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Guidelines and Policies

Departmental Organization
Departmental Policies and Procedures

The information in the Guidelines supplements the general regulations of the Graduate School as well as the requirements of the M.A. and Ph.D. programs in Religion printed in The Bulletin of Vanderbilt University Graduate School or posted in the catalog on the Graduate School website. All students and faculty members are expected to familiarize themselves thoroughly with these regulations. Detailed descriptions of the policies and procedures for degrees in the several major Program Areas of the Graduate Department of Religion are presented in separate documents.

Departmental Organization


The Faculty of the Graduate Department of Religion is comprised of the members of the Divinity School and Department of Religious Studies faculties who are engaged in graduate instruction and research in the areas of Critical Studies in Asian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions, Ethics and Society, Hebrew Bible, Historical Studies, Homiletics and Liturgics, Jewish Studies, New Testament, Religion, Psychology, and Culture, and Theological Studies. In addition, designated faculty members of other schools or departments of the University who pursue scholarly interests in any of the programs of study may be nominated by GDR areas to become associate members of the Graduate Department of Religion with voice but not vote on the GDR faculty, including all areas of policy and admissions decisions. The Faculty of the Graduate Department of Religion must approve all candidates for membership, including assignment to an area of specialization. After faculty approval, the Chair of the Department shall provide to the Dean of the Divinity School a letter addressing a candidate’s potential contribution to the graduate program and recommending appointment to the Graduate Department of Religion.


The Chair is appointed by the Dean of the Divinity School. The appointment is for a term of three years, such term being renewable only once. The Chair has general responsibility for the graduate program in religion.

The Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Research is appointed by the Dean of the Divinity School in consultation with the Department Chair. The appointment is for a term determined by the Dean. The Associate Dean’s responsibilities for the Department include course scheduling, student advising, appointment of Teaching Assistants and Associates, and other matters negotiated with the Chair and the Dean. The Associate Dean serves on behalf of the Department Chair in the latter’s absence.


Ph.D. and M.A. programs are normally available in the following areas of major concentration: Critical Studies in Asian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions, Ethics and Society, Hebrew Bible, Historical Studies, Homiletics and Liturgics, Jewish Studies (M.A. only), New Testament, Religion, Psychology, and Culture, and Theological Studies. For a description of the various types of M.A. programs in which a student may enroll (Specialty, General, Cross-Disciplinary, as well as the Joint J.D.-M.A. program), see the current Catalog.

General responsibility for the specific functioning of each of the program areas is vested in the Area Director of Studies. Each Area Director is appointed by the Chair for a term of one year, upon recommendation by members of the faculty in the respective area. The appointment is renewable for three consecutive years.


The Graduate Policy and Admissions Committee functions as the executive committee of the Faculty, recommending new policy or changes in existing policies to the Faculty, serving as the admissions and scholarships committee of the Department, and deciding on student petitions regarding such matters as extensions and incompletes./The GPAC has not served to determine incompletes. That is a routine matter that has been approved in the GDR office.  It is comprised of the Chair, the Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Research, and the Area Directors of Study. The Dean of the Divinity School and the Director of the Program for Theology and Practice are non-voting members of GPAC.

For the purposes of representation: (a.) each member of GDR/GPAC will self-select and only represent GPAC/GDR on behalf of one Area. (b.) each member of the GDR will vote for admission in this designated Area only. (c.) A list of this designation will be kept by the GDR Chair for reference.


The process for student mentoring is detailed in the GDR Mentor/Mentee Guidelines included above and separately on the GDR website: ( )

At the end of each academic year, the department will review the progress of each student. The student’s advisor will lead the review process, in consultation with the faculty of the student’s area and the GDR office. The review will cover all areas of each student’s progress, including grades, incompletes, language requirements, and overall research plan. If the review concludes that the student is not making progress in these areas, the department will place the student on probation for one semester. At the end of the probationary semester, the department will conduct a follow-up review of the student. If the student’s progress is still unsatisfactory, the department will have the option of dismissing the student from the University. PhD students who receive unsatisfactory reviews will have the option of pursuing a terminal MA according to departmental guidelines. (Please note that the GDR areas may have more specific policies on evaluating student progress, so students should consult their area statements for additional information.)


