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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Students taking Option A write a dissertation on a topic approved by the HPS Board and prepared under the supervision of a teaching officer or postdoctoral researcher.

The dissertation gives you the chance to explore a topic of interest in depth; it gives you practice in essential writing skills; and it should sharpen your capacity for analysis and posing questions. Part II students in the past have found the dissertation to be the most rewarding aspect of the course. The dissertation counts for 20% of the overall mark – the same as one exam paper.

Word limit

The word limit for the dissertation is 8,000. This includes footnotes but excludes the bibliography and prefatory matter.

The dissertation is expected to embody a substantial piece of study on a given topic. Quality is not correlated with length, but it is difficult to write a first-class dissertation in 5,000 words.

Figures may be included in the work and should contribute to the argument. They should be captioned only so as to specify the source; such captions are excluded from the word count. Formulae may be used where appropriate and are also excluded from the word count.

The word limit is strictly enforced. Each piece of work will be inspected to ensure that the word limit has been respected. If work is over the limit, a mark will be placed at the point where the word limit has been reached. Examiners reserve the right to stop reading when they get to that point.

The Department uses Microsoft Word to check word counts. If you use coding software, such as LaTeX, you should be aware that this software may give a different word count. You may find it helpful to use TeXcount, an online tool that analyses LaTeX code to provide an accurate count of words, formulae, captions and footnotes. If using software other than Microsoft Word you should submit a screenshot to demonstrate the word count from the software used.

Choosing a topic and securing a supervisor

The dissertation must be on a topic that falls within the subject area of history and philosophy of science. Remember, if you have taken the HPS Part IB course, there are many areas covered in Part II that you will not have encountered yet. Remember too that the Department's expertise in some fields is stronger than in others. This is important when it comes to finding an appropriate supervisor.

You should plan to secure a dissertation topic and supervisor as early as possible in Michaelmas Term, and no later than the division of term.

Dissertations are tightly focused pieces of original research. To identify a topic, the first thing to do is to establish the general question and/or area of research that interests you. This will usually correspond to the subject of one of the Part II papers, even if it is not taught directly on that paper. Your Director of Studies can advise about this. Once you have established the general subject area of the dissertation, you should contact the relevant paper manager. He or she will advise you about honing the topic and will put you in contact with an appropriate supervisor.

To get a sense of the sorts of expertise that might be available, and to begin to identify possible supervisors, see the Department's list of dissertation and essay supervisors.

Dissertation and essay supervisors

If you would like to work with an external supervisor – someone who is not a member of the Department – you must obtain permission from the Part II Manager.

Successful dissertation subjects emerge from discussions between students and supervisors, but it is important that you choose a topic you are enthusiastic about. Think about the kind of general questions in HPS that you find significant, and would like to answer. Explore the HPS reading lists. Think about the kind of work you might enjoy doing. Some dissertation topics give the chance for extensive reading and library research; others involve work with instruments in the Whipple Museum; others require a close study of a single text, a critical review of a major debate, or the analysis of an important philosophical problem. The choice is yours.

Please note that a dissertation topic in the same area as a student's primary source essay will not normally be approved.

Planning your work

Once you have secured a topic and a supervisor, your first task will be to start reading. You should aim to have a working bibliography in place by the end of Michaelmas Term. During Lent Term you should establish the focus of the dissertation, and agree a schedule of deadlines for submitting drafts (or draft sections) to your supervisor. Four hours of supervision is the norm for an HPS dissertation. The dissertation is due at the beginning of Easter Term, but you cannot expect your supervisor to be available during the Easter vacation.

Once you have a topic, start the research and writing as soon as possible. It is a mistake to carry out months of research first, with the idea that it will all somehow come together at the very end. Do not leave the writing to take care of itself over the Easter vacation. Do not assume that your first draft will be your final draft: allow plenty of time between the two. You may find it hard to keep up with the weekly routine of supervision essays during term, so the winter vacation is vitally important for writing the dissertation. Have a substantial body of the text in draft when you come up in January so your supervisor has something to read.

Human participants

If you are planning to collect data from human participants, or use data collected from human participants, you will need to plan well in advance to ensure that you have obtained ethical approval before starting work on your project and have given consideration to how you are going to handle the information you collect.

Working with human participants: ethical approval and data protection


Dissertations must include adequate documentation in the form of notes and a bibliography; make sure to check your citations for accuracy, and give precise page numbers and sources for all quotations and illustrations. Various referencing formats are acceptable, but it is essential to be consistent. The Whipple Library has copies of several Part II, Part III and MPhil dissertations that will give examples of reference styles, or you can use an article in a relevant journal as a model. For helpful comments on style and organisation, see the research guide and advice.



You should upload your dissertation to the 'HPS Part II Coursework' site on Moodle before 12noon on the day of the deadline. Paper copies are not required.

Please note:

  • You cannot upload more than one file.
  • The following file formats are accepted: DOC, DOCX, PDF, RTF.
  • The dissertation will be marked anonymously, so it is important that your name does not appear anywhere on it.

Please note that the Department will retain a copy of your dissertation and may make it available to future students unless you make a written request to the contrary to the Departmental Administrator.

Changing the title

In exceptional circumstances, students sometimes need to change the title of their dissertation after they have they submitted the title form. The deadline for changing the dissertation title is in mid-February.


The University and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science take plagiarism very seriously. Please read our advice about what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

Plagiarism guidelines

The Department uses the text-matching software Turnitin UK to blanket screen all student work submitted in Moodle.

Use of Turnitin UK

Request to add an appendix

A dissertation should be self-contained, including or citing all information needed for an examiner to follow its argument.

The word limit normally includes text and footnotes but not the bibliography. However, in certain cases permission may be obtained for materials strictly relevant to the argument of the dissertation to be appended for the information of the examiners, with such materials not contributing to the word count. Materials falling into this category may include primary source materials that are not readily accessible, translations, questionnaire responses, statistical tables, descriptions of objects and analytical bibliographies and formal proofs.

Normally material included in the word count should mainly consist of the student's own discussion and analysis. Exceptionally, when a critical edition or translation, an analytical bibliography, or a technical description of objects and their provenances is based on substantial original scholarship and is central to the argument of a dissertation, permission may be obtained for its inclusion within the body of the dissertation, hence contributing to the word count. Normally no more than one third of a dissertation should consist of such material.

Applications for such permissions should normally be sought, in consultation with the supervisor, from the HPS Board prior to submission of the dissertation.

Appendix request form