Tips on Applying: Spotlight on Harvard Divinity School

This spotlight is on Harvard Divinity School, and comes from Michael I., an alumnus and current PhD student at Harvard.

Would you recommend HDS to other LDSs? If so, what recommendations would you make for applying to a program there?

I would highly recommend HDS to other Latter-day Saints who are interested in rigorously engaging questions about religion. HDS offers 4 programs–3 master’s programs and a ThD program. I completed the MTS program (master of theological studies)–the equivalent of an MA in religious studies, and will speak more about that than the others.

The MTS is a 2 year program that admits about 100 students per year. It’s very flexible, which will allows the student to really shape his or her own curriculum and explore a wide array of interests. Registration into other Harvard schools is highly encouraged. Some students will even take classes from the business school. HDS has also partnered up with all the other religious studies departments and divinity schools in the area to create a situation that allows anyone in those schools to take classes from any of those institutions (although I believe students are limited to the number of classes they can cross-register for).

The MTS is quite well funded. When I applied I didn’t fill out a financial aid application, thinking that I wouldn’t make it in. Upon being accepted, I phoned the financial aid department and explained the situation. Despite the application being months late, they allowed me to submit it along with a letter explaining why it was late. A few weeks later I got notice that they were going to give me half tuition. I’ve heard that since I’ve graduated the funding has increased even more because of a series of large donations made to the school.

The acceptance rate for the MTS program is rather high. Given some rough math I’d say that it’s about 25-30%. I’m not sure what the acceptance rate is for Latter-day Saints (I’m guessing that it’s higher given the push for diversity at HDS), but on average there 2/year that enter (this has been the case for probably the past 7 or 8 years).

HDS has a long history of Mormons enrolling. As far as we can tell Richard Sherlock, professor of philosophy at USU, was the first to attend back in the 70’s. Since then others such as Phil Barlow have also graduated from HDS. With 2 or so Latter-day Saints entering HDS a year and a handful of doctoral students doing work in religion, there is close-knit community of young Mormon scholars. There is even a “Latter-day Saint Society” run by the students and funded by the Divinity School, which brings out 1 Mormon scholar a year to speak to the Divinity School (we’ve had Givens, Barlow, and others come out since I’ve been here). The students also organize a “Mormon Perspective Series” which provides an opportunity twice a semester for 1 or 2 students to present their work to the local Mormon audience. My sense is that we have the largest number of grad students outside of Claremont, with a total of about 10.

Graduate work in religious studies happens in places other than the Divinity School at Harvard. There is a “Committee on Religion” (Harvard has no official department) that offers a PhD program (there’s 1 Latter-day Saint in it now) as well as a BA for undergraduates (there’s also 1 Mormon undergrad in the program). The Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department (NELC) offers an MA as well as a PhD. This is one of the primary places Hebrew Bible is done. There are currently 3 Latter-day Saint PhD students in NELC. The East Asian department likewise houses most of the disciplines related to East Asia and has an MA and PhD. I am now in the East Asian department along with one other Latter-day Saint.

In reading through the earlier posts here, I haven’t seen anyone point out the advantage to understanding the inter-disciplinary nature of religious studies. In other words, the fact that religion can be approached from a variety of disciplines, coupled with the growth of “religious studies” departments, as well as the persistence of professional “divinity schools” means that at places like Harvard there are a plethora of departments one could apply to with the possibility of receiving just about the same training.

The MTS is a great stepping stone to PhD work. At the very least I would recommend it as a backup for not being admitted directly into a PhD program (although I believe most people going into PhD programs have a master’s degree). Almost all of the LDS MTS students who wanted to go on to PhD work have done so. Those who decide not to, at the very least walk away with a 2 year experience that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

The MDiv is a 3-year program traditionally meant for those going into the ministry, although many MDivs do decide to go on to PhD work. There have been a number of LDSs who graduated from this program. Some have gone on to chaplaincies in hospitals or in the army. The ThD is the equivalent of a PhD, but is run and funded by the Divinity School. While traditionally those graduating from this program went on to teach as seminaries, this is not necessarily the case; and actually hasn’t been for quite some time. Phil Barlow for instance graduated from the ThD program. There is also 1 Latter-day Saint student in the program right now.

One down-side to HDS is that there are currently no Americanists teaching in the faculty. This means that  the offerings for those looking to do work in Mormon studies is quite sparse. I believe there are a couple of job searches for Americanists happening this year, so hopefully that will be remedied.

What is the intellectual environment like?

Diversity is highly sought after at HDS; and it seems that they are quite sincere about this. In discussions I’ve had with other Latter-day Saints doing work at other institutions I get the sense that HDS is more accepting of people of faith than many other places. Personally I’ve never been held with suspicion for being a believer (at least not by anyone in the Divinity School as far as I could tell), or been treated with less than the respect deserved for someone who does not necessarily think the same way as others might.

The good thing, and bad thing, about HDS is that you can have what ever kind of experience you’d like to have. So for those looking to engage those of other faiths and other mind-sets about issues of religiosity, that opportunity is there. For those looking to “survive” the 2 years to hold it up as their badge of honor for “being in the world, but not of the world”, HDS is large enough to facilitate such an experience (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which is fortunate and which is unfortunate).

Boston has a vibrant LDS community, with 3 singles wards and 2 stakes. The chapel is about a 5 minute walk from Harvard Square and the institute teacher there is a PhD student at Brandies working with David Wright.

This has been long enough, but I hope it has been helpful. I’ll do my best to hang around and answer any questions.

Previous posts in this series: Part I. Part II. Part III. Part IV. Part V.

Previous Spotlights: YDS. UNC.

14 Replies to “Tips on Applying: Spotlight on Harvard Divinity School”

  1. Thanks for this synopsis. It is interesting to compare it with my time at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. HDS definitely has a much more organized community than the GTU for LDS student. Though I agree that the 3 years I spent at the GTU are invaluable.

  2. These posts are enjoyable. Please keep these spotlights coming. How about one for every major Div. school/Rel. studies program? Emory, Duke, Chicago, Vandy, Claremont, etc.

  3. Rice, Indiana, Notre Dame, BU, Virginia, Brown. Such an ongoing project would be really valuable to aspiring LDS scholars and insightful for those students who are curious about conditions in other schools around the country.

  4. Justin,

    Thank you very much for that link. I had never seen that article before. It’s as if most of it were written yesterday. It would be interesting to see if the number of Mormons at divinity schools dropped in the 80s and 90s, and we are seeing a resurgence now, or if this has been the state of the field all along. It would seem to me if things continued to grow from the 70s, there would be many more Mormon scholars doing work in religious studies.

    I also agree that these spotlights should continue.

  5. Please keep these spotlights coming. How about one for every major Div. school/Rel. studies program?

    I’ve made requests from LDSs at several other programs and will post their responses when I get them, but if you know of anyone at the programs you mention (or recent graduates), please let me know.

  6. One of my (LDS) friends is a PhD candidate at Chicago and another at Rice Studying with April DeConick. Shoot me an email and I can get you more info.

  7. Just to quickly update one point in this post. According to the HDS website, two top Americanists have just joined the faculty this year. It looks like Leigh Schmidt and Marie Griffeth came to HDS after being wooed to leave Princeton. These are two amazing scholars and LDS interested in American religion would be lucky to work with them.

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