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Reason for M* before PhD in religion?


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Hi fellow voyagers.


Now that I've actually gotten into divinity school, I've been finding that I'm having a hard time explaining to other people why a master's degree is necessary before one is (at least in the vast majority of cases) a viable candidate for the PhD in religious studies/divinity schools. While I've internalized this fact, I find that I don't know a solid, specific reason for this? Is it just the general assumption that a PhD in religious studies is so highly specialized that most undergrads can't enter into it without extra preparation? Is it languages? Methodology? What is the reason for the blanket requirement for a M* degree in religious studies that is so different from other humanities/social science disciplines?


I think I've read, somewhere on this forum actually, that this has to do with how rooted religious studies is as a genre in tradition? Although this doesn't jibe with the general idea that many contemporary masters degrees have sprung up as "cash cow" opportunities for institutions? Does anyone on here happen to know the history of M* degrees in religious studies?


I was about to do some research, but I figured someone from the enlightened company here on Grad Cafe probably knows this already. :)


Thanks in advance!

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I guess the first question is, What do you want to specialize in?


If it's biblical studies, theology, historical, etc....then yes, languages is a large part of it.


If you want to study say ethics, psychology and religion, American religious history - languages aren't as important but say methodology is (among others). As is building up the general toolset to be competitive, as a whole. There are people who are competitive coming out of UG but nowadays this becoming less the norm. More and more programs are looking for applicants that have already started down this path and there's several schools that are willing to heavily fund this journey for you.


It looks like you're headed into academic geared M* programs which will work in your favor. These programs are already designed to help prepare you for further academic studies.

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1) This isn't 1852. Hell, even fifty years ago things were quite different. If you browse enough CV's you will find those 'old timers' who have BD's instead of AB/BA's -> MDiv. The result has been the growth of professional graduate degrees (e.g. an MDiv) that end up being more like second BA's. Nowadays folks do not grow up learning foreign languages unless you have native speaking parents. Further, no one is forced to take Greek and Latin in primary/secondary school. The language courses most of us do take are rubbish. Even 'advanced' High School language courses are usually around an intermediate college level. 2) Often because of no.1 undergraduate training in religious studies can only proceed at a basic level. Taking 'exegesis' courses without high proficiency in the primary source language is a much different kind of course than taking an only English course. The latter also encourages 'lay people' (i.e. those not interested in lofty academic goals) to take such courses, changing course goals dramatically. 3) Religious Studies/Theology is much more interdisciplinary than it was even thirty years ago. We are encouraged, expected even, to understand both intricate aspects of the ancient world, while also implementing methodologies from more or less alien fields, and so on, ad nauseam. It is no longer good enough to only study comparative Semitic morphology. Now you must also ground your work in the larger scholarly 'enterprise.' People don't want to read dissertations anymore about the function of passive Haphal verbs in fifth century Persia. Sadly. Because of the aforementioned points, competition has grown and grown. Accordingly, having two M* degrees becomes the norm. In short, we are paying the price for having so many luxuries available to us at almost every moment. We rarely get home from school or work and sit down to read. We get on GC, we check facebook, we text. Hell, some of us 'Tinder.' Then as a last resort, after we have exhausted that final Reddit/aww post and the other shameful recesses of the internet, we finally, with our last few waking moments, open that book we have been saying we should finish for weeks. /stream of consciousness

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It isn't universally true that one must have a M* degree. As others have already said, it really depends on the subfield. It's feasible that if the area of study is not language intensive, especially not ancient languages, one could get in from undergrad provided one did RS as a major.


Outside of that though, an MA or MDiv is really useful for developing a competitive PhD app. It allows you to work on narrowing in on your specific interests. It gives you the opportunity to produce a strong writing sample. You have the chance to work closely with faculty who will be able to write you fantastic letters. These are all possible in undergrad, but typically they're easier to accomplish at the grad level.


A M* degree is also necessary for people who either went to lesser known or unknown undergrads (especially bible colleges or tiny liberal arts colleges) or those who didn't do that well in undergrad and want to prove they're cut out for PhD work.


Regarding tradition, don't confuse religious studies with theology. The RS "tradition" is extremely shallow, going back only to the mid 19th century. I mean, the tradition of the Western literary canon is almost a thousand years longer. So I'd maybe buy that argument for someone applying to a seminary or Catholic university wanting to do historical theology or something else historical, but not so much for people wanting to do American religion at an RS department. People doing studies in late antiquity or ancient religions/texts within a religious studies department are less concerned about the tradition in RS than they are with the reception history and tradition surrounding their specific field--which, in my view, is maybe only tangentially related to the history of RS. Btw, there are, I think, fewer than 5 terminal MA programs in "religious studies." Most of us who go into a PhD program in RS come from other fields (theology, classics, history, etc.) which is why so many of us end up at seminaries or div schools for our M* degrees.


I'm also not sure that MA and MDiv programs in our discipline(s) are "cash cows" across the board. That isn't to say that cash cow programs in the humanities don't exist (e.g. the UChicago MAPH), but seminaries aren't unable to give everyone a full ride because they want to turn a huge profit. Seminaries have a specific mission in mind that differs from "standard" M* programs in the humanities; as such, they draw and admit students from all undergrad disciplines. That means admissions standards are generally lower, and the number of people in these programs is very high (comparatively.) Most seminaries also don't have undergrads whose tuition helps to fund grad students as in other M* degree situations. I think seminaries would fund all of their students if they could--they will never have the money to do so. Div schools and seminaries attached to major universities are a slightly different story and do have some money to give, but again, similar mission with similar admissions standards so there are just way too many students. In my first grad program (MA in English) there were about 20 students total at any given time in the two year program, all funded with a stipend for two years, and the money largely came from undergrad tuition (among other gov't sources.) In exchange, we had to teach to sections a semester of freshman composition. At seminaries and div schools there are hundreds, sometimes a couple thousand students (like at Fuller Seminary) with no undergrads to teach. It just isn't possible to offer the same kind of funding.


In other disciplines, I would say one should never pay for a M* degree. There are plenty of programs across the country like my English MA (in most humanities disciplines) such that if one were to encounter an unfunded program, I'd say it either is treated as a cash cow by the university, or the university just doesn't care that much about the program, so it's probably not very good. Because other disciplines that are housed within a larger university are only going to have a handful of grad students at any given time in their M* degree, so to not be able to fund them should raise an eyebrow. Philosophy is maybe the only humanities discipline with some obvious exceptions where either no students have funding or only a few do (e.g. Tufts, Georgia State.)

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