PhD Program

The PhD program in the Department of Asian Studies offers a thesis-based PhD degree to students working in a variety of regions and disciplines.

The PhD program in Asian Studies encompasses the cultures of South Asia (through the languages of Urdu/Hindi, Persian, Punjabi, and Sanskrit), the Himalayas, and East Asia (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), as well as Islamic Studies. Transregional studies that involve multiple regions or subregions are also welcome. Fields of study include literature, visual and popular culture, linguistics (historical and applied), history, religion, and philosophy.

Applicants must have a Master’s Degree in Asian Studies or the equivalent. Candidates must also have sufficient command of an appropriate Asian language to conduct advanced research. Currently, program faculty can supervise doctoral students working with Arabic (for Islamic Studies topics), Chinese (Cantonese,  Classical, and Modern), Hindi/Urdu, Japanese, Korean, Persian (for Indo-Persian topics), Punjabi, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. For Chinese specifically, reading knowledge of both modern and classical forms is expected.

Admission Requirements

Those interested in a PhD in Asian Studies must submit an application with the minimum admission requirements:

  • Master of Arts in Asian Studies or related field or equivalent from an accredited university-level institution.
  • Overall average of B+ (76% at UBC) in master’s degree program.
  • Before admittance, candidates for the Ph.D. program must have an appropriate Asian language. In the case of Chinese, this will mean a competent reading knowledge of both modern and classical forms of the language.

For more information about a minimum admission requirements please visit



In the PhD Asian Studies program we offer multiple research activities related to Asia. Through collaborative projects, lectures, workshops and professional development opportunities, our students are able to pursue their interests and make connections with scholars around the world.

Our strengths in language and literary studies are supplemented by our geographic and disciplinary breadth. The Department of Asian Studies offers a range of courses that specialize in everything from research seminars to methodological development.

Degree Requirements

Students pursuing a PhD in Asian Studies must complete the following course and language requirements in order to be considered for candidacy:

Students must complete a minimum of 12 courses, as follows:

  • Six courses each year within 24 months of entering the program
  • At least five of these courses must be content-courses, i.e. not a language course
  • ASIA 591, usually taken in first year
  • ASIA 592, usually taken in first year following completion of ASIA 591. Students must complete this course for credit before proceeding with their Comprehensive Exams.
  • ASIA 699: thesis courses. Students should register as soon as they’ve been accepted into the program.
  • A pan-Asia theory course within the department.
  • A region-specific theory/methodology course within the department,
  • A course outside the department, covering theory/methodology or other topic relevant to the student’s research

All incoming students should speak with their supervisor to discuss PhD language requirements, when and how other PhD requirements will be fulfilled, and the necessary coursework for their research area and topic.

All PhD candidates will be required to have a reading knowledge of a language relevant to their research as well as the language of their primary Asian research materials. You must pass your language requirements before taking the Comprehensive Exams, however requirement details will vary between fields and supervisors.

The supervisor will determine which language(s) are necessary for student’s research program and the level of ability needed to fulfill that program. This decision must be communicated to the Graduate Advisor and Graduate Program in the first term.

Students can demonstrate their language abilities in one of two ways:

  1. Completing a 300 level course at UBC in their relevant language
  2. Completing a challenge exam where the student translates a passage of scholarly prose into English

(New rules, effective July 1, 2019)

The language challenge exam is a process to demonstrate sufficient knowledge to use material in that language for research purposes. The student demonstrates this by producing in a 24-hour period a translation of a passage in the target language–typically, a piece of academic prose related to the student’s area of study. The translation should show that the student understands scholarly material in that language well enough to use it independently in their own work. Where appropriate, especially with classical languages, the material chosen for translation may be primary sources rather than scholarly works.


The challenge exam can be taken any time before the student advances to candidacy. The student and supervisor find a faculty member in Asian Studies (or, if none can be found within the department, from another unit) with sufficient knowledge of the chosen language and informs the Graduate Advisor. Then student and the supervisor find three texts in the language–typically scholarly articles or article-length selections from scholarly books–related to the student’s research and send them to the examiner. None of the material should be available in an existing English translation, and the examiner may reject any of the items that is inappropriate for this or other reasons, in which case the student provides an alternative to replace.

The examiner chooses from this material a passage of appropriate length–usually 2-4 pages of material of a reasonable and representative degree of difficulty. The student and examiner agree on a time for the exam and at the appointed start time the examiner or the graduate program assistant sends the passage to the student. Within 24 hours the student sends back the translation and supporting material.

