Part III: The PhD

The final step to completing the PhD, the dissertation is the culmination of the graduate student's studies.

Degree Requirements

All work for the PhD degree must be completed within seven years of full-time registration, less any advanced standing granted. Only with special permission of the department and the Dean may a student register for an eighth or later year of study.

Students must meet the following criteria to receive the PhD:

  1. Completion of the MPhil degree;
  2. Oral examination on a research proposal for a dissertation; and
  3. Writing and defense of a dissertation.

Candidates for the PhD degree in religion are required to deposit two copies of the dissertation with the Dissertation Office. One copy is for deposit in the library of Union Theological Seminary.

The Dissertation

Early in their graduate career, students should consult with the Director of Graduate Studies regarding being assigned an advisor who will also serve as their dissertation sponsor. The sponsor serves as an invaluable resource to the student.

No faculty member may sponsor a dissertation unless he or she has been nominated by a department or doctoral program subcommittee and approved by the Office of the Dean. If the faculty member a student wishes to serve as their sponsor is not already approved, the faculty member should contact the department administrator.

Additionally, faculty are expected to sponsor dissertations not only in their own specialized field of research, but in all subjects in which they have adequate command of pertinent literature and/or research.

While there is no uniform procedure appropriate to all PhD dissertations in the department, all must include a written statement by the student formulated in sufficient detail and analytic specificity to define the research problem, pertinent data sources and methodology.

Students are also encouraged to participate, in those semesters when the course is offered, in the Departmental Faculty-Student Dissertation Research Colloquium to be able to share their dissertation proposal and work in progress with the members of the seminar.

Dissertation Proposal Requirements

  1. Before the PhD dissertation proposal may be formally accepted, the student's MPhil degree application must be signed by the Chair or Director of Graduate Studies and returned to the Office of the Dean.
  2. Students must present, discuss and defend the thesis proposal before the dissertation research committee consisting of four faculty, including the student’s sponsor, within six months of completion of the MPhil degree. All of the faculty are members of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, one of which may be from outside the Department of Religion.
  3. Students must bring the Report of Dissertation Prospectus Committee to the defense and have it completed by the committee. The signed form must be submitted to the department administrator immediately following the defense.

More information about the dissertation proposal can be found in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Students are entitled to continuous supervision. Ordinarily, the dissertation sponsor and second readers are expected to read chapters or groups of chapters rather than insisting on reading only a complete draft of the full dissertation. The approved proposal should provide readers with a sufficient sense of the whole to make the review of drafts of individual chapters valuable. The body of the dissertation, excluding appendices, translations, etc., should not exceed 350-400 pages. If a dissertation exceeds the limit, special arrangements must be made with the student's sponsor.

Faculty are expected to provide written or oral responses to drafts within a reasonable time period. Generally three weeks to a month should be sufficient time to permit a detailed response to a single chapter. Six weeks should be sufficient time to review a group of chapters. A full draft of a dissertation should be responded to within two months of receipt of the material. While absence from campus during the summer months may cause some delays, faculty are expected to continue to provide some supervision of doctoral students during the summer months.

When on leave, faculty are expected to make arrangements for continued, regular supervision of the doctoral students whose dissertations they are sponsoring, such as by e-mail or through occasional meetings. Where this is impossible, the faculty sponsor has the responsibility for ensuring the second reader will take primary responsibility for such supervision during the faculty sponsor’s absence.

As part of the annual departmental review of graduate students' progress, which is normally undertaken for purposes of determining students' ranking and priority of financial aid allocation, all dissertation sponsors are expected to provide a report to the department Chair and/or Director of Graduate Studies on the progress of doctoral students whose research they are guiding.

The completed Application for the Dissertation Defense must be given to the department administrator at least six weeks prior to the anticipated date of defense. This form must be completed by the student's sponsor or the chair of the examining committee and not by the student. Filing early in the semester is recommended to ensure approval of the defense committee before the deadlines mentioned below. The department administrator will obtain the chair's signature and submit the form to the Dissertation Office.

The responsibility for selecting and recommending defense committee members rests with the dissertation sponsor and Director of Graduate Studies. Students may not select their own defense committees; nor should students be placed in the position of having to ask particular faculty members to serve on their defense committees.

The dissertation defense committee shall be composed of five members, at least three of which must be faculty from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The members include:

  1. Three inside examiners from the Department. Members of the Columbia and Barnard faculty and those Union Theological Seminary faculty who hold adjunct appointments in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences are considered inside examiners in the department. They comprise:
    • Committee Chair: generally a tenured faculty member who holds a seat on the faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences;
    • Sponsor: the approved PhD sponsor; and
    • One other member of the department: normally the second reader.
  2. One inside or outside examiner; and
  3. One outside examiner from another department or university.

