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Stages of Education

Different Stages of Becoming a Scholar in Religious Studies and Theology

By Whitney Bauman 

Which Degree is Right for Me?
What about Teaching?
What about The Dissertation?
What about Publishing?

This is 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 4 areas, there is one basic question worth asking:  Why Study Religion?  If you find yourself asking this question, this is a helpful online article: http://www.studyreligion.org/

Once you 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:

Paul Gray and David E. Drew, What They Didn’t Teach you in Graduate School: 199 Helpful Hints for Success in Your Academic Career (2008)

So, you have decided to go to graduate school in religious studies/theology.  But which degree to choose?


Which Degree is Right for Me?

Many 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.

Of course, 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. 

The AAR has also published a very valuable resource devoted to racial and ethnic minorities in the academy, from looking at graduate programs to searching for jobs and getting tenure. You'll find it here.

In what 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 theology.

In your search for a graduate school, you may find this search engine helpful: http://www.gradschools.com/ListingFunctions/SearchResults.aspx?SubjectId=352&Country=All&State=&ProgramType=0.   

Finally, 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.

MA (Master of Arts):
From Vanderbilt’s web-site: (http://www.vanderbilt.edu/gradschool/religion/degree/twoyear.html)

“The experience of the Graduate Department of Religion indicates that students enroll in the M.A. 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 Ph.D. study, either by testing one's own ability and motivation or by building an academic record which will support admission to a Ph.D. program. Students may find it advisable for any of these reasons to spend more than one year in the M.A. program and to enroll for more than 24 hours of course work.”

More information about the history of the M.A. degree can be found here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Master_of_Arts.

M.T.S. (Master of Theological Studies)
From Candler School of Theology: http://www.candler.emory.edu/ADMISSIONS/mts.cfm.

“The MTS 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, World Religions).”

“The MTS 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 M.T.S. can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_of_Theological_Studies.

M.Div. (Master of Divinity)
From Princeton Theological Seminary: (http://www2.ptsem.edu/offices/admissions/programs/master.aspx)

The Master 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 M.Div. program takes three years to complete.

For more information about the M.Div. see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_of_Divinity.

Ph.D. (Doctorate of Philosophy):
From the Graduate Theological Union’s Web-site: http://www.gtu.edu/academics/doctoral-program.

“The Ph.D. 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 work.”

Pursuing a 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 Ph.D. program. 

Also, 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. 

For information about the history and types of PhD’s visit here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_of_Philosophy.

Th.D. (Doctorate of Theology)
From Harvard’s Web-site: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~csrel/doctoral/faqs.html.

“Both the Th.D. and the Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. or the Th.D. program.”

In general, the Th.D. is focused more specifically on Christian theology whereas a PhD is often more comparative.  In addition, the Th.D. is most often awarded by seminary’s, divinity school’s, and school’s of theology, while the Ph.D. is offered by a university.

For More information about the ThD, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ThD.

D.Min. (Doctor of Ministry)
From Howard University Divinity School: http://husd.dst01.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=16&Itemid=60.

“The Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) 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 ministry.”

For more information about the D.Min. see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_of_Ministry.

Once you 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 job’s 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 theology. 

The Wabash 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: http://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/home/default.aspx.

The AAR publishes a “Spotlight on Teaching,” which deal with all sorts of questions surrounding how to teach.  Past issues can be found here.

"New Challenges, New Priorities: The Experience of Generation X Faculty" (PDF) 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?

Everyone 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.

Once 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 RSN.   There are also many books written about the process that some may find helpful.  Listed below are just a few examples.

Kjell Erik Rudestam and Rae R. Newton, Surviving your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process (2001).

Gordon Bitter Davis and Clyde Alvin Parker, Writing the Doctoral Dissertation (1997)

Carol M. Roberts, The Dissertation Journey (2004).

David Sternberg, How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation (1981)


What about Publishing?

Again, 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 publication. 

An 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!!

For a list of some of the journals that accept student submissions, see here.

Eleanor Harman, Chris Bucci, Siobhan McMenemy, and Ian Montagnes, The Thesis and the Book: A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors (2003)

Wendy Laura Belcher, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks (2009)