Religious Studies

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PhD Religious Studies

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PhD Religious Studies

One of the first graduate programs in Religious Studies in Canada (established in 1964), McMaster University has been a leading center for the scholarly study of religion for nearly six decades.


We have three graduate fields of study (Asian, Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity and Western) and research is conducted in a range of topics and traditions, time periods and cultures, employing a wide variety of approaches: textual, ethnographic, historical, philosophical, theological, philological.

About the Program

There are currently about 50 graduate students enrolled in the department, and 14 professors active in graduate supervision. The department has had enviable success in placing its PhD graduates. Of the more than 40 students who have received the PhD since 1996, approximately 60 per cent have moved on to hold full-time academic positions, and another 20 per cent to part-time teaching.


In order for all graduate students have the opportunity to develop both depth and breadth in their courses of study, candidates for PhD degrees are normally required to choose one major area of study and one minor area of study from the list of seven areas.

PhD students are required to:

  • Complete the required coursework
    • Students working toward the PhD must take at least five half courses at the graduate level at McMaster beyond the MA  RS *701 may not be counted among the five half courses required for the PhD degree. Additional courses may be required by the candidate’s advisory committee.
    • Students who have completed an MA elsewhere must normally complete at least one half course in the minor area of study. Students who have completed an MA in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster do not have to do additional course work in the minor area, though they are encouraged to do so.
    • Three half courses must be in Religious Studies; two half courses may be taken outside the department in a relevant area of study. Exceptions may be made by the candidate’s advisory committee.
    • To receive the PhD degree, the student must have at least B- standing in each of the required courses.
  • Complete Breadth Requirements
    • Students who have not completed the equivalent of six units (one full year course) of undergraduate work in Western religions may fulfill their breadth requirement by taking six units of undergraduate courses, or by writing two Breadth Requirement examinations, or by taking a three unit undergraduate course and writing on Breadth Requirement examination early in their PhD program.
  • Have a reading knowledge of at least two foreign languages (language requirements specific to the various fields are described below)
    • The minimum PhD requirement is competence in two such languages. Work in several areas of the department entails additional language requirements, as specified below.  Responsibility for the choice of the language(s) to be examined lies with the advisory/supervisory committee which acts in accordance with individual area requirements, where such exist. In some cases, additional languages or more advanced levels of language competence may be required by the advisory/supervisory committee.
  • Pass comprehensive examinations in major and minor fields.
  • Defend a thesis which is a significant and original scholarly contribution.  

Language Requirements: Asian Field

Buddhism and East Asian Religions:

  • For PhD students whose theses involve thematic or comparative studies, two years’ study of Sanskrit or Japanese or Chinese is normally required. For PhD students, the requirement must be met for a second language as well.
  • For PhD students whose theses, in the judgment of the supervisory committee, require analyses of texts in the original languages, (a) three years of Sanskrit or Japanese or Chinese, and (b) two years of a second language from this list are required.
  • Further language competence may be required by the supervisory committee where the thesis topic warrants it.

Language Requirements: Biblical Field

Early Judaism:

  • PhD students must complete language requirements in Greek and two modern languages (usually French and German) as well as the equivalent of three years of undergraduate courses in Hebrew.

Early Christianity:

  • PhD students must complete language requirements in Hebrew and two modern languages (usually French and German) as well as the equivalent of three years of undergraduate courses in Greek.

Language Requirements: Western Field

  • PhD students must complete language requirements in two languages most likely to be of assistance in the student’s research.

The language requirement(s) should be met in one of the following ways:

  • Where a student has already done course work in the relevant language at the university level, a grade of B in a full year (six unit) second level university course (understood as equivalent to the relevant McMaster course) taken within the last five years is generally considered adequate for fulfilling the requirement in the language.
  • Language exams in French and German are set by the department and normally graded by readers in the French and German departments. B- is the minimum passing grade. French and German exams are normally taken at three set times during the year (see Calendar of Dates). When the university offers facilities for examination (e.g., Latin, Spanish), the passing of the relevant examination will fulfill the requirement.
  • Where languages are proposed for which no university offerings are available, the advisory/supervisory committee is responsible for arranging for the examination of the language.
  • Where the language chosen is the student’s native language, and his or her knowledge of that language is of university level, the language requirement in that language may be understood as having been fulfilled.
  • Final judgment on fulfillment of the minimum language requirements rests with the student’s advisory committee, whose decisions are subject to departmental approval.
  • Language requirements should normally be met within 36 months of the beginning of the PhD program .
  • Summer language courses may be offered from year to year in French or German. These courses are designed for graduate students or students intending to enter graduate programs and are offered with special permission from the Department of Linguistics and Languages. Credit obtained in these courses may be accepted in fulfillment of the second language reading requirement.

