Fields of Study
Religion, Psychology, and Culture

Revised 11/07


The objective of the program in Religion, Psychology, and Culture (RPC) is to provide advanced study for students in religion and the psychological sciences in preparation for careers in teaching, scholarship, and clinical practice. The program includes the study of theories and dynamics of personality, the praxis and theory of pastoral theology and care, and critical and constructive reflection on the methods and substance of both theology and the psychological sciences. Students are expected to develop competence in understandings of the human person in the social sciences and religion. Students pursue a variety of vocational interests in academic, ecclesial, and public agency settings. In order to pursue interdisciplinary work in RPC, students must have general knowledge in religion, history of religious thought, scriptural study, systematic and contemporary theology, ethics, and philosophy, either through prior course work (B.A., M.A., M.Div., or M.T.S.) or courses taken after enrollment in the Ph.D. If students enter with 24 hours or less of such work, they should expect Ph.D. course work to be somewhat lengthened.


Successful completion of the program requires work in four areas. Students must 1) satisfy course work; 2) satisfy language examinations; 3) complete a set of qualifying examinations; and 4) successfully complete and defend a dissertation.

Students will be assigned an advisor who will meet with them during registration, oversee transfer credit and annual review of progress, and arrange pre-exam and oral exam meetings (areas no. 1-3). As students prepare for exams and organize their Ph.D. committee, they are free to choose a new advisor as first reader and director of the dissertation based on research interests (area no. 4).


Courses require students to gain knowledge and competence in three areas: empirical or hermeneutical social scientific study of religious experience; practical and pastoral theology, care, and counseling; and interdisciplinary studies in religion, personality, and culture. As part of the 72 hours of course work completed over 2-3 years, students must take 24-27 hours in RPC. Students must also have a minimum of 12 hours in two minor areas, one internal to the Graduate Department of Religion (GDR) and the other outside the GDR in a social science, such as psychology, anthropology, or sociology (6 hours minimum in each area). The program works closely with other areas of study and departments (e.g., Ethics, Theological Studies, Historical Studies, and History and Critical Theories of Religion within the GDR and social science departments of Vanderbilt University and Peabody College of Human Education and Development).

Exposure to clinical pastoral psychotherapeutic practice is another distinctive component of the program. A clinical seminar for 6 hours credit, involving clinical practice, reading, and presentation of clinical work in rotation with peers, is required during the first two years of residency, directed by qualified clinicians and faculty in the Nashville area. Students make their own arrangement for clinical work based on their interests and desires. Further clinical training can be pursued through a variety of area institutions, such as the Peabody College of Human Education and Development (M. Ed. in Counseling), Pastoral Counseling Centers of Tennessee (American Association of Pastoral Counseling certification), Advanced Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Program (co-sponsored by the Nashville Psychoanalytic Group and the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute). Professors Gay, McClure, Miller-McLemore, and Dokecki also offer courses on clinical theory and can work with students to assist with acquiring credentials. Work in hospital chaplaincy and medical ethics can be pursued through area health care institutions and Clinical Pastoral Education programs and through Vanderbilt’s Center for Clinical and Research Ethics, directed by Professor Larry Churchill.

During the first two years, an RPC student usually takes 9-12 hours each semester comprised of two RPC courses, one or two courses in a minor area, and the Clinical Seminar. All GDR students are required to take The Study of Religion in their first semester and the Practicum in the Teaching of Religion before serving as a Teaching Assistant in their second year. The remaining hours needed for completion of the degree (approximately 24 hours) are met through additional course work as needed, transfer credit, or dissertation hours.

In the second semester of the first and second year, students meet with RPC faculty to review their work and future plans. Prior to meeting, students prepare and circulate among faculty a list of courses taken and anticipated, research papers, clinical work, and other information relevant to progress. By the second semester of study, students must have met language requirements, begun course work in both minor areas, and explored dissertation topics. By the fourth semester, students should identify faculty willing to oversee the minor area exams and an initial dissertation topic and question.


The GDR requires research competence in two languages, the first demonstrated by first day of 2nd semester of study and the second demonstrated by first day of 4th semester. At least one of these must be a modern language (normally French, German, or Spanish). RPC students often meet the second language requirement through a social science research method, such as statistics or qualitative research (e.g., a graduate course passed with a B or better) but this can also be met through a second modern language, a biblical or ancient European language, a non-European language, or the student's native language (if not English). For research method courses offered on the university campus, see Research Methods Courses.


Qualifying examinations are usually taken in the spring or summer of the third year of study and must be taken within four years from admission. They are administered over a period of two weeks three times a year (October, March, and August; the Department publishes the specific dates each year). Prior to taking exams, students must have completed four semesters of study and at least 36 hours of course work and satisfied the language requirements and minor area exams.

Six months prior to exams, students petition to take them, meeting with RPC faculty to review preparation, discuss required bibliography established by the faculty, and finalize the Ph.D. Committee, appointed by the Graduate School Dean (see Guidelines for RPC Qualifying Exams). Prior to the meeting, students circulate to faculty an account of preparation (e.g., courses, research papers, clinical work); a list of additional books, themes, and questions for each exam; and a brief abstract on the two minor area exams.

Exams are given in five areas: (1) Pastoral and Practical Theology; (2) Religion, Personality, and Culture; (3) Methods in Religion, Psychology, and Culture; (4) GDR minor; and (5) Social Science minor. Requirements for the first three are met through three written exams taken during the exam period. Requirements for the minor area exams are met through work approved by a faculty in the minor area of study prior to the exam period. Minor exams are negotiated by the student with particular faculty in each minor area (often a major research paper or written exam that builds on course work in the minor area and that may contribute to dissertation research).

An oral exam with the Ph.D. Committee on the written exams and draft of the dissertation proposal occurs within two weeks after the written exams.


After passing exams, students develop a final proposal for dissertation research according to GDR standards. The proposal is prepared in consultation with first and second readers, reviewed in a meeting of faculty members on the Ph.D. Committee, and then submitted to the GDR for approval. Once the GDR approves the proposal, a student becomes a candidate for the degree. Important questions to consider in defining the proposal are:

a. What is your primary question and thesis?
b. What is your methodological approach to the field and project?
c. Is the project sufficiently focused?
d. Are there ample resources for pursuing the project in a reasonable time?
e. Does the dissertation make a significant contribution to the field?
f. Does the dissertation have prospects for future publication?

The dissertation must be completed within four years from the successful completion of exams. An oral dissertation defense before the student's committee and open to the public is conducted once the dissertation is completed.

NOTE: This description of requirements supplements The Bulletin of Vanderbilt University Graduate School and "The Guidelines of the Graduate Department of Religion." Students are expected to meet all of the common requirements of the graduate program as described in those publications.

Students in Religion, Psychology, and Culture are eligible for fellowships in Theology and Practice.


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