Part II: The MPhil Degree

The program of study is to be planned in consultation with a faculty advisor in the student's field of specialization. The faculty advisor is designated by the Director of Graduate Studies. Students working in more than a single field of study will plan their program in consultation with faculty advisors in the appropriate fields. The faculty concerned must in such cases concur that a program involving more than a single field is appropriate for the student wishing to undertake it. In addition to work in special fields, students must develop competence in one of the Zone of Inquiry. They will develop a plan of study with their faculty advisor and a faculty member in their chosen Zone.

Degree Requirements

Before receiving the MPhil, all students must first receive a MA from Columbia or advanced standing for an equivalent master's degree from another institution. More information about degree requirements and advanced standing for Columbia's MA in Religion can be found in Part I: The MA Degree.

Six residence units (RUs) are required for the degree. In consultation with a faculty advisor, students should complete coursework relevant to their program of study. Required courses include: 

1. Theory and Methods: All students are required to take the Theory and Methods seminar during their first year. In addition to work completed in this seminar, students will consult with their advisors and other faculty members to develop a bibliography of other relevant theoretical and methodical works for which they will be responsible. 

2. Zones of Inquiry: All students are required to take at least one introductory theoretical seminar in one of the Zones of Inquiry and, in consultation with their advisor and other faculty members, will develop a program of study in their chosen area of inquiry. Specific emphasis and bibliography, to be prepared for the purposes of the Zones examination, will be determined by the student in consultation with an advisor.

In addition to English and all languages necessary for research in primary sources, students are required to demonstrate knowledge of at least one additional language (other than their native language) that is appropriate for reading secondary sources. Language proficiency is measured by an examination approved by the Director of Graduate Studies or one year's course work beyond the elementary level.

All graduate students serve as Teaching Fellows for three years as a form of teaching apprenticeship. At least one of the three years must be completed before the MPhil can be conferred. More information about the teaching apprenticeship, including Teaching Fellows' responsibilities and how assignments are made, may be found in the Manual for Teaching Fellows.

Theory and Zone Exam

Before the end of their second year, students will take a written and oral exam in Theory and their selected Zone. Students should consult with the Director of Graduate Studies, their Theory and Method (GR6101) instructor, and their Zone instructor for guidance on preparing reading lists, selecting faculty examiners, and setting examination dates. The written exam consists of two three-hour exams, with one devoted to Theory and the other to the Zone, both taken on the same day (e.g. 9-12 and 2-5).  A combined one-hour oral examination follows one week after the written exams, in which both professors meet with the student to discuss the written exams.

The Theory and Zone examination is graded as Pass or Fail. Students who receive a failing grade may petition the Director of Graduate Studies to retake the examination within one month of the first attempt. The student will re-take the written examination, and the student’s advisor will join the oral examination committee on re-examination. Should the student fail the examination a second time, the student will not advance to the MPhil degree. 

MPhil Exam

The purpose of the MPhil examination is to evaluate students’ understanding of the scholarship and fields in which they will conduct research and teach. The examination is structured so that students will demonstrate their conceptual and critical understanding and growing mastery of the general and specific fields in which they plan to work, including their understanding and evaluation of key issues and debates in the field.

Details regarding the MPhil exam are below.

Once all requirements for the MPhil have been completed, the student should submit an application for the MPhil degree to the Director of Graduate Studies. The Director of Graduate Studies will then sign the form and submit it to the GSAS Dissertation Office by the deadline that corresponds to the intended degree conferral date. Degrees are awarded three times a year—in October, February, and May—and each degree conferral date has a corresponding application deadline.

The MPhil Exam

Preparation for the MPhil examination is meant to accomplish several things:

  • Prepare students for teaching and active scholarly participation within a recognizable field in religious studies;
  • Develop a solid grasp of a specific focus area within their field or a related field in religious studies; and
  • Serve as an exploratory device for developing or refining a dissertation topic.

The process begins with the creation of a set of reading lists and culminates in a written examination based on the reading lists, followed by a two-hour oral examination with four faculty members in attendance. The examination takes place in the sixth semester (spring of third year).

We expect that all students will complete the MPhil examinations and successfully defend their dissertation proposal by the end of the third year, although in some cases advisors and students may determine that it should be held in the summer between third and fourth year. This schedule allows each student to have two fully-funded dissertation research and writing years.

