The Path to the M.A.

First Steps
  • Welcome to the graduate program in Religious Studies! As you begin your time as a graduate student in our department, please read thoroughly the Graduate Handbook for a full description of the program, its requirements, and its expectations.
  • As soon as you’ve been admitted to the program, schedule a meeting with our Director of Graduate Studies, Dr. Kent L. Brintnall.
  • More generally, begin to think about your interests within the academic study of religion. Take a look at the course guide, browse the faculty biographies to gain a sense of the breadth of this department’s expertise, and introduce yourself to faculty and your fellow graduate students. By the start of the second semester, seek out a member of the department’s faculty to be your adviser for the remainder of your time here.
  • Finally, print out a timetable, complete it as best you can, make sure you’re clear on the requirements to graduate, and ask any questions that you may have. There are two timetables: one for students writing a thesis and one for those who elect to go with oral exams. You can see more information about the difference below. If you’re unsure, that’s okay. These timetables are simply meant to help you understand what’s expected in the coming semesters.
  • All graduate students are required to complete a minimum of 30 semester hours of coursework (which is the equivalent of 10 semester-long courses). There are two required core courses in our department, but the rest of your coursework will be determined by your interests and with the advice of the Director of Graduate Studies or your primary adviser. You have a lot of freedom to explore different approaches and bodies of knowledge in this department, and we encourage you to take courses that stretch and challenge your interests.
  • Check out the available courses in the coming semesters. When you’re registering for courses during the first semester of your time as a graduate student, the Director of Graduate Studies can help advise on an appropriate course load. In future semesters, your primary adviser will help you make those decisions.
  • The one required courses in the graduate program is RELS 6101: Approaches to the Study of Religion. This course will give you an opportunity to learn the integrative cross-disciplinary approach that is distinctive to Religious Studies and to reflect upon and practice our discipline’s theoretical and methodological approaches. These courses will also be a great chance for you to form a cohort with your fellow graduate students.
  • A couple of last points to bear in mind as you think about your coursework: you can take one semester “directed readings” (RELS 6800) in which you and a faculty member design a topic to be studied independently; you may take up to two graduate-level courses in other departments; and 15 hours of your coursework needs to be at the 6000- or 8000-level. For many more details, check out the Graduate Handbook.
  • Registration for courses happens through Banner, which can be accessed at
Exam vs. Thesis
  • During the course of your first year—and in consultation with your adviser—you will decide whether to write a thesis or take a series of comprehensive exams. Among other things, the thesis involves the composition of 30-40 page paper and a thesis defense. The comprehensive exams, on the other hand, are based upon three reading lists crafted in consultation with your adviser and exam proctors. Both paths are fruitful, and both paths are challenging. Your decision to go with the thesis or the exams may come down to personal preference—but there are some important factors to consider. (Click through the steps below to gain a better sense of what is involved in these two processes.)
  • Generally, M.A. students who wish to pursue doctoral work in the future will benefit from writing a thesis. The process of proposing a thesis, conducting research, writing the thesis, and defending it is excellent preparation for future research projects (such as a doctoral dissertation). If you’d like to concentrate on a single research project, then this may be the option for you.
  • The exams provide you with an opportunity to read widely and master multiple topics. Students who are interested in non-profit or government work, or those who plan on becoming high school or community college teachers, for example, may find that the exams better suit their career goals.
  • It’s important to bear in mind, however, that some doctoral programs will prefer students who have gained the breadth of expertise than comes with taking the exams—and some non-academic careers will be more available to those candidates who have proven they can plan and execute a long project such as writing a thesis. In making this decision between the exams and the thesis, reflect on your goals, consult with your advisers, and consider the advantages of both paths.
  • Both the exam process and the thesis process will begin at the start of your second year, so it is suggested that you make a decision on which path to pursue near the end of your second semester.
Apply to Graduate
  • We’re jumping ahead here, but it can be easy to forget this step! Early in your final semester, you’ll need to apply to graduate by logging on to, access “Student Records,” and create a new “Online Graduate Application.”
  • This deadline—and other university-wide graduate deadlines—can be found explained in more detail here.
Form a Committee
  • Whether you’re writing a thesis or preparing to take exams, you’ll need to form a committee of three faculty members.
  • The first step is to ask a faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies to be the committee chair
Thesis Proposal and Defense
  • A crucial step in writing a thesis is crafting a thorough and thoughtful thesis proposal. You’ll use your proposal to explain your project: What are the driving research questions? What are your sources? What argument do you anticipate making? And how does this thesis participate in larger academic conversations?
  • After you’ve submitted your thesis proposal, you’ll defend your proposal in a meeting with your thesis committee. This will be a chance for you to receive valuable feedback, and the committee members will help you confirm that you’re ready to start writing the thesis.
  • The proposal defense must occur in the semester before your final semester. If you’re planning on graduating in the spring semester, then the defense dealine is November 15th. If you’re planning on graduating in the fall, then the defense deadline is March 1st. 
  • It’s up to you, however, to schedule the proposal defense with your thesis committee—and to make a commitment to your committee that you’ll send them your proposal well in advance of the defense. Plan on having a proposal ready to share with your committee four weeks before the defense. 
  • While you write your proposal (and the thesis itself), you can register for up to six credit hours’ worth of “Thesis Writing” with RELS 6999.
  • And, as always, it’s best to be in communication with your committee all along the way. As you’re thinking about the proposal, as you’re drafting the proposal—or if you’re feeling stuck—these are all times when you should reach out to your committee. 
  • Once the proposal defense has been completed, you’ll submit a “Proposal Defense Report” and “Appointment of Master’s Thesis Committee Form.” (See the instructions in the “Master’s Thesis Proposal Milestone” here.) 
