Tips on Applying to Grad Programs in Religious Studies, Part VIII: MA or PhD

In this post I want to address the question of whether one should first apply to master’s programs in religious studies, or whether it’s possible to be directly admitted into a PhD program without obtaining a master’s degree. Below are some quick thoughts. As always, feel free to chime in since I’m speaking more from my own experience than any comprehensive study I’ve done on.

Of the programs I am aware of, about 8-9 of 10 PhD admittants have a master’s degree. This may vary significantly depending on the institution and department you’re applying to. My sense is that for one reason or another (perhaps because religious studies is a rather young discipline and many schools don’t offer the kind of undergraduate training that would really prepare one for a PhD program, or because of the language requirements, etc.), most PhD students in religious studies have a master’s degree (although not always a master’s degree in religious studies). This means that in most cases, when looking into grad programs as someone with only an undergraduate degree it is often best to concentrate on master’s programs.

I’d say that there are at least five reasons/circumstances to apply to master’s programs first rather than directly to PhD programs.

1. You have not decided whether academia is for you. PhDs are for the most part looked at as the way of creating the next generation of academics. A master’s program can give you an opportunity to more fully explore aspects of life as an academic–reading, writing, occasions to present your work, and lots of time spent in the classroom. This will be helpful when applying to PhD programs because if you come across as uncommitted to these activities, or unaware of what they entail, your chances of being admitted to a program are diminished.

2. You did not graduate from a highly regarded undergraduate program in religious studies. As discussed in previous posts, factors that determine admittance into PhD programs include your statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, and transcripts (among other things). Admissions committees are more likely to seriously consider those who have taken classes with recognized names in the field and have letters of recommendation from those professors. I would actually go so far as to say that the only people I know that have gone into a PhD program without first doing a master’s degree are those who graduated from a highly regarded program.

3. You need to further refine your interests or are not sure the PhD process if for you. A master’s program usually provides the kind of flexibility to explore your interests and narrow them down a bit. Since the classes you take as a master’s student are more or less the same classes you’ll be taking as a PhD student, and since you’ll most likely be interacting with PhD students, a master’s program will provide you with a closer look at a much larger commitment.

4. Acceptance rates are higher. This means that you’ll have a better chance of getting into a good master’s program; and from there you can position yourself for a good PhD program. Doing a master’s degree at the institution you want to pursue a PhD can be particularly helpful.

5. A master’s degree tends to make you more competitive for PhD programs.

Admittedly there are problems with pursuing a master’s degree in religious studies. Funding, for instance, is not always easy to come by. Additionally, admission to a master’s program does not guarantee admission to a PhD program (in most cases), so you’ll have to repeat the dreadful application process again. However, I found my time as a master’s student quite formative; and my doctoral work is all the better because of it.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ben Park

    I love this series, so I am glad to see it continued. My master’s program worked out fantastically for me, primarily for reason #3 you mentioned. (Though #2 was a major factor as well.) Primarily, my master’s program in religion is what convinced me to do my PhD in history rather than religious studies, because a year in the field convinced me that it’s not the right discipline for me.

  • smallaxe

    That’s interesting Ben, I’d love to hear more. Why history rather than religious studies?

  • Ben Park

    I think it’s primarily a case of preferential methodologies. Religious Studies, in the end, appeared too interdisciplinary and theoretical for my taste. Don’t get me wrong: I still appreciate and utilize interdisciplinary tools and theoretical approaches–especially with my background–but I still use them more as accessories than foundations for my scholarly framing. If that makes any sense at all.

  • Steve Fleming

    Religious studies programs can be quite different (my sense is that UCSB is quite different from Edinburg where Ben attended). But at UCSB there was quite an advantage to coming in with a masters. They started us out with a series of seminars to learn the various approaches to the study of religion and guys who didn’t have a masters complained of getting all theory and no method. For me (and others who had a masters) the seminars were a nice addition.

    The financial crash hit in the middle of all this and California’s funding went way down so lots of people stopped at the masters.

  • SmallAxe

    Fair enough. Yeah, I think RS tends to be more theory sensitive than disciplines such as history because it doesn’t have the same longevity–it kind of has the nagging feeling that it needs to prove itself. There are other reasons, of course; and I imagine the emphasis on theory will also vary depending where and what one studies.

    Steve, have they lowered the number of incoming PhD students into the UCSB program?

  • Steve Fleming

    I don’t know, Ill have to ask.

  • The Yellow Dart

    Thanks for continuing this series smallaxe.

  • Stephen M (Ethesis)

    I’ll be. In some areas, a master’s degree makes you less able to get in. Thanks for the perspective.

  • smallaxe

    @ Stephen. I’ve heard that, but my experience is quite limited to religious studies and a few related disciplines. What disciplines are referring to?