Field-specific competencies, including languages, methods, and other areas of expertise required for successful progression toward the MPhil degree and dissertation may be found here.

Spring term of second year: Students meet with their faculty advisor to review procedures and purposes of the examination and begin drafting reading lists.

September of third year: Students meet with advisors to finalize the examination lists and the structure of the written component, select and communicate with the examination committee, and set a benchmark date/month for the oral examination in the spring. Advisors confirm with the Director of Graduate Studies that the list and examination structure has been decided.

Fall and winter of third year: Preparation for the examination. 

Spring term of third year: Written and oral examinations usually take place in in March. Ideally, the dissertation proposal defense will follow in May. Note: GSAS policy requires that the dissertation proposal defense occur within six months of the MPhil examination for a student to remain in good standing.

Reading lists for the examination consist of a selection of monographs and major essays or articles that represent the students’ breadth and depth of interest in a particular field or fields. They are not meant to be cumulative of the study that the candidate has undertaken prior to the examination. Rather, lists are developed in consultation with a student's advisor(s) for the purposes of the examination. 

In many respects, preparation for the MPhil examination begins in the first semester of the doctoral program, as students take courses and/or independent reading courses and begin to focus on and strengthen their knowledge in their chosen fields, as well as in theory and methods, zone areas, and related disciplines. This broad and deep range of reading and coursework supports and feeds into the development of examination reading lists finalized by the beginning of the third year.

The MPhil reading lists will include a balance of texts already mastered and new areas of inquiry, so that students, in preparing for the examinations, expand their knowledge base, explore new materials, and strengthen and deepen their familiarity with materials previously studied through both independent reading and regular courses. 

Students develop their lists in consultation with their advisor and faculty members who will serve on their examination committee. The MPhil examination is typically composed of three parts, each with its own reading list, as described below, although some students or advisors may wish to depart from this structure as the student’s interests and developing expertise warrant. Examination lists will not exceed 150 titles total, regardless of the structure of the lists and written exam. 

A typical three-part examination list will include (a) a primary field examination (or survey) that is intended to set a broad context for dissertation research and teaching in the student’s primary area of scholarship and teaching (50-75 titles), and (b) second and third examinations focused on specialized areas of interest that may encompass methodological and/or theoretical foci, research in particular topics, or be oriented around major questions or debates in the field (30-40 titles each).

The examination committee should be comprised of four Columbia faculty members, including the student’s advisor. One member must be a Religion Department member who is not in the candidate’s primary field. One or possibly two members may be from another Columbia Department.

Non-Columbia faculty members do not ordinarily participate in the MPhil examination.

The written components of the examinations can take different forms according to the needs of the student, with the general guideline that written components should enable students to display their understanding and mastery of the materials on their examination lists. What follows are possible formats that may serve as guidelines as faculty advisors and students determine the best format for the individual student.

Option 1: Open-book, four-hour written examinations or, alternately, essays of modest length (e.g. 9-11 double spaced pages) written over the course of a week (one essay per list). The written exams are taken within one seven-day period. The oral examination will be scheduled to take place within two weeks of the written exams. 

Option 2: One written examination may be replaced with a syllabus or syllabi, to be distributed to the committee no later than one week before the oral examination.

Option 3: One written examination may be replaced by a 20-30 page critical literature review, focused on an area and topic agreed upon by examiners and written over the course of four weeks, to be distributed to the committee no later than one week before the oral examination.

The oral examination itself is an important event. It is an opportunity for students to do several things: demonstrate some mastery of the field and related areas; give a sense of how they approach the field; articulate the primary animating questions; be an interlocutor with the questioners and with the authors they read; and show that they are ready to enter into the final stage of the PhD program, where they will be expected to undertake independent scholarship and become an active participant in the discipline. 

The committee assesses both the written and oral examination and awards one of three marks.  

Candidates receiving Pass who have fulfilled all other MPhil requirements are awarded the MPhil degree and proceed to the doctoral program.

Candidates receiving Fail are not awarded the MPhil and are not permitted to re-take the orals or advance to the doctoral program.

Candidates receiving Low Pass are eligible to receive the MPhil degree, but do not proceed to the doctoral program. Candidates receiving a Low Pass may petition the Director of Graduate Studies within one week if they want to re-take the written and oral examination; if granted approval, candidates must re-take the exam within one month of the first oral examination. A candidate who fails to score above a Low Pass on the second orals will not advance to the doctoral program.