Comprehensive Examinations

  • Each doctoral student must write two comprehensive exams, one in the major area of study and the other in the minor area of study.
  • The examinations are meant to examine the adequacy of the student’s habitual knowledge. This means, negatively, that the examinations are not meant to test the student’s research capacities, or command of the recondite research data that might go into a doctoral dissertation. Positively, it means that the examinations test the student’s hold on general knowledge: the kind of knowledge that all persons in the field are presumed to have.
  • Students are advised to consult the Chair of their Advisory Committee regarding the format and questions for both their major and minor comprehensive examinations.
  • In accordance with the regulations set by the Graduate School, comprehensive examinations are to be completed within 24 months of the beginning of the PhD program .
  • Comprehensive examinations are written at four times during the year: the second and third weeks in September; the second and third weeks in January; the first and second weeks in May, and the first and second weeks in July.
  • Students should indicate their intention to take a comprehensive examination during one of the periods scheduled for their writing by filling out the required form at least one month before the date of writing.
  • In writing the major examination, the student will be allowed a minimum of eight and a maximum of ten hours; the hour limits for the minor examination will be six and eight. The major examination will generally be taken in two equal parts and on different days. One of these two parts may be taken orally; in this case, the time limits will be appropriately adjusted.

The Thesis

  • Areas in which a candidate may conduct thesis research are limited by available faculty and library resources. Candidates should not assume that they may write on any subject in the whole field of religious studies. Each topic must be carefully examined, defined, and approved by the department. Queries on this matter should be directed, very early in the candidate’s career, to their advisory committee.
  • Within one month of the date on which comprehensive examination results are sent out, students should submit a statement of their thesis subject to the Graduate Affairs Committee. At this stage, the statement can be very short (a paragraph). This statement is to be signed by the chair of the student’s Advisory Committee.
  • At the same time, the student, after consulting with the advisory committee, will submit a “Nomination of a Supervisory Committee” form for the approval of the Graduate Affairs Committee. This will include the names of three (occasionally four) faculty members who will serve as the supervisory committee for the thesis. The main supervisor of the thesis is to be drawn from the faculty members in the area within which the thesis is being written.
  • Normally supervisory committees include at least one other faculty member from the department, and where feasible, a faculty member from outside the Department of Religious Studies. In cases where faculty members from other universities are included in the proposed supervisory committee, the chair of the advisory committee will contact that person to ascertain that he or she is prepared to join the committee. After the composition of the proposed supervisory committee has been approved by the Graduate Affairs Committee, the Chair of the Graduate Affairs Committee will request the Dean of Graduate Studies formally to invite the member from another university to join the committee. The chair of the Graduate Affairs Committee will report the composition of the supervisory committee at the next departmental meeting.

The Thesis Proposal

  • Within six months of the completion of comprehensive examinations, the student is to submit a thesis proposal to the Graduate Affairs Committee for oral defense and approval. The proposal is to be roughly five to seven pages in length (c. 1500-2000 words) and is to be accompanied by a brief preliminary bibliography.
  • The proposal is a formal piece of written work which will be judged for composition, clarity, and style as well as content. While not intended to be a report on research already completed, the proposal should include a clear statement of the question which the thesis is intended to answer, of the method and procedure with which the inquiry is to be pursued, and, in the light of the current state of scholarship, of the contribution which the dissertation can be expected to make.
  • The proposal is evaluated by the Graduate Affairs Committee (no sooner than two weeks after the general circulation of the proposal). The student is required to attend this meeting, and the student’s supervisor (or a substitute designated by the supervisory committee) is also expected to attend.

Writing and Defense of the Thesis

  • The final thesis copy should be prepared in accordance with the Graduate School booklet “Guide for the Preparation of Theses”. This guide, thesis regulations, forms and information are available through the School of Graduate Studies website. Responsibility for compliance with these rules and neat preparation of the final copy rests with the student.
  • Further information about the final stages of submission and defense is found in the Graduate Calendar. The required forms may be obtained from the department office.

