Ph.D. training

The Inequality Ph.D. Scholars program

A graduate training fellowship for Harvard Ph.D. students in the social sciences, developed with the National Science Foundation. Harvard Ph.D. students may apply at the end of their first or second of doctoral study at Harvard.

Overview: Launching a new generation of Inequality Scholars

The Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy is pleased to announce two exceptional fellowship opportunities for Harvard University doctoral students in the social sciences. We are now accepting applications for our second cohort (beginning fall 2017) of Inequality & Wealth Concentration Scholars and Malcolm Hewitt Wiener PhD Scholars in Poverty and Justice.

A gift by anonymous donors to the Harvard Kennedy School launched the first cohort of eight Inequality and Wealth Concentration Scholars in 2016, giving new momentum to Harvard University efforts to cultivate the very best emerging scholarship on issues of inequality. This generous gift makes possible continued opportunities for PhD students to apply themselves to consequential problems and to gain insights and understanding from neighboring social science disciplines in tacking these issues.

Alongside this initiative, we continue to build a cadre of Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Scholars in Poverty and Justice under the Inequality & Social Policy umbrella, two doctoral fellowships each year designated for Ph.D. students whose research will advance our understanding of problems of material disadvantage and criminal justice, and contribute to the discovery of social policy solutions to some of our most pressing societal challenges.

Exemplary research programs are strongly multidisciplinary, pushing the frontiers of research by continually confronting new perspectives and engaging with the best scholarship being developed in other fields.

We are honored that these contributors have chosen to invest in Ph.D. students. At a time of growing public concern about economic inequality, disparities in life chances, and the implications of high levels of wealth concentration, social science research can bring deep and rigorous scholarship to bear in analyzing these issues. We view the range of research questions represented in the program as the future of much exciting and important work in the social sciences. It is the choices made now, the problems young scholars choose to pursue, that will shape the research agenda and our progress on these issues in the coming years.

Walkway to John F. Kennedy Park

The immediate impact of these gifts is that they enable Harvard to carry forward a unique initiative established almost 20 years ago with support from the National Science Foundation, a multidisciplinary learning experience designed to equip Harvard Ph.D. students across the social sciences to advance the very best problem-driven research on issues of poverty, inequality, and socioeconomic mobility.

A distinctive new component for the coming five years will be a coordinated endeavor to develop new research on top-end income inequality and wealth concentration, the main drivers of U.S. economic inequality in recent decades. Significant new resources will enable Harvard Ph.D. students to press forward new lines of empirical research to better understand the nature of these trends at the top of the distribution and their economic, political, social, and policy consequences. Research has only begun to investigate these issues.

New lines of research: Top-end income inequality and wealth concentration

To spur new lines of research, half of the 8-10 Inequality and Wealth Concentration fellowships are designated for Harvard Ph.D. students whose research interests encompass questions pertaining to top-end inequality or wealth concentration: their causes, consequences, or policies to address these developments. (The remaining Inequality and Wealth Concentration fellowships are open with respect to substantive focus and may reflect any of the Inequality & Social Policy themes).

Research has increased our understanding of important aspects of inequality by focusing on disparities in specific segments of the income distribution—e.g., gaps between the 10-50th or 10-90th percentiles. Yet overall economic inequality in the U.S. has been propelled largely by growth at the very top, which may reflect different determinants than explanations focused on other parts of the distribution. The pulling away of top incomes and wealth may have distinct consequences for economic growth, intergenerational mobility, or democratic politics. Policies aimed at addressing overall economic inequality or its consequences will likely differ from those designed to narrow gaps in specific segments of the distribution. Progress in either case will surely benefit by bringing greater analytic clarity to these “distinct, albeit interrelated challenges” of inequality (Summers, Kearney, and Hershbein 2015).

Magnitudes and trends in wealth inequality are even more striking, although measurement presents significant challenges and remains an important area of study. Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman find that most of this increase is driven by the top 0.1 percent, whose wealth share has grown from 7% in 1978 to 22% in 2012, comparable to levels seen in the early 20th century. At the same time, the bottom 90 percent wealth share has sharply reversed its historical upward trend, made possible by growing middle class wealth from pensions and homeownership through much of the mid-20th century. The bottom 90 percent wealth share, after growing from 20% in the 1920s to a high of 35% in the mid-1980s, had fallen to about 23% in 2012 (Saez and Zucman 2015).

