Degree Programs

Inner Asian and Altaic Studies

Inner Asian and Altaic Studies deal with the history and cultures of the peoples in the steppe, mountain, forest, and oasis areas between China, Russia, western Iran, and Pakistan. This geographic area comprises Central Asia (namely former Soviet Central Asia, Xinjiang, eastern Iran, and Afghanistan), Kazakhstan, the northern regions of Pakistan, Tibet (including Qinghai, eastern Sichuan, Gansu, and northwestern Yunnan), Mongolia, and Manchuria. The Altaic languages include the Turkic group, the Mongolian group, and the Tunguzic group.

The Committee on Inner Asian and Altaic Studies was established in the fall of 1972 for the purpose of stimulating and integrating instruction and research in these areas. Harvard is preeminent among the very few universities where Inner Asian and Altaic studies may be pursued. Harvard’s library holdings in East European, East Asian, Islamic, and South Asian areas led to a development of strength in the Inner Asian and Altaic fields prior to the actual establishment of this program. The research centers and degree programs that exist at Harvard on the four sides of the Inner Asian area have contributed much material directly relevant to the study of this region. Harvard possesses outstanding collections in the Arabic, Chinese, Indian, Iranian, Russian , Tibetan, and Turkish languages, which comprise the most important primary sources for the study of this area, as well as in Manchu and Mongolian. These collections are variously held by the Widener, Harvard-Yenching, Houghton, Dumbarton Oaks, Gibb, Tozzer, and Fine Arts libraries. The East Asian Research Center and Harvard’s microfilm collection also contain important source material.

The PhD program in Inner Asian and Altaic Studies is modeled on similar joint degree programs for adjacent areas, in particular the PhD programs in History and East Asian Languages and in History and Middle Eastern Studies. Like these, the PhD program in Inner Asian and Altaic Studies is not training in area studies as such but rather a program in an established discipline (i.e., anthropology, art and architecture, history, linguistics, literature, or religious studies) with emphasis on Inner Asia and/or the Altaic languages. The program includes a language requirement and a general examination in three fields, and is restricted to candidates for the PhD degree. It does not offer a Master’s program.

Prerequisites for Admission

All students in the program are expected to meet the requirements of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, including a bachelor’s degree from a recognized institution, a superior undergraduate record, and the reading knowledge of at least one appropriate foreign source language such as, for example, Arabic, Chinese, Manchu, Persian, Russian, or Turkish. A master’s degree in hand is advantageous.

The requirements for the degree are:

Academic Residence

A minimum of two years is required. In most cases, however, fulfillment of all requirements for the degree will involve at least one additional year of course work. In consultation with the student, the committee members and advisors will arrange a particular program of study. .

Financial Requirements

See GSAS Guide to Admission and Financial Aid or The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook.

Introductory Courses

All first-year students in this program should take an introductory course in at least one of the following fields given by members of the committee.

  1. History of Inner Asia
  2. Archaeology and Art of Inner Asia
  3. Comparative and Historical Turkic, Mongolian, Manchu, Tibetan, Tunguz, or Altaic Linguistics
  4. Inner Asian Philology (Khotanese Saka, Sogdian, Tibetan, Tokharian, Gandhari [Niya] Prakrit, etc.)

Language Examinations

Upon enrolling in graduate school the candidate should offer proof of competence in at least one foreign "tool" language (this will be done by way of examination in the first term of study), and by the end of the second year, he or she should also demonstrate competence by way of examination in a second "tool" language, selected from among those ­especially pertinent to the student’s topic of specialization. "Tool" languages, such as French, German, Italian, Russian, and Japanese, are to be distinguished from "source" languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Manchu, Mongolian, Persian, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Turkic; in particular cases, where one of the latter is not a "source" language it may be considered a "tool" language. Students are expected to be competent in the language(s) of their primary focus and will be required to take written examinations in their "source" language or languages, both with and without the aid of a dictionary.

General Exam

Normally at the end of the second year of residence or in the third year of residence, the candidate will write a general examination in three fields approved in advance by the committee. One of these fields should cover the history or culture of a major society outside of Inner Asia (e.g., Western Europe, Russia, Islamic Middle East, East Asia, South Asia, or the Americas). The other two will be focused on:

  1. Pre-Islamic History of Inner Asia (to the 10th century)
  2. Medieval and Early Modern History of Inner Asia (10th century to 1750)
  3. Modern History of Inner Asia (1750 to the present)
  4. Philology and Religion of Pre-Islamic Inner Asia (to the 10th century)
  5. Philology and Religion of Medieval and Early Modern Inner Asia (10th century to 1750)
  6. Altaic or Tungusic Linguistics
  7. Archaeology and Art of Inner Asia
  8. Ethnology and Anthropology of Inner Asia

There will be a three-hour written examination in each of the three specified fields, plus one three-hour oral examination in Inner Asian studies, broadly defined. In some cases, students may, with the approval of the committee, choose to take an additional fourth general examination field.


Within one academic year of completing the general examination, students will be required to present a written prospectus of their dissertation, of at least five to ten pages in length, for approval by the committee.


The doctoral dissertation must demonstrate the candidate’s ability to use primary source material and to produce a piece of original research. After the acceptance of the dissertation, the candidate must defend his or her dissertation in a special oral examination. The final manuscript must conform to the requirements described in The Form of the PhD Dissertation.

Further information regarding IAAS programs of study can be obtained from the departmental website.