It’s grad school application season and students are anxious over GRE, letters of rec, personal statements, GPA etc. It’s a stressful time, we at FPR have been there. We sympathize. Many of us are now on the other side of the portfolio, whether for MA or PhD programs. I don’t speak for us all, but let me say a few things that might be generally true.
If you are LDS and are serious about doing graduate work in Religious Studies (broadly conceived), the Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Early Christian Lit., Late Antique, Patristics, etc., please know that admissions committees have and will continue to be concerned about whether you will be ready to handle their programs. Their concern is not just about your intellectual aptitude, but about the nature of your religious commitments. And it’s not really even so much about your religious commitments as your orientation to the world outside of you and whether you are capable of engaging your area of study dispassionately while honoring multiple points of view. If you are or have been interested in or involved in LDS apologetics, and if you have an online trail of this you are making your chances for admission slimmer than they need be. Look, there are lots and lots of LDS people in graduate programs in these fields and so you know that being LDS or being a BYU grad is not something that is hurting people in most circumstances. That being said, overly partisan or strident public expressions defending X historical point or attacking Y practical point or engaging Dr. Z can become an issue for admissions committees regardless of whether a candidate is religious or non-religious. Grad programs are communities and communities are people, people from all sorts of backgrounds.
I am not talking about liking the latest LDS meme on Facebook or (re)posting an inspirational quote from the last General Conference (depending on the circumstances, you may want to limit this as well). I am talking about blogging and publishing papers that are specifically apologetic. Let me give some examples and assess them for you, ballpark assessment of course. I will gear this towards BYU undergrads since numerically they are the largest group of LDS people to matriculate to graduate school annually.
1.You publish a paper in Studia Antiqua, a student run journal at BYU that sometimes trends apologetic or at least a little tone deaf to audiences beyond the LDS world: mild risk. I would avoid it, but it is pretty harmless.
2. You work as a research assistant with a Religious Education faculty member who only publishes in Deseret Book or equivalent venues and who is willing to grant you co-authorship or is willing to include your name in a prominent way in publications or presentations: strong risk. Avoid this.
3. You work as a RA with a RelEd faculty member who largely publishes in peer reviewed venues outside of the LDS world and is willing to name you as co-author or significant contributor: little or no risk. DO THIS.
4. You start a personal blog to defend the faith. Sometimes you end up belittling or attacking those outside your faith or those within your faith whose views differ from yours or whose place on the LDS spectrum is polar from yours: Serious risk, DO NOT DO THIS.5. You are asked by FAIR or Interpreter to author or co-author papers, write book reviews, or otherwise attach your name to something these organizations do: Serious risk, DO NOT DO THIS. Do not do this no matter how flattering, how exciting, how faith re-affirming, how methodologically sound you feel it to be. These are big red flags to grad school admission committees. They are even red flags to graduate programs at BYU from what I hear from colleagues there. Again, it is not your religious commitments, it is your orientation to the world of ideas, religion more generally, and other people that are of concern to committee members.
6. You are asked by LDS or BYU professors who are local celebrities and long-time names in apologetics to work with them on their latest project on something that only deals with LDS matters or to rebut the latest faith-attacking thing from whatever source: Serious risk. DO NOT DO THIS unless you really, really need the job.
Listen, friends, we know that you want to help your faith community, we know that these various opportunities and venues are incredibly enticing (and let’s be honest, flattering), but if you are applying or will be applying to grad school, you simply must watch out for number one. You are number one. Not the big name apologist, not the security of your faith community (it will be just fine!), not anyone else but you.
Here are some criteria to help you assess whether something is to your benefit this application season.
1. Has the person you are working with/for on their latest apologetic project published in a peer reviewed venue or presented on something outside of LDS matters in the last year? If not, beware.
2. Does the person you are working with/for have connections to the broader academy, who can vouch for your abilities and help you gain admission? If not, beware. If this person only does things in the local, LDS scene, they cannot really assist you in the bigger world of the academy.
3. Does the person you working with/for have your best professional interest at heart? Does s/he/they offer you direct criticism to your ideas, assumptions, writing? Do they make you interact with the major trends of scholarship in your field? If not, beware.
4. Will this person treat you like a traitor if you go to grad school and decide that apologetics or a largely LDS focus is not best for you? If yes, beware.
5. Does this person badmouth the academy at large? Does this person have more grudges than relationships and friendships in the academy at large? If yes, beware.
6. Does this person have a proven track record of mentoring/helping students into grad programs? If not, beware.
Please be cautious and discerning, friends. We want to see you succeed. We want you as colleagues and conversation partners trained at great programs. We have been where you are and we speak with some collective wisdom, uncomfortable though it might seem to you right now.