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Applying to Grad School this Fall (MA; PhD) - How to Best Prepare?


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This is my first post here - looking for some wisdom! I'm a rising college senior planning to apply for grad school programs this fall (to begin in fall 2021, hopefully) and I'm looking for some guidance about what I can do this summer to help the application process go as smoothly as it possibly can this fall/winter. Since I was fairly naive and uninformed when applying to undergrad programs (my high school had no college advisor, and I had no idea the fields I'm now studying even existed at the time), I really want to approach the grad school application process from a more informed perspective. For reference, I am planning to apply for MA programs and potentially a couple of PhD programs (I am aware of how unlikely it is to get into a PhD program directly from undergrad, but I think I'd regret it if I don't at least try). My intended concentration will be either Philosophy of Religion or American Religion, and I feel like I have a relatively strong background in either of these areas for someone coming from undergrad.

For those of you who have already applied, is there anything you wish you'd done differently during the application process? How many programs did you apply to?

For anyone who applied to PhD programs directly from undergrad: Do you think you were qualified, or do you now feel like you had no business applying for a PhD right away? This is something I'm wondering about because certain programs claim that "exceptional" students can be admitted directly from undergrad, but I'm skeptical of what that really means. For reference, I'm a religious studies major with a 3.95 GPA and two minors (tier 2 school?), I've done a research assistantship, and I'll be writing and defending an honors thesis this upcoming year. BUT, I also recognize that I'm obviously fairly naive compared to people who have completed a master's degree.

Does it make sense to start working on personal statements and statements of purpose in advance? In the age of COVID, I don't know what to expect from the fall semester and I'd like to avoid as much future stress as I can, and I also know that grad programs will be even more competitive going forward so I'd obviously like to have the strongest applications I can. I'm trying to continue familiarizing myself with the research/publications in the areas I'm thinking about, and I've started to look into faculty I might want to work with at the programs I'm interested in. I'd like to start writing some of these application materials now, since my schedule is more open than it will be during the school year, but I also don't want to waste my time if I'll end up totally rewriting them later in the year.

Hopefully these questions aren't too redundant, I'll definitely appreciate any tips from past applicants!

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Hey there, I recently finished my Ph.D. (Northwestern, 2019) in roughly your area of interest (phil of religion) and have some thoughts.

First, I'm not going to tell you not to pursue this based on how bad the job market is. Other people here will. But people told me the same thing 10 years ago when I was first looking at Ph.D. programs. If you're an RS major and you've had any conversations at all with faculty mentors about grad school, I'm sure (I hope) they told you this. It's really, really, really hard out there. I don't pretend to know what it will be like 6-10 years from now, but chances are it still won't be great. That doesn't mean it's a bad idea to pursue grad school, but you must go in with eyes wide open. I applied to over 80 jobs last year while I was finishing my dissertation, preparing for defense, and then after I defended. I was really lucky to get a full time teaching job, but it literally fell out of the sky a week or so before I was going to start applying to retail jobs, and it's at a community college on the other side of the country from where my family and my wife's family are from. We're okay with this, but some people would not be. You have to weigh all of this. Go in fully aware that the chances are stacked against you for getting even a full time gig at a community college.

Second, don't pay a single dime for grad school. Unless you're independently wealthy, taking out loans to attend an MA program is just a bad idea (an even worse idea for a Ph.D.) You can find well-funded MA programs and certainly any Ph.D. program that's going to position you for a job is going to have funding.

That said...

You're right that it's difficult to get into a PhD program straight from undergrad, but given your fields of interest, not impossible. I had two colleagues in my cohort (2012) who came straight from undergrad, one in each of the fields you're interested in. Honestly, you sound like a competitive undergraduate candidate. Depending on the program, if the fit is really good and you have a compelling project, I definitely think you have a shot.

I do also think, however, that a funded MA will help you immensely in clarifying your interests and getting connected to the right people. In American Religion, I think this is especially important. Florida State has an excellent MA program with a great Ph.D. placement record and is especially strong in American Religion. Obviously places like Harvard and Yale would be well suited for either interest. 

The most important thing for a PhD application is "fit" which is an ambiguous, frustrating term that's really hard to quantify. Basically, the adcom has to "feel" that you would work well given the resources of the department and the broader university. Sometimes it may seem like you are an amazing fit for a particular department but you get rejected outright (I felt this way about UVA--didn't even get waitlisted) and sometimes you might be surprised by a department thinking you're a good fit (I applied to NU at the last minute and did not think I had any chance). This is one reason why attending a "well-connected" MA program where faculty know other faculty in good PhD programs is helpful because they can potentially steer you in the right direction. 

