Tips on Applying to Grad Programs in Religious Studies (Pt. I)

It’s that time of the year again, and here at FPR we (or mostly ‘I’) figured that we’d toss out a few thoughts about applying to graduate school programs in religious studies. By “religious studies” we’re casting a fairly wide net not referring to simply Religious Studies departments, but all programs where the applicant will study “religion” in some form or another (although we’re not claiming broad knowledge of the application process for all these disciplines). Furthermore, much of our discussion will be rather anecdotal. While we may even know a few statistics about the schools we attend(ed) or have applied to, even those may not reflect current trends nor be arrived at by any strict statistical calculation (‘strict’ here meaning it’s been a long time since we’ve taken a math course or studied for the GRE).

With that caveat I’d like to explore two issues in this post: Deciding whether or not to attend graduate school, and deciding which graduate programs to apply to. 

Should I even apply? 

Part of the answer to this question depends on what you intend to do for a living. If you would like to go into academia at the professorial level (although at this stage you may not know exactly what this entails) you will need a PhD. With a master’s degree you can often “adjunct” at a university or college, meaning you can teach a class or two a semester as an unofficial part of the faculty, but you probably won’t be able to rely on this as a primary source of income. Given the growing number of PhDs even most community colleges can fill their full time faculty before going with someone with an MA.

That said, many people find a master’s program helpful for several reasons. First of all it gives you a chance to see how much you’d like the academic life–you are basically taking the same classes as PhD students without the long term commitment of the PhD process. Secondly, people with a master’s degree are often more competitive for PhD programs. Relatively few people will come straight into a PhD program in Religion having not graduated from a top tier undergraduate program (e.g., BYU). Thirdly, it can be leveraged into other career options (emphasis on the ‘can’).

Many people do a master’s program, discover that a PhD is not for them, but have an invigorating experience studying religion in a new setting and come away with a transformed outlook on the world and their own religious life (more later on the nature of this ‘transformation’). I imagine those such as Julie Smith could comment on this. The Kevin Barneys and Blake Ostlers demonstrate that participation in intellectually rigorous religious debate does not require a graduate degree in religious studies. In developing fields (such as Mormon studies) some of the most creative work is done by people who are not ‘academics’ (although one could argue that they have to work even harder to be taken seriously by academics). There are growing communities of LDSs at most of the big divinity schools/religious studies programs. A good idea would be to communicate with some of them to see what their experience is (or was) like.

To state it directly, there are a number of other, more practical reasons you may not want to apply. The process is long and the attrition rate is high. Even if you get admitted to a master’s program, the odds are still against you getting into most PhD programs. Most programs are not well funded, and if you have children the financial problems multiply. Even people admitted into PhD programs sometimes do not finish. A dissertation is usually 300 pages long and can stretch out for years. Those who are married may find their spouse getting a job offer in a different part of the country, and face the decision of relocating. And even if you finish the PhD, the job market may not be good with upwards of a hundred other PhDs applying for the same job. Furthermore, after being hired you still have to worry about the tenure process. All this for a $65K/yr job.

Without trying to sound negative, however, there are few other occupations that allow you to pursue your intellectual interests to the degree that academia does. You meet some of the most brilliant people, engage with young inquiring minds, and have time to research those questions that keep you up at night. (If you don’t have questions that keep you up at night academia is probably not for you.)

Where should I apply to?

In thinking about which graduate programs to apply to there are a number of factors to take into consideration. I’ll discuss three of those factors here:

1) Future ambitions. Some schools are perceived as being “better” than others. Admittance to a top tier institution does not guarantee that you’ll get hired at a top tier institution. On the other hand it is extremely rare to get hired at an institution in a higher tier than the one you graduate from. Part of this, then, depends on the kind of place you would like to end up in. Many people decide that the Harvard and Yale’s are not the kind of place they would like to teach at and decide to head for other, more fitting places. One problem with not graduating from a top tier institution, however, is competing against those who have. Intellectual merit perhaps being the same, those from the top tier institutions usually have a larger social network to draw from in getting recommendations. In other words, their profs usually know a prof there, and can make a good verbal recommendation. That said, however, some of the larger, top tier programs are less aggressive in job placement than the smaller programs which are working harder to make a name for themselves. One of the smaller programs I applied to boasted that they had a near perfect placement ratio (the institution I’m currently at certainly doesn’t).

