The doctor of philosophy (PhD) program in religion at Harvard dates from 1934, when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences established a degree of PhD in "The History and Philosophy of Religion." Its purpose, as stated by the Faculty, was "to make possible a course of studies which shall enable the candidate both to lay a broad and sufficient foundation for teaching and study within the field of religion, and to do individual research at some point in that field." In accordance with that expressed intention, the Faculty voted in 1963 to name the program the Study of Religion.
Programs leading to this degree, and also to the bachelor of arts (AB), master of arts (AM), and doctor of theology (ThD) degrees in the same subject, are administered by the Committee on the Study of Religion, a standing committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences with membership from both that Faculty and the Faculty of Divinity.
Applicants to the PhD program must, at a minimum, have a bachelor's degree, or its equivalent, with an undergraduate record of outstanding quality. Although a previous master's degree is not required, it is an advantage in the competition for admission. Similarly, while a previous major in the field of religion is not required, the applicant's background in this and related subjects is a critical consideration. Please note that GRE scores are required for admission.
All doctoral applicants are expected to have foundational language work in the area of specialization (Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, etc.) at the time of application. In addition, as described in detail further on, admitted students must demonstrate reading competence in two modern languages of secondary scholarship relevant to their course of study. A background in either or both of these languages is also advantageous in the admissions process.
Applicants should indicate, on the Proposed Program Sheet, the broader area within the study of religion in which they expect to work and the special interests they would like to pursue, according to the description of the PhD program.
Note: At Harvard, advanced programs of study involving religion may be arranged under many auspices. The PhD under this committee, in "The Study of Religion," is one among various possibilities. Some candidates will find that they can best pursue their interests by becoming a candidate for the PhD in such departments as Anthropology, Classics, History, East Asian or Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Philosophy, or Sanskrit and Indian Studies. The ThD program of Harvard Divinity School, also administered by the Committee on the Study of Religion, offers specialized theological study of the Christian, Jewish, and western humanistic traditions. Some candidates may find the program for the MTS, MDiv, or ThM degree in the Divinity School more suitable for focusing their interests and strengthening their preparation for doctoral studies. The Committee reserves the right to advise the applicant to seek training in one of these alternative programs if, in its judgment, such a course would be in the applicant's interest.
We encourage require online submission of the application. See the GSAS Admissions website.
The PhD Degree in the Study of Religion
This degree involves both general and specialized work in the study of religion. Students will be expected to identify a specific field of study, with the understanding that their work within this field will be done within the broader context of the interdisciplinary study of religion.
Fields of Study. The following fields represent the areas in which students currently may concentrate in this program. While students may take courses in any of these fields during their course of study — and there is considerable overlap in the content considered by these areas — the student's primary field will constitute their principal intellectual and professional orientation within the Study of Religion.
Applying students should indicate in their application which field will be their primary specialization. If you indicate one of the fields marked below by an asterisk*, please specify the religious tradition(s) and/or approximate geographical range(s) or temporal period(s) from which the primary sources for your focus of inquiry will be drawn. You may also propose comparative work within any of these fields:
- African Religions
- Buddhist Studies
- Comparative Studies
- East Asian Religions
- Greco-Roman Religions
- Hebrew Bible
- Hindu Studies
- History of Christianity
- Islamic Studies
- Jewish Studies
- New Testament and Early Christianity
- *Philosophy of Religion
- *Religion and Society
- *Religion, Gender and Culture
- Religions of Late Antiquity: Judaism and Christianity
- Religion in the Americas
- South Asian Religions
Applicants may propose other traditions or historical complexes, e.g., Inner Asian or African religions, for study. Those interested in Iranian or Ancient Near Eastern religions should consult both the Study of Religion and the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations to determine how a program might best be shaped.
General Requirements for the PhD in the Study of Religion
Students admitted to this program will register in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Courses pertinent to their different areas of study are listed in the Courses of Instruction of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and in the Divinity School catalogue.
