Course Selection and Sequencing Advice

Which Government courses should I take? In what order should I take them?

The faculty of the Harvard Government Department, like the field of political science more generally, asks many different questions about politics and answers those questions using a variety of methods. Even a cursory glance at the departments that cross-list courses with Government will give you an indication of our breadth. We intersect with Philosophy, Economics, Sociology, African and African American Studies, History, East Asian Studies, and many others.

Figuring out which classes to take in the Government Department can be difficult, in part because we have a lot of great classes from which to choose. But the choice is also difficult because the classes are often so different from one another. Where do you start?

The obvious place to begin is the Course Catalog. If you look at the Government Department’s course listings, you’ll notice that the courses are organized in the following manner:

  • 10–50: Foundational Courses
  • 60-63: Research Practice Courses
  • 91–99: Supervised Reading and Research, Tutorials. and Seminars
  • 1000–1029: Political Methodology and Formal Theory
  • 1030–1099: Political Thought and Its History
  • 1100–1299: Comparative Government
  • 1300–1599: American Government, Public Law, and Administration
  • 1700–1999: International Relations

Our courses are divided up into the four traditional“sub-fields” of political science: Political Theory (“Political Thought and Its History”), Comparative, American, and International Relations. In addition, we have extensive course offerings in Political Methodology, where you can learn the tools of analysis that political scientists use in their work.

In the sidebar links, we discuss specific considerations for each subfield. But before getting specific, there are some general recommendations you should consider. 

Even from the section headings, it’s obvious that you’ll have to make a choice: what balance do you want between the different sub-fields of political science? We require that you take at least one course from each sub-field, but this still gives you a lot of flexibility. You could choose to sub-specialize in a particular subfield, you could mix two subfields, or you could simply strike a balance across all four. 

In practice, most Gov concentrators naturally end up gravitating toward one or two sub-fields, and it is in these sub-fields that they take most of their Gov courses. While the Department doesn’t formally recognize such specialization (i.e. you won’t get a line on your transcript reading: Government, with specialization in International Relations), there are some typical patterns of course sequencing that students often employ. While we can’t give you a single, best way to navigate the Department, we have summarized some common course sequences by subfield below: Theory, Comparative, IR, and American.

Remember that these course sequence suggestions are just that – suggestions. You can tailor the Government Department to your needs, whether those include study abroad, language citations, a secondary field, or some other unique goal you’ve set for yourself. Also remember that very few of our courses have formal prerequisites. Although many students find it useful, you are not required to take the foundational survey course in a subfield before you take another course in that area. 

You’ll also notice three additional sub-headings that re-appear throughout the course listings:

  • “Primarily for Undergraduates”
  • “For Undergraduates and Graduates”
  • “Primarily for Graduates”

You should focus your attention on the “Primarily for Undergraduates” and “For Undergraduates and Graduates” sections. Only in exceptional circumstances (e.g. where you have had the Professor before and the Professor recommends you take the graduate course) will you be taking a course listed as “Primarily for Graduates”.

Before talking about specific subfields, there are also some general course selection considerations to make.

Freshman year. As a freshman, we know that you may have very few electives. Most, but not all, students who are thinking about concentrating in Government try to take a Government course sometime freshman year. With such limited course slots, of course, you’ll want to know which course will give you a feel for the Department. You should ask a Government concentration adviser for specific recommendations this year, but in general, students have found these courses to be good “gateways” into the Department’s course offerings:

Foundational Survey Courses

  • Gov 10: Foundations of Political Thought
  • Gov 20: Foundations of Comparative Politics
  • Gov 30: American Government: A New Perspective
  • Gov 40: International Conflict and Cooperation in the Modern World 
  • Gov 50: Introduction to Political Science Research Methods 

Gen Ed Courses

  • EMR 13: Analyzing Politics
  • SW 15: The Cuban Revolution, 1956-1971: A Self-Debate
  • USW 31: American Society and Public Policy

    Sophomore Year. If you begin sophomore year knowing that you want to be a Government concentrator, you can start thinking about courses in the subfield(s) that are most interesting to you. Anyone considering the honors track would do well to take the foundation course in the preferred sub-field, and preferably in at least one other sub-field as well. These classes provide the breadth of knowledge necessary to understand the context of whatever more specialized topics you later pursue. We also recommend that those planning to be concentrators take Gov 50: Introduction to Political Science Research Methods before the end of the sophomore year. This course introduces basic statistical techniques used in quantitative political methodology. Topics covered include descriptive statistics, sampling, estimation, hypothesis tests, and applied linear and logistic regression. Gov 50 is meant to help you achieve “literacy” in political science, so that you can understand what many political scientists are saying and how they verify their claims. It counts for the Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning general education requirement.

