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Religion, Psychology, and Culture


Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture
Director of the Program in Theology and Practice

Associate Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture
Graduate School, Divinity School

Assistant Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture
Graduate School, Divinity School


Professor of Sociology of Religion, Professor of Human and Organizational Development
Graduate School, Peabody College

Associate Professor
Department of Special Education, Vanderbilt University

Professor of Psychology
Graduate School, Peabody College

Professor of Preventative Medicine, Professor of Psychiatry,
Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society

Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Sociology of Religion,
Cal Turner Program in Moral Leadership for the Professions;
Graduate School, Divinity School


Guidelines for Ph.D. Studies

Revised Spring, 2015 

 I.              PURPOSE

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 and scholarship. 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 psychology. Students are expected to develop competence in understandings of the human person in the social sciences and religion. In order to pursue 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) pass qualifying examinations; and 4) complete and defend a dissertation.

Students are assigned an advisor who meets with them during registration, oversees transfer credit and annual review of progress, and arranges pre-exam and oral exam meetings. As students prepare for exams and organize their Ph.D. committee, they are free to choose a new advisor as first reader and dissertation director based on research interests. 


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 approximately five semesters, students must take 24 hours in RPC. Students must also have a minimum of 12 hours total 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). 

Exposure to clinical pastoral psychotherapeutic practice is another distinctive component of the program. A clinical seminar for 6 hours credit is required during the first four semesters of residency. It involves clinical practice, reading, and presentation of clinical work in rotation with peers and is directed by clinical faculty. Students make their own arrangement for clinical work based on individual interests. Further 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). Work in chaplaincy and medical ethics can be pursued through area health care institutions and Clinical Pastoral Education programs and through Vanderbilt’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society.

During the first two years, students take 9-12 hours each semester, often comprised of two RPC courses, one course in a minor area, and the Clinical Seminar. GDR students are required to take The Study of Religion and the Practicum in the Teaching of Religion before serving as a Teaching Assistant in their second year. The remaining hours for completion of the degree (approximately 30 hours) are met through additional course work as needed, transfer credit, or dissertation hours.

In the spring semester of the first and second year, students meet with RPC faculty to review their progress and future plans. Prior to meeting, students prepare and circulate among faculty a list of courses taken, research papers, clinical work, and other information relevant to progress. By the second semester of study, students must have met one language requirement, begun course work in at least one minor area, and explored dissertation topics. By the fourth semester, students must have met the second language requirement; they should also have identified minor area faculty and an initial dissertation topic and question.


The GDR requires research competence in two languages, the first demonstrated upon matriculation and the second demonstrated by first day of 3rd 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). 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). 


Exams are completed in five areas:

  1. Pastoral Theology
  2. Religion and Psychology
  3. Methods in Religion, Psychology, and Culture
  4. Internal GDR minor
  5. External Social Science minor

RPC Exams:

Requirements for the three RPC exams (pastoral theology; religion and psychology; and methods in religion, psychology, and culture) are met through three written exams usually taken in the third year of study and no later than four years from admission. They are administered over a period of two weeks three times a year (October; March; and August). The GDR publishes the specific dates each year. 

Minor Area Exams

Requirements for the two minor area exams are met through work negotiated by the student and approved by a faculty in the 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). Grades and evaluation for minor exams are due in the GDR office and to the area director prior to the written exams. 

RPC Exam Procedures

  • Requirements: Prior to exams, students must have completed 4 semesters of study and at least 36 hours of course work and satisfied language requirements and minor area exams. 
  • Petition for exams and pre-exam meeting: At least one semester prior to RPC exams, students petition to take exams, meeting with RPC faculty to review preparation and discuss exam bibliography and submitting a request to take exams to the GDR office. Prior to the meeting, students circulate to RPC faculty (1) an account of preparation (e.g., courses, research papers, clinical work, dissertation research interests) and (2) abstracts of the two minor area exams. 
  • Additional books and questions: No later than two weeks prior to exams, students circulate to RPC faculty (1) a list of 10 additional books from the secondary list of the required exam bibliography and (2) 2-4 questions for each exam. 
  • Written exams: Students arrange with the GDR office specific days within the exam period to take each exam and receive questions and return answers to the office at the designated time. Normally students are given a choice of answering three of four questions and have a total of eight hours for preparation and writing for each exam. Exam questions draw on the required bibliography and additional books identified by the student. They focus on specific interests of the student and general understanding in each exam area. Students are expected to know the key contributions of the required texts and should be able to demonstrate a general breadth of knowledge as well as depth in specific areas and scholarship. In each exam area, students should know in greater depth the corpus of one primary scholar or school of thought. RPC courses are designed to assist students in preparing for exams. 
  • Oral exam and draft of dissertation proposal: A two-hour oral exam on the written exams (first hour) and dissertation research (second hour) occurs within two weeks after the written exams. One week prior to the conversation, students should submit to faculty a rough draft of a dissertation proposal that describes a student’s history of exploring a particular concern and begins to identify the primary research question, thesis, method, outline, and bibliography.  
  • The Ph.D. Committee: A Ph.D. committee comprised of RPC area faculty and your minor area faculty will be formed by the Graduate Department of the university when you submit a request to take exams to the GDR office. Please note that the Ph.D. committee that oversees exams need not be the same as the committee that oversees the dissertation. Final decisions about the make-up of the dissertation committee do not have to be made until you are in the process of submitting your dissertation proposal after exams. Prior to exams, you simply need to have a general idea about who you anticipate will serve on your dissertation committee, especially as first and second readers. 


After passing exams, students develop a final proposal for the dissertation according to GDR standards and in consultation with the first reader. It is reviewed in a meeting of 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: 

  1. What is the problem addressed by the dissertation?
  2. What is the primary question and thesis?
  3. What is the methodological approach to the problem and project?
  4. Is the project sufficiently focused?
  5. Are there ample resources for pursuing the project in a reasonable time?
  6. Does the dissertation make a significant contribution to the field?
  7. Does the dissertation have prospects for future publication?  

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

NOTE: These guidelines supplement The Bulletin of Vanderbilt University Graduate School and "The Guidelines of the Graduate Department of Religion." Students are expected to meet the common requirements of the program in these publications.