The Department of Religion

at Williams College

If You’re Thinking about Graduate School in Religion…

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This information sheet is designed to provide some initial information about graduate study. It is no substitute for personal conversation with your faculty about whether to go to graduate school and specific programs. The Dean’s Office also publishes a more extensive pamphlet that covers a number of issues for those thinking about graduate school. The Real Guide to Grad School: What You Better Know Before You Choose Humanities and Social Sciences (1997) published by the journal Lingua Franca is the best overview both of the graduate school realities and of individual disciplines including religion. It may be found in Sawyer.

A few general features of graduate school should be noted first.

Graduate school is preprofessional – It is the place to earn your union card in a field. Obviously, this is less true for M.A. programs, but even here there is a focusing in of a preprofessional sort. Even if your primary goal in going to graduate school is to put off doing something about your future, you won’t really be doing that.

Graduate school is small – Even if you are going to a much larger institution than Williams, the number of professors and your fellow classmates you work with will be much smaller. You will see a lot of a relatively few number of people.

Your life will depend on just a few people – The faculty who run your program will have much more power over you than your undergraduate teachers. (This means, by the way, that graduate school is in some ways more a prolongation of adolescence than a further step toward independence.) It is important when picking a graduate school to identify those faculty with whom you will work most closely, read their works and find out something about them, or even better meet with them and form your judgment about them. It is most emphatically not the power of life and death that graduate faculty have, but it is a reasonable facsimile.

Graduate school is as much about your classmates as your instructors – Given the number of students in your program and the likelihood of collaborative work, you will get to know your fellow graduate students very well. Because there are fewer support structures at most graduate schools, you’ll depend on your fellow students. Therefore your fellow students will be vital both in sustaining you in the program and in later life, since some of them will become lifetime friends colleagues.

Will there be a job after graduate school? – The job situation remains grim. For the last five or six years many have expected the extraordinarily tight market to loosen up, but it hasn’t. Demographics and economics are against a major boom returning. Nevertheless, the next generation will need a professorate and religion will likely hold its own as a field in undergraduate institutions, though departments will remain rather small. Your marketability will depend on your field and the quality of your work. Luck also matters. As you are looking at graduate schools, you should candidly ask what their graduates are doing and how many of them find jobs. For a candid survey of the scene you might want to have a look at Cary Nelson, ed., Will Teach For Food: Academic Labor in Crisis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Graduate Study in Religion

Graduate study in religion takes place in three contexts: seminaries, private universities with divinity schools and in freestanding religion programs in private and public universities. Seminaries are almost always denominational and are designed to educate their clergy. The two most prominent programs at private universities, Chicago and Harvard, are products of structures uniting non-denominational divinity schools and university academic programs. Because of the important role played by the divinity schools in these programs attention is divided between the education of clergy and the academic study of religion. This usually means some tension in mission, but does provide the largest number of resources. Stand alone religion programs have become more common at both private and public institutions. The best of them only admit to the doctoral programs and thus competition there for an undergraduate with no previous advanced work is stiff. A master’s in religion is increasingly seen as an unwritten prerequisite in such programs.

If you are pretty sure, but not positive that you want an academic career in the study of religion, a Master’s program may be the best next step for you. Most undergraduates from Williams enter an academic master’s program-Harvard or Chicago. Two other alternatives are GTU and Claremont. These programs are roughly two years and allow students to pursue studies rather widely. They are the main intake mechanisms for doctoral programs at these two institutions. Alternatively, these master’s programs might be appropriate stepping stones to enrollment in a doctoral program elsewhere. Williams religion majors have also gone to Princeton, University of California Santa Barbara, Yale University, Boston College and Syracuse.

The following are the major centers for graduate study in religion in North America-they are members of the Council on Graduate Studies in Religion:

Arizona State University
Boston University
McMaster University
Brown University
Northwestern University
University of California, Santa Barbara
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
University of Chicago
University of Notre Dame
Claremont Graduate School
University of Pennsylvania
Columbia University
Princeton University
Drew University
Princeton Theological Seminary
Duke University
University of Southern California
Emory University
Southern Methodist University
Fordham University
Stanford University
Graduate Theological Union
Syracuse University
Harvard University
Temple University
Hebrew Union College
University of Toronto
Indiana University
Union Theological Seminary
University of Iowa
Vanderbilt University
Jewish Theological Seminary
University of Virginia
McGill University
Yale University

The structure of programs at each of these schools is different. Generally, you will need to have chosen your specialization and that should guide you in selecting your program.

There are also a number of schools that offer an M.A. only. These include:

University of Georgia
Miami University in Ohio
Western Michigan University
University of Colorado

The Rothberg School for Overseas students at Hebrew University has a very rich two year masters program in religious studies. Cambridge University also has a one year program.

We have a copy of the Directory of Departments and Programs of Religious Studies in North America, published yearly. It contains basic information about most of these sites as well as theological seminaries. We also receive posters and information from many of them, which are posted on the fourth floor bulletin board. All are available from Bill Darrow.

Given the range of things we do in the department, it may be that programs in other areas such as literature, comparative literature, philosophy and history might be appropriate. In addition, a few cross-disciplinary experimental programs and programs related to a professional degree like law or education are worth investigating, if your interests lie in those particular areas.