Tips on Applying: Spotlight on Edinburgh

Our next spotlight comes from Benjamin Park. Ben is a master’s student at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity, studying historical theology in the 18th and 19th century. He also blogs at the Juvenile Instructor.

Background to the Program

The University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity offers several programs to match individual agendas. It offers one-year master’s degree, either “research” (all based on your own work under the direction of a supervisor) or “taught” (three core courses, three electives), which are based around a 5,000-word dissertation. These programs can serve as either a terminal degree, an entrance to their doctoral program, or, as in my case, a stand-alone degree in preparation for doctoral work elsewhere. The PhD program is centered exclusively on one’s own research topic, with no coursework, and revolves around a 100,000-word thesis (as you can tell, the titles “thesis” and “dissertation” are flipped in the British system); the program strongly encourages doctoral students to finish within three years.

The school is divided into six focuses: world Christianity, theological ethics, biblical studies, ministry, religious studies, and theology in history (which is my field of study).

Would you recommend Edinburgh to other LDS graduate students? If so, what advice would you give them in applying?

I have been surprised at how accommodating the University of Edinburgh has been to me as an LDS student. The School of Divinity, especially, is far from the secular caricature many think prestigious academic institutions represent. Instead, a majority of students and faculty are either devout and believing churchgoers who balance faith and intellect or, if they are not religious, they are very welcoming to believers. There is a weekly Church of Scotland communion service that students and professors of all faiths attend. I have had countless conversations about my Mormon faith, and I have yet to experience anything but positive experiences.

Because of the program’s nature (explained below), the school is especially interested in students who are ready to research and contribute immediately without too much prodding. The most important aspect of the application, from what I can gather, is the writing sample; the second important aspect would probably be performance in the classroom strength of recommendation letters. Put bluntly, they want to know that you know how to work and that you are willing to work. (GRE scores don’t hold much significance.)

Also, because it differs from program to program, I would recommend getting in contact with the director of the program you are specifically interested in. They will give you the specific points of advice that would most help your application.

What is the funding situation?

Don’t ask. I’ll put it this way: don’t expect to get school funding (though some is available). Instead, do your best to find some sort of external and outside funding. One positive is tuition for the year is much cheaper than most other graduate programs.

What is the intellectual environment like?

Phenomenal. There are fascinating lectures almost on a daily basis, and numerous reading groups that cover just about any interest. The professors are warm and welcoming, and there are many social groups in the university to keep you busy.

Are there other strengths or challenges you’d like to mention (college location, spirituality, future job prospects, etc.)?

While I recommend the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity whole-heartedly, I probably should point out that the programs here would be most beneficial for a certain type of student. Unlike many graduate schools, where much of the student’s reading and research is closely monitored (during the first few years, anyway) with things like book reviews or writing assignments, the work here is largely self-governed and requires self-discipline. While two or three books (as well as primary sources) are assigned weekly for each class, your entire grade for each class is based solely on one 3,000-word paper due the final week of the semester. Because this paper can be on any topic covered during the course, it is tempting to skip much of the reading.

Thus, students who do the best at Edinburgh are those who are self-disciplined and willing to make sure to take advantage of all reading assignments—the alternative is spending a year not learning much or being better prepared for life in academia.

For those who are motivated to keep up on reading and research, though, I cannot think of a much better place for study. The faculty here are first-rate, yet, like in every university, there are definite strengths. Besides Scottish theology, strengths here include the Reformation, Enlightenment studies, biblical studies (both Old and New Testament), early Christianity, world Christianity, and theological ethics.

The Divinity School’s library, New College Library, is a beautifully renovated mid-19th century chapel, and boasts an extraordinary large collection when considering that it is only one of thirteen University of Edinburgh libraries (among its collection is a first edition of Calvin’s Institutes—a text so rare that there are probably less than half a dozen left in the world—and a first edition of Orson Pratt’s Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions). If this library (or any other of the University’s libraries, for that matter) does not have what you are looking for, the National Library of Scotland is only two blocks down the street. The National Library is a copyright library, meaning that it theoretically has claim to a copy of every text published in the British Isles.

And this is all not to mention the beautiful town of Edinburgh, what is often referred to as the “Athens of the North.”

Oh, and because everyone takes a “coffee/tea break” almost every hour, you will become addicted to hot chocolate. Mark my words.