When students express their intent in writing to take the Qualifying Examinations, the Dean of the Divinity School, in consultation with the Department Chair, will appoint the Ph.D. Committee for each student. The Committee must be composed of a minimum of four members, of whom at least one must represent the primary area and one must represent either a Departmental area other than the student’s major or another Department in the Graduate School.   At least four members of the Committee must be members of the Graduate Faculty of the Graduate School, and the Dean of the Divinity School can, at the request of the Department Chair, appoint non-members to the Committee. No more than one associate member of the GDR may be present on any dissertation or qualifying examination committee, and associate members may not be directors of PhD committees. If the director of the dissertation is not currently an active member of the Graduate Faculty, a co-director who is an active member must be named. The Ph.D. Committee has responsibility for: (a) administering, with the Program Areas, the Qualifying Examinations in accord with Departmental procedures and guidelines; (b) guiding the development and preparation of the dissertation; and (c) administering the final oral examination. A first and second reader will be designated by the Dean of the Divinity School upon recommendation of the Department Chair, and the first reader serves as the chair of the Ph.D. Committee. All changes to a Ph.D. Committee after it has been appointed must be made in writing, with copies to the student’s file and to all members of the committee (old and new); the changes are not final until approved by the Dean of the Divinity School.

Departmental Policies and Procedures


Updated worksheets, recording progress toward the completion of degree requirements, will be maintained for each student in the program by advisers and the Administrative Manager for the GDR.


Students who enter the Graduate Department of Religion may be required to take additional courses to orient them to the field before they proceed to their major and minor concentrations. The number of courses taken for this purpose will vary with the individual student’s background and with the program of study. Decisions concerning orientation requirements are made by the Area Directors in consultation with the respective faculty involved.


By the end of a Ph.D. student’s third semester in residence or an M.A. student’s first semester in residence, the adviser will make any appropriate recommendations for transfer credit. Advisers should submit their recommendations to the Chair or Associate Dean by completing a Transfer Credit worksheet, noting all courses and the number of desired transfer credit hours to be requested. Prior work must be at the post-baccalaureate level and have a grade of “B” or better to be eligible for transfer credit. The general guidelines governing the granting of transfer credit will be administered by the adviser.

The general pattern for a student in the Ph.D. program is to grant up to 24 credit hours for pertinent work taken toward an M.Div., M.T.S., M.A., or another Ph.D. degree (or their equivalent) at an accredited graduate or theological school. Additional hours of transfer credit may be granted in cases where students have done further graduate work beyond these degrees at an accredited graduate or theological school; in such cases, the maximum amount of transfer credit will normally not exceed 12 semester hours beyond the initial 24. In no case does transfer credit waive the residence requirement for the Ph.D. degree at Vanderbilt: 24 semester hours of formal course work, excluding reading courses.

In the case of the M.A. program, it is possible for a student to receive up to 6 hours of transfer credit for pertinent graduate work done at another accredited graduate or theological school.


All Ph.D. students will take a minimum of 12 hours of course work, normally at Vanderbilt, in a minor area or areas. The minor can be in another area of the Graduate Department of Religion or in another Department of the University, or it can be an interdisciplinary minor defined by a problem or theme proposed by the student. In the Religion, Psychology, and Culture area this requirement is satisfied by two minors. Competence in the minor area will be tested by a Qualifying Examination or paper, as negotiated with the minor area adviser. A minor in interdisciplinary studies may, under appropriate circumstances and with the approval of the adviser, include some courses related to a student's major area of studies. The Minor Area Worksheet  should be completed by the adviser and kept in the student's permanent file in the Departmental office.

Ph.D. students may, with the approval of their adviser designated by their area, pursue a minor in Theology and Practice. Because this is an interdisciplinary minor, the plan for courses and the research paper or exam must be approved by the student's adviser. For the minor to be coherent and consistent, the plan for courses and the long paper or exam must also be approved by the Theology and Practice committee. Normally the minor will consist of four courses designated as program electives by the Theology and Practice committee and one long paper or exam that meets the standards for the Theology and Practice fellowship. As with any interdisciplinary minor, coursework for the minor may, under appropriate circumstances and with the approval of the student's adviser, include some courses related to a student's major area of studies. 


