Ph.D. in Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture


The Field of Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture at Cornell University offers the Ph.D. degree to students who wish to major in the literature, religion(s), and intellectual history of countries in East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Only on-line applications are accepted at Cornell University. A link to the online application is available on the Graduate School web site.


The absolute deadline for completed applications and test scores to reach the Graduate School is January 10. However, earlier applications are encouraged to enable us to consider each applicant carefully.

The Field of Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture is designed primarily for students who wish to obtain a Ph.D. degree. Students entering with only a B.A. degree (or with an M.A. degree in another field) may be required by their faculty advisor to earn their M.A. degree in Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture in the course of working towards the Ph.D. degree. A written M.A. thesis is not required before proceeding to the Ph.D. degree. Students whose faculty advisor requires the M.A. degree may receive a non-thesis M.A. when they take their oral A exam. Highly qualified students wishing to work only toward an M.A. degree are sometimes accepted, but Cornell funding for such students is rare.

Applicants should have a good reading and speaking knowledge (a minimum of three years of course work) of an Asian language relevant for proposed specialization. Prior work in literature, religious studies, or cultural history is desirable. Applicants with less language training might consider entering the M.A. program in Asian Studies at Cornell, and then applying to Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture for the Ph.D. degree after the M.A. program has been completed.

The Graduate Records Exam (GRE) is not required for application to the Ph.D. program.

The English Language Proficiency requirement has changed for all applicants. Please see a full description of the requirement on the Graduate School's web site.

Each applicant must submit an on-line application; which includes a statement of purpose, a personal statement, CV/Resume, three letters of recommendation, college transcripts, and a sample of academic writing of approximately 25 pages (in English). It is not necessary to mail a hard copy of these materials to the field office. All foreign transcripts must be translated to English by the institution or university that issues them before they are scanned. The Selection Committee will weigh all of these materials in addition to the student's academic background in making decisions on admission to the field. If the Selection Committee needs additional information or materials, we will contact the applicant.

Since all fields of graduate study at Cornell are competitive, you are advised to write a clear, thoughtful statement of purpose, select your referees carefully and inform them of your goals, request your undergraduate records early, and complete your application as soon as possible.

The Director of Graduate Studies and appropriate faculty members are happy to talk to or meet with applicants, but interviews are not required for admission. We encourage applicants to make direct contact to learn more about our program. Please visit our on-line list of faculty for a brief description of their research interests and e-mail addresses at Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture Faculty.

Financial Aid

Most students who are accepted into the Ph.D. program are offered a multi-year financial aid package that combines guaranteed fellowships and teaching assistantships. In order to apply for fellowships (which are highly competitive) simply check the appropriate boxes in the "Financial Support Application" part of the application form. Students are also urged to apply for any national or regional fellowships for which they may be eligible (Mellon Fellowships, Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) awards).

If an applicant is a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident they may be eligible to apply for a FLAS award. FLAS awards are administered by the Asian area programs at Cornell: South Asia Program and Southeast Asia Program. The FLAS is an academic year award which covers tuition, individual medical insurance, and a living stipend.

For more information about the FLAS awards, other funding opportunities, or for a FLAS application please see the relevant area program web page.

Courses of Study

Students will form a three-member Special Committee that will enable them to focus their studies on a major field, a minor field, and an emphasis on theory and method. The Graduate School requires that a student's Special Committee be constituted by the end of the third semester of graduate study. The major field will be designated by specialization in a literary, religious, or intellectual tradition or traditions within a single cultural or linguistic zone. The minor field will provide a basis for comparative work with at least one tradition or discipline ancillary to the major field. The theory and methods emphasis will provide competence in one or more theoretical orientations appropriate to the chosen area of specialization.

The first two to three years of the Ph.D. course are spent taking classes, learning to teach, and preparing for the A exams (both written and oral). Students take four or five general courses covering both pre-modern and modern aspects of their chosen major field and eight or nine specialized seminars in areas of interest. Courses should be chosen in consultation with, and with the approval of, the student's Special Committee. Students have the opportunity to participate in teacher training workshops and to teach for at least two semesters in introductory courses, language courses and first-year writing seminars. At least one year of experience as a teaching assistant is required as part of the Ph.D. training. Teaching assistantships cover tuition, living stipend, and individual medical insurance.

Students in the Graduate Field of Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture will be expected to give a short, formal presentation to the faculty of the field at the end of their second year of study. This presentation could summarize a seminar paper or another work in progress. The purpose of this presentation is to monitor a student's progress, to make suggestions about additional course work for the third year if relevant, and to give students an opportunity for professional experience.

Most students go to Asia during their third or fourth year to conduct dissertation research and then return to Cornell for at least a year to finish writing the dissertation and to begin the search for career opportunities. The Ph.D. course of study requires five to seven years depending on prior training and language ability.

Language requirements:

Fluency in one or more Asian language(s) sufficient for access to primary sources in the original language(s) is required. This means reading, writing, and speaking fluency in the modern language(s) and appropriate study of classical language(s). Students will acquire reading knowledge of additional language(s) deemed necessary by their Special Committees.

A Exams:

After demonstrating the above areas of competence, students will prepare for three qualifying exams (oral or written and oral) in each of the areas of major field, minor field, and theory and method. Students will arrange for a member of the Special Committee to represent each of these areas.

Students generally take their A exams in their fifth semester. The A exam is a meeting of the Special Committee at which they discuss work in at least three separate fields; its form and the form and content of student preparation for the A exam is determined by consultation between the Special Committee members and the student. A exam work is designed to take approximately six months of full-time preparation. Its two main goals are to support a student's future research and to help students develop into well-prepared teachers. The timing of the A exam can be extended with the support of the Special Committee; the Graduate School requires that the A exam be completed before the beginning of the seventh semester.

The graduate field recommends that students prepare a dissertation prospectus by the end of the sixth semester. A dissertation prospectus can include key ideas and questions addressed by the dissertation, a plan for future work, and/or a prospective bibliography. Some committees will encourage more or less formal documents. Some will meet to discuss the prospectus; some will create other structures for feedback.

Terminal M.A. degree:

Students who leave the field prior to completing the required areas of competency may seek a terminal M.A.

Graduate Field Faculty

Please feel free to contact the faculty member whose interests most closely match yours. For detailed descriptions, click here to see our complete list of ALRC field faculty.

Asian Area Programs

Students in the Graduate Field of Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture are members of the relevant area program(s) at Cornell, which provide a wide range of programs, opportunities for research and training, and competitive fellowships for travel, language training, and research.

Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture Ph.D. Graduate Student Handbook