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Well-Known Mainline School vs. Denominational School for Masters (Plus question about Emory/Candler)

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Hello all,

I have plans to become a scholar, focusing on systematic/constructive theology, for a post-secondary/graduate institution. I am also open to ministry if things don't pan out for getting a teaching job. I applied to 8 Mainline schools (Boston U, Candler, Claremont, Chicago, Duke, PTS, Vanderbilt, Yale; all in divinity schools/schools of theology), 2 Evangelical schools (Fuller, Wheaton), and a Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Divinity School. I applied for MTS/MA/MAR's at most schools except I went for an MDiv at Chicago and the SDA school.

With my first acceptance to Emory already announced, I have begun serious contemplation of what route I should take in preparing for a PhD. Honestly, before this acceptance letter I wasn't hoping for acceptance into these other schools (I had a little above average scores like a 3.68 GPA but I was just pessimistic I suppose). Now that I got this wonderful letter, which I am ecstatic about, I have begun to realize my dilemma.

I see the benefits of going denominational as follows:

1. Networking within Adventism: I could network far more thoroughly within my denomination

2. Opens door for Pastoral Ministry: I'd obtain the basic ministerial credential for service in the church just in case I don't get a teaching job at the end of my later doctoral studies

3. Great financial aid: There would be fairly good financial aid (80% scholarship)

4. Work Experience: I am likely to be a TA or RA

5. Further grounding in SDA theology: Perhaps most importantly, I'd gain a more thorough understanding of my denomination than I have in my undergraduate studies

6. Impressive Faculty: Though Adventists don't tend to be thought leaders in today's theological climate, some amazing scholars are there, most of them having credentials from top tier universities and two faculty having degrees in second-tier institutions. Under them I would get to study from a progressive SDA perspective (so far I was only trained within a more conservative tradition). In addition, they do have connections to mainline universities, particularly Claremont, and they could possibly have sway in getting me into these places.

7. An open MDiv Curriculum: Their MDiv is fairly open-ended and creative. I could essentially use my electives to specialize in an area of study and take even more courses there than I would in an MTS. I would also be able to direct my ministry classes to post-modern ministry, ministry and the arts, and other creative possibilities. I could also get special training in post-secondary research and teaching there, giving me a great foundation in methodology and practice.

Bonus: I'd get to live in Southern California, which I see as the greatest place in the universe at the moment.

You can see the faculty's credentials all right on this page quickly if you'd like

At the same time, I would have the opportunity of a lifetime to study at Emory and would enjoy the following benefits as I see them:

1. The opportunity to study under well-known scholars

2. With a name like Emory under my belt, I would likely enjoy greater likelihood in gaining admission to a PhD program. I intend to only apply to mainline schools like the ones mentioned above (Definitely not an SDA one; an Evangelical school is a minute possibility).

3. I would gain a thorough understanding of contemporary Christian issues from an authoritative institution that houses thought leaders and widely contributes to modern scholarship

4. Broader networking opportunities to up my chances of PhD admissions and future teaching posts

(This shorter list reflects both my lack of awareness of my financial aid package and my lac of familiarity with specific opportunities at Emory)

I see the following possibilities:

1. Go to Emory and then go straight to a PhD

2. Go to Emory now since I'm accepted and then go to Denominational School before a PhD (Would this defeat the purpose of going to a place like Emory for reputation and connections since the SDA school degree would be my last degree?)

3. Go to Denominational School and try for a PhD immediately after. If I can't get in apply to MTS at mainline school later (But would rejecting my acceptance from Emory now doom me from being able to get into the same program later?)

Just to throw in some potential possibilities that may sway your assessment:

- I'm strongly considering also pursuing an MA in Philosophy before graduate school since progressive SDA theology values philosophy highly. I would apply exclusively to top tier institutions and pursue it directly before my PhD studies, which again would be in systematic/constructive theology.

- It is possible that I would do an MDiv/MBA combo at the SDA school, perhaps giving me a slight edge in PhD admissions.

