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South Asian Studies

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Questions about these requirements? See the contact info at the bottom of the page. 

Programs of Study

The Department of South Asian Studies offers programs of study leading to the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and, in exceptional cases, the Master of Arts (AM) degrees. While graduate work is tailored to individual intellectual interests, it is our expectation that all doctoral students will ground their work in primary language materials and participate in interdisciplinary studies of South Asian languages, histories, and cultures.

The Department has historic and well-defined courses of graduate study in Sanskrit and Indian Studies and Tibetan and Himalayan Studies. For students interested in the South Asian Studies program, it is our expectation that candidates for doctoral study will propose a project. Such programs may have a regional emphasis, a disciplinary or multi-disciplinary emphasis, or an emphasis on a particular era of South Asian history, including modern South Asia. Some of the most exciting multi-disciplinary work in the global academy today has been pioneered by scholars of South Asian Studies, and this program intends to provide a platform for such study here at Harvard.

All of the Department’s PhD programs emphasize the study of South Asian languages as foundational for scholarly work. Currently, members of the Department focus in their own work on Hindi-Urdu (including Avadhi, Braj, and modern dialects), Middle Indic (Pali, Prakrit), Nepali, Sanskrit (Vedic, Classical), Tamil (Classical, Modern), and Tibetan (Classical, Modern). The Department also supports instruction in Bahasa Indonesia, Bengali, Burmese, Gujarati, Sindhi, and Thai. Persian is regularly offered through the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

We emphasize a rigorous approach to South Asian texts and traditions, the cultural, intellectual, and social practices that they inform, and the diverse disciplinary perspectives that are needed to study and write about them. Students are encouraged to view their chosen topics in their historical contexts while also exploring their significance to ongoing South Asian traditions and/or to contemporary issues in the humanities and social sciences.


General requirements

For the PhD: Sixteen four-credit courses and a minimum of two years in residence are required.

For the AM: Eight four-credit courses and at least one year in residence are required.

Core requirements for the PhD

  1. A minimum of four four-credit courses in Hindi-Urdu, Classical Sanskrit, Tamil, Tibetan, or another South Asian language at the advanced level.
  2. Two four-credit courses in a second South Asian language
  3. Eight four-credit courses in the student’s special field, including related courses in other departments.
  4. Reading knowledge of two modern research languages, at least one of which will normally be French or German, and the other of which can be any modern language relevant to the student’s special field. Reading knowledge must be demonstrated by the end of the second year of residence, ordinarily by passing a language exam with an honors grade. 

Core requirements for the AM

Two four-credit courses of seminars, two four-credit courses in Hindi-Urdu, Classical Sanskrit, Tamil, or Tibetan at the advanced level, and four four-credit courses in the student’s special field, including related courses in other departments. An AM thesis is also required.


Incoming students will have an advisor in the field of study closest to their own interests. The advisor is responsible for developing a plan of study and signing the Study Card at the outset of each semester. The department’s Director of Graduate Studies functions as a more general advisor to all graduate students in relation to the department and Harvard Griffin GSAS policies and procedures. When a student submits their prospectus, they also suggest an advisor to direct the dissertation. The progress of every student will be reviewed each year by the department.


After the first two years of doctoral study, most students work as teaching fellows in one of the courses taught within the department, in other departments, or in the undergraduate General Education curriculum. The opportunity to develop teaching skills is an important part of graduate studies, especially for those preparing for a future in academia.

General Examinations

PhD Examinations

Students are expected to take their general examinations no later than the end of their third year in the program.

For students in the Sanskrit and Tibetan track, there are usually four written examinations that ordinarily take the following form: 1) A language translation examination, without dictionary, from a text of average difficulty; 2) A translation examination, with dictionary, of texts in the student’s special field, with a discussion of textual problems or thematic issues; 3) A broad examination in South Asian Studies based on reading lists put together by the student in consultation with the advisor; and 4) An examination in the student’s special field.

For students in the South Asian Studies track, there are normally three written exams, corresponding to 2, 3, and 4 above. In place of the translation without dictionary exam (1 above), students in the South Asian Studies track will be required to demonstrate, by test or otherwise, their speaking and listening proficiency in a modern South Asian language.

Students may also choose to take an optional fifth exam in a secondary field or discipline, often involving a faculty member from another department.

AM Examinations

Students are expected to take two written examinations the subjects of which will be determined in conjunction with the advisor and an oral exam in the student’s special field.


Upon passing the general examinations students will be expected to complete a dissertation prospectus within a year’s time and no later than the fall term of their fourth year. The prospectus should be in the range of 15 to 20 pages and include: 1) A clear statement of the dissertation project, its central problems and methodology; 2) Its place in the context of related scholarship; and 3) Its importance to the field. The prospectus should also include a chapter outline and extensive bibliography.

The dissertation committee normally consists of three members, including the dissertation advisor. Two members of the committee must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Frequently, the committee will include at least one member from outside the department, and occasionally one from outside the University. The proposed committee should be approved by the advisor, the Director of Graduate Studies, and the department. The proposed committee should review the prospectus at the time it is submitted.

Thesis & Dissertation 

PhD Dissertation

The dissertation should not exceed 75,000 words or 300 pages in length. It must be a substantial and original piece of work that demonstrates mastery of the field and the student’s chosen topic.

Students are expected to complete two chapters of their dissertation by the spring term of their fifth year. After this they are expected to produce at least one acceptable chapter of the dissertation each semester.

The format of the dissertation must conform to the requirements described in Formatting Your Dissertation.

After it is completed, the dissertation must be submitted to the dissertation committee (at least two months before the official deadline) and be publicly defended in a roundtable discussion that includes members of the dissertation committee and other faculty and students in the department.

AM Thesis

The AM thesis will be a substantial paper demonstrating the student’s knowledge of the scholarly literature and methodologies appropriate to the topic of the student’s choice. The topic will be determined by the student in consultation with their advisor. A typical AM thesis is expected to be approximately 75 pages in length.

Contact Info 

South Asian Studies Website  

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