During the examination, the student may use paper and electronic dictionaries as well as other reference sources. Machine translation software (Google Translate, etc.) may be used, but its use must be documented (see below). The student may not receive translation assistance from any other person, at this stage or while preparing for the exam; the use of inappropriate assistance constitutes academic misconduct.

The translation must be accompanied by the following supporting material:

  • RequiredA list of all resources used in the translation process (paper and electronic dictionaries, thesauri, language/grammar references, etc.; include publication details for books and URLs for online resources)
  • If any machine translation system was used(this includes any software or website that translates phrases and sentences rather than individual words), the student must include the output, if the student consulted it for all or part of the translation
  • Optionally, any drafts or notes from the translation process
  • Optionally, a short prose description of the translation process, which may highlight any particular challenges or difficult points

The translation and supporting material are submitted by email to the examiner by email within 24 hours and the exam is graded pass/fail (the examiner may choose to provide additional feedback in either case).

If a student fails their first attempt at the exam, they may retake it when they and the supervisor agree that they are ready to do so. The reading on which they were initially tested should be replaced with an alternate; optionally, they may change any of the other readings and submit them to the examiner for approval. The exam then proceeds as described above.

If the student fails the second attempt, the Graduate Advisor schedules a meeting with the student and supervisor to discuss how to proceed. Possible outcomes include waiting for further study to retake the exam, taking a 300-level class in lieu of an exam, or reconfiguring the student’s program around a project that does not require the language originally chosen. A student who fails a third attempt cannot advance to comprehensive examinations and may be asked to withdraw from the program.

  • Students are encouraged to take language courses as an auditor. A maximum of one content-course taken as an auditor can be counted as a course requirement for your degree.
  • Undergraduate courses at the 300 and 400 levels may be taken for PhD credit (up to a limit of 6 credits), and non-language courses may be included among your five required content courses.
  • 100- and 200-level courses may not be counted for PhD credit.
  • Some upper division undergraduate courses can be taken as 500 level courses if the instructor gives permission and if the student completes extra work. If you received your instructor’s permission, please consult the Graduate Secretary about registration.
  • You are required to get your supervisor’s approval for your registered courses each term. By the beginning of each term, your supervisor must email the Graduate Program Assistant and Graduate Advisor indicating your approved course list.

PhD students achieve Candidacy when they have:

  • Completed all required coursework.
  • Passed the Comprehensive Examinations
  • Had a prospectus approved by their supervisory committee.

At admission, the Graduate Advisor will assign the candidate to a supervisor. In the beginning of the student’s second year, the supervisor and the candidate, in consultation with the Graduate Advisor, will propose the fields in which the candidate will be examined in the comprehensive examination and the names of two other faculty members to be members of the candidate’s committee (Research Supervisory Committee form).

The candidate will be expected to be examined in at least three fields, which will normally be:

a) Major or General Field, namely the branch of study in which the candidate’s research is expected to lie, e.g., Chinese poetry;

b) Minor Field (I), namely a sub-category of (a), from which the thesis topic is expected to emerge, e.g., Shi poetry of the Song period; and

c) Minor Field (II), which falls outside (a) but is relevant to the candidate’s research interests, e.g., history of the Song Period.

The Ph.D. Comprehensive Examinations Committee is a three-member committee responsible for examining the candidate in the candidate’s selected fields. The major field is normally examined by the student’s primary supervisor in the Department of Asian Studies. The other two committee members will be composed of faculty members drawn from the appropriate fields, and can include colleagues from other departments, if sufficient justification is provided to the Graduate Advisor. The composition of the examination committee will be determined through consultation among the student, the student’s primary supervisor, and the Graduate Advisor.

Ph.D. candidates must sit three written examinations for the Comprehensives.

Exam Topics:  In consultation with the supervisory committee (and the Graduate Advisor, if desired), three fields—that is, three areas of reading—are decided upon that will form the basis of the Comprehensive Exams.  The student then formulates a reading list for each of the exam fields. (See below for details on the parameters of the lists.) The intent of the reading list is to allow the student to situate him/herself as a scholar in a chosen field and to provide evidence of depth and breadth of knowledge in that field. In consultation with the supervisor (and Graduate Advisor, if desired), the student chooses among the three exam formats listed below. (Format number 3, the course syllabus, may be used for only one of the three fields.) Students may choose a mixture of formats, if the supervisor agrees (i.e. one essay and two 24 hour exams, etc.).

