Graduate Study in Southeast Asian Politics at Cornell: Advice for Prospective Applicants

(Light updates, September 5, 2018)

Around this time of year, I find myself writing a lot of emails  to people interested in graduate study in Cornell’s Government Department or the Southeast Asia Program. The majority of these emails are directed to prospective applicants from outside of the United States. There are many common themes that appear in these questions (Will you be my adviser? Can you tell me where to find funding? Is my research plan suitable for a Ph.D. degree? Do I need to do the coursework since I already have an M.A.? What TOEFL score do I need?), so I decided to save my answers here as a public resource. Some of the structure of this page borrows from advice from an old professor of mine that I took myself when I was applying to graduate schools, but this is geared in particular to foreign applicants. Some of this advice is particular to applying to Cornell to work on Southeast Asian politics, but in general terms it is probably useful for other programs at other universities as well.

Programs and Degrees

I serve as a faculty adviser for students in the Government Ph.D. program and the Asian Studies M.A. program. Cornell does not offer an M.A. in Government, nor a Ph.D. in Asian Studies. (There is a Ph.D. in Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture.) I am happy to be a resource for you if you are interested in a graduate degree in History, Anthropology, Economics, or a related field, but I cannot be your primary adviser. (see Departments and Fields below).

The Ph.D. program in Government requires two-years of coursework, regardless of your prior preparation, coursework, or completed degrees. You do not need to have completed an M.A. or other post-graduate work to be admitted to the Ph.D. program. Foreign students will note that this is very different than the British or Australian model for Ph.D. programs, which require an M.A. or other graduate degree prior to the Ph.D. and which do not require coursework as part of the Ph.D. program.

We expect students to complete the Ph.D. program in five to six years. It is very rare to complete the degree in fewer than five years, and I strongly discourage students from spending more than seven years in the Ph.D. program except for as the result of extraordinary personal circumstances.

The Adviser

Many foreign students are unfamiliar with how graduate advising works in the United States, especially in the social sciences. Generally, Ph.D. applicants in political science do not apply to work with a specific graduate adviser. Rather, the adviser-advisee relationship develops naturally over the first four semesters of coursework. We assume that every student who is admitted to the Ph.D. program will be able to find a suitable adviser in the department. In your personal statement you should list some faculty members who share your research interests, but that is all that you need to do. For M.A. students in Asian Studies, the same applies. This is all very different from the British or European or Asian model for graduate training, where you must first identify an adviser and confirm that s/he is accepting new students prior to the application. It also differs for fields such as psychology in the United States.

What this means for you as you prepare your application:

  1. You do not need my permission (or anyone else’s permission) to apply to Cornell.
  2. You do not need to check to see if I have “space” or “slots” available for advisement. You will be applying to the department, and your application will be judged against all other applications.
  3. In the event that you are admitted, then yes, I will work with you—if we both decide that it makes sense.
  4. You should not expect that I (or anyone else) has any ability to affect your application. Your admission decision is made by a departmental admissions committee, and I will not contact them on your behalf to ask for special consideration.

Departments and Fields

Graduate study at Cornell is broken down into “graduate fields.” As Cornell’s Graduate School describes them,

Fields are composed of faculty members from a number of departments who come together around a shared intellectual interest, and may draw from different campuses or colleges. Graduate students are admitted to fields of study.

The difference between a field and a department is important. For example, I am a member of the graduate fields of Government and Asian Studies, even though I teach fully in the Government department. The chair of a dissertation committee or a M.A. committee (known at Cornell as the “special committee”) must be a member of the student’s graduate field.

Separate from departments and fields are programs, centers, and other academic units like the Southeast Asia Program and the Modern Indonesia Project. These are valuable intellectual communities on campus but they do not confer graduate degrees.


All Ph.D. students in the Government Department at Cornell receive five years of full tuition, health care, and a stipend that is more than generous enough to live comfortably in Ithaca. In return, you do some teaching during years 2-4 of the program (the final year is covered by a dissertation writing fellowship). All students admitted to the Government Ph.D. program receive this funding. Foreign students should note that you do not need to apply for funding, and that you also do not need to demonstrate that you have any outside support from Fulbright or your home government. Furthermore, the fact that you have access to external funding in no way influences whether or not you are admitted to the program. Having funding does not help, and  not having funding does not hurt, when it comes to admission to the Government Ph.D. program.

M.A. students in Asian Studies do not receive funding. Some funding is available on a competitive basis (see here). For M.A. applicants, having access to a Fulbright fellowship or to some other source of funding may in some cases help your application.

The Application

Let me quote Mark Johnson with a general perspective on applying for a Ph.D.:

I think every applicant should try to imagine what it’s like for the admissions committee in an active research department. Every good department will get far more applicants than they have positions available, so they will select the applicants that are most likely to succeed in doing innovative research and completing their PhD.

Putting it very crassly, there’s a huge difference between undergraduate and graduate education in the US. Undergrads pay for the privilege of attending college, and your education and edification is the main goal of the undergraduate experience. But as a graduate student … you can generally expect to be fully supported financially while you are studying, i.e., you are paid to study, and the relationship between student and institution changes accordingly. While we hope that you’ll be personally enriched and enlightened by your graduate education, this is not the reason why you’re being paid to study. Instead, we expect that you’ll advance scientific knowledge to the benefit of all society. Of course you may have personal goals for going to graduate school and it’s fine to mention those in your application, but your primary goal in your application should be to demonstrate that as a PhD student you will contribute to and advance our scientific understanding of the field you’re studying.

Johnson was writing about computational linguistics, but essentially the same advice applies for graduate applicants in Government and Asian Studies. You should craft your application materials with this advice in mind.

Admission to Cornell’s Government Ph.D. program is fairly competitive, especially in the subfields of Comparative Politics and International Relations (chances are that if you’re contacting me your interests fall into one of these areas). We average between 0 and 1 students per year whose research focuses on Southeast Asia. This means that you should apply broadly.

Foreign applicants, especially, should also familiarize themselves with the nature of the research done by the comparative politics and international relations faculty here, to ensure that a Ph.D. in the Government department is right for you. (It’s not right for everyone, and that’s just fine.) While interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research is often praised, in practice students in the social sciences are strongly encouraged to work within their discipline. There are some exceptions: social movement scholars frequently work across political science and sociology, formal political theorists frequently work with economists, methodologists will often work with statisticians. The point is, if you really care about history rather than political science, it’s better to apply to our (excellent) History Department. This point may seem obvious, but many applicants appear to miss it.

Additionally, an American political science Ph.D.—which is what we confer—might not be right for you if you are committed to policy work or public advocacy in your home country. In that case, I strongly recommend looking at politics and international relations Ph.D. programs in Australia, which tend to be more appropriate for students interested in non-academic careers in Southeast Asia.

If you want to apply to graduate school for admission in September 2019, you need to have your applications ready by December 2018. That means you need to think about GREs, TOEFL, writing samples, etc. much before that. Plan to take all standardized tests by September 2018.

Test scores and writing samples are important for all applicants, but they are doubly important for foreign students. Specifically, admissions committees need to know that students have sufficient facility in the English language to be able to succeed from the first week. Graduate coursework is difficult enough if your first language is English, so foreign students need to demonstrate that the fact that their first language is not English will not stand in their way. The best way to do that is with a strong standardized test scores and a well-written personal statement.

More to come in the future…

Comment 1

  1. Charley Sullivan July 25, 2012

    Hey Tom: You should give a version of this to AMINEF, for their own use. This answers huge numbers of the questions I’ve been getting from Indonesians wanting to do MAs and PhDs through Fulbright. Nice stuff!

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