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Department of History and Philosophy of Science



HPS is brilliant. If we can say that, having just sat our exams, it must be true! We guarantee you will have a great time this coming year. And before you know it, next June will have arrived and you will be wondering, just as we are now, where it all went...

Part II HPS may be quite unlike anything you have ever experienced. Where else would you be able to study classics, law, sociology, ethics, psychology, history and philosophy in one subject? This may sound daunting, but you will be supported every step of the way: the HPS Department is a well-established, extremely friendly, quirky and diverse community. You will find that everyone is approachable and keen to chat (about HPS or otherwise), both in the departmental coffee room and the departmental pub (The Bath House).

While Part II HPS may be a challenge at times, it should be a thoroughly enjoyable one. To make sure that the coming year is your most stimulating and rewarding one in Cambridge, we have gathered some tips.

  1. Our top tips
  2. Choosing your papers
  3. Reading
  4. Writing
  5. Lectures and supervisions
  6. Primary sources
  7. Dissertation
  8. Revision and exams
  9. Marking (a student's view)

1. Our top tips

Be aware: HPS is not a soft option

Contrary to popular belief, HPS is not a soft option. While you will have no labs and fewer lectures than many other Part II NatSci students, in HPS there is a greater emphasis on independent learning. You are expected to put in the hours accordingly.

Be organised

One of the most striking aspects of HPS Part II course is how much control you have over the direction of your academic work. You decide freely which papers to take and which topics to write on. You decide which books to read. You decide how often you want to be supervised. This also means that you are responsible for all these aspects. The most successful students tend to be those who are well organised from day one. If the first few weeks of term seem easy, it's because you're storing up far too much work for the end of term – which means your primary source essay and dissertation will suffer.

Keep in mind that each course component (papers, primary source essay, dissertation) has its own set of readings, writing requirements, supervisions, and – most importantly – its own set of deadlines! Work consistently throughout the year and keep an eye on coming deadlines. Make sure you do not 'over-invest' in one component: supervisions, reading lists, the primary source essay, revisions, and potentially a dissertation, will all be jostling for your attention – it is important that you plan how to balance these competing demands on your time throughout the year, in and out of term.

Be yourself

In HPS you are encouraged to express your own opinion, but this does not make HPS a free-for-all. While there may not be a 'right' answer, there are certainly 'wrong' approaches to research and 'highly questionable' strands of argument. The key is to engage material thoughtfully and critically in face of the larger field and to use your criticisms and ideas productively in writing. Being 'original' does not require making groundbreaking insights, but rather remembering that as an individual you will read the texts differently from everyone else. You don't need to be a genius, but you do need to read enough to know the facts actually support your point of view.

Being yourself also means that you should not worry about what you studied before Part II HPS. Part II HPS students are a diverse bunch: many have not taken HPS Part IB. Most people have little writing experience. Many have not studied history for years and most studied neither philosophy nor sociology before starting Part II. Everyone works differently and you will develop your own working habits. Find the approach that works best for you with help from your supervisors, DoS, HPS Part II manager, and lecturers at the Department, and stick to it.

2. Choosing your papers

Quite possibly, the most difficult choice you will make during the year is choosing your papers: four for Option B students, three for those taking Option A. There are some general guidelines:

  • Don't think you should pick those papers that you already have experience in (because you may be covered some of the material at Part IB): each paper will throw up new challenges, even on material you may have studied before.
  • Don't think you should pick papers that 'complement' each other: while some papers do fit together nicely, each paper comfortably stands alone – it is often possible and interesting to draw together material from two seemingly unrelated papers.
  • Don't immediately classify yourself as 'historian' or 'philosopher' and limit yourself to either history or philosophy papers, unless you are very sure of your preferences. The overlap between the two can throw up all sorts of interesting ideas.
  • Don't think that there are any soft papers. Each paper has different challenges, but roughly the same amount of work.
  • Do pick the courses that interest you the most – chances are these will be the papers that you will do best in.
  • Do note that you are welcome to attend any lecture from any paper, even if you are not being examined in the paper (just avoid signing up for supervision).

Other than the paper outlines your most important sources of information will be your HPS DoS; the Part II Manager; the Paper Managers; your IB supervisors, if you took IB; current Part IIIs of whom some, but not all, will have taken Part II HPS – and the lectures. Attend the first few lectures of those papers between which you are deciding. It may even be worth attending the first couple of lectures of other courses that look interesting – introductory handouts often have a more detailed list of lectures and readings, and there may be a couple that are useful for other courses, the primary source essay or dissertation. And they may even change your decision of which papers to take (although if you do change your mind let the admin staff know as quickly as possible).

