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.

Before applying, applicants are strongly encouraged to contact their prospective supervisor(s) to confirm their availability and interest.

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 register in ASIA_V 699 (thesis course), starting in the first term of the program and for every subsequent term.

In addition, in the first two years, 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_V 591, usually taken in first year.
  • ASIA_V 592, usually taken in first year following completion of ASIA_V 591.
  • 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.
  • 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.

The comprehensive examination process is an opportunity to develop and demonstrate expertise in your field of study. Students read secondary and primary works in three fields relevant to their chosen area of scholarship and demonstrate through written and oral examinations that they have mastered this material sufficiently to proceed to independent research on their dissertation project.

The whole process—made up of the preparation of reading lists, writing essays/exams/syllabus, and oral defence—is intended to prepare the student for the development of the Prospectus and the writing of the Dissertation, as well as to demonstrate adequate background knowledge and organizational skills to teach university-level classes in each of the exam fields in the future.

By the beginning of their second year in the program, students should have established a committee (Research Supervisory Committee form, supervisor and two members, each overseeing one exam field) with whom to work toward the Comprehensive Exams. The supervisor should be an expert in the student’s primary field/discipline, and the committee members should be experts in the fields/disciplines of the student’s secondary and tertiary exam fields. Committee members can be UBC research faculty members in Asian Studies or other departments; in exceptional cases professors of teaching, or faculty at other universities, may also serve on UBC doctoral committees.

The student may change supervisor or committee members with permission from the Graduate Advisor.

Exam Topics: In consultation with the supervisory committee (and the Graduate Advisor, if desired), three fields—that is, three areas of reading—are decided. These will form the basis of the Comprehensive Exams. The student then formulates a reading list for each of the exam fields in consultation with the committee member who will examine them on that field. (See below for details on the parameters of the lists.) The intent of the reading list is to allow the student to situate themself as a scholar in a chosen field and to provide evidence of depth and breadth of knowledge in that field. A field may be geographically and chronologically focused, or it may be more methodologically oriented.

The three fields may be related in various ways to the student’s academic focus and research project. A typical arrangement is:

  1. Major or General Field, the branch of study in which the candidate’s research is expected to lie, e.g., Chinese poetry; this field is most often examined by the student’s supervisor
  2. Minor Field I, often a sub-category of the Major Field from which the thesis topic is expected to emerge, e.g., shi poetry of the Song period
  3. Minor Field II, which falls outside the Major Field but is relevant to the candidate’s research interests or represents an important methodology, e.g., history of the Song Period or comparative poetics

The field examinations do not need to be taken in the above order.

In consultation with the supervisor and the supervisory committee member (and Graduate Advisor, if desired), the student chooses between two exam formats, essay (for two fields or all three) and course syllabus (one field maximum, normally only in one of the two minor fields).

Essay Format

Upon completing the readings for the exam field, the student writes an original paper on a topic arising from the readings. The field supervisor should agree with the candidate in advance on a specific question or 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 resulting essay may play a role in the student’s future dissertation, for example as a literature review. The essay will typically focus on the material from the reading list, though it may reference other sources as appropriate (it should not, however, entail extensive original research beyond the material on the list). The essay should be 6,000 to 12,000 words in length, including notes and bibliography.

Course Syllabus Format

In this format the student creates a course syllabus directed to teaching a hypothetical course at a senior undergraduate or graduate level. This will be approximately 25 pages long, double-spaced, and will include a brief rationale for the course (500–750 words); 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 (including full bibliographic details). A short summary of each reading for each class session is to be provided together with a rationale for its use. Only one of a student’s three field exams can be in the syllabus format.

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); submitting more than one list at this stage, in final or draft form, is strongly encouraged
    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 to the field examiner and the Graduate Advisor 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 for the next field
  4. After all three written field exams are completed, share written exams with all committee members and take the comprehensive oral examination
  5. Within six weeks of taking the 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 oral prospectus defence
    3. Defend dissertation prospectus in an oral defence
    4. Submit Approval of Dissertation Prospectus form to Grad Program Assistant

Reading Lists

Each list should be developed in consultation with the examiner for that field. All lists must be approved by the Graduate Advisor for approval before any reading of items on the list is begun. The Graduate Advisor may require revisions to the list even after the exam committee member for that field has approved it, in order to assure fairness and consistency across the program.

