Resources for the study of religion at Harvard are vast. We offer courses in the whole range of religious traditions from the ancient Zoroastrian tradition to modern Christian liberation movements, Islamic and Jewish philosophies, Buddhist social movements, and Hindu arts and culture. Some faculty work primarily as historians, others as scholars of texts, others as anthropologists, although the boundaries of these methodologies are never firm. Some are adherents of a religious tradition; others are not at all religious. The study of religion is exciting and challenging precisely because of the conversations that take place across the complexities of disciplines, traditions, and intellectual commitments.
The PhD program in the study of religion 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. This program is jointly offered by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Harvard Divinity School and administered by the Committee on the Study of Religion. Faculty from both schools advise PhD students and offer classes in the program. Students enroll in and receive their PhD from GSAS.
Admission to the PhD program in the Study of Religion at Harvard is very competitive: typically only 5 to 6 percent of all applicants are admitted. Basic requirements include a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent with an undergraduate record of outstanding quality—a previous master’s degree is not required, but it is the rare, exceptional student who is admitted without one. Similarly, while a previous major in the field of religion is not required, the applicant’s preparation in this and related subjects is a critical consideration.
The general test of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is required. For the PhD in religion, the minimum iBT TOEFL score is 105 and the minimum IELTS score is 7.5. In addition, applicants must submit an abstract of courses, three letters of recommendation, and a brief writing sample no more than 20 pages (5,000 words). A statement of purpose outlining their proposed project is also required.
When applying, prospective students should review the current areas of study and methodologies. The Committee on the Study of Religion admits students who have clearly defined intellectual interests evidenced in the statement of purpose and completed application. As part of the application, prospective students are asked to indicate the main faculty of interest; applicants are encouraged to contact their faculty of interest prior to submitting their application. (Please note that Emeritus faculty and Lecturers are not eligible under GSAS policies to serve as primary doctoral advisers.)
PhD students must, in consultation with their advisers, select two languages other than English relevant to their studies. Students will be required to demonstrate competency in these languages prior to sitting for their comprehensive exams. The chosen languages should equip the students to engage the most important commentarial discourses (oral or written) in their areas of scholarship. These two languages represent a minimum requirement; specific subfields or research projects may require others.