The Study of Religion (REL 8900) is required of and limited to PhD students in the Department, who must complete it at some point during course residency. As the catalog describes, the Study of Religion focuses on “the methods, diversities, connections, purposes, and contexts of religious studies.” The Study of Religion is a 3-hour course. In addition, PhD students are required to enroll in Practicum in the Teaching of Religion I (REL 8004.01) in the Fall of their first year and Practicum in the Teaching of Religion II (REL 8004.02) in the Spring of their first year. These are zero-credit courses.

For additional details, see “Student Teaching in the GDR” (

In addition to these courses, students are required to complete the “Responsible Conduct of Research Training,” as specified in the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) Course (


Research for M.A. students (REL 8010) is required of all M.A. students in the Department. As the catalog describes, "the workshop examines introductory issues related to teaching and research in religious and theological studies."


M.A. candidates are normally expected to demonstrate reading competence in one modern language of research relevant to the proposed program of study. M.A. candidates anticipating Ph.D. studies should prepare themselves to meet the Ph.D. language requirements as quickly as possible. M.A. students applying to the Ph.D. program are expected to have demonstrated reading competence in one foreign language. The M.A. language requirement may be satisfied by:

  • performing satisfactorily in the Departmentally administered Ph.D. language examination,
  • taking and passing with the grade of B+ or higher a Vanderbilt University course, including a final exam, designed specifically to teach graduate students to use the language in research, or
  • presenting transcript evidence of two years (12 semester hours) of college language credit with a grade average of B or better during the previous five years.
  • English as a Second Language: If a student has an existing second-language ability not developed through coursework (for example, a student whose native language is not English, bilingual students, or heritage speakers) s/he may, with the approval from their advisor, petition the department to accept their native language as satisfying one modern language requirement.  Final approval from the DGS is required.

Since candidates specializing in Hebrew Bible or New Testament are expected to work with the original texts in Hebrew and Greek, students in these fields may not meet the general language requirement with Hebrew or Greek.

Candidates for the Ph.D. degree must demonstrate reading knowledge of one modern language, a second language as designated and approved by the Area and the GDR, and additional languages as specified by the Area (see Area requirements). Each of the areas of major concentration specifies which languages are acceptable for its students. The requirements in modern languages of research must be satisfied at Vanderbilt by one of the following methods:

  • performing satisfactorily in the Departmentally administered Ph.D. language examination, or
  • taking and passing with the grade of B+ or higher a Vanderbilt University course, including a final exam, designed specifically to teach graduate students to use the language in research.

Special arrangements are made for demonstrating competence in languages other than those normally examined by the Department. Beyond the Department-wide requirements, in the areas of Hebrew Bible and New Testament a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek are required; competence will be determined by the faculty in accord with the area’s requirements. In some areas of Historical Studies a knowledge of Latin or Greek is required. International students may petition the Department to substitute their native language for one of the usual modern languages required for the Ph.D. degree. All students should be prepared to learn such other languages, ancient and modern, as may appear requisite for scholarly interests.

The Departmental language examinations will be scheduled and administered by the GDR office. Students should contact the Administrative Manager for additional information and to schedule an exam. Each test will last for a maximum of three hours, half of the time allotted to each of the two parts: (a) translation of a short passage, approximately one page in length, from an approved journal or book not already available in English translation, which the student may study in preparation for the test, the passage to be selected at random by the examiner; and (b) précis of the content and argument of a longer passage (approximately three to five pages) from a suitable text in the humanities or social sciences, the passage to be selected by the examiner. Dictionaries and grammars may be used. Examinations will be graded on a pass/fail basis, and the decision of the faculty examiners will be final. See the Department’s document on language requirements for more details. (

Competence in one of the modern languages should be demonstrated by each Ph.D. student upon matriculation; competence in the second should be demonstrated by the time the student enters the second year of graduate study. If the necessary facility in both languages has not been established prior to the beginning of the fifth semester of Ph.D. study, a student must discontinue all further course work until both examinations have been passed. The Graduate School does not permit students to sit for the Qualifying Examinations until all language requirements have been met.


