PhD in History and East Asian Languages

PhD in History and East Asian Languages

In addition to the PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, the department also administers the PhD in History and East Asian Languages (HEAL).  This degree program is designed to accommodate the particular needs of students who desire a more language-intensive program of study of East Asian history.  


The HEAL program has long been one of the premier doctoral training programs in East Asian history in the United States.  Its origins go back to 1941, when, upon the initiative of John King Fairbank, a “Standing Committee of the Faculty on the Joint Degree of Ph.D. in History and Far Eastern Languages” was established (the name was changed to “History and East Asian Languages” in 1972).  The justification offered then was that the student of East Asian history must know well the main languages for scholarship in East Asia and that therefore a PhD in the field required special consideration for the extra time needed for preparation, research, and writing.  In the words of John Fairbank and Benjamin Schwartz, writing in 1980:

The success of this program, which has filled many of the major East Asian history posts in the country, has lain in its degree requirements: that the candidate must make a major investment in either Chinese or Japanese and get a basic start in the other of the two languages, and must present on his General Examination only three instead of the usual four fields of history.  Since the basic requirement in this field is language competence and since its program makes allowance for this, it has become the major channel for East Asian historians at Harvard.  Chinese and Japanese are of course both necessary for either Chinese or Japanese history.

This rationale, we believe, remains valid today.

More than 200 HEAL PhDs have been awarded since the degree’s inception in 1941. The list of prominent scholars who have earned the HEAL degree includes members of the present Harvard faculty as well as leading figures in the East Asian field at institutions across the country and around the globe. 

HEAL today

As of 2013, there are 30 students registered in the HEAL PhD program, of whom approximately two-thirds are in residence.  The remaining one-third are away from campus on dissertation-related research and writing.

The work of students in the HEAL program is supervised jointly by the Standing Committee on the PhD in History and East Asian Languages and the Faculty of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.  The Standing Committee meets once or twice a year to confer on admissions recommendations for the PhD and to deal with basic questions of policy.  The chair of the committee is Professor Mark Elliott (EALC).  Other members (in alphabetical order) are:

Peter Bol, EALC
Carter Eckert, EALC
Andrew Gordon, History and EALC
David Howell, EALC
Sun Joo Kim, EALC
William Kirby, History
Shigehisa Kuriyama, EALC and History of Science
Ian Miller, History
Michael Puett, EALC
Michael Szonyi, EALC
Hue-Tam Ho Tai, History

Students admitted to the HEAL degree program must ordinarily have one of the above faculty members as their primary advisor. 

Admission to HEAL

The HEAL program welcomes applications from all qualified students, regardless of age, gender, or national origin.  Admission to the HEAL PhD is highly competitive, and offers can be made only to a small number of the most highly qualified applicants.  Promising applicants who for whatever reason are deemed not ready to begin PhD work may sometimes be recommended for admission to the Regional Studies – East Asia AM program.

Students wishing to apply for admission to the HEAL degree program apply through the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.  Because the HEAL PhD remains separate from the EALC degree, however, to be considered by the HEAL Committee, HEAL applicants must use the distinctive code number assigned to HEAL (1859) when completing the GSAS application form.  If you do not so indicate your wish to be admitted to the HEAL degree, your file may not be transferred to the HEAL Committee for consideration.

HEAL, EALC, or History?

As might be expected, there is considerable overlap between the research interests of HEAL, EALC, and History students and faculty, and no hard-and-fast rules apply that might limit students in any of these programs in terms of region, period, or methodology.  Note that although HEAL students are formally administered via EALC, it is not unheard of for advisors of some HEAL students to be faculty whose main appointment is in History.  Likewise, many students concentrating on East Asia in the History Department work closely with EALC faculty.  There are no high walls between these communities, which meet and mix often in language classes, seminars, lectures, conferences, receptions, etc.

That said, the majority of young scholars training in East Asian history at Harvard earn their degrees in the HEAL program, especially if their area of research interest lies in political, institutional, social, and cultural history between the twelfth and early twentieth centuries.  This area may well be defined transnationally.  Students with research interests that are exclusively “ancient” (e.g., pre-1000 CE) or primarily in the history of thought, religion, and philosophy will want to consider carefully whether their needs would not be better met by the PhD program in East Asian Languages and Civilizations.  Similarly, those whose research interests are exclusively “modern” (e.g., post-WWII) will want to think carefully about the PhD program in History (or perhaps Government).  All students contemplating applying to any of these programs are encouraged to write directly to prospective advisors as well.  Keep in mind that you are permitted to apply to up to two Harvard PhD programs simultaneously, though you may only be admitted in one.

In general, it can be said that the language curriculum of HEAL students looks more like that of EALC PhDs, while their non-language curriculum looks more like that of History PhDs.  Thus, in order to take qualifying examinations, and depending on regional specialization, all HEAL candidates are currently required to achieve an advanced level in their primary research language (Chinese, Japanese, or Korean), a second- or third-year level in modern Japanese, and a first- or second-year level in literary Chinese.  This is the same as the requirement made of all EALC students.  Also like EALC students, HEAL PhDs need only present three fields for the qualifying examination (as opposed to four fields in History), and (with the exception of RSEA transfer students) they are required to take this examination by no later than the end of the G3 year (as opposed to the G2 year in History).

On the other hand, like all first-year History students, HEAL students are required to take the introductory methods seminar offered by the History Department (History 3900) in their first year of residence (EALC students may not take this course).  They are also expected to take part in the annual Prospectus Conference held by the History Department in late January.  Additionally, many (not all) HEAL students find it worthwhile to include at least one non-Asianist from the History Department on the examination and/or dissertation committees, and so choose to focus some part of their coursework in European, American, or another field of history taught in the History Department.  This is not a requirement, however; nor is there a European language requirement for HEAL students.

The Longer View

Because of its demanding language requirements, the HEAL PhD takes about eight years to complete on average, slightly longer than a History PhD, but about the same as that for an EALC PhD, and below the national average for PhDs in the humanities. Unlike in John Fairbank’s day, most HEAL students now enter the program with advanced skills in at least one East Asian language, and many have already begun a second. As a result, some are able to move through the program more quickly. Many HEAL students, however, take advantage of the program’s more flexible time constraints and go on to study a third or fourth language. This may be another Asian language offered by the Department, or it may be a language offered in another department altogether (e.g., Tibetan, Sanskrit, Russian, Persian, Arabic, Turkish), depending on the student’s interests.

Prospective students often ask about the relative competitiveness of the HEAL PhD in the job market. Though some PhDs go on to work in the government, and a few in the private sector, most HEAL graduates either apply for positions in departments of History or of East Asian Studies, or for postdoctoral fellowships. Recent HEAL PhDs have an extremely strong track record in both areas. Obviously, as is true of all doctoral programs, completion of the degree is no guarantee of landing a job. But within three years of finishing, virtually all HEAL graduates find themselves hired in tenure-track positions.