Pursuing Graduate Work in Religion and Religious Studies: Eleven Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is Graduate School merely an extension of college or something more?

Graduate school is qualitatively different than college. Ideally, you go to college to investigate issues that grip you and to luxuriate in the learning process under the guidance of scholars who are eager to acquaint you with the particular field that has come to excite them. In college you have the opportunity to receive a good liberal arts education. Through this experience, you gain the ability to think and write critically in the context of a particular discipline with which you have an affinity. The expectations within a college setting are usually confined to what the teacher articulates in the classroom.

While being an even more intellectually exciting experience than college, graduate school is also a much more ambitious, all-encompassing endeavor. The primary goals of graduate school are two-fold: to teach you how to do independent research in an area you love and to train you for a specific career. The achievement of both of these goals will require you to summon and sustain an unusual intensity of focus. For this reason, you must be absolutely sure, if you choose to go to graduate school, that you are doing so for carefully considered reasons. Professors tend to have disdain for graduate students who try to “wing it,” as intelligent students in college can sometimes get away with doing. Very quickly, your professors in graduate school will make a determination about who is competent and serious and who is not. They will invest only in the former. Once a poor impression has been made, it is very hard to undo.

2. What's the difference between pursuing an MA and a PhD in Religion or Religious Studies?

Unlike some other fields, the degree that equips you professionally in the discipline of religious studies is ultimately a PhD, not a masters. That is, if your field is in religious studies then you will simply not become eligible to be on the faculty of a university with anything less than a PhD. In some cases, depending on your undergraduate courses and record, this will first require you to pursue a masters degree. (There are some schools that specialize in bringing you to this next stage.)

In many PhD programs, you will receive a masters degree by default. This is not generally regarded to be an impressive accomplishment by the faculty, but rather an indication that you are where you should be on your journey towards preliminary examinations---and eventually a dissertation. It is possible to receive what is known as a “terminal” masters degree, in which case you would leave the program upon writing a masters thesis. Predominantly, those who receive “terminal” masters degrees are students who have entered a PhD program expecting to see it all the way through, but who have, for any number of compelling reasons, changed their mind in the process. In my view, it is foolish to pursue graduate work at the outset in the field of religious studies simply to receive a masters degree (unless you are independently wealthy).

It is important to note, however, that others hold a different view. There is an argument that pursuing a masters degree can be an effective way for a student to sort out his or her next life move, especially in the case of those Masters programs which do offer solid financial support. The time spent in a Masters program can be a critical time of figuring out what graduate school really means and of finding that particular specialty to which you are drawn. Also, although it isn’t necessary, a masters in religious studies does go some distance towards better positioning a candidate to teach in private secondary schools, or to work in non-profit organizations.

3. Am I better off applying to an MA program or a PhD program?

As a general rule, you are much better off applying to a PhD program. The reason for this is that most PhD programs will fund you—and at the very least waive your tuition—whereas most masters programs will not. Being funded by a particular department (such as a department of religious studies) has an advantage beyond the substantial money you will save: it is also an indication that the department is investing in you---and not merely using you for your tuition to pay for other students that they are funding (or using your presence to justify hiring more research faculty). It is possible that you will initially have to join an MA program in order to make yourself eligible for one of the competitive PhD programs. If so, you should work as hard and do as well as you can to get yourself tracked for the status of PhD candidate as soon as possible.

4. How do I decide what area of religious studies to apply to (given all the specializations in the field)?

A recently published survey sponsored by the American Academy of Religion (March 2004) lists fifteen different types of institutions/programs to which one could apply for a graduate degree---and thirty three possible areas of concentration within these institutions or programs. 

Types of institutions and/or programs include departments of religion or religious studies at various sorts of universities; theological seminaries that specialize in offering mostly masters level degrees or non-academic doctorates; departments of theology in religiously-affiliated institutions; divinity schools; seminaries; departments of near eastern and Judaic studies; etc. Areas of concentration include a variety of foci–from concentration in specific traditions to comparative endeavors across traditions to concentrations that are rooted in particular historical epochs. Peruse the links to PhD and MA degrees (check other links on this resources page) to get a sense of the rigor and character of the various offerings. It is still the case that in most institutions, some form of Christian studies makes up the majority of the curricular options. You must decide what area of religious studies you will pursue based predominantly on your passion and secondarily on what jobs you predict will eventually be available upon the completion of your PhD.

5. I've seen some other non-religious studies programs at some schools that seem to study religions--things like "Department of South Asian Studies" or "Middle Eastern Studies." What do you think about those programs?

These programs are often ideal for specialized areas that require specific language training and fieldwork for the mastery of the field in question. It all depends on what you wish to pursue in your graduate work. It is of the utmost importance that you do your homework before applying for a program (by, for example, talking to someone who works in the field in which you think you might be interested; seeking advice from faculty at departments that have some expertise in the area you are interested in; and exploring the academic literature as a way to become familiar with the individuals who do work in the areas in which you are interested.).

6. Do most of the people that start an MA or PhD finish the degree?

The short answer is no, and recent data compiled by Richard Rubinson at Emory University confirms this. There are three categories of graduate students, one category of which should not be in graduate school at all, one category of which should be in graduate school, and one category to which one might refer as a “wild card” category.