Side question: How hard is it to get into Emory's MTS program? I ask because I'm trying to gauge my chances for the other 9 schools as I await their response.

Note: I'm completely comfortable going anywhere for school, I hold no reservations learning from anywhere!

P.S. I didn't want to type the SDA school name out here because it might pop up unintentionally in search engines and attract unwanted attention to my dilemma

Edited by Windfish

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I don't think Emory's MTS is particularly "hard" to get into. Not that it is easy, but if you have decent/good stats, as you seem to, then the likelihood of acceptance is good. Honestly you seem to be having a dilemma with prestige, which is understandable. Ultimately if you want to teach at an SDA school, then you might be well suited to go to an SDA seminary. Then again, the faculty you posted all have their degrees from top 'secular' seminaries, so I'm not sure if it matters.

My opinion: go to Emory. They have a much larger faculty, thus more available courses, and a reputation that exceeds most divinity schools in the country. You are obviously open to perspectives outside the SDA norm. Plus Atlanta isn't too cold ;).

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Here is my opinion, if you care:

It sounds like you might be over-thinking it. You cannot plan the details of your future that far out. No one is that good of a prognosticator, because the world has too many variables. No school will gurantee admission to a PhD program; no one will preclude you either. The name of the school matters, but the quality of your work and your person matters more. Work really hard at what you love—I mean really hard, because the most important thing is your work.

Also, your language about becoming a clergy in the SDA as a sort of "just in case", fall back plan sounds suspect. I predict those on this forum who are religious and those who are not would likely agree that one thing the world does not need is another clergy who became such because they failed at something else and this was there "just in case" plan.

At bottom, go to school at the place where you really want to go to school and study what fascinates you.

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It helps, in bible it is common, if not the norm, to get two masters. I know several people that have done an MDiv and then gone on to do an M*. This is usually the case in biblical studies because the amount of language work you need. The five PhD students in bible here at BC I know ALL have 4-5 years of masters work before they began their doctoral program.

good luck.

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Here is my opinion, if you care:

It sounds like you might be over-thinking it. You cannot plan the details of your future that far out. No one is that good of a prognosticator, because the world has too many variables. No school will gurantee admission to a PhD program; no one will preclude you either. The name of the school matters, but the quality of your work and your person matters more. Work really hard at what you love—I mean really hard, because the most important thing is your work.

Also, your language about becoming a clergy in the SDA as a sort of "just in case", fall back plan sounds suspect. I predict those on this forum who are religious and those who are not would likely agree that one thing the world does not need is another clergy who became such because they failed at something else and this was there "just in case" plan.

At bottom, go to school at the place where you really want to go to school and study what fascinates you.

I definitely do have that tendency to over think things haha. Thanks for telling it to me straight; I think you nailed it!

It helps, in bible it is common, if not the norm, to get two masters. I know several people that have done an MDiv and then gone on to do an M*. This is usually the case in biblical studies because the amount of language work you need. The five PhD students in bible here at BC I know ALL have 4-5 years of masters work before they began their doctoral program.

good luck.

Very true, no matter where I head I do hope to do another masters, especially if I can get awesome financial aid! Everyone I know who has two masters is very well-informed.

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I started out on the MTS track (also having intentions to pursue a PhD) but initially switched programs when I discovered A.) the MDiv required more practical application B.) despite the MTS being presented as an academic degree, in today's competitive climate MDiv's tend to be held in higher regard since the degree has been around longer, is more structured, and requires more hours. Most MTS students I know had to pursue a second master's degree, while several of the MDivs got accepted into doctoral programs on their first attempt. I also want to lift up the MDiv because it was in this program I discovered I did not want to continue onward in the academy but instead pursue ordination. In my eyes it is an extremely well-rounded program that enters your heart space and your head space and helps you discern to what realm(s) you are called. From my own experience, I don't think you can diminish your prestige by going to a school within your denomination. I have plans to do so myself. Most theological scholars think it's important both to be able to enter broad conversations on religion while also being firmly rooted in a tradition.

