Frequently Asked Questions

    Will my honors recommendation from Social Studies be accepted by Harvard College?

    The Faculty of Harvard College cannot raise a student’s recommendation above that which is determined by the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, but it can lower the recommendation when the student fails to meet college-wide cut-offs set by the Faculty. Harvard College limits the number of students graduating summa cum laude to 5% of the class, magna cum laude to 15% of the class, and cum laude to 30% of the class.

    Is Social Studies able to count final term grades in the calculation of honors?

    Final term course grades are not available in time to be considered by Social Studies in honors calculations. The Committee votes on a recommendation for each student based on seven semesters of grades and then forwards its recommendation to the College. By the time that the College votes on these recommendations, the final term course grades are available.

    How will Social Studies calculate and decide upon my honors recommendation?

    A student’s class rank is based on a calculation weighted as follows: the grade average in all concentration courses (all Social Studies requirements, all courses in the social sciences or history, and all courses in the student’s plan of study) x 55; the senior thesis x 40; the oral defense of the senior thesis x 5; and the oral general examination x 10. The total is then divided by 110 to determine the final average.

    Honors recommendations are voted by the Social Studies Faculty. They are based on an individual consideration of the student’s rank within the class and a comparison with the recommendations given in past years. The committee looks for consistency in three areas (courses, thesis grades, and oral exams) in determining honors recommendations. 

    As a transfer student from another college, will I receive any credit toward degree requirements in Social Studies for previous course work?

    You will receive credit toward fulfillment of requirements for courses that are (1) approved for Harvard credit by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and then (2) approved for Social Studies credit by the Director of Studies. (Grades received for courses taken elsewhere are not considered when calculating a student's Social Studies grade average). Transfer courses may be included in a focus field by petition to the Social Studies Board of Instruction.

    How can I arrange an independent study within Social Studies?

    There are two sorts of independently arranged courses for credit at Harvard: an independent study course, graded Pass/Fail; and a reading and research course, known as a 91r, which is letter-graded. Independent study, graded Pass/Fail, must be supervised by a voting member of the faculty (i.e., someone with an appointment of assistant professor or higher). If you wish to take an independent study with a teaching fellow or lecturer, the Chair of the Department must co-sign your petition. Pass/Fail independent studies, however, do not count towards Social Studies requirements.

    A 91r can be arranged through many departments and, on occasion, through Social Studies.  If you are interested in pursuing a reading and research course on a topic not covered by any other course at Harvard, you need to find a faculty member willing to teach the course.  Please note that Social Studies cannot compensate faculty members or lecturers for directing a 91r.  However, we will count Social Studies 91r in a social science or history department for concentration credit, and sometimes for focus field credit.  If you have any questions about Social Studies 91r, please contact the Director of Studies.

    Can I fulfill the statistics requirement by taking a course in summer school or at another college?

    Yes, you can fulfill the Social Studies statistics requirement by taking an introductory statistics class at the Harvard Summer School or through a summer school at another accredited 4-year college or university. Please note, however, that if you take the course at a summer school other than Harvard, you will fulfill the Social Studies statistics requirement but, most likely, you will not receive Harvard credit for this course. A summer statistics course must be the equivalent of a semester-long course. 

    Can I take any Social Studies requirements Pass-Fail?

    All of the courses that you are counting for Social Studies concentration credit must be taken for a letter grade, except for Social Studies 99, which is graded SAT/UNSAT. However, we will count courses that are transferred for Harvard credit (either taken at another college for transfer credit, or taken abroad) for focus field credit, as they were originally taken for a letter grade even though the grade will not show up on a Harvard transcript.

    Can I do a secondary field?

    Yes, as long as the secondary field is substantially different from your focus field in Social Studies. Harvard College allows only one course to overlap between the primary and secondary fields, and Social Studies counts all social science and history courses for concentration credit. But students can petition to “unconc” (not count) courses in one of these departments at the beginning of their senior year, as long as they are submitting a plan of study that does not overlap with these courses, and as long as the discipline or disciplines they are covering in their thesis does not overlap with the courses they seek to “unconc.”

    For example, a student who is writing on the political economy of Latin America, but has done significant coursework in history, can petition Social Studies to “unconc” a set of history courses, with the exception of one or more courses in Latin American history, which will count towards the focus field. But that student will not be allowed to “unconc” courses in economics or government, because the student’s thesis is drawing on those disciplines.

    A student who is studying social theory and wants to take a secondary field in economics can petition Social Studies to “unconc” a set of economics courses, except for the one that will count towards the economics requirement in Social Studies. 

    What is a Focus Field? What is a Plan of Study?

    A focus field is an interdisciplinary area of study chosen in the junior year and refined in the senior year; it should be associated with the student’s senior thesis topic. Students will be asked to submit an advisor-approved description of their focus field and their plan of study to the Social Studies Board of Instruction around October 1st of their junior year. The plan of study should include a minimum of four half-courses, normally drawn from at least two social science departments, and including at least one half-course on an historical topic. Members of the Board of Instruction will review this plan and may request revisions; students must have an approved plan on file by November 15th of their junior year.

    Students will be allowed to make changes to their plans of study and will be asked to file their updated plan of study around October 1st of their senior year; the updated plan must be approved by November 15th. The senior plan of study must include the student’s senior thesis topic.

    Students applying to Social Studies will be asked to describe a potential interdisciplinary focus field on their application, but will not be held to this focus field. 

    How do you make a tour?

    To create a tour, you first go to "Guided Tours" and click on the sub-menu (the little rectangle that appears at the bottom of the tab) and click "Create A New Tour." Then, enter a title and other information for your tour (which you can edit later). Then you are ready to get started! 

    Why is the Universe shaped like a bow tie?


    The image of the universe as a bowtie is misleading. The Milky Way is at the center of this bowtie, and the "missing data" is in line with the plane of our galaxy. We cannot observe these areas because there are too many stars and too much gas and dust obscuring our field of view. This creates the bowtie shape.

    The SDSS data in the 3D view have an hourglass shape because galaxies in the plane of our own Milky Way were excluded from observation - too much "gunk," or gas and dust, in the way. If you orient the SDSS galaxies, so it looks like an hourglass, you can then zoom back in and show how the missing wedges align with the plane of the Milky Way. This is not what the universe looks like; it simply represents where we were most easily able to take the data to create the map.

    One side of the "bow tie" looks more populated than the other because it is easier for the SDSS telescope to observe in that direction from its location in New Mexico.

    What are nebulae?

    There are different kinds of nebulae. It is important to distinguish between nebulae that form stars and nebulae that stars form when they die. For example, the Orion Nebula is a region that is forming new stars, but a planetary nebula is the death of a star.

    What are all these streaks and lines? When I try to use the Finder Scope, it doesn't know about them.

    The streaks and lines that appear in WWT, but are not astronomical objects, are usually imperfections in the imagery of the telescopes. Many line segments are the result of things like meteors, aircraft, and satellites. Meteors usually show up as lines with pointy ends and a brighter middle, and are sometimes green. Satellites can present as dashed blue lines. Aircraft lines are usually fairly solid and uniform, but sometimes wiggle a bit from turbulence in the air. White lines are often "seams" between images.

    What are these things that look like UFO's?

    These "UFO's" are created by the processing of the data and images. They are likely caused by internal reflections of the telescope. They are not real objects, just a projected image from the telescope. A UFO? Sorry, but no.