Graduate School in Religious Studies

Picking Grad Schools in Religion 

by Prof. Lloyd - Moffett 

Is Graduate School For You? 

Everyone has different reasons they are going to graduate school. Some have an intense intellectual interest in religion and see themselves primarily conducting original research in the field for the rest of their lives. Others want to make a difference in the lives of students and see themselves primarily teaching Religious Studies at universities. Others want a career in the media or ministry and see a degree in Religious Studies as helpful toward that end. There are several questions you need to ask yourself. 

You need to ask yourself: is Religious Studies your passion? Getting a Ph.D. is part brains and part endurance. Less than one quarter of all people who begin Ph.D. programs will finish them and go on to be professors. The challenge is that in the years of graduate school, your friends will likely have more money, work less, and seem to be having more fun. You will have no time, little money, and few prospects for jobs. So, you will have to do it because you love it as there will be many temptations to quit. 

If Religious Studies is your passion, then you have to ask yourself if you have the discipline to make it through the program. The length of grad school depends largely upon the languages needed to master your field. If you do not have many languages to do, then it can be done in 3 - 4 years with a previous Masters or 5 - 6 years without a Masters. Languages can really slow you up, adding 1 to 4 years depending on what you want to do. In other words, you are going to be spending a great deal of time dedicated to a single subject and without discipline you will fall behind or quit. 

If Religious Studies is your passion and you have the discipline to endure a Ph.D., ask yourself if you have the flexibility to follow the career through. During your studies, you may have to uproot yourself to study in another city or country for months or years. How would your family feel about this? If you are married, does your spouse have a mobile occupation? Once you have your Ph.D., most PhDs who come from quality schools will eventually find a job but it just takes time and a willingness to live anywhere and do anything until the time comes when your ideal job is available. Do you have the flexibility to enjoy your career? 

Finally, let me mention a few reasons not to go to graduate school. Number one: I don't know what else to do. When the going gets rough and you are reading your twentieth book of the quarter, you will find something else you want to do. Number two: the professors job seems easy, with summers off and teaching only a couple classes. It is a great occupation and vocation, but it is definitely not easy, particularly in the early years. Number three: because you want to figure out yourself. Everyone in Religious Studies has some personal connection to religion. In fact, it is essential that you find some personal and cosmic meaning in what you will do. However, if you are just continuing your education in religion to figure yourself out, your experience will ultimately fall short. You will take many classes that are not applicable to you directly and you will probably find yourself frustrated and second - guessing your original decision. 

Deciding Where To Apply: 

My advice in a nutshell: try to go to the best school with which you have a fit. 

Determining the best schools is somewhat subjective but the list usually includes University of Chicago as above all others. Then, there is a second tier of Harvard, Duke, UCSB, Yale, UNC, Indiana, Princeton, Notre Dame, Iowa , UT Austin, Colorado, and a few others. Each of these has a very good program and usually the best program in some subfield. The advantage of going to a prestigious program is that there will be lots of resources for your study (financial and research), better grad school colleagues to challenge you, a more vibrant and broad intellectual community, and better prospects for jobs later on. So, you want to go to the most prestigious school you can get into, with the following caveat: 

You must have a fit with that school. That is, have some idea what you are going to study and make sure the school has the resources, especially faculty, to study that field. For example, when I applied, U of Chicago had no one with any interest in Eastern Christianity; thus, it was not a good school for me even though it is the best school overall. You need to find a place where your subfield will be supported. 

How Do You Find Out If There Is A Fit? 

Do lots of research. Get to know each department well. Figure out the exact person or persons with whom you would be working most closely. Look at their CVs to see if you like the sort of research they are doing. It is good if you can find one person doing exactly what you are interested in; it is better if you can find two people in fields you are interested in; it is best if you can find three people in a department doing things you find interesting. Do your research so you know exactly who you would work with in each department. 

Fit can also extend to place. Do you want to stay in California ? Are you willing to travel to Arkansas for the best program, even if you know nobody in the whole south? Remember, you are going to spend the next four to ten years in this place, so seriously consider the geography of your choice. 

You want to apply to the most prestigious schools that fit with your interests in places you want to live. You will also want to apply to a number of ‘back up' schools. Once you apply to your six or so top schools, look for smaller back up schools. 

Strategy For Application 

Graduate schools are looking for the same thing you are, but in reverse: they are looking for the most prestigious and well - qualified students with the best fit. So what do you need to do? 

Establish Competency. 

  • Good grades alone will not suffice—nearly everyone applying will have good grades and coming from a CSU they may be discounted. 
  • Your GREs could be important here but it will not break the bank—you need to do very well, but being in the top 1% is not necessary. 
  • Have outstanding references. Of course, every candidate will have outstanding references but you need to make sure that your references are specifically about you and what you bring to the field. Since you come from a school without a major in Religious Studies, you will want them to address this fact. 

Demonstrate Longstanding Interest in Religious Studies. 

  • Show that your plan for graduate school is not a whim but a long - standing interest; you have planned your whole undergraduate career to continue your studies. 
  • If you took more than the six required classes for the minor, point out the commitment and interest that demonstrates.
  • Play up the papers you have written and the independent studies you have taken. 
  • Show how work outside the classroom contributes to this goal. 

Demonstrate How You Fit Into Their Program. 

  • With whom would you be working? Whose research interests will you support? 
  • How would you fit into the mix of graduate student being accepted?

You want a professor to know you (from your file and from visiting) so well that they are arguing for your inclusion in the meetings. So, make it clear where you see yourself fitting into the program. If you do not help them envision it, you will have a hard time getting noticed. This means contacting the professors with whom you will be working, commenting on their work, and showing how you will contribute to their work. You need to give them a reason for fighting on your behalf. 


This means you cannot be a generalist. You need to have a specific research program to articulate to the schools. It does not mean you are forever wed to it, but you need to give them a clear sense of where you are going. It may be helpful to discuss two related areas (late Byzantine church fathers on mysticism and the debate on iconography, for example; or Buddhist understanding of science and its reception in America , etc…) But you need to have a clear sense of the sub - field and how it fits into the department. 

Once You Get In 

Here are some questions you should consider: 

  1. Will I be happy there—academically and especially beyond?
    You are going to spend the next five to ten years at this institution and city if you are getting your Ph.D. You better be happy there in all aspects of your life. 
     
  2.  Can I afford it? 
    You do not want to be working during graduate school, so you need to find a place that will give you a good package. It used to be said that if you are paying for your Ph.D., you really should not be getting one. The idea is that if you cannot convince someone that you are worth giving a fellowship to, then you will not be able to convince anyone to hire you.Things have changed slightly on this front. It is OK to pay for maybe your first year or two but you need to make sure that you would be on the path of getting full support. Again, money normally is tied to specific professors. So, get a faculty member to like you and then they will direct their research funds toward you.

If you would like more specific advice, please contact Dr. Lloyd-Moffett.

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