Part II History and Philosophy of Science

by Henry Marshall

History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) is claimed to be the most “artsy” of the NST Part II courses. Part of it’s biggest challenges, especially when coming from a long background in medicine and the sciences, is getting to grips with the course essentially being an arts subject in disguise. This guide aims to cover some basic details about the course followed by some general guidance about working throughout the year, advice about primary source essays, the dissertation and examinations.

Course Introduction

As listed on the HPS website, students must choose a minimum of three papers to take, each contributing 20% towards the final result. All students must complete two primary source essays both equally weighted at 10% each. On top of this students can either choose to take another paper – four in total – or write a dissertation of between 6000-12000 words.

Think about your choice of papers carefully – it is the most difficult thing in the world to motivate yourself to read a work of Foucault when there was a different course that avoided him like the plague (ironically, the History of Early Medicine course, Paper 2, covers the plague, and avoids Foucault). In the first fortnight of term it is worth attending more lecture series to get a feel for different courses, as you do not need to enter your examinations until later in Michaelmas. Bare in mind that some of the opening lecture series may not be like the rest of the course so make sure you’re informed of the course content as well. There will be some aspects of every course that aren’t that great but luckily when it comes to exams you should be able to skirt around the parts you didn’t enjoy.

When it comes to choosing whether or not to do a dissertation, my advice would be to do one. It’s tough to get in to the high 70s in an exam. It would require a superb candidate for examiners to award marks this high. However, in 2012 of the handful of candidates whose results I know personally, I know of at least two who scored 80+ on their dissertations. A score of 80 on a dissertation would drag a high 2.i candidate into first territory and provided you come up with a good idea and are willing to put the hours in to become an expert on your topic, getting a first on a dissertation is a realistic possibility for most people. This information is also in the 2011 Examiner’s Report: “12 out of 27 HPS Part II dissertations were awarded Firsts (44%), and two attracted marks in the 80s. The mean mark for the dissertations (69.1) was significantly higher than for the written papers (66.6). Only 2 dissertations received a Lower Second.”

Working through the year

Another reason to carefully choose your papers is that it is good to have an interest beyond simply the academic demands is due to the volume of reading that you need to do to stay on top of every paper. No enjoyment means no motivation.

It’s advisable to read at least one item on the reading list, preferably at least two per lecture you attend as you go through the year. Make about a page of notes on each piece you read and these will be your first port of call when it comes to revision. Try to arrange your supervisions at the rate of about one per week throughout the year. It’s highly likely you’ll end up with about six in the final three weeks of Michaelmas as you’ll be panicking to complete first drafts of primary source essays as well as catching up on the supervisions you didn’t have in the first fortnight of term. Everyone is in the same boat here.

Aim with supervision essays to read everything on the reading list (plus extra is always good). Make notes on everything you read as these will serve you well in exam term. Make essays interesting and do not just reel of a list of facts – something you may be used to if from a medicine background. The first term is about formulating your essay technique; in general it is better to, provided you’ve read everything, argue a point well even if it has since been further nuanced than to write something that is a re-hash of everything you’ve read. Perhaps align yourself to a couple of articles that you strongly agree with, criticizing work with which you disagree. Don’t be too strongly influenced by the first thing you read and try to look at everything on the reading list before you start writing. Two risks here are that you miss one item, formulate your own argument and it is essentially the same as that one article you missed. Or if you do not read the more recent work then you might argue something which has been overturned or has since been strongly criticized. History of Science has changed significantly in the last thirty years so try to use the most up to date sources and articles.

Primary Source Essays

The structure of the year tends to lend itself to having the Christmas holidays filled with writing the primary source essays and the Easter break filled with completing the dissertation. In order to score highly on the primary source essays, given that you are only allowed two supervisions on them, write as comprehensive a draft as possible for first supervision. Try to have the bulk of the content complete. This may require some flexibility on your part – supervisions in week 10 of Michaelmas may be what is required in order to have enough to discuss in the supervision. For the second supervision, you should be reasonably happy to hand in the draft with few alterations which means in the supervisions you can deal with minor touch ups and small edits rather than any kind of reconfiguration of your argument. Changing significant content after the second supervision is dangerous ground as you will not have had supervised guidance on whether the content is good or bad, or more importantly, better than what you had before.

