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 political theory and the great texts of political philosophy, some on institutions, leaders, and political behavior. The field of government at Cornell is divided into four broad 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 by taking the introductory course on government and politics in the United States. Students whose interests are more internationally focused may take Introduction to International Relations or Introduction to Comparative Politics, while those drawn to questions of political philosophy might begin with the introductory course that deals with political theory.

Beyond the introductory level, one can choose from many upper level lecture and seminar-style courses covering issues in American politics, Latin America, Europe (Western, Central and Eastern, including Russia), the Middle East, and East, South and Southeast Asia, and processes of political economy, war, and peace.

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

Students accepted to the honors program take a research design seminar in the fall of their senior year, and work with an individual faculty member on their senior thesis, to be completed by mid-April.

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

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 taken at Cornell or transferred in from another institution.

To complete the major, a student must:

  1. Complete two introductory courses. (GOVT 1111, GOVT 1313, GOVT 1615, or GOVT 1817/1827)
  2. Pass an additional GOVT course (at any level) worth a minimum of three 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.
  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 Government Major Requirements must be passed with a letter grade of C minus or above. Courses with S-U grades cannot 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. Once accepted, students will be notified by email of their acceptance and assigned a faculty advisor in the department. Note that double majors do not need a specific group of electives to list on the application to graduate data.arts.cornell.edu/grad/grad_app.cfm

Enrolling in Major Seminars

These are usually taken in the senior year (see above, no. 4). Preference in admitting students to the seminars numbered 4000.xxx is given to majors over non-majors and seniors over juniors. Students who have already taken a major seminar can enroll in other 4000 level courses, but, for those numbered 4000.xxx, only if space is available after students applying for the first time have been admitted.

The major seminar requirement can only be satisfied by taking a class taught by a faculty member in the Department of Government, in a class 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 Gov. faculty member.

Independent Study

Independent study, Government 4999, is a one-on-one tutorial arranged by the student with a faculty member of his or her choosing. Government 4999 is open to government majors doing superior work. It is the responsibility of the student to draft 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 creatively and analytically 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 to be undertaken.


Internships are often valuable experiences and students are encouraged to undertake them either during vacations or while studying in absentia. 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 an important set of commitments on the part of the student, the faculty 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 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.


Applicants must have a minimum grade point average of 3.5 in the Government Major. (FWS are not included in the major GPA). Students who hope to write an honors thesis are strongly encouraged to complete preparatory coursework in the relevant subfield(s) 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 research questions, develop a research design, and begin reading and research 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. A current list of the Government department faculty may be found here: government.arts.cornell.edu/faculty/a-z/. In consultation with their Government thesis 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 (there is no class meeting in the spring). 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 for the Honors Program

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

International Relations Minor

Cornell offers dozens of courses in many departments and several colleges that 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 careers in international law, economics, agriculture, foreign trade, international banking, government service, international organizations, or other cultural or scholarly activities.

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

Cornell encourages students to study abroad. However, 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.

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. It is advisable 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 toward the major, the course should have reading and writing requirements commensurate with our upper-level courses.
  2. CUA applicants must draft a proposed course schedule using the Cornell Abroad form and discuss it with their advisor before leaving. If the course program should change later, you should forward the new course information to your 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 papers written and exams taken abroad, any additional statements 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:

Government majors should only study in non-English speaking countries if they have achieved near-native fluency in that country’s language of instruction. Students are expected to study in the host country language, to be fully integrated into the student body of the host country, and to receive instruction at or above the level at Cornell. Thus you should select courses carefully, and ensure that you will not segregated with foreign students in any course intended for GOVT credit. If you have a concern relating to this rule, consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Note also that the number of credits assigned to a course at the host institution may change when transferred to the major here. A course taken for a semester will usually earn 3-4 credits, depending on the level of work for the course.

On returning from study abroad, students must make an appointment to see the Director of Undergraduate Studies who will review course materials and make the final determination regarding whether courses will count towards the government major, and at what level of credits. This should be done as soon as possible after returning 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 at its Wolpe Center building, 2148 O Street (near DuPont Circle) in Washington, DC. To get an application, go to the web site (ciw.cornell.edu/index.php?id=23) or stop by the CIW office in 101M McGraw Hall.

Students at CIW 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. One of those courses must be 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). No course credit is given for the experience aspect of the externship by itself.

Students may serve as externs with agencies or departments of the executive branch, the Supreme Court, or 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.

More information, as well as application forms, are available from the Cornell in Washington web page (www.ciw.cornell.edu) or the CIW 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 when the College of Arts & Sciences grants credit for coursework 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.

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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