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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


The following is a brief and very subjective introduction to the Part III course, written from the student's point of view.

The people

There's no standard route into HPS Part III. Some people are carrying on having done HPS at Part IB or Part II while others have come from English, NatSci, Medicine, Philosophy, History, PPS etc etc. No-one is disadvantaged because, given how broad HPS can be, whatever background you come from will offer its own perspectives and knowledge that will prove advantageous when studying HPS. If you've done Part II you'll be aware of just how diverse the topics you study can be: Part III dissertations this year have ranged from geological modelling to the history of safe-sex, via dinosaurs in literature and the species question in philosophy of biology. My best advice for you is to help each other and keep sharing ideas along the way. If you come from HPS Part II, give advice about supervisors, the Department, writing HPS etc. If you come from another subject, offer your technical expertise – you and others will find it useful once research starts taking unexpected turns.

Though you're technically on different courses, Part IIIs and MPhils are treated in the Department as a single year-group of grad students. If you did Part II, you'll really notice the difference: you're a member of the Department, rather than a student. Most of the MPhils come from other universities (and other countries), so do share with them all the inside information you have gathered about Cambridge in the three years you've been here. In return, you will get to know some very exciting people, who are familiar with other universities and their little oddities, and who are usually very passionate about their research. It's really important that there be loads of social events straight away in the year, and given you all want to study HPS, you're obviously all great people. It might be tempting to feel intimidated by people following a different course with different entry requirements if your only contact with them is through seminars, but one of the best aspects of the course really has been being part of a diverse (and sociable) group of people.

Structure of the course

The Part III has a research element, and a more taught element. It consists of two research papers (Michaelmas and Lent) and two set essays (Lent), and a 12,000-word dissertation (Easter). The research papers each count for 17 per cent of the total mark for the year, the set essays 8 per cent each, and the dissertation makes up half the total mark.

The set essays are completed in February, and are the only exam component. You have four supervisions during Michaelmas and Lent, based on the topics of the Part III-MPhil seminar (more on this later). You get the exam paper in February and one week to answer two questions from a choice of eight (corresponding to eight of the ten seminars). The supervisions are with the members of the Department who ran the seminar, and it's really important to make the most of the supervision: you can take risks and try to use different materials, draw parallels with readings from different seminars and see what feedback you get. The exam questions will be similar to the supervision questions, so make sure to get advice from your supervisors about the right scope and strategy for answering them.

The research papers are a great opportunity to chase up a niche topic that has been beckoning you for some time. Lots of people use one of the papers as an opportunity to focus on a different aspect of HPS from what they usually study, e.g. lots of philosophers do history essays, or historians will do something explicitly sociological.

The spacing of the submission dates means you need to be really organised. It is essential to keep your mind on the next project, and even begin preliminary work on it, especially for the dissertation: you may well need to visit archives and do research outside Cambridge, which can take a lot of planning. It's possible to focus on one thing at a time, but given that the set essays are done concurrently with the research papers, it can be quite easy to neglect the essays, and then panic come exam-week (bitter experience makes us want to ensure you all circumvent this). It's worth spending as much time as you can preparing for the set essay topics supervisions (i.e. those linked to the MPhil/Part III seminar), as early as you can in the year, as the week you have to write the set essays only really leaves you enough time to plan, write and edit.

It is good to start the year with an idea (however vague) for your first research paper, which you will begin work on almost immediately, with little time to hunt around for a topic. However, it's best to not be too attached to the ideas you have, as you will probably have to substantially change the approaches and sources you use. In general it will always be the case that the smaller and more specific the topic, the better. The research papers provide an opportunity to work on interesting and unfamiliar topics, which can be a lot of fun. But be aware that the first research paper can be of particular significance for those intending to apply for a PhD (and PhD funding) in the same year. This is the only piece of coursework already marked when applications are made in February. For some of you, applying for a PhD by December, even that won't be available, so it is good to chat with your supervisor or someone else in the Department about your PhD proposal. Additionally, the research paper deadline is typically quite tight – finding a topic, and starting work on it early, can be very useful.

It is essential to start thinking about dissertation topics, and to discuss these with potential supervisors, early in the year. Such advance planning helps a great deal; it is really easy to underestimate the amount of time and energy the dissertation requires (trust us on this!). A final word on time management: your three years in Cambridge should mean you already know the difference between a holiday and a 'holiday'. The course is very short, and nobody can afford to go home and forget about work for the entire vacation (though it is important to make sure you take some time off). It's not the sort of course where you can go from essay crisis to essay crisis via four days off, unfortunately. We would add that completing each piece of work, and especially the dissertation, is extremely rewarding. It is worth remembering that you can very quickly become expert in your field, and may even end up knowing more about it than your supervisor!

Supervisions and seminars

As in previous years, and much more so this year, everything revolves around supervisions.