A student who is unable for good cause to complete course requirements in the normal time may be given, at the discretion of the instructor, the grade of “I” (Incomplete). A “Request for Incomplete” form is available in the office of the Departmental Administrative Assistant. This form must be completed by the student, be signed by the course instructor, and be returned to the Departmental office. A date by which the Incomplete work will be submitted must be approved by the course instructor and be stated on the request form. Each Incomplete must be completed within twelve (12) months of the end of the semester in which it was taken, or the Incomplete will automatically become permanent. Work submitted to fulfill requirements for an Incomplete must be submitted to the Departmental Administrative Assistant, who will forward it to the instructor for final evaluation.

When a student enters a semester with two or more Incompletes, he or she will be restricted to a lighter load of courses. The normal load of four courses will be reduced by one for two Incompletes or by two for three or four Incompletes. An “I” that is not replaced by a letter grade may be changed, at the discretion of the instructor, to an “F”; otherwise, the “I” will automatically become permanent and will remain on the transcript. In either case, the course will not be counted toward the credits required for the degree. Departmental scholarships will not cover extra hours taken to compensate for permanent incompletes.


Financial aid is available from Departmental sources and in University-wide competitions. Most awards are specified at the time of admissions, although in the case of Dissertation Enhancement Awards and travel grants the decisions are reached in the course of a student’s program of study. Financial aid is not provided for the in-residence and out-of-residence fees assessed after completion of 72 hours of credit toward the Ph.D. or after 30 hours of credit toward the M.A. Various loan programs are available to students, and interested students should consult with the Financial Aid Office.


Numerous teaching opportunities are required for every Ph.D. student. Teaching appointments are made on the basis of application. An announcement listing available positions at Vanderbilt with information on remuneration, qualifications, and criteria is sent to Ph.D. students each academic year. Assignment of teaching assistants is made by the Chair in consultation with the Associate Dean and with the approval of the faculty involved. To encourage students to pursue a variety of teaching experiences, the GDR will not assign a student to serve as a teaching associate more than twice in the same course.

Assignment as Teaching Assistants. Normally after their first year of studies, Ph.D. students serve as teaching assistants in the Divinity School, the Department of Religious Studies, or another Department of the University. 

Teaching Assistants are expected to take their responsibilities seriously, understand the degree program in which students are enrolled, and increase their sensitivity to the diversity of the student body as regards race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, and life experiences. In August prior to the year in which students first serve as teaching associates, they will participate in an intensive workshop and training session offered by the Center for Teaching. Teaching associates for whom English is a second language will participate in the special workshops provided for them by the Center for Teaching. Resources from the Center will be available to teaching associates throughout the year.

For additional details, see “Student Teaching in the GDR” (


Ordinarily, students with only the baccalaureate degree are admitted to the M.A. program. Successful completion of the latter provides a foundation for doctoral studies, but it does not guarantee admission to the Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt. Thirty (30) hours of graduate work and a thesis are required for the M.A. in religion.

The M.A. thesis topic is determined in consultation with, and at the approval of, the candidate’s Thesis Committee, which is comprised of two faculty members appointed by the Chair, at least one of whom should be in the area of the student’s major. This Committee also evaluates the final product. The thesis, typically 50-70 pages in length, should indicate the candidate’s ability to carry out competent research and develop an argument in a clear and scholarly manner, using foreign-language sources as necessary and compiling an adequate bibliography.


The M.A. in Passing may be received by students in the Ph.D. program when they have completed the language requirements for the Ph.D., finished at least 42 hours of graduate study (including 24 hours of formal course work at Vanderbilt), and passed the Qualifying Examinations. Written request must be made for the granting of the M.A. in Passing.


The terminal M.A. may be received by students who have demonstrated reading knowledge in at least one foreign language at the level required for the M.A. degree; have completed 48 semester hours of formal, graded course work at the graduate level, including at least 24 hours at Vanderbilt; and do not seek candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. Written request must be made for the granting of the non-thesis M.A.


