Area Studies: Asia & the Near and Middle East
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A research project starts with a research proposal. This will include elements such as these:
- A clear working title.
- A central research question, perhaps broken down into subquestions; and, depending on the type of research, a hypothesis.
- Background: a general introduction to the topic, aimed at an academic reader who is not a specialist in your field, in one or two paragraphs.
- Reflection on scholarship to date, aka the state of the field, including a literature review; a list of works cited appended to the proposal proper.
- Reflection on the original contribution that the project will make to scholarship.
- Reflection on the project’s significance. Why does it matter, and to whom?
- Reflection on the sources. What is the source material? Does the candidate have access to this material? Will the project involve fieldwork?
- Reflection on the project’s theoretical orientation. Thinkers, central concepts, critical engagement with theory to date?
- Reflection on the project’s methodological orientation. What are the most suitable methods – usually more than one, and interrelated – to make the research question(s) operational? What will the candidate be doing?
- Reflection on possible problems and limitations of the project, and how these will be addressed.
- Reflection on research ethics. The Faculty of Humanities will soon publish an ethics assessment procedure. For now, you might want to visit the web page of the ethics review committee of the Faculty of Social Sciences, including the documents provided with the application procedure.
- The working titles of the dissertation’s chapters.
- A provisional work plan. What, when, where?
- A brief CV appended to the proposal proper, including education and employment to date, publications, and any other relevant information.
- A brief motivation: why does the candidate want to undertake their research at Leiden University?
- Names, positions, and contact details of minimally two referees.
Conventions differ across scholarly fields, and supervisors differ in what they want to see at this stage, i.e. what should be in the proposal that will be part of the application package. Candidates should ask their prospective supervisors for guidance on this matter. The above list can be a starting point for this conversation.
In the case of employee positions in team projects, the call for applications will likely provide guidance on what is expected in the application.
Within three months from the project’s start date, the candidate and their supervisors jointly draw up a training and supervision plan that sets clear objectives and timelines, and is signed by the candidate, the supervisors, and the Academic Director (here is an example). This offers a reference point for progress reviews throughout the project. It may be adjusted as long as the candidate and their reviewers (see below) are satisfied that the project remains on track. It documents the following information:
- the names and affiliations of the supervisors
- the project title
- start date and expected graduation date
- the supervision model: nature and frequency of communications
- plans for coursework and training, including registration for a University-wide welcome meeting and a Faculty-wide seminar on academic integrity
- plans for teaching: structural and/or special lectures (see below)
- funding to be applied for: type, amount, funding agency
- a year-by-year work plan
- approximate dates of annual progress reviews
- any other relevant information.
All candidates have annual progress reviews. For candidates with employee status, this review is the same thing as their formal work review (ROG). It is the supervisors’ responsibility to initiate the reviews, and to inform the Academic Director and the Graduate Studies Advisor of the results. A generic form is available here.
The first review takes place within nine months, entails an explicit go / no-go decision and involves a third member of staff, normally based in LIAS, as an 'outside' reviewer. If the candidate or the supervisors are no longer confident that the project will succeed, the candidate’s enrolment may be terminated. If the candidate and the supervisors feel the project is on track but the outside reviewer disagrees, the matter is referred to the Graduate Studies Advisor and the Academic Director. If all feel that the project is on track, this means that the candidate should normally be able to complete the project successfully and in timely fashion. (Subsequent reviews need not involve an outside reviewer, unless the candidate or the supervisors feel this is necessary.)
The decision to terminate enrolment is not taken lightly; and to begin with, at the pre-application stage, the prospective supervisors’ decision to support the project is not taken lightly. Supporting an application is an unequivocal expression of confidence in the applicant and the project, and a serious commitment to undertaking joint responsibility for its success. It entails a professional obligation on the part of the supervisors to discharge their responsibilities from the start – an obligation that holds for the candidate just as much. These are principled matters, but there are important practical considerations as well. For many candidates, for instance, embarking on PhD research means international relocation and considerable financial investment.
If the candidate feels that termination of the project is unjust, they can lodge an appeal with the Committee for Appeals and Objections.
A central component for assessment during the first review is turning the proposal into a prospectus; more on this below.
In light of the diversity of scholarship undertaken in LIAS, there are no hard and fast rules for structuring projects. For example: for some, the actual research – meaning, the investigation that will lie at the heart of the project’s original contribution to scholarship — happens during fieldwork, usually requiring physical travel. For others, the actual research happens from behind a desk: literary analysis and interpretation, for instance, or research on subject matter that is in cyberspace. In other words, distinctions such as those between fieldwork and library work are far from absolute. This also holds for the distinction between ‘the actual research’ and the writing process. The following outline, then, is merely an example.
- University and LIAS welcome events
- Draw up Training and Supervision Plan
- Coursework (see below): Skills Seminar, Library training, Faculty seminar on academic integrity, one of the two LeidenGlobal courses (‘Discipline and Place’), annual LeidenGlobal workshop; any specialist courses
- Revisit proposal as necessary to enable an effective literature review
- By month 9: turn the proposal into a prospectus of 10.000 to 20.000 words that is built around a comprehensive literature review, clearly positions the project in the field, shows how it will make an original contribution, and sets the stage for doing the actual research; update the list of works cited
- Outline the introductory chapter; the outline may be adjusted over time, and the actual narrative written in several steps during the project, or at a later stage altogether
- Start work on the actual research, involving fieldwork as applicable
- Coursework: the other of the two LeidenGlobal courses (‘Mixed Methods’), annual LeidenGlobal workshop; any specialist courses
- Draft two core chapters
- Teaching: structural or guest lectures (see below)
- Continue work on the actual research, involving fieldwork as applicable
- Draft remaining core chapters
- Teaching: structural or guest lectures
- Conference presentation
- Write journal article based on one of the dissertation’s chapters
- Annual LeidenGlobal workshop
- Complete and revise full manuscript
- Prepare for the period after graduation; see under Beyond the PhD
- Annual LeidenGlobal workshop
The items listed above, under Proposal, should provide a good sense of what to look for in dissertations by others, and help candidates to produce their own; but theory is one thing, and practice is another. Some general points to bear in mind:
- There is much professional literature on academic writing and publishing (here are a couple of pointers), and candidates can learn from their supervisors and their peers, from reading the traditions in their field, and from doing coursework. At the same time, they will develop their own voice.
- Some key notions are
- focus and structure, and a clear delineation of the project’s scope
- clarity, validity, and cogency of argument
- regard for matters of style, including economy of words
- regard for conventions (e.g. citation styles, etc).
- The Doctorate Board sets the maximum length of the thesis at 100.000 words, and LIAS takes this to include notes and the bibliography, but not appendices. If the supervisors feel the project so requires, they may request an exemption from the Dean.
- The dissertation need not be one’s life’s work. Any research project is theoretically infinite, but at some point the dissertation simply needs to be finished. In somewhat binary terms, it is fine if the dissertation is an expert report on expertly conducted research that is submitted to the gatekeepers of the profession, as distinct from the book it may subsequently be turned into in order to contribute to scholarly discourse in the public domain, usually after substantial revision. Then again, these are highly individual matters; and some experts hold that dissertations should be written as books from the start.
- PhD candidates at Leiden University may write their dissertation in Dutch or English. To write it in another language, the candidate needs permission from the Doctorate Board. Requests for permission should be addressed to the Dean of Humanities.
The candidate submits the dissertation to the supervisors. Once the supervisors have approved the manuscript, the promotor asks the Dean to establish an examination committee. The committee is chaired by the Dean and has minimally three other members, minimally two of whom are based outside the Faculty of Humanities, with due regard for gender balance. The supervisors cannot be members of the committee. Within six weeks, the committee determines whether the dissertation is suitable for public defense. Once the candidate is admitted to the defense, they contact the Yeoman Beadle’s office for a date, normally within the next two months. The defense entails a 45‑minute, public oral examination by the committee, for which the committee may be enlarged with additional members. For full detail, see under PhD regulations and protocol.
In exceptional circumstances, the Academic Director may ask that the Graduate School office suspend the candidate’s enrolment until such time as the project may be continued with a fair chance of success.
Early termination of the project may occur following a no-go decision in year one or an assessment of insufficient progress during subsequent progress reviews; or at any other time, if, after due consultation with the Graduate Studies Advisor and the Academic Director, the candidate or the supervisors are no longer confident that the project will succeed.
As noted above, if the candidate feels that termination of the project is unjust, they can lodge an appeal with the Committee for Appeals and Objections.
For an overview of all chapters of information on PhD research in LIAS, see the left sidebar at the PhD-research page.