2) Faculty. There should be at least one, if not two, faculty members you’d like to work with. One thing to pay attention to is whether there are other schools in the area that also have faculty in your field that you can take classes from, as most schools allow cross-registration. This may be a problem for some people going into Mormon studies. As one who is not directly involved in the field I cannot offer specific advice; however I imagine that there are institutions with strong programs in a historical or anthropological approach to American religious traditions. And part of the new ground that needs to be broken (or more broken) is well-trained scholars who have a interests that go beyond Mormondom to participate in larger discourses related to the history of religions, anthropology of religions, sociology of religions (such as Armand Mauss), etc.

3) Community. An important thing is to feel comfortable where ever you end up (although for the first few weeks or months everyone feels intellectually inferior). For LDSs part of the issue in feeling comfortable is feeling accepted as a LDS. Leaving the question of “will graduate school harm my testimony” for another post, what I’d like to mention here is that cultures from school to school vary. As mentioned above there have been LDS students at most of the large religious studies programs. Discussing this with one of them is an invaluable resource.

Anyone who would like to, feel free to chime in with either your experience or questions that you have. Future posts in this series may include: will graduate school in religious studies harm my testimony?, the admittance process, how to write a statement of purpose, what to do about letters of recommendation and the GRE, identifying specific programs in Biblical studies, and more. We’re open to other ideas for future posts.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    As Leonardo DiCaprio said in Catch Me If You Can when his character Frank was pretending to be a doctor: “I concur.”

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    In my experience getting into graduate school is about three things: networking, networking, and networking. Oh, and one more thing, networking. Did I mention networking?

    Your absolute best bet is to apply to schools where the professors know you personally. You are a known quantity and known quantities are much less of a risk.

    Your next best bet is to apply to schools where professors who are writing your recommendation letters know professors personally. A recommendation coming from a known quantity reduces risk for the grad school.

    Your third best bet is to get someone really famous, in the field, to write you a recommendation letter. The perception is that the famous person is a known quantity, which reduces the risk for the grad school.

    I was a complete failure at the graduate school process because I ignored the above rules. I had good grades, very good test scores, and research experience. I went 0 for 10 in applications. At the last minute I applied to BYU for a masters program (where I was a known quantity) and got in. I really disliked BYU as an undergraduate but figured a masters degree was only two years and it would help me on my way to a Ph.D. After the first day I realized that 1) I couldn’t take the place for two more years and 2) there was nothing going on there that interested me.

    So I went and pitched a fit in the tuition office until they agreed to refund my tuition in full (they should have charged me a fee), paid back my Stafford loan, rented a U-Haul, and we left that week.

  • smallaxe

    I should probably also add that some helpful advice to those applying to grad programs in philosophy can be found here:

    http://schwitzsplintersunderblog.blogspot.com/2007/10/applying-to-phd-programs-in-philosophy.html

  • Kevin Barney

    Thanks for this; I’m looking forward to the series. I would have liked to do something like this if the stars had aligned properly; they didn’t, so I didn’t. But I’m still fascinated by the nuts and bolts of grad school in something of a voyeuristic, on the outside looking in, sort of way. So I appreciate you doing this.

  • http://ldskaitabiblia.wordpress.com The Yellow Dart

    Thanks for this great introduction. I think such a series of posts will certainly benefit those LDSs intending to apply and attend graduate school in fields pertaining to religious studies (broadly conceived), such as myself. My comments regarding preparing and applying for graduate school are based on my own personal experiences and preparations; so they may not be of relevance to some others who might have different experiences or whose expectations for graduate school may be different from my own. I will describe some of my own experiences so that my comments may be seen in better context.

