Part IV: The Ph.D.

Degree requirements for the Ph.D.


  1. the completion of the M.Phil. degree

  2. an oral examination on a research proposal for a dissertation

  3. the writing and defense of a dissertation.

Candidates for the Ph.D. 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.

Timetable for Ph.D.

All work for the Ph.D. 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.

The Ph.D. Dissertation

Selection and Approval of Ph.D. Dissertation Proposal

  1. Early in their graduate career, students should consult with the department's Director of Graduate Studies regarding departmental procedures for the appointment of sponsors of dissertations. These procedures differ from department to department. In some departments the responsibility for finding a willing sponsor rests with the student.
  2. While there is no uniform procedure appropriate to all Ph.D. dissertations in the department, these procedures 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.

  3. Ph.D. thesis proposals shall be approved in writing by a committee of the faculty. All of the faculty must be members of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, one of which may be from outside the student's department.

  4. Students are expected to present and discuss the thesis proposal with the dissertation research committee. 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.

  5. Before the Ph.D. dissertation proposal may be formally accepted, the student's M.Phil. degree application must be signed by the department Chair and returned to the Office of the Dean.

  6. Students must successfully defend their dissertation proposal within six months of completion of the M. Phil. degree.

  7. Students must bring a "Dissertation Proposal Committee Report" to the defense and have it completed by the committee.  The completed form must be submitted to the ADA.

Supervision of the Doctoral Dissertation

  1. 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 (does not include 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.
  2. 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 (by e-mail or through occasional meetings). Where this is impossible, the faculty sponsor has the responsibility for ensuring that during his/her absence, the second reader will take primary responsibility for such supervision during the period in which the faculty sponsor cannot be reached.

  3. 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

Dissertation Sponsorship

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Application for Defense

The completed "Application for the Dissertation Defense" must be given to the ADA at least six weeks in advance of 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 ADA will obtain the department chair's signature and submit the form to the Dissertation Office.

Nomination and Appointment of the Defense Committee

  1. 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.
  2. Normally the dissertation defense committee shall be composed of five members, including:

    1. Three inside examiners from the Religion Department (this includes 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):

      • Chair of committee: generally a tenured faculty member who holds a seat on the Faculty of GSAS
      • Sponsor: must be an approved Ph.D. sponsor
      • One other member of the student's department: normally the second reader
    2. One inside or outside examiner.

    3. One outside examiner from another GSAS department, or another university.
    4. GSAS Faculty: three of the five members of the defense committee must be faculty members who hold a seat on the GSAS Faculty.

      For outside examiners from other 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 Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences the appropriate names.

      In some cases, it may be appropriate to ask a scholar not connected with Columbia University to serve as a thesis examiner. 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.

    5. Final approval of the members of a dissertation defense committee rests with the Dean of the Faculty of GSAS.

Scheduling of the Defense and Distribution of Dissertation Copies

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 department (specifically, the sponsor or committee chair)is responsible for scheduling dissertation defenses. No student may be put in the position of having to schedule his or her own defense.

The deadline for distributing copies of the dissertation for the defense to members of a committee approved by the Office of the Dean is at least four weeks before the anticipated defense date.

The Dissertation Defense: Final Examination and Evaluation

  1. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences requires that all Ph.D. 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.

  2. The examination normally lasts two hours. The candidate is generally 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.

  3. During the discussion period, the question at issue is Pass, Incomplete, or Fail, with the following definitions of each category:

    • Pass: The dissertation is deemed acceptable subject to minor revisions. Upon completion of the required revisions, the candidate is recommended for the degree. All revisions must be completed and the dissertation deposited no later than six months from the date of the dissertation defense. A unanimous vote or a vote with only one dissent in a lower column constitutes a pass. In the case of three votes for pass and two for incomplete, the voting sheet and dissertation must be submitted to the Dean for review and the candidate should be informed that the committee's vote was not conclusive and he/she should await further communication from the Dean.
    • Incomplete: The dissertation is deemed acceptable subject to major revisions. Upon completion of the required revisions, the candidate is recommended for the degree. All revisions must be completed and the dissertation deposited no sooner than three months and no later than one year from the dissertation defense. The Chair of the defense committee shall delegate the responsibility for the outcome of the revisions to a subcommittee of from one to three members of the original committee.

    • Fail: The dissertation is deemed unacceptable and the candidate is not recommended for the degree. However, subject to the rules of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the candidate, within ten years of the award of the M.Phil. degree, may submit to the Dean a body of published, independent and original scholarly material. If that material is deemed acceptable, the candidate will be permitted to sit for another examination. A three-fifths vote is required for all decisions of the final examination.

  4. When passed (with minor revisions), the dissertation is corrected by the candidate in light of the comments made, and the revisions are supervised by the student's sponsor.

  5. Dissertations judged by the committee's vote to be incomplete may not be considered final until after the dissertation has been accepted for deposit by the Office of the Dean. For dissertations judged incomplete, the chair of the examination committee appoints a revisions committee of from one to three faculty members whose names must be entered upon the voting sheet. Usually, the sponsor of the dissertation is chair of that small group, and the other two should be the members of the examination committee who have made the most extensive objections to the text as it stands. When the student has finished the major revisions, they must be submitted to each of the members of the revisions committee and each must state in writing that the new text is satisfactory. Their letters are sent to the Dean of the Faculty of the Graduate School to be attached to the voting sheet.

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

  7. Students preparing to defend their dissertations should keep in mind that:

    • Preliminary approval of the thesis by the sponsor and second reader in no way guarantees that the thesis will be passed.

    • Preliminary approval does not deprive the sponsor or the second reader of the right to press questions and criticisms during the examination.
  8. Depositing the Dissertation

    Please see instructions on the GSAS Dissertation Office website.