Full-time study is required during the first two years of the PhD program. This means four half-courses during each term, with a minimum average grade of B. For tuition requirements, see the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook or the GSAS Guide to Admission and Financial Aid.
Students are expected to complete the PhD in seven years. Only in unusual cases can the program be completed in less than four-and-a-half academic years.
Languages. A high standard of reading proficiency in two modern languages of secondary scholarship relevant to a student's course of study (in addition to English) is required. This proficiency is to be demonstrated through coursework or by exam after enrollment in the program. A student and his or her adviser will determine the choice of the two modern languages, which should not be confused with primary source languages necessary for the specialization. Typically French and German are selected as modern languages of secondary scholarship, however in certain fields other modern languages are more relevant. For example, a student focusing on Chinese Buddhism would normally study classical Chinese and Japanese as primary source languages, and then might choose modern Japanese and modern Korean as languages of secondary scholarship.
Coursework Outside the Specialization. The committee requires of each student satisfactory completion of two common seminars in the first two years (normally in the first and fourth term of study), and in addition two courses outside the specialty, focusing on a religious tradition, a geographical-historical complex or a methodological approach other than the one a student elects as the context of study.
Second Year Review. An oral review (one-and-a-half hours) in the second year will assess the student's progress in the specialty, ability to pursue self-critically an academic study of religion, and probability of completing the doctoral program successfully. The review normally occurs in the third or fourth term of study.
General Examinations. After the satisfactory completion of two years of full-time study, the modern language requirements, the coursework outside the specialization, and the second year review, a student prepares for the General Examinations. PhD students must take their Generals by the end of their third year. All PhD students take a Theory and Methods in the Study of Religion general exam. Three additional exams are arranged according to a student's context of study and specialization.
The Dissertation. Within 12 months of passing the General Examinations, all candidates must submit a written dissertation prospectus of not more than 3,000 words (plus bibliography), formulating a dissertation project. Upon formal approval of the prospectus, the student commences the writing of the dissertation. The length of the dissertation is limited to 300 pages. Once the dissertation is completed and approved by the adviser, the degree candidate is examined orally by a committee of at least three faculty readers, two of whom must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Recent Dissertation Topics
- Post-WWII American Judaism: How Judaism Became an American Religion
- Exemplarity and its Limits in the Hagiographical Corpus of Thomas of Cantimpre
- Martyrdom, War, and Memory in the Jesuit Missions of Northwestern New Spain, 1687-1767
- Silent Statements: Narrative Representations of Speech and Silence in the Gospel of Luke
- Stoning in the Islamic Tradition: The Case of Northern Nigeria
- Beyond the Religious Pursuit of Race: A Genealogy of Secularization within Scientific Theories of Human Difference
- Contesting the Theo-ethical Rhetoric of Home: Feminist, Postcolonial Politics of Space
- Patrul Rinpoch on Self-Cultivation: The Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Tibetan Buddhist Spiritual Advice
- 'Is the LORD in Our Midst or Not?' Conceptions of Divine Presence in Ancient Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the Calf Incident
The AM Degree
No one is admitted as a candidate for the AM, only for the PhD. Nevertheless, the requirements for the master's degree must be satisfied by all students as they move toward the doctorate, and are expected to be completed by the end of the fourth term.
The AM degree may be granted when these requirements are fulfilled.
For the AM degree a minimum of two full years of coursework (with a minimum average grade of B) is required, the modern language requirements must be met, the requirement of two courses outside the specialization fulfilled, and a satisfactory second-year review completed.
For More Information
Applications to the program may be obtained online via the Study of Religion Website. The Website also includes links to many related sites, such as course catalogues, and the masters and ThD degree programs offered through Harvard Divinity School.
Applications for admission and financial aid may be obtained from the Admissions Office, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center 350, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138. We encourage online submission of the application. See the GSAS Admissions website.