3. Reading

We can't beat about the bush: there is a lot of reading involved in HPS Part II. We can, however, recommend the following:

Be selective

It is impossible to read everything, and you should not try to do so. In terms of assessment, you only need to choose three specific essay questions out of 12, and one general question out of three. It is normal not to read everything in the course.

Even the most extensive reading list will highlight starred readings that are critical. Some students will attempt to read the starred readings for every lecture and skim through other items on the handout. In practice, however, the burden of primary sources, dissertations and Cambridge life mean that most students focus on reading for supervisions during term. Since most supervisions offer a choice of two questions, coordinate with your supervision partner so that you cover different topics and can learn from each other.

How to read

Reading should always be goal-oriented: you should be reading for something – to understand a position, to find evidence for your argument, or to understand the wider context of the lectured material. Many lectures and reading lists will summarize the key points of important sources – take note of these when choosing sources. It is often better to read a few sources with contrasting perspectives rather than many sources with similar ones, because this forces you to evaluate each position.

Reading introductory texts can provide much needed context to assigned sources, and ironically can save you time when dealing with difficult ones. This is especially so if you are encountering a topic for the first time. Check the reading list for recommendations – these might appear in the 'General' section or as assigned chapters for specific subtopics. Reading the introduction to these texts will greatly help you understand the bigger picture. In philosophy, you will often find an overview of the possible positions and how they stand with respect to each other. In history, you will often learn of how different historians have written about the topic and why certain approaches might be better than others. Appreciating the diversity of opinions will allow you to read your assigned sources critically.

Practically speaking, you often do not need to read an entire book or an entire article. Always read the introduction and conclusion – here you should find a summary of the author's main argument. Other than that, make use of chapter headings, indexes (these are lifesavers) and text search facilities to help you pick out relevant bits of the text. Your interest can also guide you further in your reading: if you are turned off by a text, you will probably neither remember it nor want to concentrate on it in your exam. Nonetheless you should skim enough of even the most odious texts to make an informed decision to not read them further.

You should aim for a mix of primary and secondary sources. While secondary sources contain useful summaries and critiques of the argument of the primary source, they usually only give one interpretation. To really engage with the material, you need to be familiar with some of the original texts.

Make notes

Reading a text without making any kind of notes is almost certainly going to be a waste of time – you will forget details very quickly. Develop an efficient note-taking method (or methods) quickly, to avoid simply copying out whole chapters. Taking notes as you read something for the first time can often be slow, as you only appreciate the most relevant points as they recur. One good method is to read everything twice: when you first encounter a text, read each chapter or section through once so that you gain a general overview about what was said. Then go back, skim reading it, and make notes on those points that struck you as important from the first reading. Another efficient approach is to mark useful bits of text with highlighting or sticky labels while reading, and then take notes from these afterwards.

Latest versions of document reading software – in particular later versions of Adobe Reader (available for free download) – often have annotation facilities. These are well worth exploring. If you prefer handwriting, make sure your notes are legible. Scribbles in the margin are rarely helpful.

Other useful sources

In addition to the lecture readings, there are a few useful resources for filling in gaps in background knowledge, getting more information on problematic topics, or pointing to further readings:

  • For history – the Cambridge Histories of Science, which can be accessed online. The chapters are short, the index is extensive, and they summarise the central thinking on the field. The Encyclopaedia Britannica is also useful for brief introductions to broader historical contexts, but note that it can be quite triumphalist.
  • For philosophy – the Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Science, also online. Like the Cambridge Histories, but even shorter chapters. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) is also a fantastic online resource for many philosophical themes (whether related to science or not).

4. Writing

Being critical

Many students worry that 'independence of thought' and 'originality' require a completely novel position. This is not true. Critical thinking and originality are easy to show when you realize that your perspective on a topic is often different from others.

