MA Program

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To apply for the MA in Archaeology, visit Cornell’s Graduate School Admissions

For a description of the field, see the Graduate School’s Archaeology Field Description. Questions about the MA program in Archaeology should be sent to the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). 

Students considering applying to graduate school in archaeology are encouraged to read Professor Adam T. Smith’s informative blog post on the subject.

The MA Program in Archaeology at Cornell is designed to provide students with an intensive orientation to the field, appropriate to both students with BA degrees in the liberal arts who have considerable experience in archaeology and those seeking to build a solid foundation for future work or study.  The goal of the program is to offer students the intellectual resources and institutional support necessary to prepare them for successful admissions to top tier PhD programs and for careers in the heritage sector.

Cornell archaeology supports a diverse array of interests, ranging from material culture studies to public archaeology, historic preservation, and archaeological method and theory.  Archaeology at Cornell is deeply committed to multidisciplinary studies. Faculty in Archaeology belong to the fields of Anthropology, Classics, History of Art, Landscape Architecture, Medieval Studies, and Near Eastern Studies.

The ideal trajectory toward the MA should result in the completion of all requirements within 12-18 months, although extensions to 24 months are allowed when warranted by a student’s research program.

Overall Requirements

Conferral of the MA in Archaeology entails satisfactory completion of the following requirements:

  • 8 courses;
    • Students are strongly encouraged to take all courses at the 4000 level or higher (excepting language courses—see below).
    • In special circumstances, up to two non-language courses can be at the 2000 or 3000 level. This requires the approval of the student’s advisor and the Graduate Affairs Committee.
  • Arkeo 6100: The Craft of Archaeology;
  • A thesis;
  • Successful completion of the MA exam;
  • 2 semesters in residence (i.e., taking courses on the Ithaca campus)

Courses & Distribution

Within the total of 8 required courses, at least 4 must satisfy the following requirements:

  • 1 course at the 4000+ level devoted to Archaeological Theory;
  • 1 course at the 4000+ level devoted to Archaeological Method;
  • 1 course devoted to the Archaeology of a Region;
  • 1 additional archaeology course (this could be Master’s Thesis, ARKEO 8901)

During the fall semester, students are required to enroll in two courses. One is “The Craft of Archaeology”. This course, co-taught by the in-residence faculty, provides both an orientation to current faculty research and hands-on advice on professional skills, from constructing a CV, to applying to graduate programs, to conducting fieldwork.

The second required fall course is the designated CIAMS seminar. This course is intended for the entire entering cohort and is required in order to apply for research funding from CIAMS. The CIAMS seminar will typically satisfy either the course requirement in Archaeological Theory or Archaeological Method.

Only one course to be counted in the total of 8 required courses may be taken S/U. All the rest must be taken for a quality grade.

If a course is not available in a given area of interest, students may speak to relevant faculty to discuss the possibility of an independent study. Students are advised to take no more than one independent study, but exceptions can be made in consultation with the Graduate Affairs Committee or the Special Committee.

Click here for a list of all MA courses by distribution.

Model Course of Study

Each student’s course of study is guided by the Graduate Advisory Committee. There is thus no single model for a program of study. One possible model for a 2-semester curriculum would be:

Semester 1

Course in Archaeological Theory (CIAMS Seminar)

Course in Archaeological Method

Course in the Archaeology of a Region

Other elective or language*

Semester 2

Course in Archaeological Theory or Method

Course on the Archaeology of a Region #2

Other elective or language

Thesis writing (with committee chair)

End of Semester 1

Establish special committee

Graduation Semester

MA Exam

Submission of MA thesis

 Before Day 1 of Semester 2

Submit research proposal to committee


* See section on language below


Each student’s tailored course of study is developed in close consultation with faculty advisors. Entering students receive guidance initially from the Graduate Advisory Committee (GAC). Composed of the DGS, CIAMS director, and one additional faculty member, the role of the GAC is to provide advice until such time as the Special Committee is constituted and to provide any assistance that might fall outside of the academic purview of the special committee (e.g., issues pertaining to the Graduate School, TAships, etc.).  

Please note that the Graduate School requires all students to have registered an adviser online via student center by the 3rd week of the fall semester. If you have not selected a Special Committee chair by this time, you should select the DGS or the adviser who was assigned to you in your letter of admissions. Once a Special Committee has been formed, you can remove the temporary member or alter his/her status as needed. 

You should establish a Special Committee, including Chair and Minor Member(s) by the end of Fall semester. The Special Committee is ultimately responsible for all decisions regarding a student’s academic trajectory. Each student should officially constitute a Special Committee no later than the end of the first semester in residence. The committee chair must be a member of the Field of Archaeology; the second member can be chosen from the Graduate Faculty at large. Students may change the composition of their committees at any time if needed.