For MA applications, you're likely a very strong candidate at any MA program in the country. The divinity school programs are much easier to get into (typically) than a traditionally funded MA program (e.g. FSU, Miami OH, etc.) in part because a lot of students pay a lot of money to attend those programs. There's usually aid available at the higher tier programs (Chicago, Yale, Harvard, Duke, etc.) but they're not going to pay you a stipend or anything like that. At a place like FSU, you're going to get a modest stipend on top of a tuition waiver in exchange for TA work.

In short, yes, you definitely need to start working on a personal statement/statement of purpose now, at least for Ph.D. applications.

Hope that's helpful!

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Thank you so much for this response @marXian! My professors and advisors have certainly been candid about the state of the job market, and I'll definitely be pursuing/relying on funding moving forward. It took me forever to figure out what I actually wanted to do, so I'm hoping the future headaches will all be worthwhile to be in a field I really like.

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@sorenerasmus I planned on applying to 10 different schools but only ended up applying to 3 after realizing how tiring it was to compile the application materials and edit them for the specific programs, ha! I am currently starting my second year at Duke Divinity, but I'm also planning on applying to PhD programs in the Fall. I totally agree with MarXian—don't go anywhere you have to pay for tuition! But since your question is mainly about the application process, I recommend starting as early as possible... I was caught off guard by how long it takes to prepare my writing samples/personal statement, etc. It'll be easier to apply to an MA program, but if you're wanting to apply to any PhD programs, it'll take some serious time to get your application materials in order! Plus, application fees are a nuisance. If you're planning on applying to 10 programs and each comes with a $100 fee, that's some dough for us poor college students! 😂

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  • 3 weeks later...

For what it's worth, I am receiving a living stipend in addition to my tuition funding from the MA program at UChicago, and I know there's at least one or two others who are in the same position, so it's not impossible! I don't know how common this is elsewhere, or even really how common it is here, so I sadly can't speak to how likely it is that one would receive it.

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20 hours ago, considerphlebas said:

For what it's worth, I am receiving a living stipend in addition to my tuition funding from the MA program at UChicago, and I know there's at least one or two others who are in the same position, so it's not impossible! I don't know how common this is elsewhere, or even really how common it is here, so I sadly can't speak to how likely it is that one would receive it.

A little off-topic, but are you doing the MAPS-program or another form of MA? 

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Agreed with @marXian. Do not pay a CENT for grad school tuition. There is a place that will give you a paid assistantship with your qualifications. UGA had a solid stipend when I was there (in exchange for teaching a 2:1 course load your second year) and the MTS, though slightly less funded than UGA, was ok and the COL was cheap. 

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I'm in a very similar situation! Rising senior, Christian Studies BA (concentr. Bib Stud and Apologetics) from a conservative private school. I've already taken several MDiv courses through my university's divinity school, have a 4.0 GPA, participated in the honors college, and I'll be writing and defending a senior thesis this upcoming year. Also, I am on staff at a local church, tutor/present for the honors program, and work with my college admissions office. 

Most likely looking to apply to SEBTS, Duke Div., and YDS for MA/MTS/Concentrated MAR, respectively. I'm currently looking to research the intersection between virtue ethics, pneumatology, and theological anthropology/sociology for my undergrad thesis, and I will likely pursue a concentration in Ethics or Religion/Culture at whichever school I attend. Looking at threads on this forum used to be incredibly intimidating, but after reading several posts, I'm feeling a bit better about my standing as an applicant. Honestly, feel free to let me know if anyone disagrees, or what I could be doing to bolster my resume further in the next year. Lol. 

OP, have you started SOP for the schools to which you're applying? Can I ask how your progress has been? I'm currently freelance writing some college course material for a professor/working the aforementioned jobs/beginning research for my thesis, so I haven't had time to sit down and pull together a rough draft of anything yet. I'm not looking to apply for PhD programs yet, as my pipe dream is truly post-grad work in the UK. Nonetheless, I'd love any feedback as to how the preparation process has been for you. 

Also, if anyone has suggestions of other div schools that may be a good 'fit' for my interests, please respond to this post! I've done many a seminary tour over the past couple years but I am realizing my area of interest may work better within an MA program at a university. Many thanks. 

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Hi @AKWhitty, thanks for your post! I'm also working as a tutor this summer, doing some freelance writing/editorial work, and doing a bit of thesis planning, so my circumstances are fairly similar to yours. I have started outlining my SOP for the programs to which I'm definitely applying (two so far). However, I'm also still in the process of choosing which programs are really the most compatible with my research interests/goals, so I'm still sorting that out before I start preparing for those applications.

Based on my limited experience so far, I'd encourage you to start mentally plotting out your SOP for the programs you think are the best fit for you, because those will likely be the easiest for you to start writing. I'm primarily looking at religious studies departments as opposed to divinity programs so we differ a bit in that respect, but since you're considering MA programs as well I'd suggest to keep exploring your options since that will also help you have a sense of your priorities when you start writing your SOP.

Best of luck with your planning and application process!

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