We’ve been running our Tips on Applying Series for nearly a decade. We heard from Taylor Petrey back in 2010 when he offered some advice on securing an academic position in religious studies. Taylor has recently received tenure, which is a big deal not only for him, but for all Latter-day Saints involved in the study of religion. He graciously agreed to talk to us about his work and how he earned tenure.
We here at FPR have learned that Mr. Stephen Smoot has been accepted into the MA program at Trinity Western in Biblical Studies. This is a significant first step for Stephen and we are very pleased to offer both our congratulations regarding his acceptance and our best wishes for his future. He has chosen a tough and complicated path but we are confident that he will also find it to be as rewarding as have we.
I might also add, personally, that there still seems to be a bit of confusion arising from a recent post here regarding the intersection of certain approaches to apologetics and acceptance into graduate programs. The point made in the original post was that some activities might make the process more difficult, but what seems to have been understood was that such things are categorically impossible. I regret the confusion and am pleased to have had the opportunity to disambiguate the message.
Again, congrats to Stephen and best wishes for success,
It’s grad school application season and students are anxious over GRE, letters of rec, personal statements, GPA etc. It’s a stressful time, we at FPR have been there. We sympathize. Many of us are now on the other side of the portfolio, whether for MA or PhD programs. I don’t speak for us all, but let me say a few things that might be generally true.
If you are LDS and are serious about doing graduate work in Religious Studies (broadly conceived), the Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Early Christian Lit., Late Antique, Patristics, etc., please know that admissions committees have and will continue to be concerned about whether you will be ready to handle their programs. Their concern is not just about your intellectual aptitude, but about the nature of your religious commitments. And it’s not really even so much about your religious commitments as your orientation to the world outside of you and whether you are capable of engaging your area of study dispassionately while honoring multiple points of view. If you are or have been interested in or involved in LDS apologetics, and if you have an online trail of this you are making your chances for admission slimmer than they need be. Look, there are lots and lots of LDS people in graduate programs in these fields and so you know that being LDS or being a BYU grad is not something that is hurting people in most circumstances. That being said, overly partisan or strident public expressions defending X historical point or attacking Y practical point or engaging Dr. Z can become an issue for admissions committees regardless of whether a candidate is religious or non-religious. Grad programs are communities and communities are people, people from all sorts of backgrounds.
I am not talking about liking the latest LDS meme on Facebook or (re)posting an inspirational quote from the last General Conference (depending on the circumstances, you may want to limit this as well). I am talking about blogging and publishing papers that are specifically apologetic. Let me give some examples and assess them for you, ballpark assessment of course. I will gear this towards BYU undergrads since numerically they are the largest group of LDS people to matriculate to graduate school annually.
1.You publish a paper in Studia Antiqua, a student run journal at BYU that sometimes trends apologetic or at least a little tone deaf to audiences beyond the LDS world: mild risk. I would avoid it, but it is pretty harmless.
2. You work as a research assistant with a Religious Education faculty member who only publishes in Deseret Book or equivalent venues and who is willing to grant you co-authorship or is willing to include your name in a prominent way in publications or presentations: strong risk. Avoid this.
3. You work as a RA with a RelEd faculty member who largely publishes in peer reviewed venues outside of the LDS world and is willing to name you as co-author or significant contributor: little or no risk. DO THIS.
4. You start a personal blog to defend the faith. Sometimes you end up belittling or attacking those outside your faith or those within your faith whose views differ from yours or whose place on the LDS spectrum is polar from yours: Serious risk, DO NOT DO THIS.
5. You are asked by FAIR or Interpreter to author or co-author papers, write book reviews, or otherwise attach your name to something these organizations do: Serious risk, DO NOT DO THIS. Do not do this no matter how flattering, how exciting, how faith re-affirming, how methodologically sound you feel it to be. These are big red flags to grad school admission committees. They are even red flags to graduate programs at BYU from what I hear from colleagues there. Again, it is not your religious commitments, it is your orientation to the world of ideas, religion more generally, and other people that are of concern to committee members.
6. You are asked by LDS or BYU professors who are local celebrities and long-time names in apologetics to work with them on their latest project on something that only deals with LDS matters or to rebut the latest faith-attacking thing from whatever source: Serious risk. DO NOT DO THIS unless you really, really need the job.
Listen, friends, we know that you want to help your faith community, we know that these various opportunities and venues are incredibly enticing (and let’s be honest, flattering), but if you are applying or will be applying to grad school, you simply must watch out for number one. You are number one. Not the big name apologist, not the security of your faith community (it will be just fine!), not anyone else but you.
Here are some criteria to help you assess whether something is to your benefit this application season.
