Preparing graduates of the field of government for business, law, politics, teaching, and a host of other professions

The Program

Guide to the Undergraduate Major in Government

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Cornell᾿s Department of Government is devoted to the study of political power and the interaction of citizens and governments. Some faculty members concentrate on theory, and some on applications. Some analyze the great texts of political philosophy, and others examine the behavior of power wielders and publics in the United States and in other societies. The field of government at Cornell is divided into four sub-fields: American politics, comparative politics (the institutions and political processes of other nations), political theory (philosophy), and international relations (transactions between nations).

Entering students often begin taking the introductory course on the government of the United States. Students whose interests are more internationally focused may take Introduction to International Relations or Introduction to Comparative Politics, while those who want to reflect on questions of political philosophy might begin with the introductory course that deals with political theory.

Students who continue their study of government beyond the introductory level can choose from many upper level and seminar-style courses. There are also courses that cover issues in Latin America, Europe (Western, Central and Eastern, including Russia), the Middle East, and East, South and Southeast Asia.

The department offers special opportunities within the major such as the minor in International Relations, the Cornell in Washington program, the Study Abroad program, and the option to do an independent study project of your own design with a faculty member.

A number of government majors participate in the department᾿s honors program. Students in the honors program take a research design seminar in their senior year, and work with an individual faculty member on their senior thesis, completed by mid-April.

Graduates with a major in government have entered business, law, journalism, government service, politics, teaching, graduate school, and a host of professions. The study of government has one major purpose: to teach how to think and to write rigorously and creatively about issues of public life.

Major applications are available in the Government Department Office, located in 210 White Hall, or here:


To be admitted to the major, a student must pass two government courses. Applications to the major are available in the Government Department, 210 White Hall.

To complete the major, a student must:

  1. Complete two introductory courses. (GOVT 1111, GOVT 1313, GOVT 1615, GOVT 1817)
  2. Pass an additional GOVT course (at any level, but minimum 3 credits)
  3. Accumulate an additional 28 credits of government course work at the 3000-level or above.
  4. Complete at least one seminar-style course in government (which can be applied toward the 28 credits). These courses include those numbered 4000.xx; and other 4000-Level courses in which no more than 15 students are enrolled. This seminar must be taught by Government faculty.
  5. Ensure that the coursework in Government includes at least one course in three of the four subfields: American Politics, Comparative Politics, Political Theory and International Relations.
  6. All courses used to fulfill the Government Major Requirements must be passed with a letter grade of C minus or above. No courses with S-U grades can be used toward the major.

To summarize, a total of 10 government courses are required to complete the major.

When registering for government courses, please keep in mind that the course catalogue is not always the most reliable guide to the courses that are actually offered in a given semester. A more up-to-date listing of courses offered in any particular semester may be found by clicking on the Courses menu at the top of this page.

Worksheet to assess your progress in the Major:

Double Major

Students who are interested in joining the Department of Government as a second major (double major) need to submit an application to be accepted just as single majors do. (The applications are available from the Undergraduate Field Coordinator.) Once accepted, students will be notified by email of their acceptance and of their faculty advisor in the department. Double majors who wish to use a single course to fulfill requirements in both majors should obtain the approval of their faculty advisor.

Major Seminars

Usually taken in the senior year, these seminars, are government courses numbered 4000.xx. Preference in admitting students to these seminars is given to majors over non-majors and seniors over juniors. Students who have already taken a major seminar can enroll in a 4000.xxx course if space is available after those applying for the first time have been admitted.

The seminar requirement can only be satisfied by taking a class taught by a faculty member in the Department of Government with 15 or fewer students enrolled. Please visit the Government Department website to review 4000-level courses that would fulfill your senior seminar requirement. Cornell in Washington seminars can count toward this requirement if taught by a Govt faculty member.

