Graduate Degree Requirements

Currently enrolled students can find detailed information about graduate program policies and procedures in the Graduate Student Handbook. Please contact the Graduate Chair for the most up-to-date version of this manual.

The coursework component is normally two to three years in length, with the potential for transfer credit to be awarded for previous graduate courses within the field. Students are required to complete 20 credit units (c.u.), with at least six c.u. in courses at the 500 level or above in their area of specialization. During the coursework period, graduate students also participate in the theory reading group, mastering a designated list of important works in religious studies.

Attendance in the Graduate Colloquium is required of all students who have not completed their preliminary examinations. The colloquium consists of discussions of articles and methodology from across the various fields of Religious Studies. We also host a variety of presentations/discussions from graduate students, Penn faculty, and visiting scholars. The colloquium also serves as forum for mentorship and professionalization within the field. Students are expected attend colloquia regularly, and to present a paper to the Colloquium before the completion of their examination process.

All students are expected to complete four semesters of teaching assistantships within the Department of Religious Studies or related departments.

Normally held in the second year of study, the qualifying examination measures the students ability to design two semester long courses in their field of study. The exam is an oral exam, administered by three departmental members. In the course of the exam, students will be asked to explain their rationale for the course design, readings, and assignments for the two courses.

The Graduate Group in Religious Studies sees engagement with non-anglophone sources as essential to good scholarship. This includes translating modern and premodern primary sources and substantively engaging with secondary literature written in non-English languages.

English is the default mode of communication in our department because it is the lingua franca of the global academy. We recognize that the privilege afforded to English reflects centuries of colonial domination, and we reject the Eurocentric and classist emphasis on English, French, and German as privileged modes of scholarly communication in the modern American university. We embrace a polyglot future for the academy, recognizing the substantive contributions to the academic study of religion generated by people writing in non-English languages. We also recognize that the humanistic academy increasingly requires competency in other “languages” such as digital humanities methods, documentary filmmaking, or museum curation. For us, these professional skills are like languages insofar as they require sustained practice and enable deep engagement with textual, audiovisual, and material primary sources.

While different subfields in the academic study of religion vary in terms of how many research languages they require, at a minimum all students in our PhD program must demonstrate competency in two relevant non-anglo research languages or equivalent professional skillsets. Students may come to our program with native fluency in one or more relevant languages, but we expect them to demonstrate fluency in at least two additional non-anglo languages by the time they sit their candidacy examinations (typically held in the third year).

In principle, students in our PhD program must demonstrate that they have mastered at least one target language and at least one bibliographic language. The former indicates a language used for reading primary sources; the latter a non-English scholarly language in which academic articles and books are written.

Depending on their subfield, students may be expected to master additional languages. Requirements beyond the two-language minimum are determined in consultation with the advisor and the Graduate Chair during meetings held at the beginning and end of the first year.  

Competency can be demonstrated in a variety of ways, as listed below. 

  • Students may transfer in language certificates from another institution. For example, a language certificate from a reading course taken during a previous MA program can satisfy the “bibliographic” language requirement.
  •  Students may take a summer reading course in French, German, Italian, Latin, or Spanish offered by the Graduate School to satisfy the bibliographic language requirement. An equivalent course in another language taken at another institution can also satisfy this requirement. For example, a student who takes a summer reading course in Arabic at an institution abroad may apply this credit to satisfy the language requirement. 
  • Students who take several semesters of language at Penn may satisfy the target language requirement. Typically, this will be satisfied by four semesters of language at a relatively advanced level, but the specific requirement will vary based on the language in question, determined in consultation with the advisor and the Graduate Chair. The student may need to secure a letter from the instructor indicating that they are capable of reading and translating sources in that language. We adopt this measure when, for example, a student has studied a language in which faculty cannot proctor a translation exam.
  • Students may take a short translation exam in a target language that lasts 3–4 hours. This is almost always proctored by the advisor. For example, a student working on Islam or Buddhism may translate 1–2 pages of text in a relevant language and summarize a few more. (Length is at the discretion of the examiner but must be reasonable.) Students may use electronic or online dictionaries for this exam, but the use of generative AI is prohibited.
  •  Students may take a foreign language bibliography exam. This is proctored by the advisor or another faculty member. The student will search and gather relevant books or articles on a particular topic and generate an annotated bibliography. The annotations should briefly indicate the contents of the sources and how they relate to relevant scholarship (anglophone or otherwise). This exam must be done in a span of 72 hours.  
  • With permission of the advisor and the Graduate Chair, students may substitute substantive, engaged training in specific methods that are roughly equivalent to language study. Such accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis. For example, a student may use a year-long training fellowship in the Price Lab for Digital Humanities as a “language.”  

In all cases above, the emphasis must be first and foremost on developing the requisite skills for accomplishing the research goals of the dissertation. Professional development is a close secondary concern. Students working on South Asian Islam, for example, may prioritize languages such as Urdu and Persian as their first and second languages, but may additionally seek training in Arabic and critical bibliography studies to develop a well-rounded profile.

As a general rule, we acknowledge native-level competency in relevant languages, but we nevertheless require mastery of two additional languages as listed above. Thus, a student who is a native speaker of French, Portuguese, or Hindi may not use that language to satisfy the language requirement, even though it may be relevant to their research. In all cases, our guiding principle is to broaden the source base on which students can draw.

N.B. What counts as a primary source can vary by subfield. For a student in Buddhist studies, German might be a bibliographic language that they master in order to cite relevant scholarship, while a student working on European intellectual history might treat German as a target language that they must read thoroughly and translate accurately.    

After completion of all the above requirements, the student’s dissertation committee designs three examination areas. Committees in Religious studies are comprised of three faculty members from within the Graduate group, but the dissertation advisor must come from the core faculty of Religious studies.

The three examinations have an oral and a written component, and the student compiles the bibliography for the examination with input and approval from the committee. Before being cleared to sit the written portion of the examination, students must turn in a set of three bibliographies that the exams will be comprised from, plus a pre-dissertation proposal, before examination dates can be set. The student then sits for the written portion of the examination the month after turning the month before the examination these materials in.

Once the written portion of the examination is completed, student must sit the oral examination within two weeks from the written examination date. At the oral examination, all dissertation committee members participate, as well as the Graduate chair. The committee at the oral exam will ask questions of the student that come from all examination materials, including the pre-proposal. At the successful completion of the Oral Examination, the student is advanced to Candidacy. Please note that if the examination process is not completed within five years of entrance into the program, a student will be dropped from the Graduate school rolls.

After completing the oral examinations, students then file a formal dissertation proposal with their committee members. The student is then expected to undertake their dissertation research, and with the committee’s approval, will be scheduled to defend their dissertation orally.

The University’s maximum time limit for completion of the degree is ten years after matriculation. Should the degree not be completed in this time limit, the student will be dropped from the graduate school, and will have to re-apply for admittance to our program. Readmittance is not guaranteed.

For further rules and regulations of the graduate school, please consult the University-wide academic rules.

For more information on the graduate program in Religious Studies, please email Katelyn Stoler.