Format 1: Essay. After the student has finished reading the materials on the reading list for the exam field, s/he writes an original paper on a topic arising from the readings. The field supervisor should agree with the candidate in advance on a specific topic, which may be an up-to-date bibliographic survey of the key positions and issues in the designated field, or may be more focused on a specific thematic or methodological question in that field. The paper should be of near-publishable quality. It is normally assumed that the resulting paper will play at least a minor role in the student’s future dissertation, but perhaps even a major role (e.g., a section or chapter), and/or the paper may form the core of a publishable journal article. Students have one month to complete the paper after finishing the readings for that exam field. Each paper should be maximum 40 pages long, including notes and bibliography. The ideal length is 25-35 double-spaced pages.

Format 2:  24-hour Exam. The student sits a take-home examination. If the student is using this option for more than one of the Comprehensive Exams, a week should be allowed between exams. After the student has finished the reading list for that field, the examiner will come up with five appropriate questions and mail them to the Graduate Secretary at least four days before the exam is to take place. On the designated day, the Graduate Secretary gives the questions to the student, and s/he answers three of the five questions and returns her answers to the Graduate Secretary and the Graduate Advisor within 24 hours. (Another option: the examiner presents three questions of which the student chooses one.) Recommended length of the paper is 20 pages.

Format 3: Course Syllabus. In this format the student creates a course syllabus directed to teaching at a senior undergraduate or graduate level.  This will be approximately 25 pages long, double-spaced, and will include a rationale for the course (2-3 pages, double-spaced); course learning objectives and goals; introduction to the course (purpose and intended audience); comments on pedagogical activities and approach; detailed description of assignments and evaluation; outline of all the classes with the themes and assigned readings (full bibliographic details).  A short summary of each reading for each class is to be provided together with a rationale for its use. The syllabus should be completed within one month from the time the student finishes the readings for that exam field.

Sample formats

Comprehensive Exam Process

The following steps must be completed, in order, to complete the comprehensive exam process and advance to candidacy.

  1. Complete all coursework and language requirements (typically at the end of the second year)
  2. Before beginning work on any of the reading lists
    1. Submit the following two forms:
    2. Submit at least one of the three reading lists to the graduate advisor (see below under Reading Lists for instructions on formatting and submitting lists)
    3. Once the above are approved, submit a Permission to Proceed to Comprehensive Exam form
  3. For each field
    1. Compile reading list and submit for approval before beginning to read (this may be done while reading or preparing the examination in another field)
    2. Start reading (see below, under “Reading Lists,” on working with committee members while reading)
    3. Pass written examination on that field before beginning to read the next field
  4. After all three written field exams are completed, share written exams with all committee members and take comprehensive oral examination
  5. Within six weeks after taking comprehensive oral exam
      1. Complete, collect signatures for, and submit Recommendation for Advancement to Candidacy form to Grad program assistant
      2. Submit dissertation prospectus to the supervisory committee and schedule prospectus defence
      3. Defend dissertation prospectus
      4. Submit Approval of Dissertation Prospectus form to Grad program assistant

Reading lists

Each reading list typically consists of between 30 and 50 items. There are two types of items:

1) Complete books and dissertations

2) Shorter items: a journal article, or chapter from book; excerpts (no more than 2-3 chapters) from a monograph

Each list must contain no more than 12 items of type 1 (complete books) and no more than 50 total items.

It is expected that in the student’s primary field (and possibly in relevant secondary fields) the reading list will include items in the original Asian language(s) appropriate to the student’s topic.

Each field’s list should be developed in consultation with the comprehensive exam committee member for that field. Once the list is completed, the committee member should send an email message communicating approval of the list to the Graduate Advisor and the Graduate Secretary.

Field examiners should advise the Graduate Secretary when the student has completed the readings and is planning to begin writing the 24-hour exam, essay or syllabus.

The comprehensive exams should be started and finished within 12 months. Typically the student spends 3-3.5 months on each exam field, doing the readings and then writing the essay, exam, or syllabus. The remaining 1.5-3 months gives the committee members time to read the essays/exams/syllabi and the student time to prepare for the oral defense.

Students must receive  Permission to proceed to Comprehensive Exam Form, signed by both the Graduate Advisor and Primary Supervisor, before starting comprehensive examination.


As each comprehensive exam field is completed, the committee member in charge of that field—having read the student’s essay, exam, or syllabus—should send a message to the Graduate Advisor and Graduate Secretary indicating their approval of the essay/exam/syllabus. Approval indicates that the essay/exam/syllabus is ready for the oral defense with no further revisions. (More revisions may be required after the defense.)

