia and Workshops.


The Colloquium meets approximately once a month during the teaching semester to discuss presentations by visiting scholars, and is designed mainly to afford students the opportunity to learn about work being done at the research front in the history of science at other institutions. All enrolled graduate students are expected to attend.


Members of the Program faculty normally sponsor a theme-based workshop or series of workshops. Themes from the past decade have included “Groovy Science: The Counter-Cultures and Scientific Life, 1955-1975,” “Soul Catchers: A Material History of the Life Sciences,” “Science Across the Seas,” “Science Across Cultures,” and “Atomic Sciences.” These all-day events involve speakers from beyond Princeton and normally take place on Friday and/or Saturday, and are open to participants in the university community and beyond. All history of science graduate students are expected to participate actively (if there are pre-circulated papers, as readers and discussants). The workshops provide our graduate students an unusual opportunity for entering into the professional community of History of Science and for establishing personal contacts with other scholars.

Teaching Experience

Within the constraints set by undergraduate course enrollments and a limited teaching budget, the Program and the History Department try to offer graduate students the opportunity to acquire experience in the college classroom. In practice, this experience almost always takes the form of leading “precepts” (discussion sections) in undergraduate lecture courses. Ordinarily, students who have completed the General Examination and who desire teaching experience will have an opportunity to do some undergraduate teaching either in history of science or in other areas in the History Department, which may call upon Program students to teach in areas in which they have established competence. The Director of Graduate Studies works in conjunction with the Associate Chair of the History Department to make teaching assignments for history of science courses and, where appropriate, other history courses.

As noted above, Program students are not required to teach in order to retain fellowship support, but most choose to do so both because of the intrinsic rewards of the experience and because prospective academic employers increasingly expect it.


For detailed information about research and conference funding, fellowships, funding during Dissertation Completion Enrollment (DCE) status and other forms of support available from the Department of History/History of Science, please review the Guidelines for Graduate Study in History. The Guidelines for Graduate Study in History of Science is considered a supplement to the more comprehensive Guidelines for Graduate Study in History.

Job Placement

During nearly fifty years of existence, the Program in History of Science has compiled an enviable record in its efforts to place those who complete the Ph.D. Even during the worst periods in the job market for academics, the Program has been successful in placing its graduates in academic positions as well as in other careers chosen by the candidates, such as museum curating or consulting. We are pleased by those results, and we take pride in the often-distinguished achievements of our graduate alumni and alumnae both in and beyond the academic field of history of science. The list of alumni posted on the Program website details their dissertation topics, supervisors, and current situations, when known.

We have a continuing commitment to maintain our record in this area. In particular, the course of study outlined above seeks to meet three of the desiderata that prospective employers now emphasize:

  1. the relatively prompt or predictable completion of a dissertation of high quality, especially when reinforced by other evidence of publishable work;
  2. the broad competence in history and history of science that is increasingly valued by history departments, including those in liberal arts colleges, and by employers outside of academe;
  3. at least some teaching experience. Recently, it should be said, the discipline of the history of science seems to be moving toward a pattern where a year or more of postdoctoral work is increasingly common before appointment to an assistant professorship. For other careers (as in museums and libraries), some form of advanced training or internships may be necessary.

Our placement efforts can be divided into two major stages, of which the second is by far the more important. The first stage comes after successful completion of the General Examination, when the student should begin to compile a dossier of credentials, including letters of recommendation from the faculty members who participated in that exam. At this point, the student should also decide whether or not they wish to designate any existing written work suitable for submission to a prospective employer. If so, the submitted work will typically consist of one or both of the research papers required of students before they complete the General Examination.

The second stage comes as the dissertation nears completion. At that point, usually during the fifth and last year of enrollment, any prior written work must be supplemented with more recent evidence of scholarly progress in the form of draft chapters of the dissertation. No less significant, prospective employers in academe also expect to see recent letters of recommendation, above all from faculty members who have read part or all of the dissertation-in-progress. Most of the academic positions available in any given year are announced during the Fall, though a prospective candidate should never assume that the hiring “season” is over. These positions are generally advertised in publications, including the Newsletter of the History of Science Society, the Employment Information Bulletin of the American Historical Association, or the Chronicle of Higher Education, or the H-Net Job Guide —all of which are available online.

For positions announced as beginning the following academic year (i.e., in September), job interviews usually take place in the preceding fall or winter. Some may occur at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society, held in October or November, and candidates should plan to attend that meeting if possible; it is even more likely that such interviews would take place at the American Historical Association annual meeting, in January. Students’ employment prospects may also be enhanced if they present a paper at one of the sessions of the Society. (But note that the deadline for submitting a paper for the program is April 1, at latest, and that the competition for slots on the program is strong.) The placement process makes it highly desirable that candidates be in residence or within easy reach during their last year of enrollment. If dissertation research requires travel abroad, it should be scheduled, if at all possible, for the third or fourth year of study.

In addition to our main placement effort on behalf of finishing students, we also try to help former students (both post-enrolled and alumni) in search of employment. We must, however, restrict our efforts mainly to current Ph.D. candidates or very recent graduates of the Program. According to Departmental guidelines, we can maintain dossiers for employment-seeking students only until a student obtains their first tenure-track position.

Review Procedures

In keeping with Graduate School policy, we regularly review each graduate student's performance and, at several specific junctures, make decisions regarding the advisability of the student’s continuing toward the Ph.D. Major decisions will be made according to the following schedule:

  • Toward the end of the student's first year of enrollment, the Program faculty reviews their performance to decide whether or not to recommend readmission for a second year of study. In general, a satisfactory record suffices for readmission, though some students’ readmission may be deferred until June, pending completion of course work, required research papers, or other deficiencies noted by the faculty.
  • Toward the end of the student’s second year, their total performance and progress to date are reviewed with an eye toward one of three decisions:
  1. Readmission for a third year of study to begin the dissertation. In this case, the Program faculty fully expects the student to successfully complete the General Examination before the Fall, and this decision is meant to encourage the student to look ahead to the dissertation.
  2. Termination of enrollment at the end of the second year of study, in which case passing the General Examination will entitle the student to a M.A. (In the event of an initial failure on the General Examination the student is entitled to a second try during the following academic year.)
  3. Deferral of a decision on readmission until all outstanding requirements and expectations are met and/or performance on the General Examination can be taken into account.
  • During the student’s third year, the Program faculty reviews their progress on the dissertation. Demonstrated progress in the form of a full, written prospectus and outline and of evidence of substantial research underway, usually in the form of at least one chapter in draft, is expected as a basis for the staff's recommendation for readmission to the fourth year.
  • At the end of the student’s fourth year, the Program faculty again reviews their progress on the dissertation. We expect that each student will have submitted two or more chapters to the dissertation adviser by this point in time. Otherwise, the adviser must make a compelling case for the admission of the student to their fifth and last year of study in the Program.

The yearly reviews, particularly readmission, provide occasion for giving each student individualized feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of their performance. Thus, even in the usual circumstance in which the student’s enrollment proceeds uninterrupted for five years, these reviews will be a source of meaningful evaluation and encouragement.

These guidelines are not meant to be and in any case cannot be rigid, and they should be considered a supplement to the more comprehensive Guidelines for Graduate Study in History. We expect, furthermore, that every graduate student in history of science will have a highly individualized course of study. Any prospective or current graduate student who wishes further information and advice about the fit between the Program’s guidelines and their particular circumstances can direct their questions to the Director of Graduate Studies for the History of Science at 107 Dickinson Hall, History Department, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544 (Telephone 609-258-6705).

Director of Graduate Studies for History of Science