Edited by besixdouze

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I started out on the MTS track (also having intentions to pursue a PhD) but initially switched programs when I discovered A.) the MDiv required more practical application B.) despite the MTS being presented as an academic degree, in today's competitive climate MDiv's tend to be held in higher regard since the degree has been around longer, is more structured, and requires more hours. Most MTS students I know had to pursue a second master's degree, while several of the MDivs got accepted into doctoral programs on their first attempt. I also want to lift up the MDiv because it was in this program I discovered I did not want to continue onward in the academy but instead pursue ordination. In my eyes it is an extremely well-rounded program that enters your heart space and your head space and helps you discern to what realm(s) you are called. From my own experience, I don't think you can diminish your prestige by going to a school within your denomination. I have plans to do so myself. Most theological scholars think it's important both to be able to enter broad conversations on religion while also being firmly rooted in a tradition.

Good points. You bring up the valid point that most students (these days) need more than two years of masters work to get into a good doctoral program. There is always the option of getting an MTS and then going for a one year masters in something related. That way you don't have to mess around with those 'pesky' ministry courses and instead focus purely on academic work.

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Good points. You bring up the valid point that most students (these days) need more than two years of masters work to get into a good doctoral program. There is always the option of getting an MTS and then going for a one year masters in something related. That way you don't have to mess around with those 'pesky' ministry courses and instead focus purely on academic work.

I wholly agree. My one piece of advice for MTS students is to know what area they plan to study from the very beginning. Two years fly by much more quickly than one would expect and, depending on the academic advising at your school, it becomes very easy to come out with a transcript characterizing you as a jack of all trades but a master of none. Many of the MTS students I know seeking a second degree enrolled in courses that simply sounded fun and interesting, but afterward could not point toward a specific trajectory of their learnings. I think taking classes in which there was some common thread or unifying theme would also provide an exceptional foundation from which to begin one's thesis.

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I started out on the MTS track (also having intentions to pursue a PhD) but initially switched programs when I discovered A.) the MDiv required more practical application B.) despite the MTS being presented as an academic degree, in today's competitive climate MDiv's tend to be held in higher regard since the degree has been around longer, is more structured, and requires more hours. Most MTS students I know had to pursue a second master's degree, while several of the MDivs got accepted into doctoral programs on their first attempt. I also want to lift up the MDiv because it was in this program I discovered I did not want to continue onward in the academy but instead pursue ordination. In my eyes it is an extremely well-rounded program that enters your heart space and your head space and helps you discern to what realm(s) you are called. From my own experience, I don't think you can diminish your prestige by going to a school within your denomination. I have plans to do so myself. Most theological scholars think it's important both to be able to enter broad conversations on religion while also being firmly rooted in a tradition.

Interesting note on MDiv's being more highly valued these days. I didn't realize this myself but have been told that an MDiv would never hurt me. I certainly believe this is true but applied with the mentality that I'd do my MDiv at an SDA school and an MTS at a mainline school. Now my mentality has changed and I'm probably going to switch to an MDiv at whatever school I go to immediately, I just hope no financial aid is sacrificed.

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I wholly agree. My one piece of advice for MTS students is to know what area they plan to study from the very beginning. Two years fly by much more quickly than one would expect and, depending on the academic advising at your school, it becomes very easy to come out with a transcript characterizing you as a jack of all trades but a master of none.

Becoming a master of 'nothing' struck as funny... for a Master's degree! ;)

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Just a few comments:

1) Most schools offer better financial aid for MDiv students rather than MA or MTS students. Think back to when these schools' endowments were established; for instance, Duke has a much larger pool of funds to help students that are going to be (or at least look like they are going to be) future ministers.

2) Folk with an MDiv degree are sometimes feared or looked at with suspicion in non-ministry settings (i.e., the nonprofit/NGO world). I applied to several such institutions way back when, and I had to explain myself as many feared being "evangelized." Really, they just wanted to check my motives and see why I was a good fit for them. In the interest of full disclosure, my context at the time was New England, a place very different from my first home in the American South.

