Plan of study

Plan of study

Introduction to the Department of Religion Curriculum

The Religion Department's curriculum is designed to engage students in critical, comparative, and interdisciplinary exploration of religious life. The faculty's research and teaching build upon the shared understandings that religion continues to be a central and influential component of human life, society, and politics—and that, furthermore, religious transmission and authority are constantly being shaped in dynamic interactions with other religious traditions, societies, and cultures. Courses and seminars in religion teach students how to analyze and investigate religious texts, histories, beliefs, bodies, and communities using a variety of disciplinary and methodological approaches.

Students are also encouraged to conduct their studies by exploring one or more zone of inquiry. These are focus areas integrated in the departmental curriculum that complement the tradition-based approaches. They provide broad and alternative frames that aim to identify problems, chart trajectories cutting across different field specialties, and set parameters for theoretical and methodological questions. The zones are: Time (History, Modernity)Transmission (Tradition, Memory, Institutions), Space (Place, Geography, Virtual Space), Body (Materiality, Mind, Bio-ethics), and Media (Transportation, Information, Communication).

Majors and concentrators in religion gain a foundation in the study of religious traditions in both historical contexts and zones of inquiry, all grounded in theoretical and methodological debates that shape academic and public discussions about religion. Lecture courses, seminars, and colloquia are designed to balance students’ growing understanding of particular religious topics, dynamics, and traditions with intensive engagement with critical theoretical, political, and philosophical debates. Students are encouraged to pursue a course of study in which they develop breadth and depth, as well as the tools and expertise to pose (and even answer) necessary questions about religious phenomena of the past or present.

As the study of religion is truly interdisciplinary, students find their work in the department enhanced by their coursework in the College's Core curriculum and in related departments. Many religion courses are listed in the College's Global Core requirement, and numerous religious works are central texts in Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. Majors and concentrators are required to take courses outside of religion in related fields to expand their vision of approaches to religion.

In addition, the University's wide offerings in the languages of various religious traditions (including Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Persian, Latin, Sanskrit, and Tibetan) augment many students' abilities to conduct research in religion. Students likewise are actively encouraged to explore the world-renowned archival resources within Columbia's libraries (including the Rare Book and Manuscript Room, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, and the C.V. Starr East Asian Library), and to explore and investigate the equally wide range of living religious communities represented in New York's global neighborhoods.

Prospective majors should first arrange to meet with the Director of Undergraduate Studies. All students are then allocated a faculty adviser, and must submit a copy of the Declaration of Major form to the Director of Undergraduate Studies. After agreeing upon a plan for the major or concentration, students must obtain final approval and confirmation from the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

Required Courses

While each student's plan of study is distinct, majors and concentrators typically begin their work in the Department with a gateway course (1000-level) and introductory courses (2000-level). These include courses introducing students to theoretical and contemporary topics in the study of Religion, as well as courses on the history, philosophy, texts, and practices of religious traditions. Students deepen their knowledge of religion by way of thematic and topical issues, traditions, and interdisciplinary methodological issues in intermediate lecture courses (3000-level) and seminars (4000-level). They are encouraged to plan a course of study that will establish depth in one topic or tradition (for example, philosophy, mysticism, or Buddhism) as well as breadth across disciplines and regions. All majors and concentrators enroll in “Theory” (RELI UN3199) any time after their freshman year. Many students pursue independent research or an honors thesis guided by a faculty member in the Department in their final year of study.

For the current term’s schedule of courses, as well as those for the subsequent and upcoming terms, visit Course Schedule page. For a list of Department of Religion courses, including those not offered in the current and upcoming terms, visit the Undergraduate Course Descriptions page.

Theory (formerly Juniors Colloquium)

All students in the Religion Department are required to take RELI UN3199 Theory. This course, offered annually, surveys important theoretical and methodological approaches to the academic study of religion. The colloquium also provides a valuable opportunity to interact with other majors and concentrators in your class.

Departmental Policies

Important notes for all students in the Religion Department

  • Only one three-point “Guided Readings and Research” course may be counted for departmental credit. 
  • Courses may not be counted to fulfill the requirements of more than one department’s program requirements, with the following exception: Courses may be counted to fulfill both departmental requirements and the Global Core requirement.