  • oudenos

    “The School of Divinity, especially, is far from the secular caricature many think prestigious academic institutions represent. Instead, a majority of students and faculty are either devout and believing churchgoers who balance faith and intellect or, if they are not religious, they are very welcoming to believers.”

    This seems to be a common sentiment held by LDS graduate students in Religious Studies and related fields. I am somewhat inclined to attribute this shared pleasant surprise to the vestiges of anti-intellectualism still present in Mormon circles, and perhaps especially to some folks associated with BYU Rel. Ed. I once had a professor say to me that in his experience, “people who go to graduate school in religion are just looking for reasons to destroy their faith.” My wording may be a bit off but perhaps g. wesley, who was also in on the conversation, remembers more accurately what was said. Nevertheless, yikes!

    However, from conversations which I have had with other grad students from different faith traditions, it is evident that Mormons are not alone in buying into this myth prior to matriculation. So maybe it is common to believers of all stripes.

    Anyhow, I enjoyed this write-up and I will be interested to see where you end up for further work, Ben.

  • smallaxe

    Is it difficult to move from a one-year master’s program to a PhD program? It seems that a two-year program would at least provide enough time to know faculty enough to request letters of recommendation, whereas with a one year program those requests (usually made in Nov) happen at the very start.

  • g.wesley

    thanks for the insider’s report, ben. i once had high hopes of attending edinburgh.

    sadly, i don’t remember that conversation any better than you do, oudenos. still, an interesting point.

    on a related but different note, back to ben, you make the believing students and faculty sound very well adjusted in their balance of faith and academics. is that really the case or are you generalizing of necessity? i ask partly because i’m jealous of those who say they experience no tension between school and church/synagogue/mosque/etc. and party because, wretched as i am, i don’t believe them.

    smallaxe, i have wondered the same thing.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben

    Oudenos: I strongly agree with your entire comment, and have heard similar warnings from some BYU professors. (although there are definitely a few–those who have done grad school in religious studies themselves–who know differently and were great mentors in my application process)

    Smallaxe: excellent Question. The answer is a yes, only with a “but.” The letter of recommendation process actually wasn’t that bad, but only because I only asked one professor from Edinburgh to write one (my other two were written by an undergrad professor and a research seminar supervisor), and the professor was really helpful. He just asked to look over several of my articles and writing sample, requested that I take a more-than-usual active role in class for the first couple months, and met with me individually as well. However, I fear that there are not many professors like that, so it is probably more difficult for others in the same situation.

    But, there are some other definite disadvantages. For one, I didn’t have any grades or other measures of my success here at Edinburgh to send in the applications, so the schools I applied to have no idea if I am either excelling or wasting my time in graduate school so far. Also, and this came as a surprise for me, but my idea of what I want to study is still somewhat in flux. I’m sure others have experienced how grad school shifts your interests, and I think this timing has made me force that decision a little bit. I have a friend doing a similar one-year program, and he has decided to take a year off after this year just so he can have time to digest what he has been learning and then decide what he wants to study.

    Also, it is just a major pain to go through the grad school applications process for a second year in a row.

    The “but” comes in this way: if I end up getting into one of the PhD programs I’m hoping to, it will all be worth it, and my one-year foreign experiment will have paid off.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben

    G. Wesley: I am definitely generalizing there, and of course I don’t know what is really going on in their individual minds. But, there is a definite feeling that most of the students are at least working to find that balance. I’m like you: still in process, and thus skeptical when it seems that it comes easy for others.

  • smallaxe

    Re. the issue raised in #1:

    I can see why both academics in RS depts and some LDSs would be suspicious about those of faith wanting to pursue graduate degrees or of the academic enterprise of studying religion itself. While there are pockets in both camps of those unwilling to make room for the other, it’s often the case that the silent majority have less of a problem with it.

    I’ve been surprised by the last two spotlights, which both seem to make little mention of any intellectual/spiritual difficulties in the transition from undergraduate education to grad school. Even more so by the previous spotlight that mentions that the ANES program at BYU essentially prepared him for grad school. The surprise is, of course, a pleasant one. Did you go to BYU Ben?

  • oudenos

    “i ask partly because i’m jealous of those who say they experience no tension between school and church/synagogue/mosque/etc. and party because, wretched as i am, i don’t believe them.”

    On rough days, I would tend to agree with this statement. For me the tension is always there, sometimes more intense, sometimes subdued, but it never goes away.

