Department of Religious Studies


The dissertation requirement includes the following: the formulation of an acceptable dissertation topic; the preparation of a formal prospectus; a closed oral prospectus defense; the formation of a dissertation committee; the submission and acceptance of the actual dissertation; a final public oral examination.

Dissertations regularly set one's scholarly program for years to come and contribute substantially to one's professional identity, including one's perceived suitability for various teaching positions. Students should be thinking about possible dissertation topics from the beginning of their program, and should discuss these aspects of prospective thesis topics early on with their advisors. Topics or areas for dissertation research often develop out of work in seminars and courses, so students should choose course papers with an eye to their suitability for further research. Once a student has identified a topic or promising area, the natural choice for first reader or advisor will be the faculty member whose specializations most closely match that topic. The student should work with this person (and the other faculty members in the program) to develop a prospectus and to choose second and third readers for the dissertation.

Students ordinarily devote at least two years to the dissertation, including research and writing, although occasionally less.


Written Prospectus

Students who have successfully passed their examinations must then present a dissertation prospectus to the Religious Studies faculty for their discussion and approval. The prospectus should present the proposed dissertation topic, explain its scholarly context and justification, describe the methodologies to be employed, put forth a plan for procedure (e.g., a tentative, annotated table of contents) and a select bibliography. The ideal typical length of the prospectus is ten to twenty pages, including a bibliography.

The student works closely with his or her advisor on the prospectus. Before a prospectus meeting can be scheduled, the student should circulate a draft of the prospectus to all probable members of the dissertation committee, sufficiently far in advance to allow the committee members time to comment on the draft, and to allow the student to make any necessary revisions. The student should also determine, in advance, the availability of committee members to respond to such drafts.

Graduate students should allow at least four weeks for this part of the process, if not longer, depending on the state of the initial draft and the availability of the committee members.

When the committee members have had an opportunity to comment on the draft, and when the proposed dissertation director is satisfied that the prospectus is ready, the meeting may be scheduled. Once the dissertation director notifies the DGS that the prospectus is ready, prospectus meetings will be scheduled thought the Department Administrator, who will use a scheduling survey to identify a feasible time for the meeting. The DGS then approves the meeting time, announces the meeting to the department faculty, and any appropriate outside faculty, and circulates the prospectus electronically. The faculty should be given notice of the meeting, and be sent the approved draft of the prospectus, no less than two weeks in advance. To facilitate this, the DGS should receive the approved prospectus no less than 17 days before the proposed meeting date, and ideally 21 days in advance of the proposed meeting. 

Prospectus Presentation

The prospectus presentation ordinarily takes place 2-4 weeks after submission of the prospectus. Unlike the final oral defense of the dissertation, this is a closed meeting (ordinarily about 90 minutes), where the RS faculty (and invited faculty guests) and the student discuss the proposed dissertation. This is a working session whose purpose is for the faculty to have constructive input early enough to avoid major problems later and to assist in clarifying the dissertation process.

Ordinarily, the DGS presides. After any appropriate preliminary consultation of the faculty, the student begins with a brief statement (10 minutes), describing the genesis of the project and how it relates to the work the student has done in the department. After appropriate faculty questioning and discussion, the student leaves the room briefly while faculty assess the dissertation, raise any further issues, and clarify agreements about the dissertation committee. The student then returns and is informed of the faculty's decision regarding both the prospectus and the committee, and given any further points of clarification, advice, or procedure. Occasionally, the faculty may ask for revisions or clarifications prior to official approval of the prospectus. When the faculty approves the prospectus, the student is formally advanced to candidacy. 

Dissertation Committee & Advising

The student's dissertation committee will be determined upon consultation between the student and faculty. The committee should be informally arranged prior to the prospectus meeting, with the help of the student's advisor and the DGS. The committee is officially constituted at the conference on the dissertation prospectus. Ultimately, the authority for appointing the dissertation director and the members of the dissertation committee rests with the faculty of the Department.

The dissertation committee consists of an advisor and at least two other members. Depending on the dissertation it may be advisable to have a fourth member on the committee (In exceptional circumstances, a fifth member is possible; but this is unusual and needs to be justified by the specific circumstances). When deemed appropriate, it is possible to have scholars from outside the department to serve on the committee.

Procedures for Dissertation Advising

Different institutions (and departments) have different procedures for dissertation advising. In Religious Studies, it is often the case that only the advisor reads first drafts, and that second and third (and fourth, if applicable) readers only see and critique the project at a later stage. These practices, however, are flexible, and students are encouraged to devise a process with their advisors that provides the most constructive guidance to the student, and produces the strongest possible result. Students should keep in mind, though, that reading and critiquing dissertations is highly time-consuming for faculty. Being mindful of faculty schedules and workload makes it more likely that students will receive productive feedback and complete their dissertation in a timely manner. Students should always let faculty members know well in advance when to expect drafts, and should have reasonable expectations about faculty turn-around time. 

Dissertation Defense/Oral Examination

The Department of Religious Studies requires that the dissertation, demonstrating original research and advanced scholarship, be defended in an oral examination before the faculty. This occasion brings the student together with the readers and other pertinent faculty and is usually open to the larger university community, including graduate students.

It is the responsibility of the dissertation advisor to determine, in consultation with the full dissertation committee, that a dissertation is acceptable and ready for defense. All committee members must thus have read the final version of the dissertation sufficiently to participate in this determination. When the advisor, having consulted with the whole committee, judges that a dissertation is ready for defense, she or he will, in consultation with the DGS, schedule a date, time and place for the defense. Defense are not ordinarily scheduled during Winter Break, when the University is not in session, nor during the summer months of July, and August, and June defenses are unusual.  


Notice of the defense must be provided to the full faculty no less than two weeks prior to the defense. An electronic copy of the dissertation and an abstract must also be circulated to the faculty no less than two weeks prior to the defense.


The format of the defense, which is technically an oral examination, is similar to that of the prospectus meeting. University procedures expect that the dissertation director will reside, but the DGS may also do so, often in concert with the dissertation director. Normally, the faculty hold a brief closed meeting (without the candidate or any guests) to discuss the format of the defense, and to consider any last minute issues that may have arisen. The candidate and any other guests attending then join the faculty. After the candidate provides an overview of the dissertation, faculty ask critical questions, normally for about an hour and a half. The faculty then meet in closed session to evaluate the student's work. Faculty may ask for additional revisions prior to formally accepting the dissertation. When the faculty formally accept the dissertation, including approval of the defense, the student has successfully completed the doctoral degree.

Deposit of the Dissertation

Detailed instructions for the preparation and submission of the dissertation and abstract, as well as information on filing fees, microfilm publication and copyright, are available on the Graduate School website. Students should familiarize themselves with these requirements very early on in the writing process. Students must allow a minimum of several days beyond the defense before formal submission, in order to incorporate any final changes or corrections from the defense before binding: several weeks are preferable.


The Graduate School expects that all candidates will successfully submit and defend the dissertation within five years of achieving candidacy. Students who have not done so may petition the Graduate School for a one-year extension, in the form of an explanatory letter, with the consent of the DGS. A second one-year extension is also possible but requires action by the Graduate Council. Such requests are not automatically granted, and students should make every possible effort to meet this deadline.

Additional Information

Regardless of the specific focus, all Ph.D. work in Religious Studies at Brown has the same general five part structure.
Listing of advisors by area and the advising structure.