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

  • Complete books and dissertations
  • Shorter items: a journal article, book chapter, or other reading of comparable length, including excerpts (up to 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. If the list includes other formats such as films, consult the Graduate Advisor on how to count such material. Typically, a film of roughly two hours would count as the equivalent of an article. The same item should not appear on more than one of a student’s reading lists.

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

Once the list is completed, the examiner sends an email communicating approval of the list to the Graduate Advisor and the Graduate Program Assistant. The document containing the list should include the total number of items, broken down into counts of complete books (including dissertations), book chapters, and journal articles.

Many field examiners choose to meet regularly with the student as they read through the items on the finalized and approved reading list for that field. This should be treated as a directed reading course (typically ASIA_V 580), for which the student is officially registered. In this way both the student and examiner can receive credit for the work done in preparing for the field.

Field examiners should advise the Graduate Program Assistant when the student has completed the readings and is planning to begin writing the essay or syllabus.

After finishing the readings for a field, students have up to six weeks to complete the essay or syllabus, including the time needed to receive feedback from the examiner on outlines and drafts. The student and the examiner should agree beforehand on what kind of feedback to expect and on a timetable for completion.

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 or syllabus. Up to six weeks of this time may be spent on writing and revising each written examination. After the last written examination is completed there will be up to one month for the committee members to read the essays/syllabus and for the student to prepare for the oral defence.

Evaluation of Written Examinations

As each comprehensive exam field is completed, the committee member in charge of that field—having read the student’s essay or syllabus—should send a message to the Graduate Advisor and Graduate Program Assistant indicating their approval of the written examination. Approval indicates the examiner expects that the written work could be defended at the first-class level in the oral examination.

No grade is assigned for the comprehensive examinations, however, the student will receive a course mark for any directed reading course in which they registered in conjunction with an exam field.

If the field examiner judges the paper of insufficient quality to defend orally at the first-class level, a meeting is scheduled with the student, the supervisor (if they are not the examiner for this field), and the Graduate Advisor. At this meeting the examiner presents the deficiencies in the examination and proposes a set of questions to be addressed in a written supplement. This supplement may be up to 3,000 words in length and must be completed within two to three weeks (the deadline should be set at the meeting). The number and scope of the questions should be set in accordance with these parameters. The supplement, once completed, becomes part of the written examination. If the examiner assesses the updated examination as ready for oral examination, the student moves on to the next field or to the oral examination. If the examiner assesses the written examination as unable to achieve first-class standing, the student will be required to withdraw from the program.

Comprehensive Oral Examination

Within four weeks of successful completion 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.

Once the third written examination is approved, the oral examination is scheduled. The Graduate Advisor appoints a Chair (a faculty member who is not part of the committee) for the oral exam. All members of the comprehensive exam committee must be present in person or via teleconferencing. Before the examination, the student provides the written examinations to all committee members and to the Chair.

The exam takes approximately two to three hours. The student does not give a presentation; instead the examiners start right in with questions. The student is asked to demonstrate breadth and depth of knowledge of the subject areas and the material they have read. In the first round, each examiner takes about 15 to 20 minutes to pose questions or make whatever comments they have on the written exam that they supervised . The round starts with the field most distant from the Major Field and ends with the Major Field exam. After the first round of questions, the examiners are free to ask questions based on their own or the other fields. The exam may lead to a more general discussion about the fields and how they interrelate, or about the student’s proposed dissertation research.

After the committee has finished its questioning, the student is asked to leave the room. The chair asks each of the examiners in turn to certify that student has passed the three fields, meaning that, taken together, the student’s performance in the written and oral examinations has achieved first-class standing (80%).

If the committee agrees that student has passed with first-class standing, the student is informed that they will advance to PhD candidacy once they have presented and defended the dissertation prospectus (normally within six weeks).

The written and oral examinations in each field receive one grade: pass/fail. If any of the comprehensive exam fields is judged to be below first-class (79% or below), the student will be asked to redo the oral examination in that field.

After the completion of the oral examination the Chair notifies the Graduate Advisor and the Graduate Secretary of the outcome.

If a student is required to retake the oral examination in one or more fields, a new session must be scheduled within one month, with the same chair (if available) and all committee members. The re-examination should devote about one hour to each field being re-examined. In advance of the re-examination, the committee members, in consultation with the Graduate Advisor, should provide the student with instructions on preparing for the new exam. This could include a summary of issues in their first examination, a list of specific questions to address, and/or the opportunity to open with a short presentation.

A student will be allowed to retake the oral examination only once, and will be required to withdraw from the PhD program upon a second failure in one or more fields.

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.

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