1. Has the person you are working with/for on their latest apologetic project published in a peer reviewed venue or presented on something outside of LDS matters in the last year? If not, beware.
2. Does the person you are working with/for have connections to the broader academy, who can vouch for your abilities and help you gain admission? If not, beware. If this person only does things in the local, LDS scene, they cannot really assist you in the bigger world of the academy.
3. Does the person you working with/for have your best professional interest at heart? Does s/he/they offer you direct criticism to your ideas, assumptions, writing? Do they make you interact with the major trends of scholarship in your field? If not, beware.
4. Will this person treat you like a traitor if you go to grad school and decide that apologetics or a largely LDS focus is not best for you? If yes, beware.
5. Does this person badmouth the academy at large? Does this person have more grudges than relationships and friendships in the academy at large? If yes, beware.
6. Does this person have a proven track record of mentoring/helping students into grad programs? If not, beware.
Please be cautious and discerning, friends. We want to see you succeed. We want you as colleagues and conversation partners trained at great programs. We have been where you are and we speak with some collective wisdom, uncomfortable though it might seem to you right now.
This spotlight features Carl Cranney, who did an MA at Yale’s Divinity School and is now pursuing a doctorate at the Catholic University of America. Carl is also doing an excellent series at Juvenile Instructor on teaching Mormonism. Thanks, Carl. Continue reading “Tips on Applying: Spotlight on the Catholic University of America”
We’re expanding the Tips on Applying series to move beyond applying to graduate programs in religious studies. The next series of posts will focus on applying to tenure track positions in religious studies (or related) departments. To start I’d like to point out some useful resources:
This spotlight comes from Ariel Bybee Laughton, who graduated from Duke in May 2010 with her Ph.D.
Dr. Laughton, take it away… Continue reading “Tips on Applying: Spotlight on Duke”
Most PhD applications and some master’s applications require a 10-20 page writing sample. Personally I’d say that this was the weakest part of my application. Not because I didn’t have a decent writing sample to provide, but because what I did submit was not directly related to the interests of some of the programs I applied to. In retrospect, this probably disqualified me from a few places.
Some guidelines to choosing a writing sample are as follows:
1. Choose an ‘A’ paper. In other words, select a paper you got high marks on. This paper may have to be re-written with a broader audience in mind. All too often papers handed in for a class are part of a conversation shared with one professor and a few classmates. The writing sample, however, will need to appeal to those on the admissions committee; some of whom may not be familiar with the topic of your paper. In aiming for a broader audience it may help to have the professor who originally graded the paper re-read it, now thinking about how an admissions committee would view it. This strategy is particularly helpful if this professor is also writing one of your letters of recommendation since s/he can talk about the strength of your work with regards to this paper in his/her letter of recommendation. You may also want to have others read through this paper as well.
2. Choose something that relates to your interests. This doesn’t need to be the future topic of your dissertation (most admissions committees do not want your interests to be that narrow at the admissions stage), but it should represent the kind of thinking you want to continue to pursue in a graduate program.
3. Choose something that relates to the interests of the program you are applying to. If you’re applying to a program in early Christianity, the writing sample you submit should be about early Christianity (although there’s more leeway on this if you’re applying to a master’s program). You need not directly engage the scholarship of those in the program you’re applying to; however you need to demonstrate that you can be a part of the same conversation that they are a part of. This might entail focusing on similar topics or texts, situating your argument in the same secondary scholarship that they situate their argument in, or utilizing similar methods or theorists in making your argument. Your writing sample should paint a picture of you participating in and contributing to the intellectual life of the program.
Certainly academic cultures vary. Some admission committees may read every writing sample. Most, though, will only read those on the “short list”–those written by candidates who are real contenders for admission. Within both of these groups, some will read them very carefully, others will only read a few pages. The writing sample, I believe, is not the most important part of the application. However, it may be the defining part of your application after you’ve wowed the admissions committee with your statement of purpose, and floored them with your letters of recommendation. The writing sample can situate you at the top or the bottom of the short list.
[Editors note: My apologies to The Yellow Dart. This post has been two and a half years in the making–see comment 31]
In this post I want to address the question of whether one should first apply to master’s programs in religious studies, or whether it’s possible to be directly admitted into a PhD program without obtaining a master’s degree. Below are some quick thoughts. As always, feel free to chime in since I’m speaking more from my own experience than any comprehensive study I’ve done on. Continue reading “Tips on Applying to Grad Programs in Religious Studies, Part VIII: MA or PhD”
These last 18 months have been brutal. Since April of 2009 I have prepped and sat for 4 language examinations and I am two to four weeks away from sitting for my last one. First French, then five months later Greek, then two months later Latin, then five months German, and now Hebrew. I have actually enjoyed studying for each of the exams and I have relished adding further linguistic/academic implements to my tool-belt. But I am getting a bit weary. I stare at Hebrew words and my mind refuses to register the morphology or determine what word these three consonants are making–they all look the same. But the end is in sight and just today I was looking at the reading lists of some of my senior classmates’ comprehensive exams and I got a sick nervous feeling but also a thrill of excitement–soon I will be forming and reading my own lists about stuff in which I am interested. Praise Yah!