The first category---which makes up about 60 to 70 percent of all graduate students---consists of those who go to graduate school because they don’t know what else to do in life and so they figure that they might as well bide some more time in school. Individuals in this group frequently fail to emerge from graduate school with anything more than a “terminal” Masters degree and often don’t even manage this much before leaving the program. Make sure that you do not fall into this category. Graduate School is very difficult---much more difficult than, for example, business school or law school. If your heart is not in it, the experience of pursuing a graduate degree will be a painful one. Graduate school is not a solution to post-college anomie.

The second category---which makes up about 10 percent of graduate students---consists of those who simply had no choice in life but to pursue the (often esoteric) field of study to which they have become addicted. Students who fall into this category are “true intellectuals”---they are hard-wired to do nothing else for a living.

Finally, the “wild-card” category is the serious, professionally minded person, who is genuinely interested in pursuing a career stemming from a graduate degree, but who well may be temperamentally better suited for something else. This category–which makes up about 20 to 30 percent of graduate students–is populated by individuals who will most likely not finish their degree but who, on occasion, might in fact do so, and then even go on to flourish in the academy. For these individuals, going to graduate school is a genuine gamble: it is neither doomed to result in failure nor likely to result in success.

The upshot of the analysis of the “three categories” is that most people do not finish their degrees. For this reason, it is all the more important to think carefully about whether to pursue graduate work in the first place.

Having said this, I can report faithfully that all of your professors in religious studies at Chico State love their jobs and would not want to trade them in for another. We look forward to coming to work, and we frequently can’t help ourselves when we happen into one discussion or another over some current controversial issue relevant to the discipline of religious studies. I have never known one of my colleagues “to look at the clock,” or to rue the day that they chose to go to graduate school.

Going to graduate school is like getting married. If you have chosen the right partner, you are headed for a life that will be richly rewarding, a life that will make sense to you. If you have chosen the wrong partner, you have signed up for an unwholesome misery that could plague you for a very long time.

7. Are there any teaching and research jobs out there for people with an RS MA or PhD?

Other than the very occasional job at a community college, there are no teaching or research jobs in institutions of higher education for people who have earned only an MA. (And to teach high school, junior high school, or elementary school, an MA is not needed). There are jobs out there for those who earn a PhD, but they are few and far between. It is not unusual for universities to receive in excess of 100-200 applications for highly sought-after tenure-track positions in the field. These jobs are only available to the determined candidate who makes the professional goal of getting such a job the very most important priority in his or her life. Again, getting a PhD is not like getting a degree in business school or law school, after which the graduate will be poised for likely employment. A job post-degree is a precious, precious thing, a valued good that many even with PhDs never come to enjoy.

You should also consider the following: Because there are so few jobs in religious studies, you will have very little flexibility in terms of where you settle. If you are a city person, you may find yourself having to move to rural North Dakota; if you like the “small town” feel of Chico, you may find that the only available opportunity is in New York City. If you are seriously considering graduate school, you should ask yourself questions like: “Do I love my field enough to uproot and go wherever this career takes me? Will my career be enough to sustain me, ten years down the line, when my friends are working half as hard to make twice as much money as I am? There are other, more conventional careers much better suited to “making a living.” With this particular career, the joys and benefits are to be derived from the job itself.

8. Are some schools better than others, and how can I tell?

Not only are some schools better than others, but the same school will house a program that can become better or worse in a very short time–depending on the faculty who will be there when you are getting your degree. There are basically three factors that make some schools and programs more appealing than others: (1) the opportunities for being funded while you are in the program; (2) the quality of the faculty for your area of specialization; and (3) the reputation and record of the faculty in terms of placing graduate students in academic positions. To repeat, it is absolutely essential to investigate all of this in advance. You should visit the websites of the schools in which you are interested to get an idea of what they are known for. You should talk to graduates of these schools who are now teaching. You should also talk to your professors at Chico State, especially those who work in your prospective fields, in order to determine which programs are currently strongest in your area when you are applying.

9. How long does it take to do these programs, and who is going to pay the freight?

It takes on average eight years to receive a PhD in religious studies (masters included), although there is no “typical” time to completion. In actuality, everything depends on how driven you are. In any good PhD program, the department will see to it that throughout the duration of your graduate work your tuition is waived and that you are in a position to receive some sort of stipend (in the area of 10 to 15 thousand dollars per year)–either through a fellowship, research assistantship, editorial position, or teaching assistantship. You may sometimes have to pay early on in the program in order to “prove yourself” or in order to receive the masters degree that will make you eligible for a good PhD program. However, there are no circumstances under which you should be paying tuition for the PhD that you are pursuing throughout the majority of time that you are pursuing it. Even with a stipend, you should expect to live frugally. Graduate students knowingly take a vow of poverty when they begin their graduate studies.

10. What about languages–all these programs seem to require them?

If you go for a PhD in religious studies you will at a minimum need to learn how to read French and German. It is good if you can tackle at least one of these two in advance, although there are opportunities in graduate school to take reading courses in each. Often, one of these languages can be substituted for another if you can make a good case for the substitution based on your chosen field. And, of course, if you are specializing in a particular tradition, reading fluency in the relevant corresponding languages is a must. (For example, if you specialize in Islam you must be able to read Arabic).

11. How do I know that a PhD in religious studies is for me?

A good general rule of thumb is: if you don’t know in your heart that it is for you–or very quickly come to know this–then it is not.

Andrew Flescher, Department of Religious Studies
California State University, Chico

Rev. 4/04