Tips for Applying to the PhD Program

We receive hundreds of applications to our PhD program every year, but only admit a few students—typically about eight. The process is intensely competitive and the review process is intensely rigorous. These tips are intended to help you navigate the application process, with the understanding that you should be considered on the basis of the best possible presentation of your abilities and interests.

Preliminaries: Know What You Want

The first question to ask yourself is: Why a PhD in anthropology? The second question is: Why a PhD at Columbia? Our PhD program is a coursework- and fieldwork-intensive program that demands theoretical sophistication and a deep commitment to ethnography, broadly construed. Our standards are very high, and the workload is heavy. As with any doctoral program in anthropology, you need to be committed to a long-¬term engagement with a particular set of issues and places, meaning you need to have a strong sense of purpose and a long-term horizon.


Research the Department

If you are applying to Columbia, you need to know why, and you need to articulate that rationale in your application in the Statement of Purpose. This website is a starting point and will help you assess the range of interests and areas of research of our faculty members.

However, a website description of faculty interests is not a sufficient basis on which to judge whether the department is a good place for you. Read the work of the faculty members with whom you think you may be interested in working. Only after you have read someone’s published work can you get a sense of their particular approach to issues, and only after such reading should you seek a meeting to discuss your possible study in our department. Bear in mind that if your application’s statement of purpose quotes only the stock ¬phrases of the web¬site, or identifies faculty only on the basis of thematic focus, the review committee will have no basis on which to judge whether you really know why you are applying.

Do not ask faculty to send you their work; go to a library and make an effort to locate materials of interest to you. Nor is it a good idea to approach faculty and ask them to describe their interests or work if you have not attempted to familiarize yourself with it beforehand. However, having done so, it is wise to contact faculty members you feel you would like to work with, and to visit the department in person. Students who are admitted to the department are invited to visit during a dedicated period, during which they can meet other students and attend representative events. If you plan on coming to campus before then, please give the department sufficient notice and make sure that you arrange appointments with the individual faculty members in advance.

What is true for Columbia is true for many programs. Never commit yourself to a department on the basis of only one faculty member’s work.  Our program is committee-based, with students working closely with three individuals in addition to others with whom they take courses. With this in mind, look for breadth of coverage of the various areas and methodological and theoretical issues that inform your intended research.


Prepare Yourself

People come to our department with varying degrees of preparation and involvement in the site of their intended field research. In general, we ask that you have a fairly clear idea of where you want to work and what questions you wish to answer, or what issues you wish to understand. And, to the extent possible, you need to know what you still need and want to learn.

We do not require a prior degree in anthropology for admission to our PhD program; some students enter after having studied literature, journalism, political science or history, among other disciplines. However, if you have not studied anthropology, you will want to explain why you think anthropology is an appropriate discipline through which to pursue your interests, and you should recognize that additional coursework may be required of you. When preparing your application, take full cognizance of this fact, but even before applying, you should identify for yourself what you believe are the strengths and weaknesses in your previous training. Once admitted, you can obtain a suggested reading list as a preliminary to the mandatory introductory theory course.

Languages are essential for field work. You should obtain as much proficiency as possible in the languages you will be working in; if you lack fluency, you will want to delineate a plan for becoming proficient in these languages. These plans should continue to enhance already existing skills, or to acquire additional language skills if they are desirable for your research. Columbia has very substantial language resources in many but not all languages. The department supports additional language work through summer fellowships and encourages in situ study for languages where formal programs are lacking in the United States.