The scale of these developments invites more systematic inquiry, including historical and cross-national comparisons. Does it matter that the gains of economic prosperity largely accrue to small share of households, or that historical patterns in wealth-building have again become more concentrated? What consequences do trends at the upper reaches of the distribution have on outcomes for others in the larger economy and society—e.g., through their potential effects on economic growth, upward mobility and life prospects for the next generation, or the concentration of economic and political power?

An engaged community of scholars

The Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy offers unparalleled resources for Harvard Ph.D. students working in these research areas. Over 65 Faculty participants are engaged in the program, drawn from the Harvard departments of Economics, Government, and Sociology; the Harvard Kennedy School; Harvard Business School; and Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Recent faculty additions to the program bring new strengths in income inequality and wealth concentration; intergenerational mobility; labor markets and human capital investment; government management of private-sector risks; regulation and government accountability; behavioral economics and household finance; judgment and decision-making; behavioral science in the design of social policy; regional economies and housing; and race, civil rights, and politics.

Doctoral participants gain membership in an active intellectual community of Faculty and PhD students advancing new research in the study of labor markets, cities and neighborhood effects, race, immigration, political inequalities, criminal justice, public economics and fiscal policy, and comparative political economy—among its fields of activity.

Proseminar III class

Doctoral participants join a line of accomplished Alumni who have come through the Inequality & Social Policy program since its founding in 1998. The program now counts nearly 170 PhD social scientists among its former doctoral fellows, including several who now participate as faculty members. Former and current Inequality & Social Policy fellows have authored over 50 books that are shaping the field today. Their work has garnered some 30 book prizes, 60 early career awards, and over 65 dissertation and article awards.

In drawing together leading scholars at Harvard and beyond, the program aims to enrich and extend the work of Harvard Ph.D. students with shared interests in questions of inequality and social policy. Doctoral students drawn from different disciplines gain opportunities they might not otherwise have to interact and learn from each other, from Harvard faculty drawn from across the University, and from the program's extensive network of national and international affiliates and alumni.

An integrated program of education and research

Doctoral participants pursue their research interests through an integrated set of training activities. The three-semester Proseminar in Inequality & Social Policy, taught by a multidisciplinary team of four faculty members, constitutes the core of the program. Ph.D. students gain exposure to advanced scholarship in other fields and develop new insights from seeing how other disciplines approach similar research problems.

Doctoral scholars also attend the weekly Inequality & Social Policy Seminar Series, which brings to Harvard a rich array of leading scholars from different disciplines to showcase the best and latest research in the field and stimulate ongoing discussion of new ideas. Conferences and special events bring together participants for exploration of larger themes and debates. To mark the launch of the Inequality and Wealth Concentration Scholars initiative, the program will be hosting a university-wide event, Ten Big Ideas in the Study of Inequality, on October 13, 2016, designed to identify the big and important questions in the field and catalyze further discussion and research.

Generous dissertation fellowship and research support

The program aims to encourage and cultivate the very best young scholars and new research in this domain. Doctoral students selected as Inequality and Wealth Concentration Scholars or Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Poverty and Justice Scholars will receive generous fellowship support to enable their full participation in this education and research initiative.

Scholars will generally be awarded a dissertation stipend of $32,000, reserved for use at the dissertation research stage (typically G-4 year), plus $5,000 in individual research funds, which may be used at any point during their doctoral studies.

These research funds are intended to enable Harvard Ph.D. students to carry out ambitious original research where costs otherwise might be prohibitive. In making these enhanced resources available, the Inequality & Social Policy program aims to open new possibilities for Harvard Ph.D. students to think boldly and creatively in pursuing innovative lines of inequality research.

Students who already hold substantial fellowship resources that effectively ensure five or more years of full stipend support (e.g. NSF, Soros, or Ford Foundation fellowship holders) will generally be awarded a larger and more flexible research fund of $12,000-$18,000 to directly support their academic work, in lieu of a dissertation stipend.

If you are a Harvard Ph.D. student interested in the program, we invite you to continue reading and to talk to other graduate students and faculty participants about their experiences in the program.  



Photos of William Julius Wilson's proseminar III class by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer.
Photo of walkway to John F. Kennedy Park by Pamela Metz.