Agreed. Although I'm always a bit discouraged the MDiv students get more funding considering many of us MTS folk that plan to go on to doctoral work, in all likelihood (economy, but mainly competition), will fail. Then what are we left with? The only non-ministerial role that comes to mind is teaching HS. Which is fantastic for some, just not me. Oh well, tis the life we have chosen :).

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MTS folks have other things going for them. I know of a number of folks who have gone onto lucrative careers with an MTS: several working in industry (i.e., for profit corporations); higher-ed administration; community organizing; and often other graduate programs, like social work, business or law school. However, as having attended a div school of one form or another, MDiv and MTS alike have to anticipate preconceptions about other folks. Being misunderstood by broader society, this kinda reminds me of this SBL article from a few years ago.

Fair enough. Cool article! And quite true.

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I wouldn't worry about financial aid, Windfish (also--is your name a Zelda reference?). When I switched programs, I had no financial aid difficulties as I was covered. I think this is normal for many div schools. In fact, I think my entering class may have broken the record for largest number of students switching degree programs. I think whether or not you have an MDiv (and from a mainline or denominational school) will create a different experience in different environments. While you would be respected for a degree at a top nondenominational school and prove that you can already conduct research and write at excellent levels, it is also the opinion of the theology department at my school that one cannot do theology unless one is rooted in a specific tradition. There are pros and cons in either case and--as I've often discovered--you can analyze and analyze your options, but your heart often does the better job of choosing.

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I wouldn't worry about financial aid, Windfish (also--is your name a Zelda reference?). When I switched programs, I had no financial aid difficulties as I was covered. I think this is normal for many div schools. In fact, I think my entering class may have broken the record for largest number of students switching degree programs. I think whether or not you have an MDiv (and from a mainline or denominational school) will create a different experience in different environments. While you would be respected for a degree at a top nondenominational school and prove that you can already conduct research and write at excellent levels, it is also the opinion of the theology department at my school that one cannot do theology unless one is rooted in a specific tradition. There are pros and cons in either case and--as I've often discovered--you can analyze and analyze your options, but your heart often does the better job of choosing.

Indeed it is a Zelda reference! Good eye! :)

Solid advice everyone!. I think I've analyzed this situation so much I have covered up what my heart is saying! I think it will become clearer as my last semester comes to a close and for now I won't push myself so hard to decide. Every hour I lean a different direction, lol.

Edited by Windfish

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Emory MTS grad here. :) For what it's worth, I did well in my program, had excellent Emory references, and still haven't gotten into a doctoral program yet. I also wish I had done the MDiv at Emory instead. ESPECIALLY if ministry is in your future. Better funding, good, broad preparation. I am head over heels in Emory MTS debt, but I would have been funded pretty well if I had done MDiv. I thought MTS would get me to a PhD quicker, but I was young and naive and seriously overestimated how long the extra year would take.

All that being said, my experience at Emory was invaluable; professors are great.

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Emory MTS grad here. :) For what it's worth, I did well in my program, had excellent Emory references, and still haven't gotten into a doctoral program yet. I also wish I had done the MDiv at Emory instead. ESPECIALLY if ministry is in your future. Better funding, good, broad preparation. I am head over heels in Emory MTS debt, but I would have been funded pretty well if I had done MDiv. I thought MTS would get me to a PhD quicker, but I was young and naive and seriously overestimated how long the extra year would take.

All that being said, my experience at Emory was invaluable; professors are great.

Thanks smadak,

Your insight is invaluable. If I go to Emory I am already contemplating switching my degree program to the MDiv. The only challenge for me is that my own denomination often would rather you get an MDiv particularly at one of our schools but I'm not going to let that limit me. That way it would give me an opportunity to focus on an area with all those wonderful electives and still have the opportunity to do n MTS-like masters should a PhD application not pan out. I'll definitely consider what you have told me because, ultimately, placement is what really matters (not to mention financial support)!

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