Tips on Applying: Spotlight on GTU

We’re keeping things rolling with a fan favorite. Sheila Taylor studies at Graduate Theological Union. I think I can say, speaking for FPR, that she’s one of the brightest people we know, and one of the finest scholars of the up-and-coming generation.

The structure of the GTU can be a bit confusing. It consists of nine different divinity schools and seminaries. The schools represent a variety of denominations: three Catholic (Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan), as well as Episcopal, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unitarian, and one non-denominational. Several of the schools are located just north of UC-Berkeley, in an area known as “Holy Hill,” which is the heart of the GTU. There are also campuses in the Berkeley hills, south of Cal, and across the bay in San Anselmo.

Master’s-level students might do a Master’s degree–usually an M.Div or an MTS–at one of the nine schools, or what’s called a “common M.A.” at the GTU as a whole. PhD students are likewise considered to be attending the GTU as a whole, though they can also choose to affiliate with one particular school (the advantage of this is that it ties you to a particular religious community, and also gives you some preference for things like housing.) One of the challenges of being a doctoral student is that your place in the structure can feel a little vague, since the individual schools are somewhat more concrete than the GTU umbrella which unites them.

The GTU has lots of ties to Cal. There are two joint degree programs, in Jewish Studies, and in Near Eastern religions, which are administered by both schools. GTU doctoral students can take an unlimited number of classes at Cal. They are also required to have what’s called an “outside reader” on their committees–someone from outside the GTU, who can bring in another academic specialty–and most draw on Cal faculty to meet this requirement.

There are roughly 200 doctoral students at the GTU. The Areas of Study include things like Bible, history, spirituality, and theology. The faculty who work with doctoral students are members of these areas as well as tied to their individual schools. For example, my advisor is in the area of “systematic theology,” and is also a faculty member at the Jesuit school. This often means that faculty are rather overbooked. At least in my area, the faculty don’t seem to be overly involved in the work of their doctoral students. It’s a good place for those who like to work independently, but if you want closer mentoring, you’ll have to take the initiative to get it.

Applicants to the doctoral program are expected to already have some kind of Master’s degree in religion. The average time for completing the program is seven years, though they’re constantly encouraging us to try to lower that. The first two years are coursework, then one or two sets of comprehensive exams (in my area, we have both general comps and special comps), and then of course the dissertation. I’ve seen some speedy people do it under five, but I’m not one of them. Reading knowledge of at least one foreign language is a requirement for everyone, but many areas require more than that.

The GTU is a great place for interfaith conversation, due to the wide variety of students. We joke that the GTU is good place for misfits–say, Baptists studying liturgy, or Mormons studying theology. One of the reasons I opted for the school is that I wanted a place where there was room for all kinds of projects and interests, and I feel a lot of freedom to go in whatever direction I want. In addition to the interfaith aspect, there’s a large emphasis on interdisciplinarity; you’re expected to make use of an academic discipline other than religion in your dissertation.

The biggest drawback, and it’s a tough one, is lack of funding. Most people get some funding for the first two years (either fellowships or tuition waivers), but after that, things get harder. In addition, the cost of living in the Bay Area is pretty high. Teaching opportunities aren’t all that common, given that it’s an entirely graduate institution and there aren’t undergrad classes that need TAs. There are some opportunities—some M.A.-level classes use TAs, you can apply for fellowships that allow you to work together with a faculty member in designing and teaching a course, and some students find jobs at other local colleges. But funding is a constant challenge, and most students have lots of loans.

As far as the LDS piece–I think it’s a great place to be a Mormon; there are lots of people with unusual religious backgrounds, and my impression is that my Mormonism is seen as simply adding to the lively interfaith environment of the place. On the whole, people have gone out of their way to be respectful. And I like getting to see the religious climates of the different schools. I did my MTS at a Catholic school, which was a fabulous experience, but I feel like my time at the GTU has allowed me to add some other pieces and perspectives to my religious training.