In philosophy, one guiding principle is to explicitly state and justify which arguments you find persuasive, because different students will prefer different positions. Ask yourself the following:

  • Have you given an argument rather than a description? Do you come to a final position, rather than sitting on the fence? It is almost always preferable to have a slightly flawed position than to have no position at all. It is possible to be critically agnostic, but you will need to show why withholding judgement is justifiable and suggest what kinds of evidence might lead you to change your mind.
  • Can you explain an author's position using your own language and your own examples, rather than regurgitating their argument? If yes, this shows critical thinking because you have internalized and applied the core argument to new scenarios.
  • Can you place an author's position in context, synthesize different positions in the field, or evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a position? At a basic level, you can consider objections that one author raises against another. More sophisticated answers will consider whether these objections can be met: can Popper's position be changed to deal with the Duhem-Quine thesis, or is the thesis insuperable? What might be gained or lost in replying to said objections?

It is important to remember that disagreement is the norm in philosophy – debates about scientific realism or the demarcation problem continue even amongst professional philosophers. As such, supervisors and examiners should not penalize you for arguing for a position that they personally disagree with (though they might challenge you to refine your position by suggesting objections). They will penalize you for arguments that are logically flawed, not supported by evidence/examples, or for descriptions that regurgitate lecture material without making a stand.

In history, you might worry that there can be no originality because there are 'historical facts' that are incontrovertible. Even if this is completely true (and the sociology of science might suggest otherwise), you should remember that all facts require interpretation, and different authors will interpret things differently. Ask yourself the following:

  • Have you given an argument rather than a description? Do you use your evidence to make a point? You should always remember that 'context' and examples should be mobilized to make a point in your essay; if you think that some examples are particularly interesting, you should explicitly state why.
  • Can you summarize the crucial point and examples that an author uses in your own words? Learning how to summarize a chapter's worth of argument into one paragraph requires judging which pieces of evidence are most compelling, thus showing your critical thinking. Many historians do this before introducing their own argument – learn from the ones you find exemplary.
  • Does the author's historical evidence only support their interpretation, or could it be mobilized for other positions? If you read contrasting histories, you should find that historians with opposing positions will often use the same evidence for different purposes.
  • Can you place an author's history in context or evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their history? For instance, many early histories are invaluable at highlighting major, 'revolutionary' changes in science or medicine. Later historians usually build on these foundations to create more complex pictures that acknowledge both changes and continuities.

Many of these points will be discussed if you read about the historiography of a topic, which considers how different historians have written about the same topic. Historiography can sometimes be difficult to grasp without prior knowledge, in which case you might want to read the primary sources first or ask supervisors for help. Persist, however, because understanding the historiography of a field will drastically improve the nuance of your arguments.


When dealing with your primary source essay and your dissertation, start writing early. Don't put it off until you 'feel ready'; that moment may never arrive. Writing is thinking: it clarifies your thoughts and helps identify those areas of your argument that need more attention. And once you've started writing, it is much easier to continue.

Some advice from Ernest Hemingway – 'the first draft of anything is sh*t'. Good writing emerges by refining bad writing, and doesn't just appear spontaneously. So when you start writing don't be self-conscious, just get text down.

For those who have not done much writing before, 5,000 or 8,000 words may sound like a lot, but it is not. Once you have started writing, you will soon find it difficult to fit everything you want to say within the word limit. You should make every word count. Be ruthless. As you edit ask yourself two questions:

  • 'What point am I really trying to make in this paragraph?'
  • 'Is this really the most concise way of making this point?'

Another viable strategy is to work backwards: ask yourself what your concluding point is, and what evidence is necessary to reach that point. You might find that some examples you used initially can be discarded without reducing the thrust of your argument.

As you get towards the end of an important project, a useful way to check a paragraph for these points is: open a blank document, copy and paste the paragraph into it, separate each sentence by a few lines, and read and edit in that form. It can really highlight waffle and repetition. Using annotation tools can also help – try adding a note reading 'the point of this paragraph is...' at the start of each paragraph.

5. Lectures and supervisions

It is important that you take good notes in lectures. Typically the lecture handouts do not cover all the lecture material and HPS lectures never follow any textbook, so it is vital that you bolster handouts with your own annotations. Ideally take notes in class and then transcribe or edit them after the lecture. If you are taking notes on your laptop, consider investigating systems which allow you to organise notes chronologically, tag information, and associate URLs and PDFs with lecture content. If you are taking notes by hand consider systems of index cards, the Cornell note-taking system or diary format.