For the research papers and the dissertation you will have a supervisor who is ideally an expert on your chosen topic and who will guide you in the construction of your essay. Generally, meetings with supervisors ('supervisions') involve submitting a piece of work, however preliminary, and discussing it and any ideas/problems you may have. It is up to you to decide how often you meet with your supervisor; it is sometimes tempting to avoid supervisions if you feel you have not done enough work. However, these meetings can be an extremely useful way of solving a problem or getting the ball rolling. It is very important to make good use of your supervisor. As an expert in your research area, s/he is a wealth of information that can be difficult to come by otherwise. Do not be afraid to ask questions or to get things wrong – that is how you learn! The supervisor's role is not to judge you, but to help you. This is particularly important to remember if you do not have a background in HPS. The Part III Manager should be able to help you if you have any trouble finding a supervisor or if you're having problems with your current supervisor, so get in touch if there's a problem (and do it early to make sure there is enough time to resolve the issue).

Part III students are also required to attend the weekly Part III-MPhil seminar (which is just for you and the MPhils) and the Departmental Seminar, where members of the Department and invited speakers present to the whole Department each week. However, in addition, there is a fantastic array of regular seminars and reading groups in the Department that you can attend.

The Part III-MPhil seminar is generally the only seminar that has a required reading list. The topics of the Part III-MPhil seminar form the basis of your set essays, and you will get supervisions on these topics in preparation of the set essays, which are a week long take-home exam. The first ten (or more) are run by senior members of the Department, but you lead the discussion. For the remaining sessions, you present on the work you're doing. These are a great way to gain useful feedback on the work you're doing, so it's really important that you give everyone's presentations your full attention each week. The topics in the Part III seminars are diverse, and many might seem unrelated to what you're working on, particularly if you see yourself as an 'historian' or 'philosopher', but everyone can take something from them; the more effort you put in to doing the readings and talking in seminars, the more worthwhile they will be.

It is also worth thinking in advance which are the topics you would like to cover in the set essays, and do a bit of extra work on them prior to the seminar. The various other seminars and workshops are extremely important in helping you to develop a knowledge of HPS as a whole, as well as to pursue your own interests by attending specialist talks given by respected academics. They are a fantastic way of exploring unfamiliar parts of HPS. In addition, you are required to go to one seminar or reading group run by the Department, but we would definitely advise that you go to as many as you can. It's worth stressing that you're not expected to contribute if you go; if it's a subject you don't know much about, it's perfectly fine just to listen. Indeed, if you do that, you can gain exposure to a fantastic amount of knowledge.

There are also a great number of seminars that go on in other departments, and relevant ones are generally well-advertised on the HPS Discussion list. It's also worth keeping an eye on for talks going on in the University. As a member of the University you can attend any undergraduate lecture course. The HPS Department offers numerous lecture courses, which are a great way to gain background knowledge, and you may also find relevant lectures in other departments. If someone is offering a course related to your research, attend their lectures, and don't feel shy about approaching him or her as a potential supervisor. Undergraduate lectures, in whatever tripos, are often the best general introduction to a research area. As a Part III student, lectures are not compulsory, but are definitely worth attending. The bonus is that you do not have to do additional work – you can just listen and take notes for your own benefit! A word of warning though: don't devote all your time to attending lectures and forget to work on your essays!

Best of all, the Department not only houses the world's foremost scholars (and scholars-in-the-making) of HPS, they are also fantastically open and friendly people. Don't hesitate to share your work with members of the Department (even if they aren't your official 'supervisor' for a project), PhD students, and your fellow Part IIIs and MPhils. Most are delighted to help, and this sort of one-on-one feedback can be invaluable. If you're encountering specific problems, it won't be hard to find someone who's gone through the same thing and is happy to give you relevant and friendly advice. To really make the most of the expertise around the Department, we particularly recommend aiming to have a draft (ideally the second one) of each piece of work ready at least a week before the deadline so that you can give people something to comment on.


The HPS Department is small and notoriously friendly. There is a coffee/tea room for you to lounge in, check your email, chat and share your woes with other students and the occasional departmental staff member. One of the most important factors in having an enjoyable Part III year is to get to know your fellow Part IIIs and MPhils, discuss your work and share your experiences and concerns, and even talk about things that have nothing to do with HPS. Your social life in fourth year is very different, given how many of your friends will be facing up to the real world, and all the Part IIIs comment that one of the highlights of fourth year is the social life that comes from the Department.

In addition, the Department's staff and students always go to The Eagle or the Bath House following the weekly Departmental Seminars, and afterwards move on to a restaurant for dinner. This is a great chance to meet speakers, discuss research ideas, meet people, and just have fun. It can seem a bit intimidating socialising with your lecturers and supervisors, but it is a good way to feel at home in HPS, and you can be sure they will go to the pub, even if you don't.

The Department is a great place to make friends and to do research. Plan ahead, be organised, involve yourself in the Department, and you can't go wrong. If you do have any problems or concerns, talk to your supervisor, the Part III Manager, or your DoS. If you have any suggestions for improvement of the course, make use of your student reps. The Department does actually listen to student recommendations, and with such a fresh course you have a chance to make a big difference. Finally, have a great year!