In response to the disruptions wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies has elected to pause admissions for its PhD program for fall 2021. This one-year hiatus will allow us to provide our current students with additional support as they navigate the unanticipated needs that have arisen since the pandemic began. We are committed to devoting our full attention and support to our current doctoral students, and to mentoring them closely so that their research may recover as quickly as possible.
We understand that this may be disappointing news to those seeking to begin doctoral study in the fall of 2021, but we believe that we have an abiding responsibility to the students whom we have admitted in the past, and whose success must be secured to the best of our capabilities. Prospective PhD applicants are encouraged to apply in 2021 for admission in fall 2022. Our stand-alone Master’s program remains open to new students for the fall of 2021; the application for MA programs will go online on September 20, 2020.
We thank you for your understanding, and wish you the best in all your endeavors.
The department offers two programs of graduate study, one leading to the Ph.D. degree and the other to a free-standing Master of Arts (M.A.) degree.
Students interested in pursuing the Ph.D. degree can apply to the doctoral program with or without a Master’s degree; those without an M.A. will receive one in their course of study. Students admitted to the Ph.D. program are normally awarded five years of financial support, including full-tuition fellowships and stipends. For more information on the Ph.D. program, click on the link on the right.
The free-standing Master’s Program is designed for students who need more preparation before applying to a Ph.D. program, who want to take courses in a range of subjects before deciding on a discipline for the Ph.D., or who want graduate-level training as preparation for a career beyond the university. Those who complete the degree often go on to enter Ph.D. programs, although many pursue other kinds of professional careers. Students from the free-standing M.A. program are sometimes accepted into the MESAAS Ph.D. program, but they must apply in the same way as non-MESAAS applicants. Students usually complete the free-standing M.A. in a year and a half, although some complete it within a year and others extend it over two years. The department also considers applications part-time study in this program. For more information, click on the link on the right.
We know of no other program that offers the combination of academic expertise and intellectual focus that defines MESAAS. Like other departments whose origins lie in what used to be known as Oriental Studies, our approach evolved from the close study of the languages, cultures, and histories of particular world regions. The critique of Oriental Studies, in which Columbia scholars played a leading role, transformed an academic discipline that had been embedded in forms of imperial enterprise into a field of critical reflection on the limits and possibilities of area-based knowledge.
Most disciplines in the humanities and social sciences still focus their concern on understanding European and American experience, or on extending the forms of knowledge derived from that experience to other parts of the world. We are interested in what can be learned from, rather than simply about, ideas and life-worlds that have been shaped outside or in tension with the history of the West. Much of our research examines the challenges this learning can present to the dominant categories of knowledge and understandings of history derived from Euro-American experience.
We differ from most other departments that focus on regions outside the West in three respects. First, unlike many Departments of Near Eastern or South Asian Studies, we are concerned to understand the modern era no less than the earlier historical and cultural complexes from which experiences of modernity arose. Thus, while some of us study the languages, literature, and ideas of the classical and early-modern traditions, others work on the more recent past or on contemporary culture and politics.
Second, the department encompasses the study of three regions: South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. While most of the faculty focus their research on one region, as do most graduate students, many of our interests overlap from one region to the next. All of us benefit from exploring questions that are often echoed or extended in the work of colleagues who study neighboring regions and traditions.
Third, we are not divided into humanists and social scientists. Different members of the department draw upon different disciplinary tools, including those of comparative literature, history, science studies, law, critical philology, anthropology, political economy, and political theory. Most of our students take the opportunity to benefit from this rich post-disciplinary environment. There are also numerous colloquia and other regular events that bring this larger community together. At the same time, many students specialize in a particular set of theoretical approaches and disciplinary tools, sometimes in conjunction with work in another department or program.
The intellectual program of MESAAS can be loosely divided into four distinct but overlapping themes. Most of the department’s research faculty work across more than one of these areas, and some across three or four. The four areas of focus complement and cross-cut the older division into Middle East and South Asian, and more recently African, studies, pointing towards a developing conversation across regional and linguistic specializations. The themes provide a way of organizing the curriculum, encouraging students to develop one or more linguistic and regional specializations, in combination with one or more thematic orientations.
The four themes are:
- Literatures and aesthetics (Classical, early modern, and contemporary genres of imaginative literature; the visual and performing arts; cinema studies)
- Knowledge systems, classical and contemporary (in law, ethics, science, language, and other fields; the history of Oriental Studies; the university)
- Genealogies of the political (discursive and institutional histories of contemporary political practices)
- Histories, disciplinary and subaltern (comparative studies of academic or professional modes of history writing and the vernacular or popular forms of retelling the past)
Your fellow students in MESAAS will be those drawn to work with the faculty in the department, so the kind of research we do (follow links to individual web pages) is a good guide to the kind of work our students will be doing.
We do not currently offer joint degrees with other programs. However, in consultation with the advisor, students in MESAAS often take seminars in other departments at Columbia. Ph.D. students may use the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium to take advantage of graduate seminars at neighboring institutions. Students working in comparative literature may apply for the concentration offered by the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.
Further questions about graduate study in the department can be answered by following the links on the right, including the Frequently Asked Questions page and the information available on the current students page. The sections of this website listing faculty web pages, courses, and language programs also provide a guide to what we do.
Please explore all the information available on these pages and on the Graduate School prospective students pages to answer questions about the graduate program.
If you cannot find answers here, practical questions about applying to the department can be addressed to the Director of Academic Administration and Finance, Jessica Rechtschaffer.
Inquiries about academic aspects of the graduate program can be addressed to the Director of Graduate Studies. You may want to contact individual members of the faculty with whom you are interested in working, especially for the Ph.D. program.