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Religion student resources

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Are you thinking about Graduate School in Religion?[1]

M.A. or Ph.D.?

There are some things you should know first. These guidelines represent the opinion of Dr. Flannery and may not be shared by all members of the Dept. of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University. However, they are a starting point for conversations with your faculty about whether to go to graduate school and what specific programs you might investigate.

Graduate school is an enormous investment of money, time, and energy. The bad news is that the job market after that long, grueling Ph.D. is extremely tough. The good news is that it is intellectually edifying, and that since the economic downturn in 2009-2010, people with higher degrees have had an edge in careers in general over those without any degree. If you are open-minded to the possibility that you’ll use your degree in something other than academia – such as publishing, journalism, editing, working at non-profits, or teaching at a lower level than college – then it could be a worthwhile investment of time and money for you.

Begin by reading this guide and by searching the websites for the American Academy of Religion (www.aarweb.org) and Society of Biblical Literature (www.sbl-site.org). Look at the job listings and think about the shape of fields you may be interested in! In addition, you may want to consult the following books:

Directory of Departments and Programs of Religious Studies in North America, published yearly, or the old but valuable The Real Guide to Grad School: What You Better Know Before You Choose Humanities and Social Sciences (1997) published by Lingua Franca.

Some things you should think about before applying:


Graduate School is tough, rewarding, and not like undergraduate experience . . . in lots of ways. Here are some brief answers to some common questions I receive.

Q: What kinds of programs are out there?

A: Unless you pursue one of the few broad M.A. programs out there, you must begin by focusing on one area to study. Especially in the case of the Ph.D., graduate school is pre-professional, preparing you for a life as a professor, although some have gone on to other careers with their degrees (and often not by way of first choice). Areas of study are often extremely narrow: mine was in Judaism and Early Christianity in the Greco-Roman World. For example, if you are interested in Biblical Studies, you will have to know ahead of time whether you are choosing Hebrew Bible or New Testament Studies. This is less true of the M.A. You should investigate the various programs available and know the differences in emphasis. Religion and Culture is not necessarily the same as Religion and Society; Jewish Studies is not at all the same as Hebrew Bible. Look at the websites of various programs to see what course titles align with what areas of concentration, and ask your faculty about national trends or the implications of the various titles.

Q: If I’m not sure what to go into, how hard is it to switch programs?
A: Once a school knows you and if you do well, you might be allowed to switch programs (but not degrees) at that school. However, this will almost certainly add to the length of time you are in your program and it differs by school. Also, be aware that switching from an M.A. in one area to a Ph.D. in another may be difficult – an M.A. does not guarantee entrance into a Ph.D. program.

Q: How important is it to know something about the faculty at each university?

A: Your success will largely depend on your relationship with one or two mentors, so if possible you should look carefully at who they are ahead of time. Check out their publications, activities, and interests, and ask your JMU faculty if they know those professors. Even better, try to meet them before applying or accepting (whether by way of campus visits or by going to the annual AAR/SBL conferences). These people will have much more power over you than your undergraduate professors have ever had. Choose mentors with whom you can work productively. Ask graduate students at those schools how easy it is to work with a particular mentor (but don’t ask in front of the mentor!) Also, know that mentors are also much more likely to invest in your success if you are in a Ph.D. program rather than in an M.A. program.

Q: Should I go for a M.A. or Ph.D.?

A: There are pros and cons to each track. Many Ph.D. programs in religion are extremely long – 6-10 years with dissertation. Few undergraduate students are certain enough about vocation and field to apply straight to a Ph.D. program. If you complete all coursework and comprehensive exams, but leave before your dissertation is complete, there is often no degree, even if you are 7 years in. For these reasons, a Master’s degree can be a good way to start, particularly if you have doubts about a particular course of study, your ability, or your long-term commitment or desire. In a Master’s program, you will leave with a degree in 1-3 years. It is also easier to get into a Master’s program. ON THE OTHER HAND, funding is far less available for those in Master’s programs, and your professors are less likely to take an interest in your success. You must sort all this out for yourself.

Q: Can I afford it?
A: Good question! Different programs and different schools have greatly varying amount of aid to give, which almost always takes the form of Research Assistantships or Teaching Assistantships. Ask someone about availability of funding before you apply and don’t be afraid to ask the Graduate Advisor frankly, but politely, how many students are fully funded to the end of their program. Also, try researching special scholarship opportunities in “odd” areas. For example, at The University of Iowa, there was an enormous scholarship in Religion and the Arts - but I never knew someone to pursue this and take advantage of that money. However, you also need to think about your eventual marketability if you shape your program in an unusual way.

Q: What will my life be like there?

A: You will very likely be in classes that are much smaller than at JMU. Social life will, accordingly, be quite different. It will take work to find friends. Your classmates will shape your experience profoundly, both in and out of the classroom. Different schools have different climates – some are more cooperative, some are fiercely competitive. Some have younger students, while some consist mostly of older, mid-career students. Know the flavor of the school you aspire to attend, preferably by visiting and talking to graduate students.