    I am currently an undergraduate at a large university. We have some very well known biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholars in the department. The area which my school is in is not very urban, but traveling to or visiting neighboring cities is certainly not difficult. Since this series is tailored towards LDSs, I will also mention that I am a single church member, and the church in my area for single adults is very small (we don’t even have enough for a small branch). Additionally, I personally have never really had the opportunity to work in person with other LDSs (either undergraduates, graduate students, or faculty) in fields pertaining to religious studies (as broadly defined here); the only relevant interaction with other LDSs scholars that I have had would be a few personal e-mail conversations and my participation in the bloggernacle. I might add that I do not come from a family that can pay for my schooling and I work evenings/nights (about 25-30 hours a week) in addition to attending school full time. My academic studies and interests revolve primarily around the ANE in general, and Hebrew Bible in particular. (However, I don’t know if Hebrew Bible is the field I wish to pursue graduate studies in.)

    My experiences have significantly shaped my expectations and desires for graduate school. For instance, having lived in socially isolated rural areas almost my whole life, I wish to attend a graduate school that is in a very urban setting. I would also enjoy opportunities to meet and engage other thoughtful LDSs in fields (at least peripherally) related to my interests. Moreover, as a single LDS who has never lived in an area where there is a significant single adult population, I would like to go to school in an area where there is a vibrant LDS social scene. Moreover, given my financial experiences, I really only want to go to a school where there is decent funding for their PhD students.

    On an academic level, I have had the opportunity to work with some well-known ANE scholars in a non-religious academic environment, and I have been introduced rather broadly to current academic biblical scholarship. I don’t worry very much about graduate school possibly undermining (my) LDS faith claims, so that generally isn’t an issue for me (though I understand why it is or might be for others). My school also does not have any religious affiliation, so I am not really concerned about a religious connotation being attached to my degree as some others might. My studies have also briefly introduced me into the world of graduate school, since I have taken advanced Greek, Akkadian, Hebrew, and Egyptian courses with graduate students. Perhaps the most concerning issue for undergraduates such as myself who wish to go on to graduate school is that when they are applying for graduate school at well known universities and programs, they are going against other applicants (maybe even those with whom they took courses) who have a Master’s degree (or sometimes two!). Thus I would mention that establishing a strong repoire with your professors is most crucial. You want the best recommendation letters possible from the best scholars possible. Your professors (especially if they are well known) often have relevant contacts at schools that may be particularly relevant for your interests and/or field. Such recommendations and contacts may be the most important factor I can think of. Go read their articles and books if necessary!

    Given all of the above, I believe that it is important to identify what factors are most important to you and to weigh them appropriately. As mentioned, financial, social, and academic factors are all important. For instance, can you afford to go to the best graduate school in your field without adequate or stable funding? What if the university that is less academically prestigious offers you better funding or is located in an environment more congenial to your personal preferences? Where are the universities located–heavily urban, or more rural? What other academic institutions are close? Perhaps even the weather might be an important to certain persons. Moreover, what experiences do you want to acquire in addition to the opportunity for rigorous academic study? Perhaps schools outside of the United States would better suit ones needs or interests. And what about a social environment? Do you need or desire a close network of friends, such as others of your own faith who are interested in fields related to your own, or at least the potential opportunities to meet such persons; or do you like solitude? What about the single adult situation (or lack thereof, as the case may be) for those who are single? Moreover, what type of academic environment do you want to work in? A well known program at a prestigious university is probably very important or most, but having proper or sufficient personal guidance from one’s advisor can be just as crucial. What is your potential advisors’ personality like? Perhaps they are a great scholar, but maybe they are a actually a jerk to be around or do not advise or even teach very well. Consider if you can really work closely with your advisor or the faculty on a long term basis.

    Finally, as mentioned in the post: what do you want with the degree? Personally, I would like to work in an academia, but this isn’t for everyone. For those with a similar goal as my own : do you want to be a professor who spends most of her time teaching, or researching/writing? What kind of university do you want to work at? In connection with such concerns or interests, it is important to wisely select the field you want to pursue. What kinds of jobs or departments would it allow you apply in? As I mentioned, I don’t know what specific field I want to enter, and so I am feeling this pressure acutely (however, I don’t actually apply until next Fall, so I am spared for the moment) : what field will best serve the balance of my interests and job opportunities?

    Again, this is all just from my own experiences, but I hope it was worth the time it took to read.