    Smallaxe, perhaps the past few posts don’t demonstrate this sort of tension because the posts come from first year MA students who are trying to both find their way in their programs and negotiate foreign settings and schooling systems. Perhaps if they were asked 3 or 4 years from now, when they have settled into PhD programs and have had more time to treat the intellectual/spiritual complex which you mention, they would answer differently.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben

    Smallaxe: yes, I did do my undergraduate work at the Y, majoring in English and history. I wouldn’t say that BYU as a whole prepared me for graduate school, but only that there were a handful of professors who did.

    Oudenos: I would agree that I, at least, might give different answers a few years from now. Time will tell; it definitely is a long journey.

  • http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/author/steve-fleming/ Steve Fleming

    After reading this blog for a while, I’m getting the feeling the biblical studies creates considerably more tension for the believer than other branches of religious studies. I’ve been at this a very long time but still fell like Ben describes. Though my program sound more secular than what he describes; not a lot of discussion of personal beliefs, though not hostile to such.

  • smallaxe

    It’s actually because you’re in Cali, Steve. Everything looks better in the sun. ;>)

    On a more serious note, part of this deals with how we’re exposed to critical theory and then what we do with that theory. If, as could happen at BYU or as a young undergrad, we presume that we’ve acquired these skills and “solved” the problems that relate to them; then when we get to grad school we could be in for a rude awakening.

    I say ‘we could be in for a rude awakening’ because, depending on the program, we may not be challenged in certain ways. On the other hand, it’s also true that different undergraduate programs can prepare their students better than others. In general, it seems that a LDS graduating from a religious studies program at say UNC, is going to be better prepared in this sense than someone graduating from the history program at BYU (this isn’t a knock on you Steve, I’m also an alum of the history program). Part of this, though, also depends on which profs one works with and how close one is with them.

    That said, I’m not sure that I agree with Steve that biblical studies (hereafter ‘BS’) creates more tension. Part of this depends on how we define BS. If one chooses to engage more of the linguistic elements of the bible (as I believe a number of profs at BYU have), then it’s probably easier to avoid the challenges. This tends to happen more in NE programs, though, and less in RS programs.

    Under the guise of RS, I think each area of study brings with it it’s own set of challenges for a LDS. If one studies the Bible then one faces certain questions, if one studies Mormon history, then I imagine there’s another set of challenges, etc. It would be interesting to list some of these challenges out; but I don’t think we’d be able to come to a conclusion as to which field was most challenging.

    Not being in either of these fields, I can only generalize those particular challenges; but for someone not studying the Bible or Mormonism I can say that the largest challenge for me relates to issues of pluralism–what sense do we make of LDS truth claims in relation to other truth claims? How significant are LDS ordinances? How authoritative is the church? Is the spread of the church necessarily neo-colonial? etc.

  • http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/author/steve-fleming/ Steve Fleming

    I don’t mean to minimize tensions. The pluralism thing has had an effect on me also, though I would describe that as a subtle sort of thing. I really like what I study, but sometimes I show up to church and think things are sort of narrow.

    No doubt Mormon history is fraught with challenges but the people who decide to go into it academically seem to be sticking around for the most part. They seem to be better off than the people who have issues and then start looking into Mormon history.

  • SmallAxe

    It would be interesting to track the “activity” rates of LDSs going into different fields in RS. I can only speak from my own limited network, but given that there seem to be more LDSs going into BS than Mormon history, I imagine that there would be more BS students leaving the church.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris Henrichsen

    BS=Biblical Studies. Right?

    Smallaxe, I would be interested in those rates across the humanites and social sciences and not just in religious studies.

  • SmallAxe

    BS=Biblical Studies. Right?

    Of course. What else would it be?

    I would be interested in those rates across the humanites and social sciences and not just in religious studies.

    I’m sure you’re aware that there have been studies done on the religious beliefs of college professors (for instance: http://religion.ssrc.org/reforum/Gross_Simmons.pdf). Not surprisingly those involved in applied fields (business, medicine, etc.) tend to be more religious than those in the social sciences and humanities. I can’t find the other report I had read where even those in the sciences were found to be more religious than those in the SS and humanities.

    It would, though, be interesting to see something like this in relation to LDSs. My sense is that LDSs are well represented in the applied fields and under represented in the humanities.


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