Fields of Study

This area of study brings together faculty expertise on the variety of ways in which religion can be understood in relation to embodiment, expression, and objectification. From the physical composition of an artifact, space or text, to the metaphysical significance of the voice in chant or song, students in this field can explore the connections between such interests as art and aesthetics, religion and material culture, media studies, and performance studies. In addition to coursework in the Department of Religion, students are encouraged to take courses not only in other departments within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, but, where appropriate, such others as the School of the Arts or the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

This field provides extensive training in the cultural, linguistic, and textual traditions relevant to the study of Buddhism, as well as a firm methodological grounding in the study of religion. The Department’s core and affiliated faculty exhibit particular strengths in Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese and Korean Buddhist traditions. The Center for Buddhism and East Asian Religions supports faculty and student scholarship on campus through workshops, symposia, and guest lectures.

Visit the PhD in Buddhism section for more information about the field's requirements.

There are two main tracks in Christianity: Ancient Christianity/Late Antiquity and History of Christianity (Medieval/Early Modern).

Visit the PhD in Christianity section for more information about the field's requirements.

Ancient Christianity/Late Antiquity

This program is designed to prepare students for professional work in research and teaching, focusing on the interdisciplinary study of early and late ancient Christianity within the context of the broader academic study of religion. The subfield encourages students to work across a range of disciplinary specializations—historical inquiry, philological and literary analysis, translation, art history, archaeology, material culture—and to place the study of ancient and late ancient Christianity within a broader cultural contexts of the ancient Mediterranean world.

History of Christianity (Medieval/Early Modern)

Students who concentrate in the History of Christianity are expected: a) to acquire a competent knowledge of a broad range of Christian history (from the 3rd Century CE to the Early Modern Era), and (b) to acquire a more detailed grasp of a special area within that history. The Two Field Examinations are to be designed in such wise as to enable the individual student to demonstrate that he or she has met these expectations.

The East Asian Religion field provides extensive training in the cultural, linguistic, and textual traditions relevant to each student’s area of interest, as well as a firm methodological grounding in the study of religion. The Department’s core and affiliated faculty exhibit particular strengths in Japanese Buddhism, Shinto and Japanese Religions, and Chinese Buddhism and Daoism. The Center for Buddhism and East Asian Religions supports faculty and student scholarship on campus through workshops, symposia, and guest lectures.

Visit the PhD in East Asian Religions section for more information about the field's requirements.

This field seeks to train specialists in Islamic Studies. The program is designed to prepare students to teach and do research in the history, cultures, languages and literatures, doctrines and ritual practices, as well as the social and political articulations of Islam. A particular emphasis is paid to fostering an appreciation of the great diversity of the Islamic tradition, the numerous manifestations of Islamic religiosity and their interactions with other religious traditions, historically and in the contemporary world.

Visit the PhD in Islam section for more information about the field's requirements.

The program is designed to prepare students to do research and teach in Jewish studies, broadly defined as the study of the historical, philosophical, and religious experience of Jewish cultures and their dialogue with the non-Jewish world. Upon entrance students are expected to design a track of courses suited to their interests by consulting with the appropriate faculty member in the field.

The course of study can be historically based with a specific focus on Late Antiquity, Medieval, Early Modern or Modern periods or take an interdisciplinary, tradition-traversing approach to the religious formations. Another course of study can be theoretically or thematically defined and explore specific questions and/or periods. Areas of inquiry might include Jewish difference, Jewish thought and mysticism, gender and sexuality, philology, as well as the intersection between Jewish culture and the arts. This approach will involve working with at least two faculty members in the field, and more broadly in the department. It may also invite perspectives in comparative religion. Students will be expected to become conversant in theories and methods in the contemporary academy, first and foremost in religious studies, and to fulfill all the general requirements of the Ph.D. program in Religion.

Visit the PhD in Judaism section for more information about the field's requirements.

The program in North American Religions at Columbia trains doctoral students to research and teach in a wide range of historical and contemporary problems and issues in the study of American religions. We expect students to develop depth of knowledge of the history and development of American religions, as well as expertise in one or more methods or approaches to the study of American religion.

Visit the PhD in North American Religions section for more information about the field's requirements.

This area of study aims to examine religious concepts, beliefs, languages, and experience with the tools of philosophy and critical theory- thus exploring ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and questioning aesthetic, social, historical, and ideological dynamics that undergird these religious beliefs and attitudes. Students and faculty seek to question the canon and the margins, past and future, and phenomena whose religious dimension might be obvious or less apparent. The range of questions and conversations can encompass scientific, political, financial, and societal issues. In addition to coursework in the Department of Religion, students are encouraged to take classes in Philosophy, Comparative Literature, Political Science, Media studies, Neuroscience and Economics—to name a few—depending on their background and research project.

Visit the PhD in Philosophy and Critical Thought section for more information about the field's requirements.

In this field, students have the opportunity to participate in the rapidly evolving scholarship on gender and sexuality with faculty who have a range of disciplinary backgrounds across multiple religious traditions.  Faculty are concerned with how the study of particular religious phenomena and lived experience may contribute to theoretical articulations of gender and sexuality.  How does a focus on religion alter how we think about intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality or changing sexual and gendered practices, their socio-political environments, and emerging technological procedures involving the sexed body? Students are encouraged to draw on a range of scholarly approaches, including historical, textual, and ethnographic methods. Aside from courses offered in the Department of Religion on these subjects, students may take a wide array of courses in other departments and are encouraged to fulfill the requirements for an ISSG certificate.