    Best wishes,

    The Yellow Dart

  • http://ldskaitabiblia.wordpress.com The Yellow Dart

    Sorry, that was probably longer and more personal than necessary! My apologies for a few typos as well.

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • oudenos

    My experience:

    I applied to nearly a dozen PhD programs and got into one. The program which admitted me was one which I thought I had no business even applying to while several of the schools which rejected me I considered to be attainable. It still doesn’t make sense to me.

    I applied with a BA and MA relevant to the field but I was in constant torment when I read about students at the various institutions with multiple MAs, field research in x foreign country, y number of papers read before PhD admission, and sage looking beards and academic looking glasses. My inferiority complex had no bounds.

    From what I can tell, admission comes down to four things: 1)Letters of recommendation 2) Statement of purpose (i.e. one’s research interests fit with the faculty’s) 3) language skills (if you are doing language intensive programs like ANE, Bible, Classics, etc.). 4) The Draft: seriously, I have gathered enough anecdotal information to almost believe that the various programs in a given field communicate with one another about who wants whom and who is offering whom. Think about it. If Harvard offers someone admission (and we are talking about programs which admit 1 or 2 per cycle), and Yale and Princeton also offer that same person, one of these big players gets its woman while the other two get hoodwinked and have to dip into their wait-list. The big players don’t like to be hoodwinked. So they talk to each other, compare stats, prognosticate and make it so that they aren’t bumping heads. And then they draft their players. Ever wonder why every application makes you list the other programs to which you are applying?

    Anyhow, the application process is a humbling experience. But it is good to be knocked down a little when entering the world of academics–nobody likes know-it-all jackasses, whether PhDs or schleps in Sunday School.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben

    Thanks for this, though you could have gotten the whole series up a few weeks ago so I could have had it for help as I am now in the middle of grad school applications :).

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com SmallAxe

    As Leonardo DiCaprio said in Catch Me If You Can

    Mental note: Don’t take checks from TT.

    In my experience getting into graduate school is about three things: networking, networking, and networking. Oh, and one more thing, networking. Did I mention networking?

    I’d have to agree to a certain point. Coincidentally the only PhD programs I got into were those that knew me by face (i.e., on a more personal level). The vast majority of schools I applied to, which I only spoke with over the phone, rejected me. That said, of those admitted to my program the year I entered, I think about 2 or 10 were known there personally.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com SmallAxe

    Thanks for this, though you could have gotten the whole series up a few weeks ago so I could have had it for help as I am now in the middle of grad school applications :).

    Anything specific we can help with in the next post?

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com SmallAxe

    From what I can tell, admission comes down to four things: 1)Letters of recommendation 2) Statement of purpose (i.e. one’s research interests fit with the faculty’s) 3) language skills (if you are doing language intensive programs like ANE, Bible, Classics, etc.). 4) The Draft: seriously, I have gathered enough anecdotal information to almost believe that the various programs in a given field communicate with one another about who wants whom and who is offering whom. Think about it. If Harvard offers someone admission (and we are talking about programs which admit 1 or 2 per cycle), and Yale and Princeton also offer that same person, one of these big players gets its woman while the other two get hoodwinked and have to dip into their wait-list. The big players don’t like to be hoodwinked. So they talk to each other, compare stats, prognosticate and make it so that they aren’t bumping heads. And then they draft their players. Ever wonder why every application makes you list the other programs to which you are applying?

    I think I’d rank the criteria for admission as follows (and I’ll explain this a little more in a future post): 1) Departmental situation and other uncontrollable factors. 2) Statement of purpose. 3) Letters of recommendation. 4) Course work/language work. 5) Writing sample. 6) GRE scores. 7) Persona. 8) Luck.

    As far as the ‘draft’ is concerned, I suppose that would fit with my #1, although I’ve been told (and the reliability of this information is questionable) that there are legal restrictions preventing that kind of communication. That said, I’m sure less informal exchanges occur.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com SmallAxe

    TYD,

    I sounds like you’ve thought through this much better than I did as an undergraduate. Have you narrowed down your list of schools? I’d like to include as part of this series some ‘spotlights’ on certain schools where we know LDS grad students, and so if you have a rough idea of those schools we might be able to round up a few people to share their experience. If you’d rather not say, we can discuss this privately via email. BTW, it’s nice to see that you’re up and blogging again.

