Tips on Applying: Spotlight on GTU

Tips on Applying: Spotlight on GTU August 31, 2009

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.

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