For outside examiners from other Columbia University departments, the candidate's department Chair, in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies and the sponsor, will submit to the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences the appropriate names.

In some cases, it may be appropriate to ask as many as two scholars not connected with Columbia University to serve as thesis examiners. In such cases, the department Chair should present to the Office of the Dean evidence of the examiner's qualifications (i.e. a curriculum vitae) for approval by the Dean. The Dean may delegate to the department Chair or dissertation sponsor the responsibility for contacting the proposed examiner about serving on the defense.

Nominations for membership on the defense committee must be made no later than three weeks prior to the proposed defense date.

Final approval of the members of a dissertation defense committee rests with the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

No defense shall be scheduled until the dissertation sponsor and second reader have signified that in their judgment the dissertation is acceptable and thus warrants a defense and final examination.

The sponsor or committee chair shall schedule the dissertation defense. No student may be put in the position of having to schedule their own defense.

The student must distribute copies of their dissertation to all committee members at least four weeks before the anticipated defense date.

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences requires that all PhD dissertations be defended at a formal examination in which the student has the opportunity to discuss and defend the dissertation with respect to its sources, findings, interpretations, and conclusions, before a committee of faculty knowledgeable in the student's field research. All faculty members of the Defense Committee are expected to be present at the defense.

The examination normally lasts two hours with the candidate being asked to begin by summarizing the pertinent background and findings. Such summaries should be kept within five minutes. The Chair of the Committee is responsible for allotting time, normally allowing each faculty member 20 minutes in which to examine the candidate. Once all examiners have finished their questioning, the chair asks the candidate to step outside the examination room, and wait for an invitation to return to hear the committee’s decision.

All dissertation defense outcomes are determined by a minimum of three votes in one category of the following categories: Approved as Submitted, Approved Pending Revisions, Referred, or Fail; details about each category can be found below. Members of the defense committee should consider themselves independent examiners, and should therefore not feel pressured—or be pressured—to join the majority opinion of the committee. If a dissertation receives two votes in the Referred and/or Fail categories, the Voting Sheet and dissertation must be submitted to the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for review. In such instances, the candidate should be informed that the committee’s vote was not conclusive, and to await further communication from the Office of the Dean.

  • Approved as Submitted: The committee may ask that minor revisions or corrections be made before the dissertation is deposited. The committee should convey an account of those minor revisions to the candidate at the defense. These minor revisions should be completed to the satisfaction of the sponsor within one month after the defense. If for exceptional reasons more time is needed, the candidate may apply for an additional one-month extension by submitting a letter to [email protected] with the request.
  • Approved Pending Revisions: The committee may ask that revisions be made before the dissertation is deposited. The chair of the defense committee will ensure that a written description of those revisions be provided to the candidate typically by the sponsor—at the defense or shortly thereafter. Care should be taken to distinguish between revisions requested and recommendations given for future thought or research beyond the dissertation. These revisions should be completed to the satisfaction of the sponsor within six months after the date of the defense. Any member of the committee may ask to review a copy of the revised version of the dissertation. If for exceptional reasons more time is needed, the candidate may apply for an additional two-month extension by submitting a letter to [email protected] with the request.
  • Referred: The committee believes that substantial work must be undertaken on the dissertation by the candidate before it can reach a recommendation to award the degree. A detailed written description of the reservations about the examined dissertation as well as of the revisions required should be provided to the candidate by the sponsor at the defense or shortly afterward. At the time of the defense, a subcommittee composed of at least three unanimously agreed upon members of the original committee (and including the sponsor) will be formed. The specified revisions should be completed to the satisfaction of the subcommittee within one year after the date of the defense. A statement from the candidate indicating the specific changes made in response to the committee’s request for revision must accompany the revised version, and both be sent to the sponsor. The sponsor will share the statement and the revised version with the members of the defense subcommittee, each of whom must communicate explicitly to the sponsor their appraisal of the revisions undertaken. A majority of the subcommittee must approve the revised version for the candidate to be recommended for the degree. The dissertation will then be recommended for award of the degree.
  • Fail: The committee believes that the dissertation is not acceptable, and the candidate will not be recommended for the degree. No candidate may have a second defense unless the Dean of GSAS concludes, upon evidence provided either by the candidate or by a member of the committee, that procedural irregularities occurred during the defense.

No candidate may have a second final examination unless the Dean considers, upon the evidence provided, that the first one involved procedural irregularities.

Students preparing to defend their dissertations should keep in mind preliminary approval of the thesis by the sponsor and second reader in no way guarantees that the thesis will be passed, nor does it deprive the sponsor or the second reader of the right to press questions and criticisms during the examination.

Dissertations are deposited with the Graduate School of Ats and Sciences electronically. Please visit the Dissertation Office website for detailed deposit instructions.