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PhD Program, Policies and Requirements

The doctoral curriculum and stages to degree are designed to prepare candidates for research and professionalization in the fields of South Asian Studies and its allied disciplines. Specifically, it seeks to develop: 

  • Deep familiarity with the history, methodology, and practice of a chosen discipline relevant to the study of South Asia, and a broad knowledge of allied disciplines;
  • Demonstrable proficiency in at least two relevant research languages as follows:

  a)    Advanced competency in a South Asian language of concentration equivalent to a minimum of four years of study and adequate to sustain proposed dissertation research;

    b)    Intermediate-Mid competency in a second research language necessary for conducting advanced research, equivalent to a minimum of two years of study;

    c)     Students are strongly encouraged to choose one classical and one modern South Asian language

  • Teaching experience and familiarity with pedagogical practices in South Asian studies;
  • A compelling plan for dissertation research.


The course of study toward the degree of Doctor of Philosophy requires a minimum of twenty course credit units (CUs). As part of these 20 CUs, students must take:

  • 4 CUs in advanced-level courses in a language of concentration*
  • 2 CUs in intermediate-level courses or higher in a research language (advisor and Grad Chair must approve 2nd language)*
  • 3 electives
  • 1 final CU may be used for research connected with the preparation for third year Candidacy Exams (formerly ‘Preliminary Exams’) and a dissertation proposal. This is typically an independent study.
  • You must fulfill all of your language requirements before you will be permitted to take your candidacy exam in your third year.
  • At least four courses (NOT including language courses and independent studies) must be taken with four DIFFERENT Standing Faculty of the South Asia Studies department in the first two years.

Note: Courses 400-level and above count for Graduate Credit.

*Candidates who demonstrate advanced knowledge in their language of concentration and/or Advanced knowledge of a second research language may be excused from part of these requirements. Candidates who satisfy language requirements at the South Asia Language Institute or other summer courses, or in advanced language programs abroad may likewise be excused from taking additional language courses. Any CUs not required for language study may be reallocated to electives. The exemption from further language study does not result in a reduction of the total number of 20 CUs required for the degree.

Policy on Incompletes:

Students are strongly discouraged from taking an incomplete grade in graduate seminars or graduate level courses. Should a student take an incomplete grade in a course for unavoidable reasons, the last date by which the student may submit all work for a Fall Semester course will be the first teaching day of the Spring semester; for a Spring semester course, three weeks from the last day of the Spring semester. Failure to submit work beyond this date will result in a loss of a third of a letter grade for each further day's delay. After seven days a permanent C will be given for the course grade.  The Graduate Office of the School of Arts and Sciences reserves the right to suspend funding for PhD candidates on Benjamin Franklin Fellowships who have not resolved their incompletes on time.

NB: In the instance of graduate students being faced with life events or disasters, an Incomplete may be extended, by written permission of both the course instructor and the Graduate Director. In such cases, the student will state in writing the date by which they will submit all work for that course.


Advising and Course Selection:

Incoming graduate students will be assigned an interim advisor to help students select courses and develop their curriculum. A student may change advisors if they so choose, by informing the Graduate Coordinator.

Choice of disciplinary focus and languages should be made in consultation with the student's advisor and the Graduate Chair of the Department.

Graduate students are required to meet with their advisor* at the beginning of each semester to discuss course selection. The Course Selection Approval Form (see below, form #2) must be filled out, signed by the student's advisor, and turned into the Graduate Chair and  Coordinator prior to the second week of classes of each semester.  

Once students' coursework is complete PhD students are required to meet with their advisor* at least once per semester to discuss the progress of their research and subsequent dissertation writing.

It is strongly recommended that students choose their courses bearing in mind the qualifying paper.


*If an advisor is on leave/sabbatical, students should meet with the Graduate Chair.


To acquire pedagogical experience, PhD candidates serve as teaching assistants in four undergraduate courses in South Asia Studies, usually in the second and third years of study.

Candidates who enter the Ph.D. program in South Asia Studies after an M.A. or other graduate study at Penn or at another accredited institutions may petition, after a full year of enrolment in the Ph.D. program, for a transfer of appropriate prior credits toward the 20 CUs required for the Ph.D. program. Transfer of credits requires full documentation and is awarded at the discretion of the Graduate Chair. In no case will transferred credits exceed a total of 8.


Graduate Student Independent Study Policy and Procedures:

Graded independent studies normally involve:

  1. completion of a specific reading or research project
  2. regularly scheduled tutorial sessions with the instructor during the semester
  3. submission of a substantial paper at the end of the term in which the course is taken.

