M.A. Requirements

Students must complete 30 credit points of graduate-level coursework and two Residence Units in order to complete the degree. The degree can be completed within three semesters or students may also pursue a program of part-time study over a period of no longer than four years.

Students should review the Human Rights Studies M.A. (HRSMA) Digital Student Handbook for information about academic policies, degree planning, and other resources. (Canvas login required). Students should also review the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) student handbook, particularly the Student Affairs section, for additional information on academic policies and procedures.

The overall degree structure is as follows:

Core Courses – 9 credits

All students enroll in Introduction to Human Rights in their first fall semester of study. The other two core courses are offered in the fall and spring semesters.

Introduction to Human Rights

This course provides a wide-ranging survey of conceptual foundations and issues in contemporary human rights. The course examines the philosophical origins of human rights, their explication in the evolving series of international documents, questions about enforcement, and current debates. It also explores topics such as women's rights, development and human rights, the use of torture, humanitarian intervention, and the horrors of genocide. The broad range of subjects covered in the course is intended to assist students in honing their interests and making future course selections in the human rights field.


Students from the graduating class of 2022

International Human Rights Law

This course introduces the fundamental concepts and problems of public international law. What are the origins of international law? Is international law really law? Who is governed by it? How are treaties interpreted? What is the relationship between international law and domestic law? We examine the interplay between law and international politics, in particular with reference to international human rights, humanitarian law, the use of force, and international criminal prosecutions. No prior knowledge of international law is required. While the topics are necessarily law-related, the course will assume no prior exposure to legal studies.

Human Rights Research Seminar

This course prepares students to engage in human rights. The course aims to give students a common, basic foundation in the main research methods and approaches relevant to human rights, with additional attention paid to research design and selected primary source material. The knowledge and skills developed in this course will help prepare students for their M.A. thesis research and will also be useful to those wishing to engage in further graduate study or research-oriented jobs. The course introduces students to multiple tools and approaches, but students will be able to tailor their work in the course to the needs of their intended thesis research to the extent possible.

Concentration Courses – 9 credits

The concentration is self-defined by the student in consultation with the program. Concentration courses provide students the opportunity to gain specialized knowledge in a particular area of human rights; expose them to key texts, discussions, questions, and debates that are relevant to their human rights research interests; and facilitate the identification of the specific research question that they will address in their thesis. The range of student concentrations and research interests is reflected in the diversity of theses completed by graduate students. To obtain a copy of the HRSMA thesis titles, please email humanrightsma@columbia.edu.

While some students enter the program with a specific research question in mind, others begin their first semester with a more general concentration and refine their research interests as they engage with key issues and debates through their coursework, extracurricular activities, and discussions with professors, fellow students, and practitioners. However, students who enroll full-time and plan to complete the degree within three semesters will need to take at least one, if not two, concentration courses in their first semester of study.

Elective Human Rights Courses – 9 credits

Some students choose to focus all of their coursework on their chosen research topic. However, students have the option of taking three elective human rights courses. Courses included on the list of pre-approved courses automatically count as electives.

Thesis – 3 credits

The thesis is a substantive text of original research and analysis that requires the critical examination of a human rights research question, related to the student’s selected concentration.

Thesis forms and information:


Click here for Theses by recent HRSMA graduates. The thesis should demonstrate knowledge of specific human rights principles, debates, and contextual issues (social, economic, political, etc.) relevant to the chosen topic, demonstrate a mastery of the current literature, present findings that are objectively defensible, and make an original contribution to knowledge in the field.

Students write their theses in their final semester of study while enrolled in one of two possible thesis courses:

Supervised Individual Research (GR9990) The traditional method of writing the thesis as an independent study under the supervision of a faculty member.

All students must submit an approved thesis proposal prior to enrollment in the thesis course. Students should consult the thesis guidelines and the links above for additional information, guidelines, and examples.