skip to main content
HSS Home  /  Graduate Studies  /  Social Sciences PhD Program

Social Sciences PhD Program

The HSS PhD program in the social sciences offers the opportunity for highly motivated and quantitatively oriented students to pursue interdisciplinary research in areas common to economics, political science, political economy, history, psychology, anthropology, law, and public policy.

A foundational belief of the program is that a wide variety of social phenomena are best understood as the consequence of intelligent decisions by individuals pursuing their own ends. Caltech social scientists have established that such decisions can be modeled and that conclusions concerning social events should be based on observable and measurable parameters of those theories.

Caltech was one of the first research institutions to use laboratory experimentation in the study of economics and political science, and HSS remains one of the top departments—if not the top—in the world in this field. Under faculty supervision, graduate students conduct experiments in HSS research centers, including the Social Science Experimental Laboratory (SSEL) and the Caltech Brain Imaging Center (CBIC).

Graduate students in the social sciences PhD program are encouraged to begin largely independent research early in their graduate career. Many of the research projects involve direct collaboration between members of the faculty and graduate students. Graduate students are expected to participate actively in the intellectual life of the division, including attendance and participation in seminars and workshops. Seminars occur at least weekly and usually feature colleagues from other universities who have been invited to formally present their work. Workshops are more informal gatherings where students, faculty, and visitors present their work in progress.

Expected learning outcomes for a graduate student completing the social sciences PhD program include:

  • a strong background in economics, political science, and econometrics;
  • a solid understanding of the technical tools—which themselves require an understanding of different theoretical and empirical approaches—needed to carry out research at the frontier of the social sciences;
  • a demonstrated record of independent and high-quality research; and
  • an ability to collaborate and communicate across different fields in the social sciences.

Caltech conferred its first PhD in social science in 1978. Graduates of the program have been eagerly sought after and have found positions in leading university departments of economics, political science, and law, as well as jobs in government and industry. Additional information about graduates of the program is available on the alumni listings page.

Social Sciences Graduate Courses

The first-year graduate curriculum consists of courses in modern statistical and econometric methods; game theory, social choice, and decision theory; microeconomics; and American political institutions. These required courses give Caltech students the unique perspective and background that faculty believe yield special insights into economic and political interactions. This rigorous first-year training also provides students with the foundation and skills needed to conduct independent research early in their careers at Caltech.

The second-year curriculum is built around a series of course sequences that are used to set students on the road to active, independent research. Emphasis in these second-year courses is on areas of the faculty's current research interest, offering students a unique opportunity to work closely with individual faculty members in identifying and tackling research problems.

During their third year, graduate students in the social sciences are expected to complete the transition from coursework to independent research.

books on a shelf

To learn more about the research currently underway in the social sciences at Caltech, visit the research areas page.

grad students hanging out

For questions regarding the social sciences PhD program, please contact the option manager.