For graduate students who wish to pursue a graded independent study, the procedure is as follows:

  1. When you have a clear idea of the topic you would like to study, you should find a faculty sponsor who can supervise your work. Any member of the standing faculty or South Asia Studies Graduate Group may offer an independent study to a student at the professor's discretion.
  2. When you and your faculty sponsor have decided upon the topic and terms of your independent study, please complete the SAST Independent Study form (form #3 below) and return the following form to the Graduate Coordinator and Graduate Chair of the the South Asia Studies Department, 820 Williams Hall.

All application Forms must also include:

  • Syllabus
  • Number of Hours
  • Assignments

Additional Information

  • Independent Studies may be taken for a letter grade ONLY (no Pass/Fail).
  • Independent Study applications must be submitted for approval to Department or Graduate Chair no later than one week BEFORE the end of “add period”.
  • Exceptions may be approved by the South Asia Studies Department Chair.
  • The appropriate Graduate or Undergraduate Chair has discretion to limit the number of independent studies undertaken. 



In addition to formal coursework (and in consultation with faculty advisors), PhD students are typically expected to spend one or two summers and/or one academic year engaged in advanced language training abroad. In most cases, PhD candidates are also expected to spend at least one year abroad doing fieldwork in South Asia as part of their dissertation research.

There are a wide range of competitive funding options available for both language study and research work abroad. Funding above and beyond the five-year PhD funding package includes both external funding competitions (e.g. American Institute of Indian Studies, American Institute of Sri Lankan Studies, American Institute of Pakistan Studies, Fulbright-Hays, Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the National Science Foundation), as well as internal university competitions (e.g. School of Arts and Sciences Dissertation Research Fellowships, SAS Dissertation Completion Fellowships, the South Asia Studies Department's Briton Martin Fellowship, etc.). PhD students in the Department of South Asia Studies have had an extremely high rate of success in obtaining fellowships and grants for research and language study abroad. Periodic workshops led by faculty in the department also help students to develop and hone their abilities to effectively write competitive fellowship and grant applications--an essential skill for any career in academia.



The Doctoral Program in the South Asia Studies Department may be conceived in terms of course related requirements and ‘degree stages'. Degree stages also entail the submission of proposals and presentations.

In addition to the completion of coursework and language requirements, Ph.D. candidates through the course of their time in the department are expected to make two presentations to the South Asia Colloquium and to successfully pass three Stages to Degree: Qualifying Stage, Candidacy Stage, and Dissertation Completion (ABD) Stage. Passing the Qualifying Stage marks admission to PhD candidacy.


Students are expected to make research related presentations at the weekly South Asia Colloquium at least twice during the course of their study. The first presentation should be presented in the second or third year of study, and may take the form of either a Candidacy piece of research-related writing on the candidate’s dissertation topic or a draft of the dissertation proposal. The second presentation will normally be in the post-fieldwork stage and is typically the presentation of a chapter draft, conference paper, or job talk. The idea of these presentations is that the student may benefit from the feedback of faculty and fellow students. It also helps students prepare for the dissemination of their research in the wider field.


Students will pass through three degree stages (see further details below).

  1. A Qualifying Stage, concluding at the end of the 4th semester
  2. A Candidacy Examination Stage comprising an examination in three fields of the candidate’s choice usually taken after all coursework is completed
  3. A Dissertation Completion (ABD) Stage, consisting of a Dissertation Defense, given when a completed dissertation is submitted (usually between the fifth and seventh years)

Please note: Failure to meet these requirements in accordance with this timetable, may place PhD funding in jeopardy. Any changes to the timing of these requirements, including extensions to exams during the summer, must be voted upon and approved by the standing faculty of the department in advance of the orginal exam date.  

Expected Timeline


For PhD: A qualifying paper will be due by the end of the exam period of the third semester. The qualifying paper is expected to be a 20–30 page pre-prospectus research paper which frames a potential doctoral research question, and places it in conversation with existing scholarship. The paper should utilize primary source materials or preliminary fieldwork. 

Before submitting the qualifying paper, during the third semester, the student should form a committee of three members. It is strongly suggested that one of the members be outside the standing faculty (the member can be a member of the South Asia graduate group). Upon submitting the paper, the student is expected to meet with the committee no later than the fourth week of the fourth semester and receive feedback on the paper. The committee will then approve or reject the paper by the end of the fourth semester. The paper will also be made available to all standing faculty. 

