PhD in North American Religions

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.


Graduate students in the field are expected to take the equivalent of 4-6 graduate courses (or faculty-led directed readings for credit) in American religions and research methods in which they will explore and develop their research interests. Students in North American Religion regularly take graduate level courses elsewhere in the university (for instance, Anthropology, African-American Studies, Sociology, History, and Gender and Sexuality Studies) to complement coursework in Religion.

From this coursework we expect that students will develop two extended papers: (a) a critical literature review that will help form the basis of one (or more) subject areas for the M.Phil. examination, and (b) an original research paper that may in subsequent revisions be suitable for publication.

  1. The critical literature review essay is typically developed in conjunction with a course offered by faculty in North American Religions in the Department, for example Religion in America or Secular and Spiritual America. Writing a critical literature review presents an early opportunity for students to develop knowledge of current debates and framing of a particular area, problem, or topic within the field, a useful endeavor both in preparation for the M.Phil. examination and for conducting original research.
  2. An original research paper also typically begins with a seminar paper, and extends and deepens under the guidance of a faculty member in a formal or informal directed reading. Writing this paper allows students to explore and gain experience using the methods (historical, literary, ethnographic) that they are likely to use in dissertation research. The topic and scope of the paper should be discussed with faculty advisors, and students should feel encouraged to use summer funding to conduct research, as appropriate. A completed draft of this research paper should be submitted to the student’s advisor no later than one week before the M.Phil. oral examination.


Students must exhibit intermediate-level competency in one research language (in addition to English), before the beginning of the third year.

The M.Phil. Examination

General guidelines for the M.Phil. examination can be found on the department webpage. We encourage students to work closely with faculty starting in their second year to develop paper topics and reading lists. Students should work with their advisor and committee to develop reading lists and to decide the format of the examination. We encourage students to create a syllabus for one of the three examination lists.

The Dissertation Proposal and Defense

The dissertation proposal defense should take place as soon as possible after the M.Phil. examination, but under no circumstances later than six months after the examination. The dissertation proposal is written with the advice and consultation of a committee of three faculty members. Typically 30-40 pages in length, it should include an intellectual rationale and description of the project, a discussion of its potential contribution(s) to the field, an assessment of feasibility (often including a projected chapter outline and timeline). The oral defense also typically includes one additional outside reader.

Timeline to Degree

Year one: theory and method, zones, language requirements, and coursework in American religion and related fields

Year one summer: language work, research, internship opportunities

Year two: continued coursework, take theory/zone and MA examination, work with faculty members to identify area of focus for the literature review paper and research paper; TA in fall and spring.

Year two summer: develop and finalize reading lists for M.Phil. examinations, continue/conduct research

Year three: Fall: reading for M.Phil. examinations, begin to develop dissertation research proposal. Submit original research paper. Spring: take the M.Phil examination, schedule dissertation proposal defense (for late spring or early fall). TA in fall and spring

Year four: begin dissertation research, apply for dissertation research grants; revise research paper for publication; TA fall and spring

Year five: dissertation fellowship year. Apply for dissertation completion grants in the fall.