Q: I want to go to graduate school because I have loved my courses at JMU so much. Is that a good reason to go?

A: Many students find graduate school coursework to be different if not disappointing as compared with undergraduate classes, for many reasons. Professors are often harder to approach, work is conducted on a much more independent basis, and the focus of many courses will be frustratingly narrow. Lectures are rare; seminars in which one paper grade determines your course grade will be the norm. Speaking in class becomes your bread and butter. Assignments can sometimes seem impossible, and a limitless amount of reading is available (this is on purpose – you will have to learn a new style of reading and discerning important information). The expectations will be high, and the reading (and probably the language) assignments will be onerous.

Q: Will there be a job after graduate school?

A: Maybe.

The job situation is somewhat grim, depending on the field. See the Openings section of the AAR and SBL websites to know what kinds of positions are open and in what numbers they are being advertised. Shape your education with this in mind. For instance, while you may be undecided and lean towards a generalized “M.A. in Religion” program, that probably won’t get you a job in academia, whereas a Ph.D. in certain other areas will. Also, don’t specialize too much, as grad programs are wont to make you do, if you want to be marketable later.

The AAR website sometimes has trends in hiring listed. For a long time, jobs in Christianity and Bible related fields have had the most competition (with somewhere between 100 and 200 Ph.D.’s typically applying for each). Be aware, as well, that the number of jobs that might appeal to you depends on whether you would be willing to teach in a religiously based or religiously affiliated school, some of which require a statement of faith, or whether you choose to teach in a seminary setting, secular college, or secular university.

However, since the economic downturn in 2009-2010, people with higher degrees have had an edge over those without any degree. If you are open-minded to the possibility that you’ll use your degree in something other than academia – such as publishing, journalism, editing, or teaching at a lower level than college – then it could be a better investment of time and money for you.

Q: How is a M.Div. different than an M.A.?

A: A M. Div is truly a pre-professional degree. Generally, the first year is focused on general study and the years after that have a highly service-oriented and practicum-oriented flavor. A M.Div. won’t necessarily prepare you to enter a Ph.D. program, and is really meant for those intent on entering the ministry. If you envision a life in ministry, go into a M.Div. program at a seminary. If you envision a life in academia, go into an M.A. or Ph.D. program at a university.

Q: What is it like being a professor? Will I enjoy it?

A: I used to think that my professors had abundant leisure time spent thinking great thoughts and smoking English pipes. (I really did). Generally, being a professor at a small liberal arts college entails a more highly scheduled lifestyle focused on teaching, while being a professor at a larger university involves a less scheduled lifestyle focused on a lot of research (that is as busy, in a different way). At either one, teaching, research, and service to the institution / department / academic guild will require you to fill a lot of different roles. If you are an extrovert, you may love the classroom but find quiet, independent research challenging. If you are an introvert, the reverse may prove to be true.

You need to know that people don’t go into academia for money! It’s okay to good, depending on your standards, but we all seem to acknowledge that it is in no way proportional to the amount of time spent in graduate school. Rather, we go into it because we so love the material and/or teaching, and we want to live “a life of the mind.”

If you want to know what research life is like, there is no substitute for attending the Regional AAR/SBL or the National AAR/SBL. There are student oriented programs there and lots of papers to hear that will help you understand the flavor of each field. Although the annual meeting is particularly expensive, you will gain a wealth of invaluable knowledge about our profession in just four short (incredibly expensive) days. See the program books (Congresses) on the AAR and SBL websites I have listed above. The regional AAR/SBL conferences are more affordable but less impressive just due to size.

It takes a particular kind of person to be an academic. If you want to be a professor, I would recommend that you be a combination of an introvert and an extrovert for maximum happiness. That is, one must both enjoy working alone much of the time and also be able to stand in front of large groups of people and communicate. Personally, I love teaching, but it took me years of graduate school to envision myself as a professor. Love of the material brought me there first.

Q: How terrible is it to take off a year from school before applying to graduate school?
A: I did so, and lots of our majors have done so. Especially in this economic climate, it can be a positive thing. NO one would fault you for saving up money for a year! In a way, I think it shows that you have thought through your commitment and have had time to reflect on it. You’ll want to show that you stayed active in the field somehow during your time waiting tables. Taking off more than a year, however, makes it really hard to return, in my opinion.

The best thing I know to do during a year off is to learn one of the languages required for your program – if any – in an accredited fashion. It will increase your chances of getting in, help you discern your level of commitment, and shave off a bit of time from your program. (To give you an example, for my program I was required to learn several terms each of Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Attic and Koine Greek, French, and German – and I had only had one year of French when I began). Some programs, such as Religion and Culture, might only require one or two languages for the purposes of conducting research. Another profitable way to spend that time is studying for the GRE (which you will likely need to take). The good news is that majors in Religion and Philosophy typically do well on the GRE. Did I mention that you need to do well on the GRE?

Q: Do you have any other advice for choosing schools?
A: In addition to the degree sought, type of program, requirements, typical number of years to completion, temperament of classmates and professors, and amount of funding available, there are two more points that come to mind.

