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Many questions RE Masters programs in Theology/Religion


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Recently I've decided to face a rather significant fear and simultaneously pursue a passion; I want to apply to graduate school to study Religion, particularly ethics, with the eventual goal of obtaining a Ph.D.

Academically, I'm interested chiefly in Ethics. I feel I need more understanding of Christian history and world religious thought. I am mostly interested in inter-faith dialogue and ethics on issues of sexuality and gender, with a sub-focus on humane education/peace studies.

I am personally interested in religious literacy, inter-faith dialogue, and inter-disciplinary connections (particularly in art and literature in practice, with a contemporary focus. I am less interested in historical artwork -- I am interested in art as part of the religious experience, art as part of theological dialogue, and creativity as part of religious community, etc.)

My educational background is interesting, non-traditional in some ways, and I am concerned it will handicap me in this process. First, I did not attend high school (excepting one semester) and graduated with a HSED (GED+civics+financial literacy). Despite this, I ended up testing average on my ACTs and attending college. While at school I studied art, had no initial study skills, but managed to earn a cumulative 3.5 before having a small crisis which resulted in dropping/failing/incompletes in a few classes (final grades unknown). I transferred schools and started the very next semester (spring) at a new school, and therefore never had a look at my GPA after that fact.

After transferring, I changed majors to Religious Studies and did very well. However, the school I graduated from had a very small (and relatively unknown) religious studies department. Potentially more to my detriment, however, is the fact that this school (Alverno College) does not use grades, and therefore I have no GPA. Only a glowing narrative transcript of all the work I've done over the two years I was there. They do offer a service to translate my narrative record into a cumulative GPA for schools that require this, but I haven't the slightest idea of what it would be. The feedback I got for all my classes was good, if not great, and in many cases (as with my major courses) excellent. If I had to guess, I'd say 3.5+ given my scores at the previous college.

GRE to be taken in one week.


-B.A. Alverno College, Religious Studies -- Unknown GPA (estimated conservatively at 3.2)

-Attended North Park University, Art (studio, for 3 years) 3.0-3.5 GPA

-Excellent employment record (Run three community programs, lots of autonomy and achievement in a professional setting, massive teaching experience -- but with children and teens, not adults)

-Excellent recommendations, but only one recommendation from a Religious Studies faculty (took courses mainly from one prof, many adjuncts and transfer credits)

-President of the College Art Association at NPU

-Student Speaker at Graduation (auditioned and was chosen to be commencement speaker)

-Peer Academic Advised (similar to TA) at NPU, two semesters

-GRE: unknown

-No stats or research classes taken, no work published or presented.

-No language skills - passed French 1 & 2 but currently have only a basic understanding. Could change this with hard self directed study

-Religious affiliation (currnet): Society of Friends/Quaker (unofficial, attend but am not a member yet)

-Religious Background: Lutheran and non-denom evangelical

Questions - please feel free to address one or all or make comments, all feedback is appreciated!

Are my interests too broad for graduate school applications, or do you feel these topics are inter-connected enough? Do I lack focus?

For M.A. in Religion or Theology, how important is it to find a faculty member that has similar research interests?

Given my interests (above), is there a particular school I should be looking at? Currently on my list are: Notre Dame, Duke, Harvard Divinity, Marquette, and possibly University of Chicago. (Possibility for funding is a requirement)

Any thoughts/experience with narrative transcripts, how big of a setback will this be for me? The school itself is well recognized, but in fields other than religion.

Given my background and qualifications as they are, is it possible that I am a qualified enough for some of the programs I'm looking at, or does my candidacy sound sort of like a long-shot at best?

How many, if any, masters candidates start out with zero language competency? What is the best way to learn reading-level proficiency in a language, and which languages are best? It seems French & German for my purposes, but what about biblical languages?

Do all schools require an interview, do schools interview at all? How does this work? I've read about it some places, but it doesn't seem to be listed among formal admissions processes.

Keeping my personal and academic interests in mind, do you have any reading suggestions? My library is full of books and journals that I feel are meaningful and important, but I feel like I could be missing some very big things. My background in history is shoddy at best. (I've always been sort of wrapped up in my own little world of self-discovery and contemplation that sometimes I lose what's important in the big picture, hence my potentially impaired qualifications.)