Degree requirements

Students are encouraged to declare their major/concentration by the end of the sophomore year or the beginning of their junior year. Prospective majors and concentrators should first arrange to meet with the Director of Undergraduate Studies. To ensure compliance with degree requirements, majors must meet with the DUS at least annually.

Major in Religion

Program of study

All majors are encouraged to pursue both depth and breadth by constructing a program of study in consultation with the Director of Undergraduate Studies. The program should include courses in a variety of religious traditions. Students who write a senior thesis may include a term of individually supervised research as one of the courses for their major.


For the major the following 9 courses are required:

  • 1 gateway course (1000 level)
  • 2 introductory courses (2000 level)
  • 2 intermediate courses (3000 level)
  • 2 seminars (4000 level)
  • 1 additional course at any level
  • RELI UN3199 Theory (formerly Juniors Colloquium)

Concentration in Religion

Program of study

To be planned in consultation with the Director of Undergraduate Studies and with a member of the faculty in an area in which the student has a particular interest. The program should include some study in a breadth of religious traditions.


For the concentration the following 7 courses are required:

  • 1 gateway course (1000 level)
  • 2 introductory courses (2000 level)
  • 2 intermediate courses (3000 level)
  • 1 seminar (4000 level)
  • RELI UN3199 Theory

Senior thesis and departmental honors

Majors in the Department of Religion are encouraged to write a thesis in their final year of study. Many students choose to write a senior thesis in order to pursue an advanced topic in greater depth or to work on a particular area of interest with a professor of their choosing. This opportunity is available to all students who major in the department, regardless of grade-point average, and serves for many as the capstone experience of their undergraduate career.

Students interested in writing a thesis must submit an application to the Director of Undergraduate Studies no later than the spring of your junior year. The application must include both a prospectus for the paper and a letter of support by a religion faculty member who will direct the thesis. The prospectus (5–7 pages) should detail a research program and the central question, or questions, to be pursued in the paper, your preparation for pursuing this thesis, and a proposed timeline. The primary advisor of the thesis must be a member of the Department of Religion faculty. Students approved to write a thesis should register for Religion UN3901, with their thesis advisor.

Every student who receives the mark of “distinction” on her or his senior thesis and maintains a departmental grade-point average of 3.66 or above will be considered for departmental honors. Writing a senior thesis qualifies you for consideration for departmental honors, but does not assure it. In most years, only 10 percent of majors receive departmental honors.



[ET1] Senior Thesis



The senior thesis is an excellent opportunity for Religion majors to sustain thoughtful and creative research on a significant topic of his or her choosing. The thesis serves for many as the capstone experience of their undergraduate career. The senior thesis presents the opportunity to conduct independent research, work closely with a faculty advisor, and develop and test analytical and interpretive skills.

Majors in the Religion Department are encouraged, but not required, to write a thesis in their final year of study. This opportunity is available to all majors in the department.

Most students choose a topic relevant to some of their previous course work in the study of religion. Choice of a topic should be made under the guidance of a faculty member who will approve their proposal and supervise their project. In every case, the thesis topic should be specific enough to allow for depth of treatment. At the same time, however, the topic should not be so narrowly or technically construed as to allow students to lose sight of its relation to the broader issues in the study of religion. All majors who choose to write a thesis must have their proposed subject approved by their thesis advisor and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the spring of their junior year. During the senior year, the student enrolls in guided reading and research with their advisor. The final draft, usually around 40 pages in length, is due in the first week of April.

Students who write a senior thesis and who maintain a GPA of 3.66 or above will be considered for departmental honors. Writing a senior thesis qualifies the student for consideration for departmental honors, but does not assure it. In most years, only 10 percent of majors receive departmental honors.

The Junior Year

All junior religion majors and concentrators should enroll in  RELI UN3199 Theory (formerly the Junior's Colloquium). The main purpose of the Colloquium is to ensure that all majors and concentrators have a grasp of some of the major theories and methods employed by scholars in their explorations of religious phenomena. Students who intend to write a senior thesis should approach Theory as an important setting in which to think about theoretical and methodological approaches that he or she might apply in writing a senior thesis.