Independent Study

Independent study, Government 4999, is a one-on-one tutorial arranged by the student with a faculty member of their choosing. Government 4999 is open to government majors doing superior work. It is the responsibility of the student to establish the research proposal and to find a faculty sponsor. Applicants for independent study must present a well-defined program of study that cannot be satisfied by pursuing courses in the regularly scheduled curriculum. No more than 4 credits of independent study may count towards fulfillment of the major. Emphasis is on exploring a body of related readings for analysis and criticism, and writing a substantial paper. Independent study cannot be used to fulfill the seminar requirement. The application form for Independent Study is available in 210 White Hall and must be completed at the beginning of the semester in which the course is being taken. It is assigned a different number of credits, depending on the amount of work.


Internships are often valuable experiences and students are encouraged to undertake them either during vacations or while studying in absentia. Though valuable, the department does not grant academic credit for this experience. However, internships are integrated into the Cornell in Washington Program.

Honors Program General Information

Writing an Honors Thesis represents a very important set of commitments on the part of the student, her or his adviser, and the Government Department as a whole. It provides an opportunity to deepen one’s knowledge about a topic to a degree not possible in a single semester. It requires a considerable amount of work, a sustained time commitment over the course of a year, and imposes opportunity costs on other experiences many students look forward to during their senior year. Therefore, writing an Honors Thesis is not for everyone. It is a privilege accorded to those students who (1) have demonstrated excellence throughout their undergraduate academic career and (2) who have a compelling desire to answer a clearly-articulated and substantively important research question, and are willing to undertake a substantial amount of work to do so. Each fall, a small number of highly qualified seniors enter the Government Honors Program.


Applicants must have a minimum grade point average of 3.5 in the Government Major. (The GPA is calculated using only the courses with the prefix of “GOVT”. FWS are not calculated into major GPA.) Students who hope to write an honors thesis are also strongly encouraged to complete coursework in the relevant subfield before filing an application.

Program Structure

The Honors Program involves two courses taken during the student’s senior year. Participants enroll in Government 4949, the Honors Thesis Research Seminar, during the fall semester. They formulate their topics, develop a research design, and begin reading and researching under the supervision of their thesis advisor with much discussion and preliminary drafts shared with classmates and the honors course instructor. (The chair of an honors thesis must be a faculty member in the Department of Government, and may or may not be the same person as the student’s major advisor. A current list the Government department faculty may be found here: http://government.arts.cornell.edu/faculty/a-z/. In consultation with their Government adviser, students may opt to name an additional ‘ad hoc’ adviser from outside the Government department should both student and adviser deem it necessary.) Participants are enrolled in Government 4959 during the spring semester; GOVT 4959 is operated as a one-on-one independent study experience with the thesis adviser. Students submit the final thesis for evaluation in mid-April. Each of these courses, GOVT 4949 and GOVT 4959, carries four credits and each receives a separate grade. Government 4949 also fulfills the senior seminar requirement.

The Government Department’s Undergraduate Committee meets in early May to determine the level of honors, for each student. The final decision about honors is based on the quality of the thesis, the grade record in the major, and the oral thesis defense (if any).

Submitting an Application

Applications are accepted from juniors completing their second semester. The Honors Program applications are due on or by March 15. The students who are accepted to the program will be added automatically into 4949 by the department.*

*(Note: If students have already pre-enrolled and are at their maximum credits for the semester they must either petition to go over hours with their Advising Dean or drop a course to make room to add 4949 at the beginning of the fall semester.)

International Relations Minor

Cornell offers dozens of courses in many departments and several colleges which provide a strong grounding in the International Relations field; these include courses in government, economics, history, rural sociology, modern languages and linguistics, international comparative labor relations, and others.

The purpose of the International Relations Minor is to provide a structure for undergraduate students who will go on to specialize in careers in international law, economics, agriculture, foreign trade, international banking, government service, international organizations, or other cultural or scholarly activities. Some students major in one of the traditional departments such as History, Government, or Economics; still others major in different disciplines, while seeking to gain a basic understanding of important international problems.

Students choosing to minor in International Relations should visit www.einaudi.cornell.edu/initiatives/irc.asp or the International Relations Minor Coordinator in 140A Uris Hall.