MA Thesis

The final thesis for the MA in Archaeology should present a piece of original research on a topic of empirical, theoretical, or methodological importance. It must not exceed 30 pages including tables, figures, bibliography and notes (using standard formatting in accordance with graduate school requirements). It should aim to be similar in quality and scale to those published in professional archaeological journals.

No later than the first day of spring semester, students must submit to their Special Committee a short (maximum 4 pages) proposal detailing the focus of their thesis.

MA Exam

After submission of the MA research paper an oral examination is convened with the Special Committee and any other Archaeology Field members who choose to attend.  


There is no language requirement for the Archaeology MA. However, the Special Committee can advise language study as appropriate. In particular, for some MA research papers – where relevant primary sources or key scholarly literature are not available in English – it will be necessary for students to demonstrate suitable minimum language ability (as advised by the Special Committee) at least by the time of their MA defense.

Language courses, including introductory language courses, do count toward the 8 credit requirement and are thus an exception to the rule that the 8 courses required for the MA be at or above the 4000 level.


As you move toward completion of your MA thesis, it is important to be aware of Graduate School requirements which impact scheduling. The Graduate School stipulates a filing deadline for MA candidates who wish to graduate during a given semester. The final possible date for the MA exam is about 2 weeks before the filing deadline. The Graduate School’s A3 form scheduling the MA exam must be filed with the GFA for Archaeology (Laura Webster) at least one week prior to the exam. And the defense draft of the MA thesis must be circulated to your committee no later than 3 weeks prior to the exam. As you plan for the completion of your degree, please consult the Graduate School’s timeline:

Frequently Asked Questions

1.     What paths do graduates pursue after completing the MA in Archaeology?

CIAMS alumni follow a range of career paths. Approximately half of the students in our MA program (49 per cent) go on to pursue a PhD in Anthropology, Classics, or Near Eastern Studies. A number of our alumni (23 percent) choose to work in the heritage sector, from cultural and national resource management, to laboratories and libraries. For others still, CIAMS is a stepping stone to careers in education, information technology, or other fields (23 percent). Some of our students (6 percent) choose to pursue additional master’s degrees in such diverse fields as Conservation, Roman History, and Education.


2.     How does the MA program support students who wish to go on for a PhD?

We have a very high success rate of PhD placement. From 2007-2018, 85 percent of all students who applied to at least one PhD program were admitted. A full 100 percent of all students who applied to multiple PhD programs were admitted. Our students have gone on to pursue a PhD at such institutions as Brown University, Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, McGill University, University of Oregon, Southern Methodist University, SUNY Buffalo, University of Kentucky, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Yale University. CIAMS provides students with the training, guidance, and support necessary to be competitive for PhD admissions.


3.     How long does it take to complete the MA degree?

The average time to degree for the MA in Archaeology is four semesters, but many students finish in three semesters or even one calendar year. The duration of the degree depends in large measure on the time needed to develop and complete the MA thesis. Students spend the first two semesters fulfilling coursework requirements. The summer after the first year is dedicated to fieldwork or other thesis-related research. In the fall of Year 2, most students turn their full attention to writing the thesis, and typically go on in absentia status to conduct research away from Ithaca. Those who wish to take additional coursework in the second year to deepen their training in a given area are permitted to do so. Upon completion of the thesis, students take the MA exam. This is the final requirement of the degree, and is usually held in the fall or spring semester of the second year. In some cases, as when students are able to begin thesis research prior to entering the program, or otherwise make swift progress on the thesis during the first year, it is possible to complete the requirements of the degree in the summer after the first year.


4.     Is there funding available to support MA students?

We make every effort to help our students manage the costs of the MA in Archaeology by maintaining competitive tuition rates and offering various funding opportunities. Our MA students pay the graduate research tuition rate of the Cornell’s contract colleges, currently $10,400 per semester. To further defray these costs, each year two teaching assistantship packages are awarded on the basis of merit to incoming MA students at the point of admission. These packages are “half-TAships”, which cover half the cost of tuition and health benefits, and include a half-stipend. For those who do not receive half-TAships, in the first year of the program we provide fellowships of $2,500 in the fall semester, and an additional $2,500 in the spring semester, provided students remain in good academic standing. Occasionally, other opportunities arise for MA students to work as teaching assistants for other departments, and we make every effort to identify and secure such positions for our students. Likewise, students are sometimes able to work as assistants to faculty, supporting research in labs and on individual projects. CIAMS is also pleased to sponsor various grant programs, including the Hirsch Graduate Travel Scholarship and the CIAMS Research Grants. In addition, we welcome opportunities to diversify our student body, and make every effort to support diversity students by nominating them for competitive fellowships offered by the Graduate School.


Our students are also encouraged to apply for external funding in support of graduate training. Nationally, although funding opportunities for MA students are limited, in the past our students have received fellowships from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and various scholarships for postgraduate scholar-athletes. Finally, we understand that students may need to maintain part-time employment while in our program, and are supportive of such arrangements to the extent that they comply with Graduate School regulations.