In the beginning of the spring term, all majors in their junior year are sent a reminder about the senior thesis application, which is due the first week of May. The senior thesis application can be obtained from the Religion Department website or from the Director of Undergraduate Studies, and must be approved by the Director of Undergraduate Studies. The thesis application consists of a 5-7 page prospectus (guidelines are listed below) and approval from a Religion department faculty member who will serve as your advisor.

Juniors who plan to study abroad during the spring of their junior year and who wish to write a thesis should consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies during the fall term about alternate due dates and requirements.

The Senior Year

Students writing senior theses should enroll in Guided Reading and Research with their senior thesis advisor. Students should discuss this with the faculty member who will be their thesis advisor in the spring of their junior year. A total of three points of guided reading may be counted toward the major. Students should make sure to negotiate the requirements for this course with their thesis advisor as professors run independent research courses differently. As the department sets few formal deadlines for the thesis, students should work with their advisor to create a set of intermediate due dates. A sample timeline is noted below. The letter grade for Guided Reading and Research is separate from that of the senior thesis, which is graded as pass, fail, or distinction.

The “timeline” outlined below provides an example of how students might pace their thesis writing and research.

  • Early October: Revised Project Proposal Due
  • First week of December: Outline of Project Due
  • Last week of January: Draft of one chapter due
  • First week of March: Draft of project due
  • First week of April: Completed project due


Selecting an Advisor

During the spring of their junior year students need to enlist a Religion faculty member to serve as their advisor during their senior year. The first step in selecting an advisor is to make an appointment with one or more faculty members who have some familiarity with the field, period, tradition, or topic the student proposes to investigate. Students ought to talk over their ideas with the faculty member and discuss their project. Students may go to several faculty members to discuss the project, but must identify one as their primary advisor. That faculty member should be available to oversee the thesis process throughout their senior year. This does not preclude students from seeking advice from other faculty members during the course of the research project, rather, they are encouraged to do so. Seniors’ theses are read and evaluated by two readers, one of whom is the thesis advisor; in many cases the second reader is a faculty member with whom students have discussed their thesis.

Students should be sure to clarify their expectations and their advisor early in the process. When questions, thoughts or concerns regarding the senior project arise the thesis advisor is the first person students should approach. Students should not feel that they can only meet with their advisor with printed text in hand. In fact, one of the most important times to see their advisor is when they are confused or have writer’s block, or just want to sound out various ideas or strategies. Talking over ideas is a very important part of the advisee-advisor relationship. However, at various points it is very important to present written outlines and drafts, to see if their ideas are being clearly expressed in writing.

Length and Grading

The length of a senior thesis is usually around forty pages, and is determined by the demands of the particular topic as well as the limits set by the thesis advisor. Remember that length is no guarantee of quality and that different subfields within the academic study of religion may have different expectations that affect the final format of the thesis. Senior theses are evaluated by two faculty members, one being the thesis advisor. Theses are awarded grades of fail, pass, or distinction.

Research Funding

Both Columbia College and the School of General Studies offer grants to offset the cost of research related to the senior thesis. These funds may be put toward traveling for interviews, photocopying and other relevant expenses. Students should consult Columbia College and the School of General Studies for application information and deadlines.

Senior Thesis


  • ab•stract \ n. a brief statement of the essential content of a book, article, speech, court record, etc.; summary.
  • pro•po•sal \ n. a statement, theorem, etc. set forth for argument, demonstration, proof, etc.; refers to a plan, offer, etc. presented for acceptance or rejection
  • pro•spec•tus \ n. a statement outlining the main features of a new work

Whether we call it an abstract, proposal or prospectus, each of the above definitions from Webster’s New World College Dictionary gives some clues as to what the statement should entail; brevity, a plan, and an outline of the key features of the senior thesis.

