Tips on Applying: Spotlight on the University of North Carolina

Matthew Grey, a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has been kind enough to provide us with our next spotlight.

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

I would definitely recommend UNC-Chapel Hill for Latter-day Saint students interested in pursuing graduate work in Religious Studies. While there are several available areas of study offered by the program (e.g. Islamic Studies, Asian Religions, Religion and Modern Culture), two tracks that might be of particular interest to Latter-day Saint students are the emphases in American Religions and Ancient Mediterranean Religions. Although I am personally working in the “Ancient Med” track, the American Religions track offers particularly strong academic training in early and modern Mormonism. This is largely made possible by the current chair of our department, Laurie Maffly-Kipp. Laurie is a non-LDS scholar of Mormonism who has done very interesting work on issues ranging from Joseph Smith and the 19th century church (including editing and introducing the recent Penguin edition of the Book of Mormon) and Mormons and politics (including some pieces on the church and the Romney presidential candidacy). She is very rigorous in her scholarship, as well as very even handed in her treatment of the church. Every year Laurie offers a well-attended undergraduate course on Mormonism where she exposes students to LDS history, doctrine, current issues, and holds several panel discussions with local members of the church to allow for first hand interaction. In recent years she has had two LDS graduate students, each of whom seemed to have had a very positive experience working with her, despite their different personal approaches (one being actively involved in Sunstone/Dialogue circles and the other being a recent hire in BYU Religious Education).

For those interested in biblical studies, the track in Ancient Mediterranean Religions has two very strong options. One is the study of New Testament and Early Christianity with Bart Ehrman. Bart’s personal specialty is the textual history of New Testament manuscripts, but also has graduate students working in Pauline issues, historical Jesus studies, and the use of scripture by the early church fathers. Despite his reputation for challenging evangelical notions of biblical inerrancy, Bart is actually very respectful of his students from a variety of religious backgrounds, including three Latter-day Saint graduate students in recent years. Each seems to have very much enjoyed working with Bart and have incredible skills in Greek and New Testament exegesis as a result of working with him. A second option within this track (in which I am currently working) is the study of Archaeology and Ancient Judaism with Jodi Magness. Although this is not as directly in contact with LDS scripture or history as the above possibilities, working with Jodi is an incredible opportunity to receive training in the larger world of the New Testament and early Christianity by studying the texts and archaeology relating to Judaism from the Second Temple Period through Late Antiquity.

One nice aspect of the department is its interest in cross-disciplinary training as a way of better preparing its students for the job market. For example, every incoming graduate student in the Religious Studies department is required to take a course in modern theories of religion, so as to equip students in every corner of Religious Studies to understand and dialogue with their peers/colleagues who focus on different aspects of the field. In addition, every graduate student is required to take a course outside of her/his own field as a way of broadening teaching abilities (e.g., as a student in Ancient Mediterranean Religions I took a course in American Religion which resulted in my own syllabus and bibliography should I ever need to teach a course in that broad topic).

As with other PhD programs, admission is very competitive. Along with the standard expectations of a high GPA and GRE scores, a very important part of the application process here is a strong personal statement. Therefore, I would suggest having an idea of who you want to study with and exactly what you want to study with that person before submitting an application, so your personal statement makes a strong case for a perfect fit between yourself and the department. Corresponding with the professor(s) throughout the application process is a great way to make your application stand out from the many that have had no prior contact with department faculty. For those interested in applying for the Ancient Mediterranean Religions track, extensive language background (e.g. Greek, Hebrew, and/or Latin, Coptic, or Syriac) is a major advantage in applying to work with Bart Ehrman and archaeological experience (especially in the eastern Mediterranean) is a major advantage in applying to work with Jodi Magness.

What is the funding situation for MA and/or PhD students?

The program only offers a joint MA/PhD program and every accepted student receives a generous financial package that is guaranteed for five years. This package includes tuition and insurance for the student (but does not include insurance for a spouse and children), as well as ca. $15,000 as an annual stipend. You need to pay your own university fees, which add up to about $800 per semester (someone needs to fund the #1 NCAA basketball team in the country!). This financial situation requires the student to work part-time as a Teaching Assistant for Fall and Spring semesters. Although this limits your personal study time a bit, in the end I think that it is a major advantage. Not only do you get to work closely with top-name professors who can then provide even stronger letters of recommendation for you, but by the end of the program you have 5 years of teaching experience at the university level. All of this makes for a very strong application in the job market.

What is the intellectual environment like?