This area of study examines multiple forms of power, place, and temporality. On one hand, RRI involves attention to how these categories (i.e. race, religion, indigeneity) emerged out of and continue to enable imperialism, colonialism, authoritarianism, and white supremacy. On the other hand, however, no understanding of racialized and Indigenous life -- particularly as these are expressed through “Religion,” broadly understood -- is reducible to the function of imperial, colonial, authoritarian, or white supremacist domination. At Columbia and Barnard, we acknowledge that we conduct these studies on the traditional homelands of the Lenape people and that, at this time/in the United States, any attempt to understand the intersections of race and religion must acknowledge the long history of anti-black racism in the United States. Attention to the specific provenance of the interventions concerning race and/or indigeneity in the study of religion do not necessitate a strict geo-historical imaginary. Students are expected to take coursework in the department and beyond that reflects the methods, sources and theories deployed to study race and indigeneity in the modern world, more generally, to this day.

Although students have different interests and backgrounds, the general pattern of study for students entering upon the study of South Asian religions is something as follows:

Year 1: Complete departmental course requirements in "theory and method" and a “zone of inquiry;” pursue language study; take additional courses to develop area and theoretical expertise, including gaining broad familiarity with the world’s major religious traditions. If “Issues in the Study of South Asian Religions” is being taught in the first or second year, take it.

Summer after year 1:  Intensive language study in South Asia.

Year 2: Round out course work in South Asian religions; take topical courses relevant to the student’s individual research interests both within the department and in related disciplines. Begin to develop reading lists for the M. Phil. Exam. Begin to develop dissertation proposal. (Serve as teaching assistant in fall and spring semesters, experiences which may also give you the opportunity to gain familiarity with another religious tradition as well deepening your knowledge of South Asian religions.)

Summer after year 2: Preliminary dissertation research in South Asia. (AIIS grant proposal for dissertation research is due July 1 of second year for research to be carried out in fourth year.)

Year 3: Most grant proposals to fund dissertation research have early fall deadlines.  Prepare for the M. Phil exam, which is to be taken in the middle of the spring semester.  Complete dissertation prospectus by the end of spring semester. (Serve as teaching assistant in fall and spring semesters.)

Year 4: Engage in dissertation research in South Asia. Some students spend more than a year in South Asia.

Year 5: Write the dissertation. (Serve as teaching assistant in fall and spring semesters.) Most students require more than a year to complete the dissertation. For students who receive external funding for their fourth-year research in South Asia, the five years of GSAS funding can extend through the sixth year.

Language capability in the South Asia Field

By the time they begin their dissertation research abroad, all students are expected to have achieved at least a fourth-year level of competency in one South Asian language and a third-year level competency in a second. For students of Hinduism, one of these languages will almost invariably be Sanskrit. The second will be a regional, "mother-tongue" language. For students of South Asian Islam, the languages will normally be distributed between Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. For students of Sikhism, Punjabi (including the language of the Guru Granth) will be the principal language, and three years of additional competence will normally be contributed by Urdu and/or Braj Bhasa. Some dissertation topics may require an additional (third) language, in which the student should acquire at least intermediate competency. The designations “Hinduism” and “Sikhism” are not meant to exhaust the realm of potential field concentrations, some of which may be hard to capture within the framework of an “ism.”

It is optimal that this "four/three" (or, when necessary for the individual student’s project, four/three/two) requirement be met by the end of the student's third year in the program--if necessary, by doing language work in a structured program either in the United States or elsewhere during one or two summers. The minimum expectation, however, is that the student will have achieved a "three/two" competency by the end of the third year.

The MPhil Exam

Part 1: Written exam (9-11 double spaced pages) on the state of the Field of South Asian Religions, focused on problems of method and perspective/theory.  This exam is intended to set a broad context for dissertation research and teaching in the student’s primary area of scholarship (up to 50 titles).

Part 2: Written exam (9-11 double spaced pages) focused on one aspect of the student’s broad field of concentration—a band, period, or stream within South Asian religions. (30 titles).

Part 3: Written exam (9-11 double spaced pages), focused on a second aspect of the student’s field of concentration. (30 titles). Alternatively, this exam could explore a complementary field of interest within the span of South Asian religions.  In either case, Parts 2 and 3 should draw upon different titles and address different themes or methodologies.

Additional material to be submitted before the oral exam:

A design for a course (syllabus) that would either be comparative or fall within the South Asian realm. The syllabus should include an annotative essay of five pages double-spaced explaining the rationale of the course and should include all the trappings of a regular syllabus, as if it were to be submitted to some institution’s Committee on Instruction for approval as a regular course.  Students should specify at what level the course is proposed to be taught, and in what sort of educational setting.

The Dissertation prospectus and oral defense

Within 6 weeks of completing the M Phil exam (or over the following summer), in preparation for the dissertation prospectus oral defense, the student should submit to their committee members the following:

  1. The dissertation prospectus.  The prospectus should be approximately 25 double-spaced pages long and should include a chapter outline with brief chapter summaries, as well as a detailed bibliography of relevant sources.
  2. A portfolio of seminar papers written during the student’s coursework in the program.  The portfolio is intended to give committee members an overall sense of the student’s intellectual trajectory and to encourage students to think about papers they may eventually want to develop further for publication.  Students are not expected to revise these papers for inclusion in the portfolio.