  • http://ldskaitabiblia.wordpress.com/ The Yellow Dart

    I suppose my greatest concern in the entire process is the competition. Undergraduates, such as myself, will be competing with other applicants who have a masters degree (or sometimes two!) or have, as oudenos mentions, substantial fieldwork. Although I think that I work hard for an undergraduate, it is hard to compete with others who have advanced degrees and such fieldwork experience. I anticipate then that I am not going to enter a PhD program right out of the undergraduate gate, and even if I did, would I really be able to cut it anyway without having more prior coursework or field experience? Maybe. I don’t know. So I suppose that what I would really like is a program that combines the MA and PhD, but I don’t know of many such programs at high ranking institutions. It seems they typically have the MA (unfunded and expensive, of course) and you can try to get into the PhD program later, or they have PhD program where you might get a MA along the way, but the program is still technically PhD track.

    As far as schools that I might be interested in: it really depends on what I decide that I would like to do, and this is currently a problem that I am facing. What field will best serve the combination of my interests, job potential, and personal preferences (as I talked about above)? I am primarily interested in two fields: Hebrew Bible and Assyriology. But I haven’t ruled out other interests, such as Egyptology or Semitics. I have to say that I am interested in history and literature more than linguistics proper, although I thoroughly enjoy studying languages in order to read the relevant literature. But I definitely want a good archaeological component in my graduate studies. Anyway, I will briefly mention some of the schools I have been looking at (in theory, of course), since they are well known and because other readers might be looking at the same or similar places. Some schools are obviously better or more well recognized at present than others. Feel free to add to the list. Anyway, here are a few: Emory, Johns Hopkins, UChicago, Harvard, UPenn, Brandeis, NYU, UMichigan, UCLA, and Yale.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com SmallAxe

    I anticipate then that I am not going to enter a PhD program right out of the undergraduate gate, and even if I did, would I really be able to cut it anyway without having more prior coursework or field experience?

    If you’re admitted without the MA (which, at least in the related fields I’m aware of, does happen occasionally), or as much coursework etc., I wouldn’t worry about “cutting it”. Once you’re in, you’re in. Granted that you may need to take some extra time to do more coursework or fieldwork than your classmates, but that won’t be unanticipated (on your side or your advisor’s). The first while after entrance, I think everyone is intimidated by everyone else. Be it that so-and-so spent three years in Egypt on various digs or so-and-so has two MAs–one from Yale and one from Oxford, or that so-and-so must be brilliant because s/he made it into the PhD program straight out of an undergraduate program. After a few months you realize, “These people are just as dumb as I am.” From my experience most PhD students at top programs do more than they really need to, and stretch the process of graduation out longer than it need be.

    So I suppose that what I would really like is a program that combines the MA and PhD, but I don’t know of many such programs at high ranking institutions. It seems they typically have the MA (unfunded and expensive, of course) and you can try to get into the PhD program later, or they have PhD program where you might get a MA along the way, but the program is still technically PhD track.

    Why the emphasis on a program that combines the MA and PhD? Are you hoping to get admitted to an MA program which will allow you to refine your interests but still guarantee the PhD? It would seem that another strategy would be to apply to PhD programs with a couple of MA programs as backups. Some problems in doing this would of course be to craft your letter of intent such that your interests don’t seem too broad for PhD work, and find a master’s program with some potential funding. We can talk more about both of these later.

    here are a few: Emory, Johns Hopkins, UChicago, Harvard, UPenn, Brandeis, NYU, UMichigan, UCLA, and Yale.

    From this list I know of 3 LDS PhD students doing work in Assyriology, and at least 4 other LDS PhD students (or recent PhDs) doing work in Biblical studies. I could probably put you in contact with them if you’re interested.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    That said, of those admitted to my program the year I entered, I think about 2 or 10 were known there personally.

    I assume that’s 2 of 10. Anyway, assuming that’s correct, of the other 8, which of those were recommended by a professor well known to professors of your graduate school, and which were recommended by famous people in the field known to all?

