meant as a very basic introduction to some of the issues that face graduate
students: from choosing a program, writing the dissertation, teaching, and
publishing. It is in no way meant to be comprehensive.
Before we get into these four areas, there is one basic question worth asking: Why
Study Religion? If you find yourself asking this question, this is a helpful online article.
answer the first question for yourself and if you decide to go on to pursue a
degree and career in Religious Studies/Theology, then there is a book that
deserves special mention. It is a helpful guide at all stages in your career:
from choosing a grad school to tenure:
and David E. Drew, What They Didn’t Teach you in Graduate School: 199
Helpful Hints for Success in Your Academic Career (2008)
have decided to go to graduate school in religious studies/theology. But which
degree to choose?
Degree Is Right for Me?
students who studied religion in college, whether a major or not, and who are
interested in studying religion at the graduate level are uncertain as to what
degree program to choose. There are “professional” degrees such as the MDiv,
the ThD, the DMin. These degrees (along with the MTS, which is somewhere
between a professional and academic degree) are offered through seminaries,
schools of theology, and divinity schools. This is yet another confusing
designation: what is the difference between a seminary, a divinity
school, and a school of theology? Then you have the “academic” degrees such as
the MA and the PhD. These are offered through a University’s department of
religion, religious studies, philosophy and religion/religious studies. Again,
what is the difference between these types of departments and how do you choose
which one would be the best fit? I am not even getting into the distinction
between private, parochial, and public schools here.
there is not a one size answer that fits all. However, there are certain things
that you should know about the various degrees and schools that could help in
your discernment process. For instance, just because you are getting an MDiv
does not mean that you are bound to ministry. Many MDiv’s go on to
graduate school and/or to many different types of work in the non-profit sector.
Likewise, not all PhD’s go on to be professors in a university, college, or
seminary. A PhD in religious studies prepares you for many different types of
vocations. I will defer to this list
just to give you an idea of the types of jobs PhD’s in religious studies find
themselves in after graduate school.
follows, I hope that you will find useful information that might aid you in the
process of choosing a program in “theology” and/or “religious studies” that
works best for you. In the end, no one will be able to predict what is a good
fit for you except for you, but maybe these links will help in that process.
Furthermore, the list of degrees below is not exhaustive, but rather the most
common degree’s offered in the area of religion, religious studies, and/or
search for a graduate school, you may find this search engine helpful.
thought the brief paragraphs used to describe the various degrees come from
specific web-sites, this is in no way meant to endorse any of the schools from
which materials were used. It is merely our effort not to recreate the wheel,
so to speak.
From Vanderbilt University:
experience of the Graduate Department of Religion indicates that students
enroll in the MA program for a variety of reasons. For some it is a means of
being introduced to the field of religion, or to a special area within it. For
others it is an opportunity to explore in greater depth a field of study with
which the student has already become acquainted. For others it is a way of
preparing for PhD study, either by testing one's own ability and motivation or
by building an academic record which will support admission to a PhD program.
Students may find it advisable for any of these reasons to spend more than one
year in the MA program and to enroll for more than 24 hours of course work.”
More information about the history of the MA degree
(Master of Theological Studies)
From Candler School of Theology:
is especially suited for persons interested in some aspect of teaching and
research or engagement in social issues and is not intended for those whose
primary immediate interests are in ministry or counseling. Students who plan to
apply to a PhD program in religion or to teach at the secondary school level
might seek this degree. Others may elect the degree out of intellectual
curiosity. Students may focus their studies in Area I - Biblical Studies (Old
Testament, New Testament, Biblical Languages), Area II - History and
Interpretation of Christianity (Church History, Christian Thought, Historical
Theology, Systematic Theology) and/or Area III - Christianity and Culture
(Ethical Studies, Missions, Religion and Personality, Sociology and Religion,
is closer to the master of arts than to the master of divinity. The program
focuses more intensely on issues of academic theology and the study of religion
in general, and less on issues of ministry. However, in contrast with the MA
offered in some graduate schools which specializes in a single area of
religious studies, the MTS covers all areas of theological studies.”
More information about the MTS
(Master of Divinity)
From PrincetonTheological Seminary:
of Divinity is the basic professional degree for ministry, and is designed to
prepare students for the parish ministry, for graduate study in theology and
related disciplines, for various types of chaplaincy, for mission work at home
and abroad, and for other forms of church vocation. The curriculum is planned
to provide the flexibility and independence consonant with a broad theological
foundation. Under full-time study, the MDiv program takes three years to
More information about the MDiv
(Doctorate of Philosophy):
From Graduate Theological Union:
program places theological or religious studies in the context of university
research disciplines, and students are required to engage such a discipline in
order to provide an additional critical and theoretical dimension to their
PhD, (or any Doctorate) more so than any of the other degrees mentioned depends
highly upon at least two factors: finding a school where you can explore your
area of interest and/or identifying a specific Professor that will serve as your
intellectual and professional guide through your PhD program.
remember when you are searching for a program, that you will also be living in
a certain place, usually for 5-7 years. What are the costs? What type of
funding does the program offer? Do I like the location? Since we
are bodies and minds, intellectual and emotional creatures, these questions are
valid questions to ask about a PhD program that you may be considering.