I realize this is long, so thank you in advance for taking the time. I have little to no frame of reference, I did not have a professor pushing me to pursue grad school (at the time I had a great job with lots of potential for a secure career, she felt that despite the fact I'd do well, the job outlook is very grim -- also, at the time, I was still very torn between creative writing, art making, and religious studies. I also was worried about being a woman - my faith growing up considered women to be ineligible for theological training and religious teaching/leadership outside Sunday school). Anyway! At the end of the day, the study of religion, writing about religion and spirituality, exploring the religious experience and cultural expression -- this line of thought is where I feel most at home, most compelled to move forward, and it's what I keep coming back to (albeit with many confusing inter-disciplinary interests attached).

Thank you thank you!

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Marquette is stingy with money. Definitely look into Yale Div and the GTU (Berkeley consortium) as well. The GTU offered me a decent aid package for a master's, and they've got a broad range of programs and courses. Probably a little easier to get into than ND/Harvard/Duke, too. ;) For Duke, if funding is an issue, you'll have a better shot applying to the MDiv (3 years, pastoral focus) instead of the MTS, as they fund more of their MDiv students. It's quite common for religion PhD students to come in with an MDiv as their master's degree (or one of their master's degrees)--that's why you'll see me use the expression "M*". Does Union Seminary have a master's program? What about Drew? (Just thinking about the faculty there; it seems like that would be up your alley).

I'm not really sure how to judge your background. I do know that your list is pretty much the most competitive religion master's depts out there. On the other hand, M* applicants in religion tend to have colorful pasts! (At the school where I did my MA, one of the PhD students had an MS in math and had been teaching high school/adjuncting college for ten years! I majored in poli sci and then worked as a short order cook. You can see why this did not last.) I suspect that a lot of it will come down to your SOP and writing sample, maybe LORs. (I really don't have much of a sense of how religion M* programs make admissions decisions. If I were on an admissions committee and received my own application of yesteryear, I would almost certainly reject it, but I got in everywhere I applied, so...)

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Just my opinion, but I don't think HDS has a very strong ethics faculty. I'm not in ethics, but this has come down to me through a lot of fellow students who are ethicists (and looking at their courses they don't seem to have anywhere near the number we have). You might consider BC's MTS, since we have tons of ethics/systematics profs.

I applied to 10 schools and I think only one required an interview. Most likely you won't have to worry about it.

Your old crummy grades might hurt you for some of those reach schools, but honestly you have a good shot at several of your options if you submit a well polished SOP and writing sample.

Concerning languages, you will no doubt need French and German. Biblical languages will depend on what kind of ethics you want to pursue. You can worry about that when you get into a program. One of my good friends just graduated from my program (she did sexual ethics) and got into a funded PhD program without having really any languages (a little French).

good luck, mate.

Edited by jdmhotness
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These are such helpful and thoughtful answers! Thank you so much! The more research I do, the more I think I am interested in systematic theology (which obviously relates closely to ethics). The idea of an M.Div kind of appeals to me for another reason too, as long as it wouldn't hurt my chances at a PhD program -- I have an interest in chaplaincy, but I am pretty certain that 1. I wouldn't want to do this for my whole life, and 2. Theology is my first love, and I adore writing non-fiction. I think that I have the capacity to make significant contributions in my field, and potentially beyond in terms of spiritual memoir or creative projects, social initiatives, etc. Eventually, that is.

I just sent away for my transcripts, and by October I should know what boat I'm really in and how much work I'll need to do to re-direct. I've also been making a reading list and spending a LOT of time on departmental websites/researching other schools; so I am especially grateful for everyone's suggestions regarding programs. I've done a lot of Googling, but I don't have enough of a baseline knowledge of grad schools to tell exactly which ones might have funding AND relevant programs for me. Plus, what a program advertises is often much different from how it is perceived by others, etc.