Completion Deadlines for the PhD Program 

  • Regulations regarding the time within which various components of the PhD program are to be completed are set by the department and the Graduate School. This time framework seeks to facilitate the completion of the PhD within the four years for which funding is provided.
  • Comprehensive examinations are to be completed within 24 months of the start of the program .
  • One month after the completion of the comprehensives the one-paragraph thesis statement and the form for nominating a supervisory committee must be submitted to the Graduate Affairs Committee.
  • The thesis proposal must be submitted to the Graduate Affairs Committee within 6 months of the students’ being notified of the results of the comprehensive examinations.
  • Language requirements must be completed within 36 months of the start of the program.
  • The advisory/supervisory committee must indicate on the annual or semi-annual report of full-time PhD students those who do not meet these deadlines. In such cases, the supervisor is to indicate in an accompanying note whether progress is deemed unsatisfactory or whether there are extenuating circumstances.
  • In the latter case, new deadlines for the fulfillment of the requirements are to be indicated on the progress report form, and arrangements made for a new meeting of the committee and the filing of a new report immediately after the date of the revised deadline. Failure to meet the revised deadline will normally result in unsatisfactory progress being indicated.
  • The chair of the Graduate Affairs Committee is to review all reports and to ensure compliance with these regulations.

Admission Requirements for PhD

Students are admitted to the PhD program at one of three stages in their academic work. Normally they have completed the MA degree. The primary requirements in these cases are distinction in their previous graduate work (equivalent to at least a McMaster B+) and strong letters of reference. Admission is competitive; meeting the minimum requirements does not guarantee admission. During their first year of study in the MA program at McMaster students can apply for acceptance into the PhD program.


The department recommends to the Committee on Graduate Admissions and Study one of the following:

(A) Admission to PhD studies following completion of the requirements for the master’s degree.

(B) Admission to PhD studies without completion of a master’s program.

(C) Admission to PhD studies but with concurrent completion of all requirements within one calendar year from the date of reclassification.

(D) Refusal of admission to PhD studies.


A student in (B) may re-register as a candidate for the master’s degree, provided that work to date has met the standards for the master’s program .


Students in (C) who do not complete the requirements for the master’s degree within the year lose their status as a PhD candidate.

  • PhD level course requirements can only be undertaken after the student has been admitted to doctoral level study.
  • In exceptional cases an applicant with an honours degree in Religious Studies or a broad and comprehensive theological education may be admitted directly to PhD study. Within one calendar year the progress of students admitted to PhD studies directly from a bachelor’s degree must be reviewed by their supervisory committee and the department. The department then recommends to the Committee on Graduate Admissions and Study one of the following: (a) proceed with PhD studies; (b) not proceed with PhD studies but re-register as a master’s candidate; (c) withdraw from the university.

A student admitted directly to the PhD may re-register as a candidate for the master’s degree. In this case, and also in the case of students in (b), the master’s degree is not awarded until all the requirements for this degree have been met.


Language Prerequisites for Admission to the PhD Program

  • Candidates applying for admission to the PhD program will normally be required to demonstrate sufficient competency in foreign languages to ensure their effective participation in the doctoral program and to facilitate its timely completion.
  • PhD applicants in the Biblical field should have acquired competence in one biblical language (Hebrew or Greek) and one foreign language of modern scholarship; they are also advised to begin study of the second biblical language, or of a second foreign language of modern scholarship, prior to the inception of their doctoral program .
  • PhD applicants in the Asian field should have begun the study of Sanskrit or Chinese or Japanese.
  • PhD applicants in the Western field should have acquired competence in one of their required languages.
  • Interested students who have not acquired such competence are urged to contact the department to explore ways for preparing to meet the requirements.


How To Apply

All applications for admission must be completed online. Please visit the School of Graduate Studies website for detailed information.

The following items are required before your online application will be considered complete:

  • Statement of Interest. Please include in your statement of interest (500-700 words) a description of your intended area of research, as well as information on your academic background and proficiency in foreign languages, detailing the relevant courses you have taken, levels at which they were taken, and the grades that you received for them.
  • Two Academic References
  • Official Transcripts
  • English Language Proficiency
  • Writing Sample (an essay or thesis chapter)
  • See all awards and funding opportunities on the School of Graduate Studies website.
  • Apply to awards administered by McMaster University through AwardSpring. External awards have unique application processes.
  • BDK Canada Graduate Scholarship: A scholarship for graduate students in Buddhist Studies to spend a year in Japan.


Learn more about the BDK Scholarship

Apply to a PhD in Religious Studies

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