The intellectual environment in Chapel Hill is fantastic. As far as the university goes, UNC graduate students have full access to the libraries, professors, and courses offered at Duke University, only 20 minutes away (they might be our basketball rivals, but this is a nice academic arrangement!). Most UNC students take about 1/3 of their coursework at Duke and will have Duke professors on their exam and dissertation committees. Furthermore, between the visiting lecturers at UNC and Duke every semester, students will have had opportunities to interact with some of the biggest names in the field over their five year program (this also helps in networking for fellowships, post-docs, and future job opportunities).

As far as intellectual life in the church, it is very exciting to have three wards (two married and one single) comprised of other UNC and Duke graduate students in every field. This makes dinners, hall conversations, and sometimes even gospel doctrine classes full of insights from a variety of disciplines and deep thinkers. There is also a UNC-Duke Institute program which seeks to have teachers at various ends of the spectrum (from the general CES-Seminary approach for undergrads to classes geared more towards graduate students).

Program website:

Past posts in the series: Part I. Part II. Part III. Part IV.

Past spotlights: YDS

9 Replies to “Tips on Applying: Spotlight on the University of North Carolina”

  1. Although Ehrman has made a very popular name for himself it seems as though he hasn’t done a great deal of serious scholarship in recent years. But I imagine this will change as he is pressured by students and peers to turn back to more academic projects. Zlatko Plese is a powerhouse and when I applied to UNC (and was rejected) I specifically wanted to work with him. His dual PhDs in Philosophy/Theology and Classics (with a Coptic Christianity emphasis) are almost unheard of in Bible and Ancient Christian circles. His work is not for the novice reader nor does it make for good interview material on ‘Fresh Air’ and for these reasons he is not nearly so well known as Ehrman.

    Plese coupled with the Ehrman of the last decade is a formidable core of faculty and anyone admitted to UNC under them is fortunate.

  2. As a side note, it seems like Ehrman’s self-documented and published loss of personal faith has both increased his notoriety and readership while at the same time hamstringing his credibility in the professional realm. I wonder what kind of dynamic that engenders in a small department?

  3. Thanks for the comments, all. Ounedos and gwesley are right that Zlatko Plese is an incredible (if less known) scholar to have in the department. Actually, all of the grad students in the Ancient Mediterranean Religions track have to take at least one course with him on Greco-Roman religion. Unfortunately, Zlatko is one of the under-used resources in the department – as long as I have been here there have not been any gradutate students accepted to work specifically with him and he is a little too heavy for the undergrads. But he is a very valuable resource for those interested in the Gr-Rom background to the New Testament and the early church.

    As for Bart Ehrman, I agree (and he fully recognizes) that much of his work in the last decade has been geared towards a popular/Barnes&Noble audience. As bothered as some are by this, it has actually been incredibly beneficial for the field. Imagine books disseminating solid research on the textual transmission of New Testament manuscripts to a large audience of non-specialists being on the New York Times best-seller list! Bart’s ability to attract the attention of large numbers of non-specialists to the field of New Testament studies is also evinced by his annual course on the New Testament in which 240-300 students are able to wrestle (most for the first time) with challenging issues of studying scripture academically (incidentally, this huge undergrad interest is a major feather in the cap of the department in terms of larger university support…). So over all, I don’t think Bart’s “outreach” to a broader audience is a bad thing. That being said, he currently has several projects in the works that are geared for more academic peers (such as a book on forgery and pseudpigraphy in the early church and an updated edition of his “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture”).

    As for his published statements on his own loss of faith – I once heard Luke Timothy Johnson discuss how valuable it is for readers to know the personal background of various authors as it better equips them to evaluate the natural biases and leanings of the scholarship. I think this is valuable advice for scholars along all ends of the faith spectrum.

  4. thanks for the further details matt.

    unfortunate indeed that in an ‘ancient mediterranean religions’ program no one wants to study with plese. i wanted to study with him but was too dumb even to figure out the two part application to say nothing of getting accepted.

    about imagining books disseminating solid research on the textual transmission of the nt, i think that the relevant sections of lost christianities and ehrman’s later misquoting jesus are rather sensational, misleading, and dissingenuous, when, for instance, he estimates the number of variants to be around 200-300k “or more,” knowing full well that only a fraction of those are exegetically significant, and having said himself, in response to the first intallment of the editio critica maior, and to his peers rather than the public, that the mountain of variants that are not included in the apparatus of the gnt and n-a have no bearing on the “original” text of the nt.

    on the subject of other things early christian, i get the feeling that some see ehrman as having done a great disservice both to the public and the field by the way he characterizes gnosticism in his recent popular works.

    but this is all so petty.

  5. What kind of GRE score is competitive for applying to these programs?
    Hi BIV,

    We’ll do the next part on the GRE. Look for it over the weekend sometime.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *