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Postgraduate Study

Although the pandemic made my year at Cambridge unusual, my experience there was still of great benefit. One way, in particular, in which my experience might not be representative was that I was one of two China-focused MPhil students, and I was the only one interested in early China. I study ancient Chinese philosophy, and I really enjoyed having a two-hour, one-on-one Zoom tutorial with my supervisor Roel Sterckx basically every Friday during term time. I came into the MPhil program with clear goals for how I wanted to grow as a scholar: (1) improve my Classical Chinese, and (2) become acquainted with more the culture and history of early China.
Two things helped me achieve (1): (A) Preparation for weekly tutorials with my advisor. I spent probably six hours or so preparing each week, and we spent an hour of our discussion on language in the Michaelmas term. In the Lent and into the Easter term, we added a reading group into the mix with one of Professor Sterckx’s PhD students. (B) For one of my course papers, I did an alternative assessment and wrote an annotated translation instead of a research paper. This exposed me to more texts as I decided what I wanted to translate and gave me the opportunity to read ancient Chinese really closely and think carefully about the author’s voice, the rhetorical function of a phrase, and other important details that are hard to consider well with only intermediate language proficiency and normal time constraints.
Two things helped me achieve (2): (A) The tutorial for the Early China paper. Professor Sterckx selected a variety of important topics from early Chinese cultural history (e.g., the development of agriculture and commerce, the significance of rituals and spirits), and the exercise of reading works on those topics and immediately writing about them gave the opportunity not only to learn about various facets of early Chinese culture that I had not previously studied but also to synthesize what I learned and assimilate it into my working knowledge of early China by constructing an argument about it. (B) The Chinese art paper. As a scholar of Chinese philosophy, my prior exposure to early China was limited not only to ideas but also to texts. It was insightful to learn about and through objects, and my research paper enabled me to explore what it is like to make an argument about images, get into the weeds with a some poems from the Shijing, and learn a bit about post-Han culture too.
In addition to realizing these specific goals, I also matured more generally as a scholar. Having received my bachelor’s degree in the US, I was used to writing basically only two essays per year per topic, and before coming to Cambridge, I had struggled with time management, reading with intent, and converting my thoughts into text. The short, weekly essays on reading lists too long to be read closely that I wrote for Professor Sterckx in the Michaelmas term afforded me the opportunity and experience needed to improve on these fronts too. Similarly, the sole expectation of producing two 20-page papers for the May deadline freed my attention from February to April and taught me how to set my own research goals, execute them, and seek help and feedback from my mentors when appropriate. And the thesis was an excellent opportunity to put all of the skills I learned to good use.
Despite the pandemic’s restrictions on socialization, I was greatly pleased to sing three to four evenings a week in the Jesus College Chapel Choir; to forge friendships with my peers in other disciplines (mostly STEM!) at my own college, Churchill; to cycle to Madingley Hall, through Babraham, up Gog Magog, and around the East Anglian countryside; and to spend time with Professor Sterckx and my other faculty mentors talking at picnic tables in Sidgwick Site, strolling through the public greens, and touring the botanical gardens and manors beyond Cambridge.
James Kinsella-Brown (September 2021)

Last year I completed my MPhil in Chinese Studies and this year I began my PhD in the anthropology of Chinese religion, both in the Department of East Asian Studies.  Having studied Chinese and History at SOAS for my undergraduate degree, I was looking for a course which would be challenging and allow me to develop my research skills.  I found the MPhil Programme in Chinese Studies to be flexible and suited to those who want to use their language skills to focus on a specific area of interest, particularly in preparation for a PhD. 

During my MPhil, I took courses in ‘Anthropology of China’ and ‘Asia in Theory’, which provided me with a theoretical basis for my research and allowed for group discussions of key themes and concepts.  As my focus is on Chinese religion, specifically Daoism, my department arranged for me to take a special module in ‘Ritual and Religion’ to support my dissertation project.  In addition to classes with other MPhil students, I had one-on-one teaching for two hours a week with my dissertation supervisor, who is a specialist in the anthropology of Chinese religion, and this really pushed me to develop my ideas and deepen my understanding of the subject.  My supervisor also helped me to arrange language exchange with native Chinese speakers on postgraduate programmes in the department.  This has fostered a real sense of community and camaraderie in learning which I believe is vital to progress in any degree that requires intensive use of a field language. 

The PhD can seem a daunting prospect but with support and input from my supervisor and contemporaries, I am enjoying the process of preparing for my first year report and planning my fieldwork.  Postgraduate students have the opportunity to participate in regular seminars in order to practice presenting research and conducting question and answer sessions.  These are invaluable as they give us the chance to try out new ideas in a non-judgemental academic environment, and to discuss and defend our work amongst peers before presenting at external conferences. The department also arranges research seminars throughout the academic year, inviting an impressive range of speakers to present on a broad variety of topics. In this way we can get to know academics in our field, build networks, and discuss our research in both formal and informal settings. I have also had the opportunity to attend several external conferences and workshops, including the ‘Shifu Conference’ in Paris which focused on Chinese religion and included an array of researchers who presented on their topics and were keen to discuss with and encourage the postgraduate students.  Between the MPhil and the start of the PhD I attended a week long text-reading summer training programme which featured a range of Chinese language materials from Dunhuang manuscripts to Republican period reports.  Engaging with these different sources was exceptionally helpful practice for considering material for my own thesis.

The collegiate system at Cambridge also offers many opportunities to broaden one’s interests and skills, providing a necessary counter-balance to the intense rigour of academic life.  Colleges arrange lots of events for postgraduates both socially and academically, with many hosting their own postgraduate conferences and speaker events, as well as providing pastoral support for students.  I sing with a chapel choir a couple of times a week during term-time which not only allows me to develop my musical skills and expand my knowledge of Western sacred music, but also to get to know people outside my subject area and practice discussing and explaining my research to non-specialists. This unique collegiate system creates a rich and diverse academic environment which supports us in our research and gives us opportunities to develop a wide range of supplementary skills. 

Alexandra Forrester (February 2017)

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Key Information

11 months full-time

Master of Philosophy

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

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Dates and deadlines:

Michaelmas 2024

Applications open
Sept. 4, 2023
Application deadline
May 16, 2024
Course Starts
Oct. 1, 2024

Some courses can close early. See the Deadlines page for guidance on when to apply.

Course Funding Deadline
Dec. 5, 2023
Gates Cambridge US round only
Oct. 11, 2023

These deadlines apply to applications for courses starting in Michaelmas 2024, Lent 2025 and Easter 2025.

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