Some time around mid-October, my life turns into a more than usually convoluted flurry of acronyms. ’Tis the season: before turkeys and dreidels an Advent wreaths, before even ghosts and scarily bargain-priced bags of candy, there’s the time academics both delight in and dread — application season.
Each year, this generates a baffling number of spontaneous self-introductions, queries about my work that a casual Google search could probably address, and requests for conference meetings with “prospective students.” I have tremendous sympathy for the phenomenon, in all its stiltedness, and its victims. Once upon a time, I wandered into the SBL reception of a rather well-known institution, kind introductory note from a mentor to a prospective mentor at the tip of my tongue, only to find the very senior academic beleaguered by a throng of students rather like myself, except, I felt, no doubt better qualified for the task.
Turning on my heel and wandering back to the hotel room I shared with half a dozen other “prospective students” was scarcely my proudest moment, but it has given me a great deal of regard for the courage particularly “non-traditional” students in my discipline require to make contact with faculty … and so I make a concerted effort to answer every e-mail in as much helpful detail as I can muster. I suspect that some variant of “treasure in heaven”/“paying it forward” has to be at work in these correspondences, especially since most students who write for advice on how to prepare themselves for admission to a doctoral program are, I gather, much less interested in learning about the need for research language development and a reasonably good fit of their topic with a putative mentor’s current scholarship than in being informed that they and only they are the student this program has long been anticipating — skip the application process entirely! But that, and the actual advice I have for students interested in such an application, is for a different post.
Much of the time, however, I find myself, along with student applicants lost in a maze of letters. Ph.D. or Th.D.? MTS or MA? M.Div or MACP? Th.M or D.Min? AARP or LASRG? The options are seemingly endless, and the questions are usually well-founded, particularly since a number of these programs — even the non-facetiously invented ones — are relatively recent additions to Duke’s offerings. The Th.D is just over a decade old, MACS and MACP, as well as D.Min are younger still. How to assess and how to choose?
In this vein, let me address here only one of the most common questions, one that a number of other blogger have already attempted, but that keeps coming up … and rightly so, given that Duke now offers two doctoral programs to which a student interested in dedicating their lives to the study of religion might reasonably apply: the Ph.D., on the one hand, and the Th.D. on the other. The latter is rather more straightforward in its “home institution,” dwelling as it does, in the Divinity School, staffed by Divinity faculty. The Ph.D., the rather older and more venerable of the degrees, belongs to the Graduate Program in Religion, the GPR. The latter is, confusingly, an almost entirely fictional entity, commanding exactly one staff member — its redoubtable administrator. It is staffed by all faculty members in Religious Studies as well as quite a few of my colleagues in Divinity; the latter’s addition to GPR faculty, however, requires the GPR’s vote — a matter more of getting enough of us to a meeting to constitute a quorum than exclusionary practices, I’m happy to say. This requirement reflects the fact that the Divinity School teaches a rather more varied curriculum than Religious Studies, including brilliant faculty who focus on topics that do not overlap with the GPR’s more narrowly defined list of foci, whereas every hire in Religious Studies corresponds to one or more of the GPR’s tracks.
Practically speaking, the two have their fair share of similarities. Some of my colleagues, for example, advise students in both programs*, and my own seminars tend to include students from Th.D. and Ph.D., as well as UNC’s Ph.D. program in Religious Studies — three cheer for inter-institutional collaboration! The Th.D. enjoys rather less funding than the Ph.D., which now offers five years of stipends, teaching- and research- assignments, as well as summer funding to its students. By the same token, the Th.D. is projected — but frequently not experienced — as a shorter program: four years to the Ph.D.’s five. The Th.D. brings together each entering class for a super-disciplinary weekly seminar; the PH.D. has no clear equivalent, other than the “Religion & Theory” course, which students interested in teaching in the department of Religious Studies are required to take … and which, to show my cards plainly, all students ought to take in any case.
On the philosophical level — the level of “ethos,” if you will — the differences loom somewhat larger. Each program has its own default constituency and point of reference; for the Ph.D., this tends to be the university, including, for example, university-wide programs on pedagogy, university-wide scholarship competitions and awards, and the call for an “external minor,” a couple of classes pursued in another department. For the Th.D. the focal point tends to be the Divinity School, its networks, and its own, Th.D-specific programs — by practical necessity as much as by ideal, inasmuch as the Divinity School, a professional school, does not and cannot participate in the Graduate School’s programs. Unlike the Ph.D., the Th.D. is, moreover, formulated in an explicitly interdisciplinary fashion, the common locus for all its programs being an element of theology, even practical theology. As such, while both Ph.D. and Th.D. can and occasionally do send their graduates to serve as faculty in seminaries, Divinity Schools, and confessional colleges of all stripes, the Th.D. prepares students more explicitly for such a track, while the Ph.D.’s ideal graduate still proceeds to labor in a research university or liberal arts college.
There’s a smidgen of disagreement among the faculty about whether students should be encouraged to apply to both programs or to only one or the other. My personal sense is that students who genuinely feel they would be a good fit for either program ought to apply to both without qualms or hesitation, secure in the knowledge that there are different selection committees at work in each program. For the most part, however, students with a clear sense of professional direction or vocation ought to be able to figure out which doctoral program will set them along the trajectory they wish to pursue. In this vein, I ask students who come to talk to me about their doctoral aspirations where they ultimately hope to work, whether their passion lies with research or teaching, who they consider or desire to have as their primary scholarly interlocutors, and how well their interests fit with one of the GPR’s defined tracks, and whether they have their hearts set on a particular mentor. A fine education can be had in either Th.D. or Ph.D., both programs have reliably produced employable graduates, both strive for academic rigor and professional acumen in their students, both draw upon eminently functional, smart, and kind faculties — and, by contrast, both programs present students with occasional frustrations, include students who remain “in program” for far longer than they or the university might have hoped, and both come with all the stressors and challenges that attend doctoral studies.
On a more personal note, let me say merely this: I am a product of the GPR, the Ph.D. program. I have never once regretted choosing this program, and loved almost every day in its pursuits, owing in large part to my ability to work with the world’s best advisor, not to mention a cadre of faculty and colleagues who were as brilliant as they were committed to research and pedagogy. And yet: I have numerous friends who found their time “in program” not only difficult but lonely and discouraging. What was the perfect program for me wasn’t for them, through no fault of theirs or merit of mine. For students intent on joining a doctoral program anywhere, my advise would be to weigh the data, do the research, ask the right questions, and know that while getting a doctorate is a quite brief exercise in the grand scheme of one’s life, five, eight, or ten years in a program can feel either interminable … or pass far too swiftly.
* Unlike the Ph.D., the Th.D. in theory permits supervision of a doctoral student by a non-tenured faculty member. In practice, however, this is rare, and, I think, rightly so: no student wants to face the prospect of her supervisor being told that her or his institution just isn’t that into them, no tenure, sorry. By the same token, a more senior faculty member has, at least in theory, more to offer as a supervisor to a student — especially but not exclusively when it comes to placing a student in the ever-dwindling job market.