First, even in an M.A. program, and particularly in a Ph.D. program, you’ll be in graduate school a long, long time. Did I say a long time? I meant a long, long time. Funding will be scarce, and the work will be stressful. So, a big piece of advice is to choose someplace you will enjoy living. If big city life is not for you, don’t go to Chicago University or Boston University. If you thrive on that climate, apply to New York University. It’s your life. Live it. Even in grad school!

Second, if you go for a campus visit, one question that you might ask is how many of the students who enter the program leave with the degree they initially sought, and how many of those find employment in tenure-track or full-time teaching positions. Some schools have these statistics, many do not. (E.g. If out of 33 entering students one year, only a handful left with the degree that they originally sought, would you want to attend?).

Once you have thought through these issues and done some research, see your faculty for recommendations on specific schools and for other questions you may have. It’s a big decision – best of luck!

Now. . .

***Q: I’ve decided to apply. What do my recommenders need from me?

You should give each recommender lots of time to write your letters, preferably AT BAREST MINIMUM a month, which should NOT include Fall, Winter or Spring Breaks, and which should take into consideration any holiday seasons. We put a lot of thought and care into these letters: if you do not provide us with ample time, expect no letter or a poor one.

Please re-read the above paragraph!

The process will be much easier for us and go better for you if you supply each recommender with the following in as organized a fashion as possible:

* The complete mailing addresses of each school to which you are applying.

***The EXACT program name and DEGREE for which you are applying in each

case (programs in the same field often have different names at different

schools and this will matter to the selection committee).

* A short paragraph explaining your interests, long-term goals and motivations.

(This can be informal, but if certain “buzz words” come up, do note their importance and be certain to note anything that you are hoping that your recommender will stress about you).

* If possible, a formal or informal resume listing items of accomplishment and

activities that might give your recommender more to say.

* A copy of your unofficial transcript with the courses that you

have taken with that instructor highlighted, along with your grades.

* Your full and current contact information, including phone and e-mail.

* Stamped and addressed envelopes for each school if the letters go to the

schools, plus any forms that are necessary, with all relevant parts filled out

and signed in the appropriate places! While most schools have converted to electronic forms, some still have forms you must download and sign.

* In cases where letters must be returned to you and then forwarded with your

application to the schools, you should provide a large stamped and self-addressed mailing envelope containing smaller envelopes with the names of each school printed on each.

Organizing these materials for each recommender in a folder or binder is best. If you are asking for letters to more than one school, I would recommend a cover page with ALL DUE DATES HIGHLIGHTED FOR THE RECOMMENDER.

Q: Should I “waive” or “not waive” my right to access the recommendation?

A: In my strongly held opinion, not waiving this right always signals a lack of confidence in the recommendation and thus, by implication, in your credentials. If you are applying for graduate school, I would hope that you have confidence in the recommenders that you have chosen. That is, I think “waiving” is always the way to go. DO, however, make sure that each recommender feels comfortable recommending you “without hesitation” and has said they will provide you with a “good recommendation” and not merely a “recommendation.”

Q: To how many schools should I apply?

A: It is always a good idea to apply to your dream schools AND some back-ups of a lesser quality (which entails less competition). Even if you have sterling credentials, spots are limited and the factors that determine acceptance may be out of your hands. My rule of thumb is to say that students should apply to no less than six schools, along a range of desirability. Eight is even better.

Q: How do I decide on programs?

Ask your professors for their recommendations, and spend a lot of time looking at websites to see who teaches where. Get a feel for each place.

If you can go to a regional or national SBL or AAR meeting, that will help you know immediately what kinds of fields are interesting or not, who is helpful and who is not. If you do go, go to the free parties at night, mix, mingle, exercise restraint, and ask the right questions. (Hint: The better the spread, the more funding is available).

Q: How important is the G.R.E.?

It depends on the school. Some don’t even look at it, while many base their initial cuts on it. The verbal section is generally the important one – don’t worry too much if you have a very high verbal score but a low math score. Some schools look at the “logic” score, others don’t. But DO study for the G.R.E. and give yourself time to retake it.

Q: What else should I know?

A: Two things.

First, know that applying to graduate school can be quite costly. Check out the fees for the G.R.E., sending transcripts to each school, and each application fee. Some application fees are steep – up to $80.00. Others are less expensive. One recent graduate applied to five or six schools and spent about $700.00 on the whole process.

Second, consider this note regarding etiquette. Many students write thank you notes to recommenders for taking valuable time to write thoughtful letters to increase their chances for acceptance (and we often tailor each letter to individual programs). Please eventually let each recommender know to which schools you are accepted and where you finally end up attending. We share in your joy and success!

For further thoughts, contact Dr. Flannery at: flannefl@jmu.edu.



[1] This document draws on, but is not identical to, many such documents posted on the web, such as the excellent one at www.williams.edu. It may be interesting to search “thinking / graduate school / religion” and get the opinion of other scholar-teachers.