Wilson Hall

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

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.

You absolutely loved your degree in Religion or Interdisciplinary Religion. We're so glad! Now you might be thinking about graduate school, which is an enormous personal investment. There are some things you ought to know before embarking on this journey. First, the job market for Ph.D.s in academia is very tough, and professor jobs are not plentiful. The good news, though, is that a degree in Religion - from your B.A. to a Ph.D. - also opens you up to many other fields. If you are open-minded to pursuing publishing, journalism, editing, governmental jobs, intelligence analysis, consulting, working at non-profits, teaching, etc., then it could be a worthwhile investment of time and money for you.

We recommend that 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). In particular, look at the job listings and think carefully about the fields you may be interested in.

Graduate School is tough, rewarding, and very different than the undergraduate experience in many 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 increasingly graduates go on to other careers with their degrees. 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, etc. 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. You should check out their publications, activities, and interests well ahead of accepting a position in graduate school, and you should ask your JMU faculty if they know those professors or their work. 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. 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 – anywhere from 5-10 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. While it is easier to get into a Master's program, and you'll get a degree sooner, funding is far less available for those in Master’s programs.

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 the availability of funding before you accept entrance and don’t be afraid to ask the Graduate Advisor politely how many students are fully funded to the end of their program. If you are a strong candidate, live very frugally, and you choose a well funded program, you might be able to make your way through grad school with little or no debt. Others accrue quite a bit of debt, for a variety of reasons. Also, consider that while there are some interesting niche programs or scholarships out there, you should make sure to think about your eventual marketability.

Q: What will my life be like there? A: You will very likely be in classes that are much smaller than most of those at JMU. The Capstone courses the best example of the kind of classes you will have. Your social life will likely revolve around your cohort and it will take some work to find friends. Different schools have different climates – some are more cooperative, some are fiercely competitive.  Make sure that you know the flavor of the school you aspire to attend, preferably by visiting and talking to graduate students as well as faculty.

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 very different as compared with undergraduate classes, for many reasons. Professors may be harder to approach, work is conducted on a much more independent basis, and the focus of many courses can be frustratingly narrow. Lectures are rare; seminars in which one paper grade determines your course grade will be the norm. Speaking in class and defending your positions will be key to your success. An almost limitless amount of reading might be assigned. 

Q: I want to be a Professor! Will I find a job in academia after graduate school? A: Maybe. 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, but it might even be better than a Ph.D. if you decide to go into a different career path. 

The AAR website sometimes lists trends in hiring. Study these and think about marketability, if that is a concern for you, as you choose the program that you are so passionate about! Definitely talk to your JMU Religion Faculty. 

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, counseling, or social work, going into a M.Div. program at a seminary is perfect. If you envision a life strictly in academia, you should probably enter an M.A. or Ph.D. program at a university.

Q: What is it like being a professor? Will I enjoy it? A: I would definitely advise that you ask your favorite professors this question! Professors wear a lot of different hats, including teaching, research, and service to the institution / department / academic guild / community. It also depends greatly on your personality. If you are an extrovert, you may love the classroom but find quiet, independent research to be challenging. If you are an introvert, the reverse may prove to be true. If you are interested in pursuing a lot of money first and foremost, this probably isn't the career for you. If you are dedicated to pursuing a life of the mind, and teaching the next generation to be and do better than your own, then this could be perfect for you.

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 (expensive) days. See the program books (Congresses) on the AAR and SBL websites I have listed above. The regional AAR/SBL conferences are much more affordable and smaller, and a good idea for those thinking about Graduate School.

Q: How terrible is it to take off a year from school before applying to graduate school? A: Do it! This is a huge investment, and taking some time to reflect on your direction, learn a language (with credits), attend an SBL or AAR conference, research potential programs, and discern your level of commitment is a terrific idea. 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. However, I would advise you not to wait so long that you either lose your fervor or lose contacts with those professors who would write you good recommendation letters.

Q: Do you have any other advice for choosing graduate 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. My big piece of advice is to choose someplace you will enjoy living. 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 students who enter the program actually leave with the degree they initially sought, and how many find employment in tenure-track or full-time teaching positions (if that is your goal). Some schools have these statistics, but even general estimates will help you.

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, AT BAREST MINIMUM a month, excluding Fall, Winter or Spring Breaks, and holidays. 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 poorer one.

Please re-read the above paragraph!

You should supply the following: 

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • While most schools have converted to electronic forms, some still have forms you must download and sign, and a few depend on the mail. Provide any forms that are necessary, with all relevant parts filled out and signed in the appropriate places!
  • Organizing all of these materials for each recommender in a folder or binder is best. If you are asking for letters to more than one school, I also would recommend a cover page with all due dates highlighted for your 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. You should "waive" your right to access, but 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: How many schools should I apply to? A: It is always a good idea to apply to your dream schools as well as some back-ups that you think you have a better chance of getting in. 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 four schools, which is time consuming and expensive, but an investment in your future.

Q: How should I decide on programs? A: Ask your professors for their recommendations that pertain to your particular field of interest. Then spend a lot of time looking at websites to get a feel for each place and learn the intricacies of the programs. 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, and what mentors would be helpful or not.

Q: How important is the G.R.E.? A: 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. 

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, please 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.

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