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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

As Disciplines Converge

July-August 2003

Where are the frontiers of knowledge? Increasingly, at the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. One way to trace emerging fields is to peruse the interfaculty Ph.D. programs, overseen by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), Harvard's custodian for Ph.D. degrees (as opposed to professional doctorates in applied disciplines). Such programs are scholarly collaborations between the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and other Harvard schools.

The newest program, leading to the degree of doctor of philosophy in biostatistics, was brought before his FAS colleagues by GSAS dean Peter T. Ellison for their approval on May 6, after two years of development. His formal remarks emphasized the role of the degree in "preparing students for academic and research careers." In this instance of building bridges between the School of Public Health's biostatistics program and FAS's department of statistics, Ellison cited the value of doctoral training in "emerging areas of health-sciences research such as environmental statistics, bioinformatics, and statistical genetics."

Including the biostatistics doctorate, Harvard now has 14 multifaculty Ph.D. programs. The others, with their partner schools, are: architecture, landscape, and urban planning (Graduate School of Design); biological sciences in dental medicine (Dental School); biological sciences in public health (School of Public Health); biophysics (Medical School); business economics (Business School); division of medical sciences (medicine); health policy (the schools of government, business, public health, medicine); information technology and management (business); organizational behavior (business); three separate programs in political economy and government, public policy, and social policy (each with the Kennedy School); and religion (Divinity School). Details on each program, many of which encompass multiple subdisciplines, are available on-line at www.gsas.harvard.edu/programs/degree/index.html. For each, GSAS admits the students and confers their degrees.

The programs, Ellison said in an interview, range back in time as far as the division of medical sciences (established in 1908), and in size from that one (with hundreds of students) to those created in recent years, which may admit only a couple of candidates per year. The modern era of such doctorates dates to the presidency of Derek Bok, who built up the University's resources in policy analysis and at the Kennedy School significantly. Under Neil L. Rudenstine and now Lawrence H. Summers, Ellison said, the flurry of programs in life sciences, information technology, and social policy created since the mid 1990s reflects "the increasing emphasis on interfaculty cooperation" of Harvard's most recent presidents.

Even more important, the expansion reflects the scholarly work of Harvard professors. The social policy program, with tracks in government or sociology and public policy, grew out of the interest in doctoral training expressed by a cluster of new faculty members, especially at the Kennedy School—Christopher Jencks, Katherine S. Newman, William Julius Wilson—who had links to FAS colleagues and pursued National Science Foundation funding for interdisciplinary research at what Ellison called "boundaries and overlap areas."

Ellison also cited what he called "a transformation going on in the faculties of the professional schools," where liberal-arts disciplines and methodologies now find a home. One of the faculty cochairs of the program in information technology and management—which joins together hitherto separate practitioners from computer science and business—is Marco Iansiti '83, Ph.D. '88, Sarnoff professor of business administration. Although he holds a business-school appointment, Iansiti earned his doctorate in physics. That kind of scholarly cross-training is increasingly common, and further seeds the growth of cross-school programs. Another prominent example is Joel M. Podolny '86, Ph.D. '91, appointed professor of sociology and of business administration in FAS and the business school in 2002, after 11 years at Stanford's business school; his doctorate is in sociology.

Even though the pace of creating such programs may ebb for a bit, Ellison said, one can imagine more evolving from the University's expressed interest in stepping up cooperative scientific work between FAS and the Longwood Medical Area. Similarly, ideas for interfaculty work, or perhaps separate joint-degree programs, are gestating at the Law School, where economics doctorates have become a commoner credential and experimental forms of research are on the rise. In the future, as the process unfolds and as now strange-sounding fields such as "statistical genetics" come into more regular parlance, such programs may also find their way into the undergraduate curriculum, which is undergoing its own revision.