The Newsletter 86 Summer 2020

The ICAS Dissertation Awards

Alex McKay

Question: what do studies of the everyday life of 18-19th century Swedish East India Company employees, Santal architectural history, gay life in 21st century Manila, and 19th century Iranian portrait photography and Persian painting, have in common? Answer: they have all won an ICAS Award for the Best Dissertation in the Humanities or Social Sciences. (The full list of previous winners can be found at

Since its inception in 1998 when the first ICAS conference was held in Leiden (The Netherlands), the International Convention of Asia Scholars has become the largest gathering of its kind in the world. The ICAS Book Prize (IBP) was instituted by ICAS Secretary Paul van der Velde for ICAS 4 in Shanghai (2005), which also from the start included an Award for Best Dissertation in Asian studies. Two conventions later, at ICAS 6 in Daejeon (2009), the Dissertation Awards started to recognise two categories, Humanities and Social Sciences. Following this development, Reading Committee Accolades were added in both categories so as to recognise dissertations that, while not of the standard of the main Award Winner, represented the best work in a specific area: (1) Most Accessible and Captivating Work for the Non-specialist Reader; (2) Specialist Dissertation; and (3) Ground-breaking/Innovative Subject Matter. 

The Reading Committee, generally composed of previous Award or Accolade winners, takes on the task of reading and assessing the entries. Committee members first produce a public Longlist of the leading contenders in each category, then a Shortlist, and finally the Winners. The Winners of the current edition will be announced at ICAS 12 in Kyoto (24-27 August 2021). The Committee also grants the Accolades, which are not necessarily dissertations that have made it onto the Longlist. The number of dissertations submitted was low to begin with, but over the years the numbers have grown enormously, with around 150 submissions for IBP 2019. 

The qualities that make a dissertation the best in its category are hardly unexpected – originality, intellectual quality, depth of research, significant conclusions that make it of interest to the wider field, properly thought out theoretical and organisational framework, and so on – but the very best works have something else. They attract, they intrigue, they quite simply shine and demand that they be published and read by a wide audience of Asia scholars. 

Winning an Award or an Accolade, or being on the Shortlist or even the Longlist, entails more than a cash prize or certificate. It brings the dissertation to the notice of academic publishers, who are naturally keen to acquire the best works, and provides a considerable boost to a younger scholar's resume, greatly improving their chances of building an academic career. That was the intention in establishing the Awards, and the presence of numerous academic publishers at each ICAS gives winners the very best opportunity to arrange publication of their work.

The ICAS Dissertation Awards have always been about giving newly endowed PhDs those opportunities. While the ‘submit by 1 October’ date is indeed fixed, the organisers have always retained a certain flexibility with regard to other aspects, recognising the ways in which new technologies can impact on the format of a PhD, understanding ‘Asia’ in the broadest sense, and encouraging submissions from any recognised Institute that awards PhDs in the English language. 

The submission process could hardly be simpler. Anyone can enter their dissertation online at We encourage anyone whose doctoral dissertation is related to Asia, is written in English, has not previously been submitted to the IBP, and is dated post 1 June 2018, to enter. 

Alex McKay PhD, ICAS Dissertation Reading Committee Chair