The Qualifying Examinations are scheduled throughout the year with the approval of the student’s PhD committee and the GDR office.  All exams must be completed (but not graded) by two weeks before the last day of classes during the semester and two weeks before the start of classes during the summer. Before the Qualifying Examinations can be taken, the student must have completed 36 credit hours of graduate work and have met the language requirements. The Qualifying Examinations are administered by the Ph.D. Committee, through the Departmental office, in accord with procedures and guidelines established by the program areas and approved by the faculty. Official notice that a student is ready to sit for examinations should be submitted to the Departmental office on the Qualifying Examinations Worksheet, listing the Committee membership. The Chair of the Ph.D. Committee is responsible for assigning committee members to write and read the examinations. The Departmental office should be notified in writing of the topic, writer(s), and readers of each examination four weeks prior to the examination date. Examination questions are to be submitted to the Departmental office one week prior to the taking of the first of the examinations, and the Ph.D. Committee Chair or another designated person will review the exams to determine that they are prepared for administration.

The question sheets for each examination will specify the length of time allowed. No books or notes are to be consulted at any time during the examination, either in preparing or in writing the answers, unless exceptions are specified on the question sheets. The provisions of the Honor Code of Vanderbilt University apply to all aspects of the examinations. Two copies of the examination answers will be returned by the student to the Departmental office within the allotted time stated in the instructions. All sheets on which notes or outlines are made must also be returned with the examination.

The evaluation of Qualifying Examinations will take the following form, based on the usual set of five examinations: Pass, B average or higher, with no more than one C; Fail, more than two Cs or less than a B average; Conditioned Pass, no more than two Cs, with a B average for the entire series. (For these purposes pluses and minuses are considered as equivalent to the letter grade.) If a student fails the examinations, the Graduate School permits one retaking. The examinations may not be retaken earlier than three months from the date of the last examination. All examinations must be retaken unless the Ph.D. Committee finds specific reasons for exemptions. In the case of a Conditioned Pass, the student is required to retake an examination in the field or area in which he or she received the grade of C or to submit a written assignment if offered by the Committee as an alternative; the examination, if retaken, will occur at the next regular examination period. Neither the entire set of examinations nor any one examination may be taken more than twice.

Qualifying Examinations as a total process must be completed within a thirty-day period. When a student has completed Qualifying Examinations, the chair of the student’s Committee will submit a report to the Departmental office listing the examinations taken by the student and the assessment of the Ph.D. Committee. Every attempt will be made to grade individual exams two weeks after the last exam is taken. When the student has passed the Qualifying Examinations, the Ph.D. Committee shall recommend to the Dean of the Divinity School that the student be admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree.


Each Ph.D. student will present to the Faculty a dissertation proposal containing a preliminary statement of the problem and its significance and describing the subject matter of the proposed investigation, its method and procedures, its scope, and the availability of necessary resources. A set of guidelines for the preparation of dissertation proposals is available and should be followed: Dissertation Proposal Guidelines The proposal is to be approved by the student’s Ph.D. Committee following at least one formal meeting of the Committee with the student. By signing the Dissertation Proposal Worksheet on behalf of the Committee, the first reader certifies that the Committee has met with the student and approves the release of the proposal to the full Faculty. The student will then submit the proposal to the Departmental office in electronic form for distribution to all Faculty.  The student's proposal will then stand approved.

The purpose of the proposal is to secure understanding between the student and the Ph.D. Committee that a research project is well conceived and manageable. Approval of the proposal is no guarantee that a dissertation that closely follows the proposal will automatically be accepted. It is commonplace for revisions, some quite intensive, to be requested at any point in the process, even after the defense. The dissertation is accepted when it receives the signatures of the Committee members, a majority of Vanderbilt Graduate Faculty members being the minimum required.


The Graduate School has available detailed instructions concerning the preparation of M.A. theses and Ph.D. dissertations, and students should consult these instructions before preparing final copies. The Graduate Department of Religion conforms to the referencing style generally followed in the humanities, with footnotes at the bottom of each page; permission has also been given by the Graduate School for the use, if it is an accepted style in the field or if it is approved by the candidate’s Committee, of the style followed in the social sciences, using parentheses in the text to refer to a list of references at the end of the dissertation.


The dissertation defense is an oral examination held as a public event, conducted by the student’s Ph.D. Committee and normally attended by other interested persons. No later than two weeks prior to the defense the Graduate School is notified so that the time and place of the defense can be announced in the Vanderbilt Register. Formal notification that a student is ready to defend his or her dissertation should be made by using the Dissertation Defense Worksheet. This worksheet should be submitted to the Departmental office no later than one month before the defense. The Departmental office is responsible for contacting the committee members to schedule the defense and the defense location and to notify the Graduate School of the defense.