While no grade is assigned for the Comps*, the committee must deem the essay/exam/syllabus to be first class (80% or above). Criteria for success will be clear evidence of wide reading, sophisticated critical and interpretive skills, and the capacity to conceptualize issues.  Each of the papers and the course syllabus may be written only twice.  The second attempt is to be made within four to six weeks of the committee member’s response to the first attempt.  Any second attempt should respond to the comments and criticisms provided by the committee member on the first versions of the essay/exam/syllabus.  Failure to achieve first-class standing at this stage will result in the student being required to withdraw from the program.

The Oral Exam

Within four weeks of the last written examination, candidates will take an oral examination, to be based mainly on the candidate’s three written field examinations. All of the questions posed on the written exams are open to oral questioning. Other questions relevant to the field reading lists also may be expected.

Step one: the examiners need to agree in the first instance if the candidate’s answers (papers) are of sufficient quality to pass and thus merit an oral exam. This information must be conveyed to both the Graduate Advisor and the Graduate Secretary.

Step two: assuming all three examiners are satisfied that the written portion has been passed, the oral examination is scheduled. The Graduate Advisor appoints a Chair for the oral exam. All members of the comprehensive exam committee must be present in person or via Skype.

The oral exam itself is a free-wheeling conversation with the candidate designed to probe (again) for breadth and depth of knowledge of the subject areas. Examiners ask questions in turn, starting with the field most distant from the Major Field, and ending with the Major Field exam. After each examiner has had sufficient opportunity to ask questions about his/her field, all examiners are free to ask questions based on the other exam papers.

The exam takes about 2-3 hours. The student does not give a presentation; instead the examiners start right in with questions. Each examiner poses questions or makes whatever comments they have on the written exam that s/he supervised, for about 15-20 minutes each. Then there can be another round of that if the examiners want it. Often toward the end it gets into a general discussion about the exams and how they inter-relate, or about the student’s thesis topic.

Then the student is asked to leave the room. The chair asks each of the examiners in turn to certify that student has passed the oral defense. If everybody agrees that student has passed, student is informed that s/he will be admitted in the PhD candidacy as soon as s/he presents and defends the dissertation prospectus (which is supposed to be done within 6 weeks).

The written and oral examinations in each field will receive one grade: pass/fail. At the end of the defense, the committee deliberates on whether the papers and the oral defense merit a pass. If any of the comprehensive exam fields is judged as less than first class (79% or below), the student will be asked to re-do the paper for that field.

If a student fails a minor field, the student fails the examination and must repeat both the written and oral examinations in the minor field. A student who fails the major field or both minor fields must repeat the written and oral examinations in all fields. No substitution of fields at re-examination will be permitted. A student will be allowed to re-sit comprehensives only once, and will be required to withdraw from the Ph.D. programme upon a second failure in one or more fields.

A students needs to provide all three examiners, the Graduate Advisor and the Graduate Secretary with copies of all three exams papers.

The Graduate Secretary asks the Oral Exam Chair if s/he wants copies of the exams (papers).

The dissertation prospectus develops an argument proposing the direction in which the student expects their research to develop. Prepared in consultation with the supervisory committee, the Dissertation prospectus must be defended within six weeks of the comprehensive exam oral defense.

The Prospectus should be written in such a way that it makes good sense to academics outside the area of specialization.  It should, accordingly, include relevant explanation and detail at every stage; it is closer to a grant application or book proposal than a research essay.  The Prospectus should be approximately 10 to 15 pages (not including bibliography), double-spaced.
Ideally, the defense of this document should take place in a face-to-face discussion with the Supervisory Committee.

There is normally no Chair for the Prospectus defense. The Prospectus defense allows the supervisory committee to communicate with each other and with the student about specific expectations regarding the timing and strategy of dissertation research and writing, and any emendations to the research plan or bibliography. Approval of the Prospectus will be determined according to such criteria as the originality and value of the project, quality of research, and care of preparation.  Should the supervisory committee decide at this stage that the program of research has not yet been adequately described and rationalized, it will invite the student, in consultation with the supervisory committee, to revise the relevant portions of the Prospectus for a second delivery within six weeks.  If, on this second occasion, the committee remains dissatisfied, the student will be required to withdraw from the program. Candidacy is achieved only after the Prospectus has been approved and the appropriate paperwork (Approval of Dissertation Prospectus Form and Recommendation for Advancement to Candidacy Form) have been given to the Graduate Secretary.

Quick Links

On this page
    Back to toparrow_upward