It is highly advisable to go to all of your lectures. First, as said, there is no textbook that the lectures follow, and lecture notes will only cover some of the material. Second, it is difficult to assess in advance which topics you will want to focus on in primary source essay, the dissertation or revision. Third, you need a broad overview of the whole paper for the Section A questions. Finally, if you do not go to all the lectures you run the risk of answering exam questions without realising that the best examples come from a lecture you did not attend.

Don't be afraid to ask questions at the end of the lecture – this is generally encouraged. Chances are that if you do not understand something then there are many others who feel the same.

You should aim to have six to eight supervisions per paper across the year. Try not to over- or under-invest in any one segment of the paper: it is advisable to have at least one supervision on each of the lecture courses, and probably ill-advised to have more than one supervision for four lectures.

We strongly recommend that you begin setting up supervisions as soon as possible at the beginning of Michaelmas since the term gets very busy because of the primary sources. Because Part II students are responsible for arranging their own supervisions, it is really up to you to take the initiative.

You really will get the most out of all supervisions if you submit written work ahead of time (at least 24 hours for a supervision essay, at least 48–72 hours for a long piece of writing). Even an essay plan is better than nothing (but be considerate by asking your supervisors first). If possible, coordinate with your supervision partner so that you cover different topics that you can share with each other.

In the primary source and dissertation supervisions, it is tempting to want to concentrate on discussing the big ideas unfettered by any writing, but it is much easier for supervisors to respond to your argument if they can read your line of reasoning before you meet. And it forces you to start writing early. Writing a couple of paragraphs a day for 2–3 days is much easier than writing a whole essay in one go, and produces a better result.

Take on board your supervisors' advice – they want you to do well. Sounds obvious, but some people like to keep their favourite arguments even in the face of useful criticism.

6. Primary sources

Ideally, read the primary sources, or at least a summary of them, before the start of Michaelmas. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, you will get far more out of the seminars if you have read the sources beforehand. Since the primary sources seminars start on the first day of Michaelmas Term, this means having read them before term begins. Secondly, the latter half of Michaelmas is extremely busy because of supervisions and your dissertation, and reading your primary source beforehand will save you much needed time.

Like lectures, it can be worth going to a couple of seminars even for primary sources you're unlikely to write on. They can give broad methodological points useful to the papers in general, and you might change your mind on which source you actually want to write on.

It is essential that you make good use of your time with your supervisor. Start researching in the second half of Michaelmas and turn up to your first meeting having brainstormed in detail a number of possible ideas, however wild they might be. Have your full first draft ready at least two weeks before the deadline, that is the start of Lent, even if you think it is terrible. If you leave all the supervisions and work until the holidays or Lent Term, then the work you produce won't be your best and writing it will be very unpleasant. If you leave it too late, your supervisor may also not have the time to organise supervisions or read your work.

A suggested schedule may be:

Michaelmas, Week 3/4 Decide which primary source essay you will write
Michaelmas, Week 4/5 Contact supervisor with topics
Michaelmas, Weeks 4–7 Research
Michaelmas, Week 7/8 First supervision
Pick up research material from the library before going home for Christmas!
Before Lent starts First, full draft ready two weeks before deadline
Lent, Week 1/2 Second, full draft ready one week before deadline
Leave the last week for tweaks

7. Dissertation

Finding a dissertation topic and title can be daunting. While some may have a burning HPS issue they can't wait to address, others may be less certain at the outset. Inspiration can come from past Part II dissertations available in the Whipple Library (ask the librarians), past exam questions, the research guide, lecture notes, paper managers, lecturers, even your general reading. You could also try to narrow down a topic by defining it in terms of:

  • a particular historical period, location, set of people (when, where, who); or
  • a philosophical problem; question in HPS; type of source; or general concern (what); or
  • a certain style of argument (comparison, finely grained reading of one text piece, applying a style of reasoning in an unfamiliar context); or
  • a particular question or topic you find most writings just brush over too briefly; or
  • all of the above.

While you can select a dissertation topic tied to your papers, you can also do very well writing about something completely unrelated. Fundamentally, you should write about something that truly interests you, because you will be spending at least six months wrestling with it.

Beware of trying to do too much. You will almost certainly need to refine your initial topic to make your project manageable. If you try to cover too wide a canvas, you will not be able to do your topic justice in the space you are allowed. Focusing the essential question is a critical first step. Supervisors can be a major help here.