Proposal Requirements

The senior thesis proposal must be submitted in the spring of the junior year along with the following:

  • a tentative title for the senior project
  • a 5-7 page statement
  • a bibliography
  • the signature of a Religion faculty member who will act as the thesis advisor


Proposal Guidelines

A helpful way to begin the proposal is with a question that to investigate. Instead of beginning:

My thesis is about the exegetical techniques of Martin Luther.

Try beginning:

How did Martin Luther’s biblical commentaries reflect a significant departure from medieval exegetical methodology?

The question format allows the leeway needed to do more research. It also sets students up to discuss how they propose to go about researching and answering this question. The key ingredients to the proposal should be

  • defining the key questions to be investigated
  • describing the nature of the source materials to be examined
  • stating the choice of methods, theoretical approach, and hermeneutical tools to be used to pursue the investigation

In general, the proposal introduces readers to the project’s topic. It should also communicate why the topic is important and give some hint to its broader significance within the field of religious studies.

Preparing for the Proposal

Writing the proposal should be the culmination of a process that involves preliminary research on the topic, some discussion with faculty members, and some individual reflection about what interests the writer. Choosing a topic can be difficult if the student’s interests are wide ranging; even after choosing a topic, narrowing the focus to one that is feasible for a senior project can be even more challenging. Some of the following questions might help student as they embark on the proposal.

  • Are you beginning with a question that is unresolved? What puzzles you? What do you want to find out?
  • Do you care about the question? Are you clear about what you are asking? What observations have led you to the question? What hunches do you have about possible answers?
  • Is the topic interesting? Can it be made interesting to others?
  • Can the topic be researched? How can it be researched? What kinds of information are necessary to answer the question posed?
  • Does the topic present problems that can be explored or solved with analysis? Does it provide you with an opportunity to do some creative and original thinking?
  • How does your specific topic, and the questions it generates, relate to the broader issues in the study of religion?


Senior thesis style guidelines


Approximately 40 pages (about 10,000 words, double spaced using a 12 point font). This length refers to the preliminaries (e.g. introduction) and the main text and excludes endnotes, appendices, and bibliography.


Students should discuss with their thesis advisor which academic style of citation and notation is most appropriate for their thesis, as this will differ according to academic subfield.


  • Typed, double-spaced on 8.5 x 11 inch paper.
  • Margins should be 1.5 inches on the left, and 1 inch on right, top, and bottom.
  • Footnotes or endnotes (single spaced, though double space between each note). Footnotes are often in small font than the main text. Endnotes should be 12 point.
  • All pages should be numbered. Preliminary matter should be numbered with Roman numerals, and the remainder, beginning with the first page of the introduction and continuing to the last page of the bibliography should use Arabic numerals.
  • Include a title page, table of contents, and bibliography.
  • Optional elements (often included by seniors, but not required) include acknowledgments, chapter titles and subdivisions, a list of illustrations, preface, and appendices.

The title page should conform to the following model:

[Title] A senior thesis Presented By [Full name of author] to The Department of Religion in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the major in Religion [name of your school within Columbia] [month, year of submission of thesis]

Copies and binding

Students must submit two copies of their thesis, one to each reader. The copies should be bound separately. We recommend velo binding with a clear vinyl cover available at most of the copy stores near or on campus. The author’s name and the title of the thesis should be visible on the front of each bound thesis.

Place and date of submission

Two copies of the thesis should be hand delivered on the specified date in April, one to your thesis advisor and one to your second reader. Keep in mind that the Department of Religion’s office closes at 5 p.m.; students should submit their thesis no later than 4 p.m.

The thesis deadline is a firm one. Missing it may have an impact on the final grade. If missed for any reason, students must contact their advisor directly.

Some final pointers and pieces of advice

  • Carefully proofread your final thesis before copying. In fact, have at least one more pair of eyes – a roommate or good friend – proofread it as well. The author is often so familiar with the text that they can miss typos, etc.
  • Check for consistency in spelling, abbreviations, citations, and transliteration of foreign words.
  • Check to make sure that all sources, both cited and paraphrased, are properly acknowledged and make sure the quotations are correctly formatted.
  • Make sure that you have enough paper, toner, and ink in your printer to print out the thesis.
  • Allow time for computer-related snafus during the final printing. Mangled discs, broken printers, and other computer-related excuses are not acceptable in accounting for late theses.