The Graduate School stipulates that two or more copies of the completed dissertation are to be submitted to the Ph.D. Committee at least one month prior to the defense. Members of the Committee will make every reasonable effort to read the manuscript during this one-month period, and the candidate must give them several weeks’ advance notice of the intent to submit the dissertation or chapters. It should be recognized that the deadline for submission one month prior to the defense may not be enough time for adequate reading and decision, and it is not unusual for a Committee to require revisions after the defense. Submission to the Committee two months prior to the defense is therefore optimal.

The defense is not to be chaired by the first reader of the dissertation but by another member designated by the Ph.D. Committee. At the end of the defense, the Ph.D. Committee will assess the dissertation as defended and will assign the student a grade of Pass or Fail. Failure will require a second examination. The grade assigned to the dissertation and defense is the grade recorded on the student’s transcript for any credit hours taken for the course REL 3990, Dissertation Research.

The Graduate School announces three deadlines during the year, normally in November, April, and July, by which time two copies (originals on bond-quality paper) of a completed, defended, approved, and signed dissertation must be submitted to the Graduate School office for the degree to be granted in, respectively, December, May, and August. The oral defense of the dissertation must be conducted no later than two weeks prior to the announced deadline. As an alternative to hard copy submission, students may submit their theses or dissertations electronically. Instructions for electronic submission are on the Graduate School website.


The Graduate Department of Religion complies with the following regulations of the Graduate School regarding the maximum time allowed for completion of the course of study:

a. A candidate for the M.A. degree must complete all requirements for the degree within a six-year period calculated from the end of the student’s first semester of enrollment in the Graduate School.

b. A Ph.D. student must take the Qualifying Examinations within eight semesters during which he or she is registered, starting with the first semester of enrollment as a Ph.D. student. After the qualifying examinations are passed, students are entered into candidacy for the degree.

c. A Ph.D. candidate must complete the dissertation within four years after having been admitted to candidacy for the degree. (i.e. four years after passing the qualifying examinations).


A faculty member who has retired from regular teaching responsibilities and holds the title of emeritus or emerita may continue as first or second reader of a Ph.D. committee if he or she has already been involved with the student’s research activities and the Dean of the Divinity School judges it appropriate to continue this relationship. An emeritus/emerita faculty member who continues to be active in research and/or teaching, as reflected by a current appointment in the University, may be newly appointed first or second reader of a Ph.D. committee. Other emeritus/emerita faculty members may be appointed as members of a student’s Ph.D. committee by the Dean of the Divinity School, but not in the role of first or second reader.


Faculty members serve the University under an academic-year appointment. The remainder of the year is at the disposal of individual faculty members, in consonance with their overall professional responsibilities. Faculty members are therefore out of residence during the summer months. Students may request that faculty members assist them with their programs during the summer, but the faculty is under no obligation in this matter.

Students should bear in mind that dissertation defenses will be arranged on dates within the regular academic year (approximately September through May). It is highly unlikely that the Ph.D. Committee can be convened during the summer for this purpose.

Faculty members on leave of absence have no obligations of any sort to the graduate program, although occasionally they agree to continue serving as advisers to a dissertation already underway.


The Graduate Fellows Room and the Graduate Student Lounge are available for school-related use by all graduate students in the Department, both for individual and group purposes. Desks are available on a first come, first served basis, and are not assigned to individual students. Students should not leave books or other materials on desks, but bookshelves are available and may be used as space permits.


Terms of the financial award requires the student to serve as a research assistant or as a teaching assistant while receiving a stipend, as assigned by the department. In most cases, first-year PhD students serve as research assistants for no more than 10 hours per week. Beginning in their second year, students are usually assigned as teaching assistants or research assistants. Most of these assignments are in the Divinity School or the Department of Religious Studies. 

Students will be expected to participate in professional development opportunities as required by the department. These opportunities include mentoring for the academic job market and instruction in skills essential for success in teaching and research. In addition, students will be expected to be enrolled as a full-time student in residence for the duration of the tuition scholarship and the stipend. The Graduate Department of Religion must approve any employment (totaling fifteen hours per week or more). 


Updated: 31 January 2023