Tips on Applying: Spotlight on Yale Divinity School

Tips on Applying: Spotlight on Yale Divinity School December 1, 2008

As part of the “Tips on Applying” series I thought it would be helpful to spotlight a few schools where LDSs are currently enrolled (or have attended recently). Elizabeth Pinborough, a graduate student at YDS, has been gracious enough to provide our first spotlight. Here she is-

I can tell you about the Master of Arts in Religion (MAR), which is offered through the Yale Divinity School. Religious Studies is its own department at Yale and I am not familiar with their PhD requirements.

The MAR is a two- to three-year program designed for intensive theological study. There is either the comprehensive program or the concentrated program. The concentrated program allows for specialization in a particular theological discipline, such as Bible; liturgics; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; religion and the arts; history of Christianity; Judaic studies/ Second Temple; ethics; black religion in the African Diaspora; theology; and philosophical theology/ philosophy of religion. In either program, students take classes in the areas of Bible, theology, and historical studies. Depending on the concentration, students may or may not be required to do a thesis. In the area religion and the arts, there are also several concentrations—literature, visual arts, film, and music.

The Divinity School seems to give pretty liberal financial aid, including loans and grants. They also offer a few merit-based scholarships. The Institute of Sacred Music (ISM), which is affiliated with YDS and which requires a separate application, gives full tuition scholarships to its students. My program specifically is the MAR religion in the arts, literature concentration, through the Institute of Sacred Music. I am required to take a certain number of classes from Divinity School and ISM faculty and fill a core set of requirements, but I am also able to take classes in the Yale Graduate School in the English department. The program is two years but there is the possibility of applying to stay for a third year. It seems that this is mostly an option for those in the historical/biblical disciplines who require advanced language study.

Students at YDS also pursue the Master of Divinity (MDiv), which prepares them for Christian ministry in many forms. Some students pursue ordination through their various denominations, Lutheran, Presbyterian, UCC, Episcopalian, etc. Although YDS is a graduate school, it has very much the character of a Christian seminary, which can make it difficult for LDS students to feel as though they fit since they come from a very different theological background.

I would recommend YDS to other LDSs but with caution. In talking to a former LDS graduate of the school and current doctoral student, she said, “Be prepared for very liberal Protestantism.” She was right. Another student said, “Once you leave the Garden of Eden, it’s not possible to go back.” He was also right. I applied to the program because I love studying religion and the ways in which it intersects with art, particularly the literary arts. I was not fully prepared for the rigors of a theological education so completely different from the (I would say poor) theological education I have had. Being a Latter-day Saint alone does not necessarily equip you with the vocabulary you need to participate in interreligious dialogue. Even though I had taken classes on world religions and American religions, I was still unprepared for the theological conversation I encountered. Also, biblical studies can be difficult for some students (like me) who aren’t well-acquainted with that discipline.

It’s important to gage your own preparation for this experience. On top of graduate study and moving to a new location, you will likely be dealing with new configurations of spiritual and personal development. If you are at all introspective or willing to consider the limits of your own and others’ theologies, this experience will be challenging to your faith. But, this experience is certainly a fortifying one. Faith should be accompanied by rigorous intellectual struggle, and that struggle often gets downplayed in Mormonism. At the same time, it has been very lonely to feel as though no one on either side of the discussion here (those in the Divinity School and those in the branch) could really understand exactly what this experience is like. Those in the branch seem very suspicious of the Divinity School because of how hard it is for LDS students’ faith, with some casualties. (That said, the New Haven Branch is excellent and there is a strong community if you want to take advantage of it.) The only other people who understand these kinds of issues are other LDS graduate students in religious studies; have a good network of people who you can talk to about issues of faith and of academic growth.

YDS’s acceptance rate is fairly high—more than 50% of applicants are accepted. Of the graduate school applications I filled out, Yale’s was the simplest and most straightforward. Requirements include the usual transcripts, personal statement, 3 letters of recommendation, 5-6 page writing sample, and optional GRE scores (recommended if you’re going to apply to a PhD). I was really compatible with the program, and I think the admissions committee could tell that from my application.

The intellectual environment is rigorous, which is exciting. As you would expect, Yale boasts some of the top scholars in their respective fields. The MAR seems like a good step toward a PhD program, although to get into one of the top religious studies PhD programs, such as Harvard, Yale, and Chicago, students still need to be competitive. A diploma from here won’t necessarily guarantee admission. As far as careers go, it seems as though a lot of MAR students are PhD track, although there could be any other number of career options, including teaching or nonprofit work. I am unsure what I will be doing after this program, although I am leaning toward applying for PhD programs.

New Haven has a town-gown feel, with personal safety being somewhat of an issue. But Yale has a good shuttle system for helping students get around campus or for helping them get from campus to their apartments after dark. The Divinity School is somewhat removed from the rest of campus; it is at the top of a hill on the north end of Yale University’s main campus, and is gorgeous. Although there are many good places to eat in downtown New Haven, grocery shopping is somewhat of an issue. Having a car is extremely helpful for navigating the city. New Haven is located squarely between NYC and Boston, which I love.

Since I don’t have other divinity schools to compare YDS to, I can only reflect on the atmosphere of this place. The admissions staff is great; they are extremely personable and committed to making students feel at home here. The dean of students is wonderful, as are my professors. Professors and people in leadership positions understand the strenuous spiritual development that goes on here and are willing to make accommodations for that, and students have the benefit of a wide range of qualified spiritual advisors. There are plenty of ways to get involved in the school as far as work and worship are concerned but LDS students are always going to feel somewhat like outsiders. But, I can’t imagine a better or more challenging place to learn about myself and God.


My email: elizabeth[DOT]pinborough[AT]yale[DOT]edu

Previous posts in the “Tips” series: Part I. Part II.

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