    If you have not yet decided on a concentration by the beginning of sophomore year, there is still plenty of time. Even if you weren’t able to take a Government course freshman year, don’t worry. Because our concentration requirements are quite flexible, you can start taking Gov courses in fall semester sophomore year and you won’t be “behind” your peers. If you get to fall semester Sophomore year, and haven’t taken a Gov course yet, you will certainly want to take one. One of the foundation courses offered in the fall might be quite appealing, or another broad course that will introduce you to a variety of topics  such as:

    • Gov 1060: Ancient and Medieval Political Philosophy 
    • Gov 1061: The History of Modern Political Philosophy 
    • Gov 1074: Political Thought of the American Founding
    • Gov 1141: Comparative Politics of Gender Inequality 
    • Gov 1207: Comparative Politics of the Middle East 
    • Gov 1270: Government and Politics of Modern Japan
    • Gov 1280: Government and Politics of China 
    • Gov 1292: Politics in Brazil 
    • Gov 1359: The Road to the White House 
    • Gov 1729: Models of Conflict in International Relations 
    • Gov 1730: War and Politics
    • Gov 1760: International Relations of East Asia
    • Gov 1780: International Political Economy

    Required Sophomore Tutorial. Students who declare a Government concentration are required to take the sophomore tutorial (Gov 97)  in the spring semester of  sophomore year. Sophomore tutorial is a one-semester course designed to provide all concentrators with a unified and challenging intellectual experience in the study of politics. The course covers a selection of topics on the theme of "Democracy" and draws on materials ranging from classics in political theory to cutting edge research in the discipline today.

    Sophomore tutorial is not a prerequisite to taking any of the foundation courses. Nor are the foundation courses a prerequisite to taking sophomore tutorial. Foundation courses and tutorial are designed to work together to teach breadth and depth. Some concentrators worry that the material taught in the foundation courses overlaps unnecessarily with that taught in tutorial. After studying the issue carefully, we have concluded that there is less overlap than is often perceived, and that where overlap does exist it works to support students' mastery of key contributors to the field.

    Seminars for Sophomores? Another choice that you might consider in either the fall or spring of sophomore year is a Gov 94 that speaks to your particular interests. Gov 94s are small writing intensive classes that introduce you to research on a particular topic in the study of politics. All concentrators in the classes of 2015 and beyond are required to take at least one of these seminars; honors candidates must take two. These seminars are lotteried each semester to maximize student choice. If you plan to go abroad in the junior year and are thinking about writing a thesis, you should seriously consider a seminar in your sophomore year.

    Junior Year. By the junior year, most Gov concentrators have learned which areas in political science they are most excited about, and they choose their course accordingly. Click here for course sequencing recommendations by subfield.

    Almost all concentrators take one or two Gov 94s in the junior year. The Government Department is committed to maintaining a robust seminar program, which offers you the opportunity to explore a topic in the study of politics in a small discussion-based class.  All students in the classes of 2015 and beyond are required to take at least one seminar, and thesis writers must take two.

    In the fall of junior year you should begin to think seriously about whether you want to write a thesis in Government. The Department sponsors programs to help you make this decision, but you should begin by taking a look at the Guide for Thesis Writers in Government.

    Prospective thesis writers  and those students particularly interested in learning how to do political science research should consider taking a “research practice” course: Gov 61 (Research Practice in Quantitative Methods); Gov 62 (Research Practice in Qualitative Methods) and/or  Gov 63 (Recent Political Theory: Topics and Resources). For thesis writers in the classes of 2015 and beyond, these courses may count as one of the required seminars. A particularly valuable sequence of courses for thesis writers might be to take a seminar in the fall and a research practice course in the spring (or a seminar in the spring in conjunction with Gov 61 or 62).  Research practice courses will help you to develop a research design for an honors thesis. Those particularly interested in contemporary political theory should consider taking Gov 63 in the fall of junior year. (Note that Gov 63 fulfills the political theory subfield requirement.)

    Senior Year. Depending on how you’ve chosen to sequence your courses, both in Gov and in General Education, you may arrive at senior year either having completed all of your Gov requirements, or with a few remaining. Many seniors who have decided not to write a thesis take one or more Gov 94s in an area of particular interest during the senior year. This is a great way to build on the courses you have taken in Government and to develop a relationship with a faculty member who will be in a position to recommend you to employers or graduate schools.  At the beginning of fall semester, each senior will receive a personalized electronic notice from the Undergraduate Program Office detailing exactly what he or she needs to do to graduate (the "Requirements Remaining" form). Review this form carefully to ensure that you have fulfilled or are on track to fulfill the Gov concentration requirements.

    If you are writing a thesis, you will be required your senior year to take the year-long Gov 99 Senior Thesis Writers’ Seminar during your senior year. For more on Gov 99, check out the syllabus from this year's course, and the Guide for Thesis Writers in Government.

    For more information on specific course sequencing recommendations by subfield, please see our Subfield Advice page.