Thesis Writing
  • Now you’re writing…congratulations! This can be an exciting, frustrating, rewarding, and agonizing experience—especially if this is your first time writing something of this length. As you write your thesis, reach out early and often to the members of your committee. This is the best way to ensure timely progression and completion of the thesis.
  • While you’re writing, you can register for up to six credit hours’ worth of “Thesis Writing” with RELS 6999.
  • The thesis should be between 30 and 40 pages long, and should follow the format of a journal article in your particular substantive area. Consult with your committee chair for examples. In preparing the thesis, use the style established by the Chicago Manual of Style
  • We strongly encourage all students to use bibliographical software, such as Endnote, to help organize and format bibliographical information. 
  • Your thesis will go through several revisions. Your committee chair will review your thesis and make comments and suggestions first. You will revise the thesis based on his/her feedback, perhaps going through several iterations of comments and revisions. You will then submit the thesis to your other committee members. As a rule of thumb, expect committee members to take two or three weeks to review drafts.  
Thesis Formatting
  • Per university rules, each student must hold a Formatting Review meeting prior to their thesis defense. To make an appointment, contact Julie Green. Please review the formatting requirement manual prior to your appointment—and bring a printed copy of your dissertation with you!
  • The deadlines for this step change slightly from year to year, but you should expect to do this by mid-November (for Fall defenses) and by mid-April (for Spring defenses).
Thesis Defense
  • As a culmination of your work in the department  and on your thesis, the defense is your chance to present your work to the department.
  • The defense will begin with a 30-minute formal presention by you on the thesis project: its goals, its sources, its method, its conclusions, and its importance. After your opening presentation, the committee will pose a number of questions. These questions are not meant to “attack” your thesis; rather, the questions aim to give you a chance to prove that you’ve thought through the project and that you can defend the interpretative and methodological choices that you’ve made. After the committee has a chance to pose their questions, the “public” (that is, whoever else is attending) will be able to pose questions. Finally, the committee will discuss privately whether to accept the thesis. All in all, this will take between ninety minutes and two hours. 
  • This can sound daunting from the outside. As long as you’ve been in consultation with your committee throughout the thesis process, however, then the defense will truly be a chance to share your work and have an engaging conversation on its meaning and importance.
  • For defenses occuring in the Spring, schedule them between April 1st and April 21st. For defenses in the Fall, schedule them between October 20th and November 15th.
  • An important rule: it is both a departmental and university-wide expectation that you submit a full and final draft to the committee three weeks before the defense date.
  • And per university rules, you must submit original, signed copies of the Final Defense Report and Thesis Title Page to the Graduate School no later than one business day following the final defense. These forms should be signed at the defense by your committee.
Thesis Submission
  • Congratulations! You’re almost done with the thesis. The final step is to submit it to the university.
  • Following the successful completion of the defense, you’ll submit one electronic copy of the approved error-free manuscript to the Graduate School (via ProQuest) by the required deadline. 
  • Deadlines will change slightly from year to year, but expect to submit the final version of the thesis by December 1st (for Fall submissions) and by May 1st (for Spring submissions). 
  • At the time of document submission, you’ll also submit the Submission and ETD Signature form to Julie Green. This form serves as an indication from the thesis committee that you’ve satisfied all requirements.
  • There are a few fees associated with submission. At the minimum, there is a $45 fee for submitting it to UNCC, but you may want to have it bound or available to the public (for additional fees). More details—and the option to pay online—can be found here.
Exam Lists and Preparation
  • After you’ve formed your exam committee (consisting of three faculty members), you’ll decide upon an exam topic with each one of committee members. Exams can focus upon regions, time periods, religious traditions, theories, methods, themes, and so forth. You’ll collaborate with your committee (and, especially, your adviser) to come up with exam topics that speak to your interests and connect with the faculty’s expertise. 
  • Once you have your exam topics, you’ll work with each committee member to create an exam reading list. Each list should include twenty books or thereabouts. Typically, five articles is considered equivalent to one book—but these details can be worked out with your committee.
  • Yup…that’s about sixty books that will form the basis of your exams! You’ll want to start preparing as soon as possible. 
  • You’ll need to finalize your exam reading lists in the semester before you take the exams. The deadlines so are November 15th (for exams taken in the Spring) and April 1st (for exams taken in the Fall).
  • Reading sixty books in a short time period can be a challenge, but there are ways to do so efficiently and there are good strategies to help you approach your exam preparation successfully. We highly encourage you to seek out the advice of your adviser, your committee, fellow graduate students, and so on as you begin your preparation. 
  • Now it’s time to take the exams! The three exams must all happen in the same week, though you may take the three exams on different days during that single week. In consultation with your committee, schedule a week in April (for Spring exams) or in November (for Fall exams) for your exams.
  • Here’s how the exams typically work. Each faculty member will write two essay questions based upon the reading that you’ve done. On the day of an exam, you’ll receive an envelope containing the two questions. You’ll have three hours to write an answer to one of the two questions. You’ll write your answers on a laptop that the department loans you for the purpose of taking the exam. Within a week of finishing your exams, the committee will meet to evaluate your exams and determine whether you’ve passed. 
  • The questions that are posed to you during your exams will be written by the members of your exam committee. Some faculty prefer might choose to let you know in advance what the questions will be, and other faculty members may simply give you sample questions in advance. In any case, the questions will emerge from the exam reading lists that you’ve created with your committee.
  • After you’ve successfully completed your exams, you’ll submit an Exam Report to the university. Please submit this by December 1st (for Fall exams) or by May 1st (for Spring exams). 
  • Congratulations!