As for content of the essays, the department guidance and examiners report are useful at saying what the department likes and what they dislike. This insight is valuable and worth paying attention to. Just because it is based on a primary source does not mean that secondary sources should be neglected. It may be necessary to only consult a couple of secondary works to contextualize your argument, however it may be necessary to consult any where up to fifteen or twenty although this is entirely dependent on individuals, their topics and also individual supervisors.


To score highly on this there are a couple of things you can do to get ahead. Firstly, try to narrow down a topic over summer. Look at previous topics and think about what you would like to do when you have time and then you can even start doing some preliminary reading over the break. When term starts you can then get straight to work finding a supervisor and choosing a title. Secondly, when it comes to choosing a topic it is best to do something unique that, as far as you know, hasn’t been extensively looked at in History and/or Philosophy of Science before. This may mean doing something where bulk of your sources will be in someone’s notebook in the UL or the National Archives in Kew or in a library in Oxford or perhaps a museum somewhere random. The more unique your subject the more interesting it is to read and if you feel like you really are an authority on the subject after studying it extensively your work will be more informed and more engaged. Finally, set a week aside over Christmas and do some primary research. This really is invaluable and in the inevitable supervisions you’ll have in Lent you won’t be sitting there uninformed and with nothing to talk about.

Once you’ve researched a bit, write concurrently to reading. Make notes on everything – if they’re on the computer then you can search through them easily. When it comes to supervisions, try to have at least half of the dissertation written by the first proper one, provided you’ve met with your supervisor a few times before this to point you in the right direction. While the word limit is 6000-12000, in reality you should be aiming at 9000-12000. If you’re struggling to hit 6000 words then you haven’t done enough reading. Draft and re-draft and write then re-write. When you start writing you often try to say what you want in as many words as possible – by the end you’ll be trying to say what you need in as few words as possible so always try to be concise.


These run for a week in exam term. The two best ways to prepare is to write extensive essay plans answering past questions and to do timed essays (possible repeating material already covered in your extensive essay plans). Extensive essay plans (about 4-6 sides) make sure you have MORE than enough content – in fact, in term of fact regurgitation you’ll probably only need a couple of sides. The timed essays make sure you can get the content down coherently in 45 minutes. This really is a skill that must be practiced in HPS. Find a corner in the library and sit there for an hour and a half and write two essays or any other multiple of 45 minutes. What you write may be complete crap but it is a skill that needs practice. Do this (at the very least) a couple of times a week in the 4 weeks before exams. Of course, the more hours you spend learning facts will show in your essays but especially those from a medical background should remember that if you write an essay that vomits out digested material you’ll only get a 2.1. This is why time spent planning and practicing essays is so important in HPS.

A word of warning: be diligent when looking through past papers. The course has changed over the years and especially beginning in 2011 the papers were renamed and things were moved about. Be wary and look through for only the relevant questions.

Once in the exam, spend a few minutes planning but don’t spend more than 5 minutes as writing time is crucial and being left with less than 40 minutes might be insufficient. At the start of the essay really make sure you define the terms in the question. Not only is this an easy way to show that you’re thinking and engaging with the question, it also provides an opportunity to narrow down the broad concepts like “public”, “scientist” and “institution”. Following the introduction, four or five “content” paragraphs should follow contributing to and with evidence for the argument set out in the introduction. The conclusion should reaffirm what you have already said. It’s all pretty straightforward and if you have the content in your head from the prepared essay plans then it’s just a matter of answering the question. There really is no secret formula, be clear and concise and you’ll score well.