fbpx Special Fields of Interest | Harvard Kennedy School

As a PPOL student, you choose a special field of interest and enroll in PhD-level courses that broaden and deepen that knowledge to develop a strong foundation for future research.

Most HKS courses and seminars are targeted to practitioners more than scholars and typically do not serve as PhD-level courses, which is why at least part of your special fieldwork will be carried out at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences or at other Harvard graduate schools.

You can choose from a number of concentrations in different fields, including the four pre-approved primary fields listed below—Environmental and Natural Resource PolicyInternational Development, Judgment and Decision Making, and Science, Technology and Policy Studies.


Environmental and Natural Resource Policy

Issues related to the natural environment—and the availability and quality of resources and services derived from it—have long been important determinants of the human condition in industrialized and developing countries. Among these issues are:

  • Availability of land, water, energy, and non-fuel minerals to meet basic human needs and sustain economic growth
  • Pollution control of the atmosphere, soils, fresh water, and oceans
  • Management of lightly and intensely exploited ecosystems to meet society’s immediate needs for food and fiber while preserving crucial biodiversity resources for short- and long-term benefit
  • Avoidance of excessive disruption of climatic conditions and processes, upon which the intertwined functioning of societal and environmental systems depends

Policy challenges arise locally and globally. They cut across public and private interests and responsibilities, link current actions to consequences extending into the distant future, and are discussed for resolution and policy action at all levels of government, from village councils to the United Nations.

Such issues can often be best understood by using approaches drawn from disciplines such as:

  • Environmental and resource economics
  • Engineering analysis of resource exploitation and environmental remediation technologies
  • Environmental and resource science
  • Management of resources and the environment, and their political, legal, and social dimensions

International Development

The challenges facing the developing world have never been greater. While many developing societies have made significant economic advances in the last few decades, large parts of the world remain mired in poverty. Even for middle-income countries in Latin America or East Asia, economic insecurity and reform fatigue hamper progress.

The globalization of the world economy has created new opportunities for poor countries by providing access to international trade and investment. It has also generated new risks in financial instability and limited their ability to work towards national developmental goals. Despite growing evidence of what has and has not worked in the past, ideas about what constitutes desirable development policies are in flux.

How can poor countries achieve sustainable and equitable economic growth in a setting that is socially and politically stable? International Development focuses on this central question.

The field of International Development is inherently multidisciplinary. Research competence requires rigorous training in economics and quantitative methods—at the same level of training as leading PhD programs in economics—as well as in public management and legal and political analysis. It also demands immersion in comparative economic history to distill the lessons of successful and unsuccessful development experiences. Depending on your research area, it may also require extensive study of fields such as public health, demography, and ecology.

Judgment and Decision Making

This interdisciplinary field looks to understand and improve the judgment and decision making skills of individuals, groups, and organizations. The field is grounded in theories and methods drawn from psychology and economics but builds on key insights from organizational behavior, philosophy, statistics, and management science.

A typical course incorporates the following aspects of decision making:

  • Normative approaches—creating formal models of rational choice
  • Descriptive research—studying how cognitive, emotional, social, cultural, and institutional factors affect judgment and choice
  • Prescriptive interventions—improving judgment and decision making

A PhD-level course will also discuss research methods, including how to design and analyze surveys, as well as economic, psychological, and neuroscientific experiments.

HKS has great resources on which to draw for this special field. The school is an important hub at Harvard for multidisciplinary (economics, psychology, and organizational behavior) research, teaching, and outreach on the Judgment and Decision Making field, which has a proud history with Thomas Schelling and Howard Raiffa as its pioneers.


Science, Technology and Policy Studies

The relevance of science and technology to public policy and public life has never been greater.

Science and technology are implicated in global environmental, economic, developmental, security, and safety issues, shaping both benefits and risks. Advances in robotics promise, or threaten, to change the ways we work and even the meaning of labor. Gene editing and artificial intelligence are altering our understanding of human nature and call for novel ethical and policy responses. Geoengineering may protect us against climate change but may affect the atmosphere in ways we don’t fully understand.

This field prepares you to address concerns such as these through a rigorous, multidisciplinary course of study that draws on scholarship in fields such as economics, law, history, public policy, and science and technology studies. HKS faculty members offer you perspectives grounded in studies of science, technology, and society as well as studies of science, technology, and public policy. Elective courses are designed to suit your particular research interests and may draw on a wide array of offerings both at and outside the Kennedy School.

You may focus on the ways in which politics and policy relate to scientific and technological development or on the production and use of scientific and technological information and expertise in public policy. In either case, preference will be given to you if you demonstrate a capacity to ask sophisticated research questions and a familiarity with relevant fields of science and technology.