Concentration

Your concentration – your commitment to a specific discipline or specialization – will provide you with a broad base of knowledge about a particular area of study.  It will also sharpen your writing and analytic and, depending on the area, quantitative skills as well. As you advance through your concentration, you will become a more sophisticated thinker, learning to learn more deeply. Departments strongly recommend that you seek out pre-concentration advising in your first year, to ensure that your final choice of concentration is one you’re excited by and that it meets your expectations and goals.

Harvard offers 49 concentrations. Concentration requirements vary widely from field to field. The number of required courses ranges from 10 to 20. Some concentrations require an application. Some are honors-only. Some require a thesis. Some allow for highly individualized design; others are more regimented, having, for instance, strict course sequencing requirements. Though your choice of concentration should be motivated, above all, by what interests you, it is important that you be aware of the concentration requirements of the different fields you’re considering, in particular any that may require you to start planning early.

How can I learn about the different concentrations?

    • Peruse the Concentration Overviews page, which contains a wealth of information about each concentration, including gateway courses recommended for first-year students and examples of what their alumni are doing now. You will also find up-to-date contact information for concentration advisers and links to department websites.
    • Consult Fields of Concentration in the Handbook for Students to learn which specific courses or other academic work you will be required to complete to fulfill the requirements of your intended concentration. Read about each concentration’s approach to “Advising” including specific information about how concentration advisers are assigned and how you can connect with faculty in the department.
    • Use the advanced course search in my.harvard.edu to explore classes by name, keyword, or department.
    • Go to course websites and review course syllabi.
    • Keep track of classes that seem exciting to you and take note of whether your interests are converging on a particular concentration or cluster of fields.
    • If you are a first-year student, take advantage of the APO-sponsored Advising Corner, which offers first-year students informal opportunities to connect with departmental advisers during lunch in Annenberg.
    • Attend departmental events like open houses and panel discussions during Advising Fortnight, which takes place over a two-week period in spring of the first year.
    • Consult each step of the way with members of your advising network, including your Freshman Adviser, Sophomore Adviser, other resident advisers, concentration advisers, and faculty.

                    How and when do I formally declare my concentration?

                    You will declare your concentration in the first term of your sophomore year, usually in mid-November, on my.harvard.edu.

                    How many courses will I have to take for my concentration?

                    Departments differ in their requirements; depending on your concentration, you will have to take as few as 10 half courses or as many as 20. The norm is 12-16 half courses; if you are aiming for a degree with honors, you will take more courses than the basic requirement in your concentration. Consult Fields of Concentration in the Handbook for Students for more information about each concentration.

                    What are tracks?

                    Some concentrations offer the option choosing, or require you to choose, a track to further focus your study.  Examples include the Social Anthropology track (in Anthropology), the German Cultural Studies track (in Germanic Languages and Literature), the Post-Colonial Studies track (in History and Literature), and the Environmental Science & Engineering track (in Engineering Sciences). Other concentrations may not have tracks per se but may offer focused coursework areas or recommend informal thematic plans of study. Explore the Concentrations that interest you for more information concerning tracks; click on the “Ways to explore” tab.

                    What are joint concentrations?

                    You may find that your interests pull toward more than one concentration. (Some concentrations, such as History and Literature, are in their own right highly interdisciplinary.) Certain fields may be combined into what is called a joint concentration.  Joint concentrations are not the same thing as double majors at other institutions. Joint concentrations require integrative and interdisciplinary work, and usually culminate in the writing of a senior thesis. Not all concentrations allow the joint concentration option (Economics is a case in point). To learn more about this option, see each concentration’s entry in Fields of Concentration, and consult with the Head Tutor or Director of Undergraduate Studies in the fields that interest you.

                    What are special concentrations?

                    Harvard’s 49 Concentrations enable students to chart a vast number of potential intellectual pathways through college.  In the rare instance when a student’s interests do not align with existing concentrations (or joint concentration options) they may consider petitioning to create a Special Concentration.  Special Concentrations offer highly self-directed students the opportunity to design their own academic program with the advice and consent of members of the faculty and administration. Special Concentrations work best for students who have the drive and determination to pursue an original program with substance and depth.  Very few students petition for Special Concentrations each year, and the bar for approval is set very high.

                    What are secondary fields?

                    In addition to offering concentrations, many Harvard departments also offer a less intensive but still structured course of study called a secondary field, which is similar to what many institutions call a “minor”. Secondary fields are entirely optional.  They are something you may wish to consider if you notice that your elective course choices over time are tending to cluster in a particular area. In addition to the secondary fields that departments offer, there are also a number of stand-alone secondary fields.

                    Something to consider, when deciding whether to undertake a secondary field, are the ways that doing so will limit your overall flexibility in choosing elective courses.  An overly structured plan of study (concentration plus secondary field) can also present obstacles to other academic experiences you may wish to do such as research or advanced coursework in your concentration.  Secondary fields present wonderful opportunities for focused study outside the concentration.  But be sure to weigh the pros and cons, for you, of pursuing one before committing yourself to a plan.

                    Do any concentrations require applications?

                    Which concentrations require a thesis?

                    Some concentrations—for example Astrophysics, English, and Chemistry—offer an optional thesis option. Others such as Folklore & Mythology and Integrative Biology do not require a thesis for a degree with honors, but do require one for students pursuing High or Highest Honors. A small number of concentrations are honors-only, and require all concentrators to write a thesis.

                    To learn about the thesis requirements or options in concentrations that interest you consult Fields of Concentration in the Handbook for Students.

                    What exactly is a thesis?

                    Theses are independent research projects in the senior year – conducted under the close supervision of members of the faculty – which culminate in a substantial piece of writing.  Students planning on pursuing graduate level study are strongly encouraged to write a senior thesis.  In certain concentrations students are required to write a thesis (see list above).  Many concentrations require a thesis for honors or high honors. 

                    Regardless of your future plans, the primary reason to consider writing a thesis is because of the intellectual and creative challenge a thesis presents, and because writing a thesis allows you to experience, first-hand, what it means to produce new knowledge in your field.

                    How should I think about choosing a concentration?

                    Start by asking yourself some questions:

                    • What am I most interested in learning about?
                    • Are there problems in the world I want to help solve?
                    • What kind of learning am I most excited to do:
                      • science research in labs?
                      • detective work in libraries?
                      • human subjects research in a lab or on the street?
                      • complex math?
                      • through making (art or music or film or fiction or…)?
                    • What do I like doing most in my ‘free’ time?  Is there a way to concentrate in that?  (If you’re thinking, “the responsible thing is to concentrate in X” yet you’re spending all your free time excitedly pursuing, or daydreaming about pursuing, “Y” – theater, government, public service, or anything else – think about what’s really motivating you and what really matters to you.  And talk to advisers.  Your interests may overlap with concentration options in all sorts of ways you’re not aware of now.)
                    • What skills am I hoping to build at Harvard, and why those skills?
                    • What knowledge am I hoping to amass?
                    • What area of study can I imagine devoting myself to these next three years?
                    • What kind of environment would foster an optimal learning experience for me?
                    • What kind of advising would I derive greatest benefit from?

                    These are just a few of the many questions you should be asking yourself in the lead-in to declaring your concentration and to which you should seek answers, in part, by learning about different concentrations: who their faculty and staff are, what their communities are like, what special opportunities they promote to students, how they advise, etc.  Don’t just think and research on your own, though.  Your advisers, advisers in the concentrations, and peer concentrators are essential sounding boards on the path to making your own best (and most authentic) decision.