When choosing supervisors to approach, remember they can make a big difference. Pick someone who seems at least as excited about your topic as you are, or develop a mutually exciting topic with a supervisor you want to work with. You will most likely choose someone from the list of dissertation supervisors, though in some cases you may also be able to work with others affiliated with the larger University. If you do choose a supervisor who does not work in the Department, make sure she or he is aware of norms and regulations governing HPS dissertations. And don't stick with a less helpful supervisor purely through politeness or convenience.

To make the best of your dissertation you need to get started early on your research and writing. Titles – and supervisors – are chosen during Michaelmas and you should start your reading then. By the start of Lent you should have a basic argument, and your focus should be on getting as much content as you require. You should aim to have finished a first draft before you go down at the end of Lent. This first draft will often be missing a conclusion, introduction and general polish, but your main arguments should be clear and much of it should be written down in prose. Use the Lent break to refine your dissertation or do some last minute research in preparation for submission in Easter Term.

Don't be daunted by the prospect of having to give a presentation in the dissertation seminars. These presentations are not meant to be well-polished, nor must they contain your complete thesis. They are for your benefit: they give you the chance to bounce your ideas, receive feedback, and clarify your thoughts.

The word limit for the dissertation is 8,000 words, but this is a limit, not a target. If you have said what you want to say in 7,000 words, stop. Adding irrelevant material to lengthen it will detract from your thesis. Word limits for all assignments, which include footnotes but not bibliographies, are strictly enforced. If your dissertation is 8,001 words long, you have gone above the word count permitted!

8. Revision and exams

Although the courses changed a lot in 2018–19, 2016–17 and 2011–12, useful questions on the current papers may have appeared in some form or other on past papers. When you revise, you should also formulate your own questions to work through topics and arguments.

For historical papers you may want to revise by learning illustrative examples and case studies, and by making connections or drawing contrasts between lecture series and papers. For philosophical papers, you may want to draw from reputable philosophy encyclopaedias (e.g. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online) and various guides and companions in the REF section of the Whipple Library to gain an overview of topics.

Writing four essays in quick succession is extremely tiring. Prepare yourself by revising both paper content and essay structures so that you can write easily and smoothly without grasping for words. Practise writing timed essays at least once or twice to get a feel for how long, deep, broad, and/or nuanced a 45-minute essay can be. Ideally, write one or two a day for a week. The first few will be terrible, but you will get the hang of it.

Devoting five minutes to writing an essay plan before you begin can be extremely helpful: you should know what the structure of your essay will be before you write it. Stick to your main thesis and do not get side-tracked. Circle key words in the question and keep referring back to make sure you are answering it and to your thesis statement to make sure you are supporting it as you move through your essay. Link your examples or steps in your argument back to the question. It is wise to submit your essay plan along with your exam answers to show the examiners that you have thought through the question. And if you unfortunately do not have enough time to finish an essay, having an essay plan may at least help you to gain some vital marks.

9. Marking (a student's view)

Examiners seem to have roughly four major criteria for evaluating essays:

  • Does the candidate answer the question?
  • Is the essay well-organised and convincingly argued?
  • Does the candidate demonstrate depth and breadth of knowledge about the topic?
  • Does the candidate demonstrate originality in content or structure of the essay?

Which translates into:

  • If you do not answer the question, you will receive a low mark. This seems obvious, but in the heat of the moment it's easy to just write what you want to write, despite its tangential relevance to the question.
  • Are the steps of the argument clear, or does the essay consist of disconnected claims and examples?
  • Examiners tend to disapprove of essays that regurgitate lecture material or rehearse standard arguments.
  • Keep in mind that each examiner reads about 100 essays in a very short period of time. They are not going to hunt for the kernel of insight hidden in your essay, nor do they want to read the same material repeated in 15 essays – and they do not want to spend hours deciphering your cramped handwriting. Giving a clear and concise presentation, using original examples, drawing unusual connections, supporting a controversial position well, or using a novel form (that is also effective and appropriate) all tend to be looked upon favourably.

Exams are marked by half a dozen internal examiners and one external examiner from an outside university. Each paper is read by two of the internal examiners and assigned a preliminary numerical mark by both readers. These marks are discussed until the examiners come to an agreement. In cases where the suggested marks differ substantially and an agreement cannot be reached, the external examiner is consulted. The external examiner also reads approximately one-third of the exam papers and evaluates them; if his or her evaluation differs substantially from that of the internal examiners, further discussion is required.


If you encounter any problems, let people know right away, particularly your DoS.

Have a great year!