So, for all of you readers who are interested or curious about doing PhD work in NT and Ancient Christianity, I give you a breakdown of language exam requirements for my particular program (others’ programs are sure to differ, however).
Three passages covering two pages to be done in two hours. This test was easier than the German exam but it had its own tricks. One passage was on modern methods of high-speed travel, including a paragraph on hovercrafts and hovercraftery (as all of us being examined hit the passage within a few minutes of each other, it was amusing and distressing to watch those around me freak out when the word didn’t appear in their dictionaries–luckily, my dictionary had it, hats off to the Robert Collins Unabridged!). This test is administered university wide so the topics are almost guaranteed to not be one’s field.
Two passages, slightly shorter than the French exam. This was one was especially tricky since the first passage was an op/ed piece about the Austr0-German conflict (or something like that) from a 19th century German newspaper that included a patchwork of half a dozen quotes from contemporary politicians and pundits. Painful. This was also a university wide exam, so again neither of the sections was in my field. Dictionaries allowed.
This is the grand-daddy of them all for my program and it is a beast. The exam contains two sections with two passages in each section. Each section is budgeted 2 hours for a 4 hour total. The first section is the harder of the two. It covers the entire NT–no exceptions. And no lexica. All 650 odd pages of the Nestle-Aland Edition. The two passages that appeared on my exam (both of about average chapter length) came from the latter part of Acts (during one of Paul’s trial scenes, I can’t remember which now) and the other from Hebrews 5 and 6. If you are wondering how one studies for this, here was my method: I read the NT cover to cover 5 times and re-read a 6th or 7th time the hard passages like Hebrews, 2 Corin, Petrine epistles etc. The second section covers 50 Oxford Edition (or equivalent) pages of Greek ranging from Classical to Late Antique chosen by the student in consultation with the examiner. My selection included Plato (Statesman), Corpus Hermeticum (Poimander), Origen (Treatise on Prayer), and an epistle of Ignatius. For this section we are permitted the use of a lexicon. On both sections there are about 15-20 questions on parsing, syntax, style, and rhetorical devices.
This was the least awful of the five for me since it only covered 50 pages of Oxford Edition Latin agreed upon with the examiner. The exam is two hours long but with no lexica. 30 of my pages were drawn from one of Cicero’s defense speeches (pro sulla) and the other 20 were from Lucretius’ de rerum natura. There were about 20 questions total on parsing, syntax, and grammar. The test was challenging but enjoyable since reading Lucretius is one of my joys in life and since I love/hate Cicero.
This exam covers the least material but has been a hard one for me since I do not have any training in Semitics beyond basic Hebrew Bible grammar. The exam is two hours long with two passages culled from a pre-set list of 30 chapters from the HB. I have not yet taken this one but so far the preparation has been tough but somewhat enjoyable. I struggle with prophecy chapters (esp. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel) and with poetry (esp. Psalm 22, Song of Songs 1) but the narrative chapters are not so bad. I have gotten through all 30 chapters 3 times as of today, and I think that after one more time through, I will sit for the exam. The exam, from what I have heard, has several questions on morphology and a few on poetic structure. No lexicon.
So there you have it. This is what my life has been dedicated to for the last year and half (aside from coursework) and this is what you have to look forward to if you are self-hating enough to sign up for a PhD program in this field. Perhaps the most depressing part about all of this is how fast one language fades as others are bolstered. At one point last year I could cruise through a French article in my field–not so fast now. But luckily, all of these seem to come back just fine with a little polish.
Next up, and perhaps the last for a while, is Taylor P.
I received a ThD in New Testament and Early Christianity from a divinity school that works within a “religious studies” paradigm. I have been hired in a tenure-track position in a Religious Studies department at a private, secular, liberal arts college. The year that I went out on the market, there were two jobs in my immediate field at secular schools, and three at religiously-affiliated schools. I applied to those and a few more that were focused more broadly (e.g., anyone in “Christian Studies”), but overall it was a pretty terrible year and I am incredibly fortunate to have landed the job that I did. One thing that I will say is that there is no “formula” for securing a job. There are many different ways. I will sketch out my own experience and share the advice that I received and that seemed to work in my case. To any who are involved in this process, I wish you the best of luck!
Continue reading “Tips on landing a job in religion, #2”