  • http://ldskaitabiblia.wordpress.com/ The Yellow Dart

    I was definitely planning on applying to MA programs for backups, as well as other less known schools than those I listed. I mentioned the combined MA/PhD option because I was thinking that such a program might be easier for an undergraduate to get into, would hopefully have better funding opportunities than a MA alone, and would perhaps shave a year or so off of the entire process while still providing some of the extra coursework that I may want or need after just graduating with a BA.

    “Some problems in doing this would of course be to craft your letter of intent such that your interests don’t seem too broad for PhD work, and find a master’s program with some potential funding. We can talk more about both of these later.”

    Yes, let’s. :)

    And feel free to e-mail me anytime, I don’t mind.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com SmallAxe

    I assume that’s 2 of 10.

    Yes, pardon the typo.

    of the other 8, which of those were recommended by a professor well known to professors of your graduate school, and which were recommended by famous people in the field known to all?

    My point wasn’t that networking as you’ve defined it isn’t important, just that it’s sometimes difficult to generalize from personal experience. Based on my experience my advice would be to get some “face time” at the schools you’re serious about applying to, but just within my cohort that statistic doesn’t necessarily seem to hold (although I still think it’s good advice). I’m not entirely sure who did the recommendations for my classmates. Based on the schools they graduated from I’d say that most meet the criteria you’ve laid out. However, I should probably also point out two things: The statement of purpose is more important than the letters of recommendation; and sometimes “famous” people in the field don’t write the best letters of recommendation as they tend to be busy, and may not know the applicant that well (and committees can pick up on the scent where an applicant simply asked for a letter of rec because the individual was famous).

    I should also point out that my admission into my master’s program (which is at the same institution I’m currently at) came from me applying from BYU where none of my letter writers were well known (or even known at all), and I had never been to the institution or knew anyone at the institution (either in the study body or faculty).

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    I have a minor suggestion. It might be prudent to discuss getting into a Masters program and into a Ph.D. program as separate posts or at least to break them up into distinct pieces in the posts. Though they are both graduate school and the entrance requirements are technically the same, it seems like graduate schools weigh the requirements differently.

  • smallaxe

    Great idea. Will do.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com Nitsav

    The GRE has a double role.

    First, it can kill you if it’s too low, because one primary way of filtering out applications is raw numbers.

    So a really high GRE score can’t compensate for other factors and get you in, but a low score can keep you out.

    Conversely, once you’re in, I know some schools assign funding based purely on GRE score, because it’s a tangible way of ranking incoming students. Can’t decide who writes a better paper? GRE score. Can’t determine if good undergrad TA experience outweighs a high GPA and good letters? GRE score.

  • Fawn

    Regarding GRE scores, how important are if you have already completed a MA? Is it worth taking the GRE again to raise a score if it is a little low, or will it have less of an impact as a PHD applicant because of already having finished a MA?

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    Fawn, without knowing exactly what program you are applying too, I would say that if you are in religion, the odds are that pretty much that all of your serious competitors for PhD programs already have a Masters of some kind. GRE scores will help differentiate you from them.

  • smallaxe

    Conversely, once you’re in, I know some schools assign funding based purely on GRE score, because it’s a tangible way of ranking incoming students.

    I’ve heard that this happens more at state schools where funding is sometimes more difficult to come by. Other programs will offer all their incoming students the same package.

    That said, and I suppose that this ties into Fawn’s question, I agree with you. If a department normally offers a particular funding package for a certain number of students and they all have excellent statements of purpose, writing samples, etc. then the GRE score certainly could be a determining factor. I do, however, think that for most departments it’s quite a ways down the list of important factors. But at the same time I think you have to assume that everyone else applying will be equally as smart as you, and so retaking the GRE (in Fawn’s case) for a higher score could only help (I would guess).

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  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com/ The Yellow Dart

    smallaxe said: “Anything specific we can help with in the next post?”

    I would be interested in a post concerning writing samples that are submitted with applications.

    TYD

  • Pingback: Faith-Promoting Rumor » Tips on Applying to Grad Programs in Religious Studies, Part IX: The Writing Sample


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