For me, the best part about being here has been the other students. The doctoral students in my area are very supportive of one another, and my colleagues have played a huge role in helping me through the program. In addition, I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with people from such a wide variety of religious backgrounds; I’ve learned things from that that I don’t think I could have picked up in a classroom, or through academic study alone.

So that’s the GTU, or at least my experience of it. The good: lively interfaith environment; cool students; room for lots of different projects; lots of academic resources; great location. The bad: less-involved faculty; takes a long time to finish; scarce financial resources; expensive location.

*****

Links to the entire series and the other spotlights can be found below.

  • smallaxe

    I think I’ve asked you this before, but how many other LDSs are trained in theology?

    Do you find affinities with the Claremont folks studying philosophy of religion?

  • Kevin Barney

    Wow, what a terrific description, Sheila. I’ve always been mystified by GTU, but you explained it all very well.

    Do you know yet what you’re going to do your dissy on? Any sense how long you still have in this lengthy process?

    (I do love this series. I never went to grad school, so reading about people’s experiences is really fun for me.)

  • Sheila Taylor

    Good question, smallaxe. There really aren’t many LDS who are trained in theology specifically (unless there are a lot in hiding that I don’t know about!) I can think of a couple of people who did their doctorates in philosophy of religion & theology at Claremont, as well as some current LDS grad students in the program there. But there aren’t many of us. And I’ve noticed at conferences like SMPT that people working on LDS theology seem more likely to come from philosophy than from theology; I think theology is still a pretty unusual choice.

    Hi, Kevin! I’m glad to have de-mystified the GTU for you (at least a little; on many days, I’m still somewhat mystified by it.) I’m nearing the end of the process (I hope!); I’d like to finish in the coming academic year. My dissertation is on salvation as narrative transformation–basically it asks, if the self is a narrative construction, what might might that mean for the Christian notion of salvation? It kind of pulls together two of the questions which have long interested me: what is the self, exactly; and, what does it mean to be saved?

  • smallaxe

    I’ve noticed at conferences like SMPT that people working on LDS theology seem more likely to come from philosophy than from theology

    Is there a significant disciplinary divide in that sense?

  • G. Jones

    As a GTU M.A. grad, I agree with Sheila’s synopsis. I would add that all M.A. students are required to affiliate with one of the nine seminaries, which includes taking a minimum of four classes from the seminary of affiliation.

    I had a great time at the GTU. Though the lack of structure took me back. There is no real guidance in terms of timelines or thesis committees. However, that lack of structure allowed me to pick a thesis committee that had a Baptist, Lutheran, Jesuit and an Episcopalian sign off on a thesis about Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists.

  • http://www.motleyvision.org Wm Morris

    One of the great advantages of going to the GTU is that you can take Institute classes (and attend church is single) at the lovely Berkeley Institute which is located in a home designed by Julia Morgan.

    When I attended in the late 1990s, I had a non-LDS GTU student in one of my institute classes. It was great fun.

  • Sheila Taylor

    Smallaxe, my sense is that the difference between coming from philosophy versus theology largely has to do with your conversation partners. I might draw on Barth or Rahner in thinking about a question of LDS theology, for example, where someone trained in philosophy might draw on Heidegger. And that background also shapes the kinds of questions that get discussed. I’d agree with Paul Tillich that the circle of theological inquiry is smaller than that of philosophy, in that it starts with the teachings of a tradition. A philosopher of religion might seek proofs for the existence of God, where a systematic theologian is more likely to try to make sense of what the tradition says about God in the context of contemporary thought. That said, the boundaries between the two disciplines can be rather murky at times.

    G. Jones and Wm Morris, thanks for sharing your experiences! I didn’t do an M.A. here, so it’s good to know more about how that works. And I agree that the wards here are definitely one of the perks–the university ward, as Wm Morris mentions, meets in a renovated mansion, and the family ward has a fun, non-cookie-cutter building as well. Not to mention, of course, the lively people in the wards.


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