What should I be looking for in a graduate program?
Making the decision to attend graduate school — and deciding which graduate program is best for you — can be difficult and bewildering. Unlike when choosing an undergraduate program, it is not enough to rely on the overall strength of the host institution: different graduate programs have very specific strengths, and the "best" program will vary according to your individual interests, disciplinary sub-specialty, and professional goals. In order to assist you with your decision, we have prepared some questions that you should ask about each of the programs you are considering. The questions are general; the answers provided are specific to the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania.
What will my fellow students be like?
Graduate school is a collective enterprise. Almost as important as the interests and research of the faculty is to the success of a graduate program is the quality of the students. You will learn much from your peers. In a very real way, you and your graduate cohort will become the future of the discipline, and you will work with one another as colleagues for the rest of your career. Their skills and accomplishments are a central component of the overall quality of the program. The History and Sociology of Science program attracts students from wide range of backgrounds, including training science, engineering and medicine, as well as history, literature, and the social sciences. Although many of our students to not have previous training in the history of science, they have all demonstrated a high degree of academic accomplishment.
What will department life be like?
In addition to the quality of the faculty and graduate students, an important factor in graduate education is the culture and character of the department as a community. This includes collegiality, contact with faculty, relations with other graduate students, work conditions, and assistance in research, grant-writing, and job market issues. Over the next few years you will spend a lot of time with your faculty and fellow graduate students: make sure that they are people you like and that you will be working in a stimulating environment conducive to intellectual discussion and productive interactions.
Department life in History and Sociology of Science is collegial and supportive. Graduate students in the History and Sociology of Science program receive the same full funding packages, so there is no competition between students for funding. Graduate students have their own offices on the same corridors as faculty offices. Consequently, faculty and students see each other daily in the corridors, and also in the department lounge over coffee and meals. There are frequent social gatherings, after most Monday seminars and connected to other similar events. Students receive active encouragement and support for giving conference papers, getting work published (most HSS grad students have published more than once by the time they complete their dissertation), writing grants, and navigating the job market. An extensive alumni networks supports these endeavors.
What will my graduate training encompass?
The Penn HSS program has traditionally been known for its integrated approach to the histories of science, technology, and medicine. Our PhD students do, of course, eventually specialize in particular sub-disciplines, but they also acquire the broad training necessary to teach courses in all of the major subject areas that make up our discipline — a crucial asset in today's challenging academic job market.
In addition to mastering the subject matter of our discipline, students at Penn are also encouraged to develop other crucial professional proficiencies. Our students not only learn to teach (under the supervision of senior faculty) but have the opportunity to teach their own courses — a unique and invaluable experience. Our dissertation students regularly give presentations, attend conferences, and publish papers.
How long does it take to complete the program?
The time it takes to finish a PhD in the humanities and social sciences varies somewhat by topic: depending on what languages you need to master, what sources you use, and what archives you need to visit, your individual time to completion will vary. What matters most is A) that you are able to receive the training you need and the resources you require to produce an excellent dissertation; and B) that you receive the financial support necessary to finish your degree in a timely manner. On average, however, our students complete their degree within 5-6 years. Perhaps more importantly, very few of our accepted students fail to complete the program. Compared to the national average of 8-10 years for the humanities (and an attrition rate as high as 50%), these are stellar figures. Which brings us to the next important question:
What kind of funding can I expect?
All of the PhD student students that we admit are guaranteed full funding for five years. Most of our students received additional support for dissertation completion (which provides an additional year), and many also win outside fellowships that provide additional years of support (or travel money) from the National Science Foundation, the ACLS, the Mellon Foundation, and numerous other funding agencies.
What research resources are available in the Philadelphia area?
The Philadelphia Area is rich in library and archival sources for historical research. Penn's University Archives hold the papers of key scientists, engineers, architects, and physicians. The Bates Center for the History of Nursing holds significant manuscript collections in medical history. Other local resources include:
- Philadelphia Library Company
- American Philosophical Society
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- Academy of Natural Sciences
- The library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia
- The Othmer Library of the Science History Institute
- Hagley Museum and Library (in Wilmington, Delaware)
- Consortium for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine
What kinds of careers do your graduates pursue?
Our History and Sociology of Science PhDs go on to an astounding range of careers ranging from traditional tenure-track teaching and research positions to museum curation to popular science writing to strategic consulting. Of all the PhD graduates of the past twenty years, more than half are working in tenured or tenure-track faculty positions (including at institutions such as Princeton, Rutgers, Penn State, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, Dickinson College, Drexel University, and many others). Of the remaining half, three quarters have either obtained post-doctoral fellowships or instructor positions. The rest are, for the most part, pursuing a diverse range careers as museum curators, academic administrators, consulting historians, and writers.
How do I find out more about the HSS graduate program?
The best place to begin researching the Penn History and Sociology of Science program is with our faculty website. If you have access to a university library system, look for the work of our faculty — and our many graduate alumni — in the major journals of our discipline, including Isis, Technology & Culture, Social Studies of Science, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Check out the major professional societies: their governing boards and conference schedules are full of faculty and graduates. Explore similar programs, and pay particular attention to how many faculty at major programs (Harvard, Princeton, University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota) received their degrees from the Penn HSS program. If you have questions about our program contact our faculty and graduate students, or the Graduate Chair, and arrange for a visit. For information about the admissions process itself, please contact the Graduate Group Coordinator or the Graduate Division. Best of luck!