I am also want to avoid fundamentalist seminaries and colleges, or programs that are focused predominantly on biblical theology or are overly entrenched in any one denominational tradition -- while I know most programs have some of this, critical thought and rigorous study and compelling research need to be more important than dogma and politics (is this absurdly idealistic?), at least on a global level. But at the same time, there needs to be an atmosphere of creativity and spirituality (not that professors need to be spiritual, but the study of, say, mysticism should be an option). I can bring a lot of my own​ creativity and mysticism, but would like to feel challenged and understood, too. :)

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Notre Dame funds everyone who gets in, most also get small stipends, and it's a great program with a great community (which is as important as good academics. People are, I think, less productive when miserable for two years). I'm completely biased because I loved my time there, but it's definitely got a strong ethics faculty. All the schools you mentioned are very good though. Good luck!

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From a strictly ethics standpoint - I'd suggest also keeping an eye on philosophy programs. Ethics often, in philosophy programs, take on a religious nature because the individuals placed in these situations in their every day lives are often looking through a religious lens of sorts.

But anyway - off the top of my head, I'd strongly suggest Duke or Graduate Theological Union. If you go to Duke, I'd suggest at least taking a serious look at their MDiv program even if your intentions are purely academic - it's a top notch program and had I not been born and raised in NC, I would have taken them up on the acceptance (I wanted to spread my wings some).

Some other programs, while they have strong ethics programs (in my opinion), some lean more philosophy than theology and vice versa.


Graduate Theological Union

Catholic University of America

Notre Dame

St. Louis University*


Indiana University - Bloomington (if you end up here, introduce yourself to David Brakke - wonderful man)

Princeton Theological Seminary/Princeton University (cross registration)

Boston Theological Institute (Harvard, Andover, Boston College, Boston University, etc) --- the cross registration and library access alone is phenomenal!

University of Texas - Austin

Bowling Green State University - their program is in applied philosophy but they have a handful of faculty and students that focus on the intersection of ethics and religion

This listing is subjective at best and depending on who you talk to - it'll be missing key players or have schools that don't belong.

if you're willing to go overseas, I'd suggest Oxford but I get a feeling you'd benefit more from a generalized program.

As far as an MDiv potentially hindering your acceptance chances into PhD programs, don't give it a second thought. Dozens (if not hundreds) of people get into PhD programs with an MDiv as their Masters at top schools - Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Chicago, Yale, Notre Dame, etc. Use your electives (and if capable, push ministerial programs to the summer if possible so you can sub in more academic courses - also keep in mind that some programs will permit you to drop some ministerial courses if you aren't seeking ordination, which opens up more room) to pursue your academic interests. Attend reading groups if they're available, get the syllabus of courses you're interested in but unable to take and read the texts on your own and offer to take the professor out to lunch/coffee every so often to discuss the material, etc.

Best of luck.

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@Balatro! I love your ideas, and I will look into them. Philosophy is an intimidating field for me due to the fact that I am not quite well-read enough in that area (and I have only ever taken one true philosophy course in my life). However, part of my app-plan, as I'm calling it, is to amass a really-awesome reading list and start making my way through it.

I got my preliminary GRE scores back. I bombed the Quantitative part: 450-550 estimated score, and verbal is not too much better at 570-670. This is with one year out of undergrad and no test prep or time spent studying. So, if I gave myself a few months I could re-test much higher. Are these scores terrible for M* programs if they're on the mid to higher end of that scale? I am still waiting on official documents from both my universities. My SOP & LoR will be the strongest points of my application, so my main goal is that my GRE/GPA scores don't immediately disqualify me from consideration or set me apart in an obviously negative way.

From the narrowing I've done, I am looking at M* programs @






Boston College

I've decided I don't want to be in New York City or California presently - trying to avoid living directly in big cities and I'm not an out west kinda gal. I am hoping to stay in the Midwest, East Coast, or South.

Lastly, I am starting to lean towards M.Div programs because they seem to, in many ways, offer a more thorough education and I'd be starting out with little in the way of language proficiency. Recommendations? I plan to continue researching schools and programs -- should I skip apply this year? Should I skip it, re-take the GRE and work hard on reading and language skills? Do both, see what happens? Thanks folks.

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