More information about the history and types of PhDs
(Doctorate of Theology)
From Harvard University:
“Both the ThD
and the PhD programs are intended to prepare persons primarily for teaching and
research in religion. In many respects, students in a particular field, e.g.
theology, would follow almost the same course of study for specialization in
that field whether in the PhD or the ThD program.”
general, the ThD is focused more specifically on Christian theology whereas a
PhD is often more comparative. In addition, the ThD is most often awarded by
seminaries, divinity schools, and schools of theology, while the PhD is offered
by a university.
More information about the ThD
(Doctor of Ministry)
From Howard University Divinity School:
Doctor of Ministry (DMin) program is designed for people who wish to engage in
an advanced level of preparation for ministerial practice. It is not designed
primarily for teaching and research, although effective ministry includes
aspects of these. Its primary goal is the integration of theological and
anthropological understandings in the context of responsible engagement of
More information about the DMin
decide on a program, and especially if you decide on a Doctoral Program, the
next three questions that arise often have to do with: teaching, writing the
dissertation, and publishing. (Leaving the questions about jobs to its own
special category.) Often times, graduate schools will have some type of
professional development office or program. This is the best place to start
seeking answers to the aforementioned questions. Below, however, are just a few
resources that might also be helpful.
What About Teaching?
There is a
lot of good information out there on how to be an effective teacher. Following
are just a few resources offered through the AAR.
The Syllabus Project of the AAR and
Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning offers many examples of syllabi
for just about every subject one might teach in “religious studies” and/or
Center has long promoted excellence in teaching religious studies and theology
and offers grants, workshops, and resources focused on pedagogy. They even
publish the journal Teaching Theology and Religion. The website has a
host of practical, pedagogical resources.
publishes a “Spotlight on Teaching,” which deal with all sorts of questions surrounding how to teach.
"New Challenges, New Priorities: The Experience of Generation X Faculty" by Robin Matross Helms, published in 2010,
was commissioned by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education. It
profiles Gen X faculty, born between 1964 and 1980, and their approaches to
their careers, work-life balance issues, and relationships with older faculty.
What About the Dissertation?
dreads it, and everyone in a Doctorate program has to do it. It is just part of
the process. Common feelings during the writing and defense of the dissertation
are fear, nervousness, depression, sleeplessness, and loneliness. Many people
experience relationship difficulties during the course of a doctoral program
and many people seek counseling. These are all “normal” parts of the process. The
flip side is that people also experience intense joy, engagement, spiritual and
personal growth, and excitement! Again, “normal” parts of writing the
dissertation is written and defended, people often describe the experience as
anticlimactic and wonder why they worried so much about the dissertation to
begin with. There is no cookie-cutter response to the process, but there are
resources that can help guide you through the process. Some can be found in
previous issues of the “From the Student Desk” column in the AAR’s Religious Studies News (RSN). There are
also many books written about the process that some may find helpful. Listed
below are just a few examples.
Rudestam and Rae R. Newton, Surviving your Dissertation: A Comprehensive
Guide to Content and Process (2001).
Bitter Davis and Clyde Alvin Parker, Writing the Doctoral Dissertation
Roberts, The Dissertation Journey (2004).
Sternberg, How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation (1981)
What About Publishing?
many people find it hard to “break that publishing seal.” The first
publication is often the hardest, whether it is the first book or the first peer-reviewed
article. The best advice I ever heard was, “publish early and often.”
Others advise a more careful approach to publishing. Talk with your mentors,
teachers, and/or advisors about how and when might be the best time to publish
for you. Figure out if you can help a professor or mentor with one of his/her
publication projects. This process can often demystify the process of
important thing to remember is that publishing is in large part a skill that
gets better with practice. Identify the journal’s and publishers that are
relevant to your field, and start reading those journals and other publications.
Often times, a scholar that you know will be on the editorial board of a
journal, book series, or publication project. Seeking advice from someone you
know on one of these boards is part of the mentoring process. Asking him/her to
“get you published” is not. In the end, it is up to you. There are many good
resources on publishing papers and manuscripts, and below are just a couple. Remember,
a course paper, conference paper, or idea can become a future publication!!
A list of some of the journals that accept student submissions.
Harman, Chris Bucci, Siobhan McMenemy, and Ian Montagnes, The Thesis and the
Book: A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors (2003)
Laura Belcher, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks (2009)