Senior Thesis



Writing a senior thesis can be an intimidating endeavor. Both thesis writers and advisors share advice based on their experiences below to help students get the most out of the process.

From former religion majors

On choosing and working with an advisor

When picking an advisor, a major factor should be the level of interaction you want from your advisor. If you have an advisor who doesn't want to deal with you a lot and you want to (or vice versa) it could be a very long two semesters.

Choose an advisor who you are sure is interested in you. Don't choose him or her because he or she might be in your academic area. That part doesn't really matter since it is YOU who is doing all of the work anyway. If you do happen to have an advisor who doesn't really seem very concerned about you, make sure that you hound him or her more than you think is necessary.

I think it is important to set ground rules, almost a contract with the advisor right from the beginning. If this contract cannot be agreed upon, it is important to find another advisor.

The final grade is pass, fail, distinction. It is not a letter grade, so it should be an experience that is enjoyable to you, not your advisor. The product should be your own product, not your advisor's. Most importantly, because you share a working relationship with your advisor boundaries must be clear and the relationship must be comfortable from the get go. If the relationship is strained, as mine was, the creative process can be a bit cramped.

On the thesis process

Definitely be passionate about what you are doing. The thesis is your swan song as an undergraduate. It is for YOU the student, and no one else. It's not for the faculty. It's not for your family. It's not for graduate school. The thesis is a year-long project where you get to do whatever you want. Remember, do it for yourself.

Be creative and daring in the scope of your project. Don't let anyone tell you that it's too big (not in the planning state anyway. You'll pare it down as you go through the process.) Or God forbid, that they don't specialize in your topic. OK, if your thesis advisor tells you that it's not in their field, do it anyway. FIND people outside of the department who are somewhat connected in your field. Talk with them, network, exchange ideas.

Respect your thesis. This is a serious project, something that cannot be done at the last minute or thought of as a paper only bigger. I didn't respect my project and it shows. Other people respected it more than I did and I'm faced with the embarrassing task of telling people who I screwed up on it. If you can't handle the thesis project, don't do it.

Last but not least, remember the final grade you get is not an evaluation of who you are but what you did. The most important part is that you realize the quality of your work, regardless of the thesis evaluations. Good luck and remember to enjoy the process.

From religion faculty

Avoid writing an encyclopedia article or paper. A thesis should be similar to a shorter paper in that it frames a question at the beginning and set out to answer that question in specific ways. At the end the paper should answer the question it sets out to do. If the paper winds up answering the question in a different way than expected at the beginning of the paper, it should be reframed.

Define your terms, especially those that play a large role in the analysis of your topic.

Be sure to provide enough literary, historical, or philosophical context of the text or community that is being studied.

Identify an analytical framework for your thesis (a comparative approach is one such framework). For example, if the movement you are studying is millennial, how does it compare with other millennial groups? If it is a protest movement, how does it compare with other religious traditions of protest?

Avoid being too general or impressionistic.

Many undergraduate theses avoid primary sources in favor of secondary sources. Talk with your thesis advisor about how to balance the sources of your particularly inquiry.

Proofread carefully! Watch for typos, infelicitous English, and inconsistencies in format or footnoting. While these are not, per se, substantive matters relating to the intellectual content of the essay, they do form part of the "packaging" and the necessary apparatus without which a scholarly essay is not scholarly. Carelessness here raises doubts about how competently more substantive issues are handled.

A series of regular, realistic deadlines will help you see your thesis as a succession of interrelated achievable tasks and will guard against unforeseen problems either in your work or outside of it.

A level of argument that is accessible, valuable, and memorable to any intelligent reader should run throughout the essay.

Start collecting ideas for the conclusion to your thesis now, so that as you write the introduction and body of the essay you will have some sense of where it is going.

After you hand in your first draft, start off by reading the conclusion first (rather than the beginning). Often where a paper draft concludes is where it should begin. Consider putting your ending at the beginning, or see how your conclusion relates to your introduction. This will help you think about how to revise some of your thesis or restructure your argument.


 [ET1]Copy of plan of study