Passing the qualifying paper is required for further advancement. If the committee rejects the paper, the student will be dropped from the program at the end of the fourth semester, and encouraged to apply for a terminal MA degree.

For MA: Designate paper already written for class or submit thesis due by end of exam period of 4th semester.


The Ph.D. Candidacy Examination is conducted after all course requirements, including all language requirements, have been fulfilled. This stage consists of a Candidacy Examination which will take place at the end of the 5th semester, and the presentation of the Dissertation Prospectus at the end of the 6th semester. Both of these elements have a written and oral component.

For the Candidacy Examination, the candidate is expected to develop, over the course of the second semester of the second year of study, bibliographies for three fields of study, each of which is to be related either to the mastery of a teaching competency or the familiarity of a research-related theme or topic. Bibliographies for each of the three fields are to be developed in consultation with the dissertation supervisor (who must be a member of the graduate group) and two other faculty members (at least one of whom must also be a member of the graduate group); the three of whom together constitute the candidate's Candidacy Examination Committee. Committee members drawn from outside of the graduate group must be approved by the dissertation supervisor and graduate chair. Each Examination Bibliography should include between 40 and 60 works. Students should work closely with their faculty members during their 4th semester to develop their exam bibliographies and must obtain approval of their bibliographic lists and submit the approved lists along with a coversheet including the signatures of the Candidacy Examination Committee (and the graduate chair) by no later than the last teaching day of the fourth semester of full time study (ordinarily the end of the second semester of the second year), one full semester before the Candidacy Examination is to take place. The coversheet may be found below. Over the course of the fifth semester the student will be expected to write a field statement on each of the three designated field bibliographies of approximately 3000 words each. 

The three completed field statements of the Candidacy Examination should be submitted to all members of the committee by approximately two weeks before the exam is to take place. The student will schedule a 2-hour oral examination, which consist of a discussion with a three-person examination committee, and will address the student's written Candidacy Examination.
In their 6th semester, candidates must submit a Dissertation Prospectus of 20-25 pages with a bibliography of at least 35 and primary and secondary sources. The Prospectus should include a brief orientation to the topic of research, a placement of the candidate’s work in relation to a discipline or field of knowledge, and a detailed plan for undertaking of fieldwork research. The student will submit this prospectus to a Dissertation Committee, comprised of a supervisor from the Graduate Group and at least two (with a maximum of four) other individuals, at least one of whom must also be a member of the Graduate Group.
The Dissertation Prospectus should be submitted at approximately the end of classes in the 6th semester, two weeks before the exam is to take place. The student will schedule a 2-hour oral examination. This oral exam will consist of a discussion of the student’s Dissertation Prospectus with the student’s Dissertation Committee. 

After the successful outcome of the oral examination of both the Candidacy Exam and Dissertation Prospectus the student will have completed all coursework and will move to the Dissertation Completion Stage.



Research for the dissertation is expected to include field work in South Asia and/or South Asian communities and/or library, archival, or material South Asia collections, and to include sources in South Asian languages. After completion of research and writing, candidates present a final dissertation and defend it orally. The procedure for submitting the dissertation is as follows:

  1. Copies of the completed dissertation for each of the final Dissertation Advisory Committee members and one for deposit in the SAST Department's office must be submitted at least two weeks before the scheduled oral defense. The Department copy will be open for inspection by the Graduate Group during this period.
  2. A two-hour oral Dissertation Defense conducted by the Dissertation Committee before the Graduate Group faculty, graduate students, and invited guests. At least two members of the Dissertation Committee must be physically present for the Defense.
  3. For further guidelines for the submission of the dissertation, see here.

(in order of relevance)

 Last Updated:

Every fall:             

  • 1. SAST PhD Annual Progress Report  WORD  PDF
 April 2023 

Every semester:     

  • 2. Course Selection Approval Form    WORD  PDF
  • 3. SAST Independent Study Form (if applicable)  WORD  PDF
April 2023 

 Third semester:     

  • 4. SAST PhD Qualifying Paper Committee Semester 3   WORD  PDF

Fourth semester:   

  • 5. SAST PhD Qualifying Paper Approval & Cover Sheet Semester 4   WORD  PDF
  • 6. SAST PhD Candidacy Examination Committee Semester 4   WORD  PDF

Fifth semester:       

  • 7. SAST PhD Candidacy Examination Completion Semester 5  WORD PDF

Sixth semester:     

  • 8. SAST PhD Prospectus Defense Approval & Cover Sheet  Semester 6  WORD  PDF

April 2023