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 Method and Zone of Inquiry Examinations

I. Goal

The course requirements and examinations in Theory and Method and a Zone of Inquiry (Time, Transmission, Space, Body, Media) support graduate students in developing a critical approach to the study of religion across both subfields and disciplines. These foundations are expected to be honed and deepened by further work in the program and in a student’s specific subfields. Following their first year of study in the program, students will take the Theory and Method and Zone exams. These exams should demonstrate a strong grasp of the following: 

1)  different genealogies of the category of “religion” and the major arguments surrounding them, based on both classic and contemporary texts;

2) a history of the field of the study of religion;

3) different methods used within the study of religion, and how method choices shape the object of study;

4) key theoretical concepts in the study of religion as well as ones crucial to their Zone of Inquiry, demonstrated by the ability to speak to some of the core interpretative debates related to these concepts, and to think creatively and critically with these concepts and discussions;

5) how social and institutional dynamics shape knowledge creation;

6) the importance of being in conversation with arguments, methods, and texts beyond one’s own interests and specializations.

II. Rationale

Ph.D students are required to take the T&M and at least one Zone course in their first year of study. Theory and Method must be taken during the first semester of the first year. While students are encouraged to pursue any Zones of Inquiry that align with their specific interests during the period of their coursework, the requirement of taking at least one Zone course during the first year is aimed at further supporting the development of a theoretical/conceptual register, regardless of a student’s specific subfield or focus. 

The T&M and Z examinations must be taken following the first year of study. The department encourages students to prepare for the exams in collaboration with each other to deepen the shared vocabulary and conversations developed through coursework.

The preparation for the examinations should also provide students with the opportunity to deepen their being conversant with the theoretical and methodological discussions surrounding the category of “religion” and the study of religion as a field, to better locate their own work in the field. Moreover, preparing for the examinations which are focused on the conceptual and theoretical register should allow students to expand their abilities to recognize how specific materials might challenge to the conceptual assumptions and theoretical infrastructures that they bring to their inquiries, in order to prepare them to be able in their subsequent work to articulate both the contributions that they are making to the specific discussions in their subfield and also to elaborate some conceptual contributions that their work might offer more broadly.

The examination itself should give the student an opportunity to demonstrate competency and comfort in navigating the conceptual discussions and problematics surrounding and structuring the categories and the field more broadly. The oral examination in particular should provide an opportunity for the student to demonstrate how they think with precision and acumen in an extemporaneous setting and refine their thinking in conversation with the two examiners. In addition to providing feedback and recommendations for improvement, the follow-up discussion should also be an opportunity to address and orient the student toward the next steps in the program.

III. Process and Procedure

1. The Theory and Methods and Zone (T&M/Z) examinations are administered annually in late August or early September. 

a. Formally granted leaves that do not count toward the student’s time in the program may mean that a student is only able to take their T&M/Z examination following their third semester in the Program.

b. To remain in good standing in the Program, all students must take and pass their T&M/Z examinations successfully at the latest by the end of their third semester in the Program.

2. The examinations are administered by two faculty within the Program.

a. The Theory and Methods examination is administered by the faculty teaching Theory and Methods during the semester when the examinations are being taken (which may not necessarily be the instructor with whom the student took their Theory and Methods course).

b. The Zone examination is generally administered by the faculty member with whom the student took their Zone course. Students should consult with the Zone course instructor as soon as possible, usually early while taking the course, about their intention to take their Zone examination in this Zone. On rare occasions where the Zone exam need to be administered by another faculty than the Zone instructor, students should inform their advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies and consult with them about alternative plans as soon as possible. Final approval must be obtained from the Director of Graduate Studies.

c. The Theory and Methods examiner and the Zone examiner cannot be the same person. Should that situation arise, the student should consult with this faculty member, their advisor, and the Director of Graduate Studies to arrange for an appropriate additional examiner. Final approval must be obtained from the Director of Graduate Studies.

3. Students are expected to matriculate in and complete the Department’s T&M course and a Zone course during their first two semesters in the Program. These courses and the materials studied usually become the basis for the T&M/Z examinations.

a. To qualify for the examinations, students must have passed both courses with a grade of B or higher by the end of the spring semester by June 30, prior to sitting the exams.

4. During the Spring term, at the latest by early April, the Director of Graduate Studies will oversee the coordination of the T&M/Z examinations for the coming fall:

a. All students in the Ph.D. program who have not yet taken their T&M/Z examinations (typically the first-year Ph.D. students in the program) will be contacted and asked to formally indicate their Zone of Inquiry and the examiner for their Zone examination. The prospective examinees will also be informed of who the T&M examiner in the fall will be.

b. The Director of Graduate Studies will then confirm with the availability with the Zone examiners and inform all Zone examiners, the T&M examiner, and the prospective examinees of the specific dates set for the written examinations. Typically, the written examinations will be administered the week before the start of classes of the Fall term.

c. Once students receive confirmation of the examiners, they should begin arranging their reading lists for the T&M and Zone examinations with the respective faculty members serving as examiners.

d. The oral examinations are to take place within 7-14 days following the written examinations. The T&M examiner will serve as the department’s coordinator of the oral examinations and arranging the dates for the oral examinations.

5. To prepare for the T&M/Z examinations, students should formulate one set of texts for each part of the examination, advised by the T&M examiner and the Zone examiner respectively.

a. Each list should comprise about 20 texts and in selection and structure oriented toward the goals listed in section I. above.

b. Once each examiner has signed off on the lists, they inform the Director of Graduate Studies of their approval. Lists generally should be set and approved at the latest by the end of the spring term. A copy of the lists will be put on file.

6. The examination consists of a written and an oral part.

a. The written part is divided into two sections given on the same day, and the examination questions will be sent out by the DAAF. Each section examines students on one list. For each set, students are responsible for answering two or three questions in 3 hours. Students are not permitted to use AI tools. They are expected to compose their responses extemporaneously, “from scratch.” A copy of the questions and the students’ responses will be kept on file.

b. The oral exam lasts a total of 45-60 minutes plus a 30-45-minute follow-up discussion. Students are responsible for answering questions that clarify or expand on their written answers and draw on their lists of texts. After a deliberation by the committee for which the student is not present, the student rejoins the committee for the 30-45-minute follow up discussion of their examinations and receive feedback and guidance.

7. Students are awarded grades of ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. Following the oral examination, one of the two examiners will inform the Director of Graduate Studies of the results of the written and oral examinations.

8. Students may retake the examinations once. All attempts will be documented in the student’s file, but failed attempts do not enter the student’s formal record. The examinations have to be retaken within a month of when the failed results were communicated to the Director of Graduate Studies. The retake examination is administered by the same examiners. The student has the right to request an additional faculty member who teaches in the Program as observer. Should the retake examinations fail to achieve a passing grade, the student will not be able to advance in the Program beyond receiving a Master’s degree.

This updated policy will apply to all students enrolled in the Program on or after July 1, 2024. Students who entered the Program before that date will be examined according to the previous protocol.

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.