Cornell Abroad

Approval of credit for work done abroad is not automatic. It is important to realize that some courses students may wish to pursue might not be applied towards the major. Careful planning is essential, and it is often impossible to know in advance whether the courses taken elsewhere will be equivalent to courses offered on campus.

Before students go abroad, the Government Department requires that majors meet with their advisor to go over the following points:

  1. Determine the courses that interest you and will count towards your major requirements. Students are advised to try to find courses that are similar to or compatible with courses that are offered at Cornell. Courses that have unusual requirements, duplicate course work already taken at Cornell, or do not meet the standards of upper level Cornell courses should be avoided. To be awarded four credits towards the major, the course should have reading and writing requirements commensurate with our upper level courses.
  2. Students must present their proposed course schedule to their advisor before leaving. If this is not possible, students should forward the information to their advisor for review as soon as it becomes available.
  3. Students are required to bring back a complete record of the courses that they took while abroad. This record should include: course syllabi, copies of any papers written while abroad, copies of exam questions or a statement from the faculty member explaining the course requirements, and the official transcript. Abroad courses must earn a B- or better to be counted for the major.

Studying in a host country where the official language is not English

The Department warmly encourages students to study in non-English speaking countries. However, credit for GOVT coursework in a non-English speaking country will only be granted under the following conditions:

Our Majors should only go abroad to non-English speaking countries if they have achieved near-native fluency in that country᾿s language of instruction. This requirement may in fact be much more rigorous than the admission standard imposed by the host institution upon foreign students. The host institution may make many different courses of study available to foreign students. However, we expect our Majors to study in the host country language.

It is our intention that our Majors will be fully integrated into the student body of the host country, and that they will receive instruction at or above the Cornell level. The Department expects Majors to select their courses carefully, and to ensure that they are not segregated with foreign students in any course intended for GOVT credit. Any student who has a concern relating to this rule should consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies. The department is unlikely to grant credit for a course that is specifically tailored for foreign students and not taught in the host-country language.

On returning from study abroad, students must make an appointment to see the Director of Undergraduate Studies who will review all pertinent materials and make the final determination regarding whether courses will count towards the government major. This should be done as soon as a student returns to campus.

Cornell in Washington

The Cornell in Washington Program allows students the opportunity to study public policy and to do supervised research during a semester in residence in Washington, DC.

Students are required to enroll in GOVT 4998, Politics and Policy: Theory, Research, and Practice. This course is the core of the program and involves a research project carried out in conjunction with an externship. GOVT 4998 may not be used to satisfy the major seminar requirement. However, it does count for two courses toward the major (a total of 8 credits). Students may serve as externs with agencies of the executive branch, with the Supreme Court, or with congressional committees. Externships with interest groups, research institutions and other policy organizations are also possibilities. Students are expected to work three days a week and carry a full academic load of 12 to 16 credits. No course credit is given for the experience aspect of the externship.

Students can enroll in a variety of seminars in political science, history, economics, sociology, natural resources and architectural history at the Cornell in Washington Center. The course listing changes each semester.

More information, as well as application forms, are available from the Cornell in Washington web page (http://www.ciw.cornell.edu) or the Cornell in Washington office located in McGraw Hall.

Transfer Students and Transfer Credits

The department welcomes transfer students who wish to major in Government. Transfer students should note that the College of Arts & Sciences grants credit for the coursework that they have completed at another institution, it does not automatically get applied to the Government Major. To accomplish that, transfer students should meet with the Director of Undergraduate Studies who approves courses for major credit.

For more information on transfer credit policies, please consult the FAQ page.

Primary Contacts

  • Director of Undergraduate Studies Elizabeth Sanders
    314 White Hall
    Ithaca, NY 14853-7091
    tel: (607) 255-2305
  • Undergraduate Field Coordinator 210 White Hall
    Ithaca, NY 14853-7901
    tel: (607) 255-4180
    fax: (607) 255-4530

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