August, 2016

A way to reorient yourself : Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies programme

By Anita Rajan

The MLS programme is now in its second year, with eight students pursuing their research in various areas such as Literature, Media studies and Anthropology among others

The Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies (MLS) is a one-year add on course introduced by Ashoka University in 2015 to help Young India Fellows specialise in a stream of their choice.

The Young India Fellowship, currently accepting applications for its seventh year is considered the “foundation-year” before the MLS programme, where fellows are exposed to over 20 subjects over the course of one year. As an option for the Fellows, the MLS year was added to the University’s discourse in 2015. This academic year, the MLS programme plays host to eight students, while in its first year, ten students specialised and worked on their final thesis.


The MLS programme introduces each of its students as “ART Fellows”, where every candidate is required to be an Administrative Assistant, a Research Assistant and a Teaching Assistant. In addition, credits are measured by the final project, studying undergraduate courses (two in each semester), along with the teaching and research practicum undertaken and demonstrated.

Jonathan Gil Harris, chief-mentor of the programme and Dean of Academic Affairs, Ashoka University says, “The programme immerses students within a discipline affording them opportunities for administrative, research and teaching experience all the while giving them the opportunity to pursue an original, academic or creative capstone project of their own.”

What makes the MLS programme different from any other Master’s programme? Gilles Verniers, Associate Professor of Political Science and one of the mentors from last year says, “The uniqueness of the MLS is its purpose. The MLS is not a conventional course-based master’s programmes. MLS students do take courses but the main purpose is to learn with a mentor in a one-to-one relationship,that aims at enabling the student to explore a discipline in depth and develop research skills.”

In addition to this, Professor Gilles emphasises on the fact this programme is year-long intensive reading and writing programme, with a focus on research method, under the supervision of a faculty.

From a student’s perspective, and especially from the vantage point of being a Young India Fellow, one often finds their passion in a discipline/subject from nearly two dozen subjects taught during the year. Anurit Kanti, a Fellow from the 2014-2015 batch, and subsequently, an MLS candidate was mentored by Anuradha Saha, a professor of Economics, and did his research on Developmental Economics.

When asked why he picked the MLS route, he says, “At first I picked it, just because it was a Masters degree at the age of 22, but then after engaging academically on a wide array of topics, building your own capstone project which does not have to align to just one discipline, I realised it was an opportunity to let out your creative thought and intellectual rigour.  Whilst you teach, research and learn in an environment like Ashoka, right after YIF, is an opportunity I would never pass up.”

Professor Gilles agrees with this aspect of flexibility. At many junctures, students find an interest discipline-wise, that they may not have sufficient exposure or groundwork in. In this case specifically, the MLS programme is a good place to start. He explains that the MLS is best suited for postgraduate students who aim at pursuing doctoral studies but who are not sufficiently grounded in their chosen discipline. A lot of students come to Ashoka’s Young India Fellowship because they seek a career or discipline reorientation. Many come from a technical background, say engineering, and develop an interest for social sciences, or literature. “There was a mathematician, last year, who became interested in cognitive science, for example. Since the Young India Fellowship is not a specialised course, the MLS is a good way to get a grounding in a discipline before applying for a Ph.D. programme. The MLS has a teaching and research assistantship component as well. Combined with the writing of a research thesis, it is a very good way to figure if research is really what one wants to do,” says Gilles.

Upon starting this journey, MLS candidates are likely to be travelling on a road where they are mentored one-on-one, and are working to complete their research alone, often spending long hours with documents, interviews and research material.

“The responsibilities and meeting deadlines with a course combination which is extremely unique to you. With no one to emulate or help you with scheduling or micromanaging, it is different from the YIF and UG experience because of how solitary the journey is, which by the end becomes strangely empowering”, says Anurit.

Many of the MLS candidates might agree with this, as the number of roles that one has to play is truly something they need to manage well by being extremely organised- a student, a teacher, a mentee, a researcher and finally, almost an employee to the department that they work under.

The other end of the spectrum is the time that a professor takes out to guide his MLS student.

Professor Gilles says that supervising an MLS student last year has been incredibly rewarding- “First of all there was a communion of academic interests between my student and I. Second, because he had an exceptional experience of the field of his research, his research is empirically sound and remarkably well informed. I ended up spending far more time with my MLS student than I would have in a regular Master’s programme in a more conventional university. Towards the end of the year, he got admitted in a prestigious European Ph.D. program, which I think was a great validation of the programme.”

One can get an idea about Anurit’s attachment with the project, with the MLS programme and the Fellowship as he says “I would gladly relive the last 2 years of my life again, knowing there is still so much to learn.”

The MLS programme is now in its second year, with eight students pursuing their research in various areas such as Literature, Media studies, Creative Writing, Anthropology, Psychology and Performing Arts.


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