This spotlight comes from Ariel Bybee Laughton, who graduated from Duke in May 2010 with her Ph.D.
Dr. Laughton, take it away…
I had a wonderful experience as a doctoral student at Duke and would highly recommend that anyone considering graduate studies in religion consider applying. Yet I think I should be fair to any potential applicants who may be reading this and tell you that the Ph.D. program is highly competitive. (I doubt I could get in myself at this time with the qualifications I presented when I applied in 2002.) Please save your time, effort, and your $70 application fee if you have not already received a master’s degree (in religion or a related discipline) and don’t know exactly what you want to study and exactly who, at Duke, you are interested in studying it with. Your efforts would be better spent applying to the terminal M.A. program in the department of religion or to the MTS or M.Div. programs housed within Duke Divinity School. These are also good programs and Duke’s graduate faculty is famous for accepting a disproportionate amount of graduates from these programs into the doctoral program.
And please, don’t go to graduate school with your eyes closed to the fact that there are so very few tenured academic positions available out there once you finish your degree.
That being said, I move forward to describe some of the wonderful things about religious studies at Duke and to tell you some secrets I have learned about applying. The graduate program in religion consists of about seventy students pursuing doctoral degrees in ten subfields (Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Early Christianity, European Christianity, American Religion, History of Judaism, Islamic Studies, Christian Theology, Religion and Modernity, and Asian Religions) working under approximately forty faculty. In addition to the significant resources Duke provides, doctoral students also have access to faculty, courses, and libraries at the nearby University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. The intellectual environment of Duke was fantastic. Between all of the lectures, discussions, and reading groups, I could have attended some event every single night that would have been intellectually stimulating. Unlike in my experience at … ahem, a large but unnamed religious university, people at Duke just enjoyed hanging out around campus and talking about ideas.
I don’t want to spend too much time here going over general information about the program since you can learn most of it on the program’s website:http://www.duke.edu/web/gradreligion/index.html. (There you will also find a link to the National Research Council’s recent report on how ridiculously good Duke’s religion program is too, just in case these kinds of rankings mean anything to you.)
I do want to talk about things that really mattered to me when I was applying to graduate school: 1) How to I get in? and 2) How do I pay for it? I will explain how the admissions process at Duke (as I understand it) works. Applicants submit their applications to the graduate school which, in turn, forwards the applications to the graduate program in religion. The faculties of the various subfields of the program meet and formulate ranked “short lists” of the few applicants that they feel are the strongest candidates and/or whose interests align most closely with their own. Their lists are forwarded, with the applications, back to the graduate school that grants or denies admission to the applicants on the short list based upon faculty recommendation but also upon GPA and GRE scores. (In recent years, some of the subfields in the religion program have been granted one admission spot by the graduate school when they have received over a hundred applications. Like I said, it has become highly competitive.)
Because of the way this system works, I would strongly suggest that any serious applicant make direct contact with the faculty members of the subfield to which they are applying ahead of time, introducing themselves and asking intelligent questions via email or telephone. It also makes a good impression if you make the effort to come visit Duke and meet with the faculty you want to work with, but I have heard more than one professor grumble about wasting time with a potential applicant who had done little research about the program or the professor with whom they were meeting ahead of time. Your personal statement should reflect a familiarity with the work and interests of the people you hope to study under and should define as clearly as possible how your specific interests coincide with theirs.
Even if you woo the faculty with all of your academic charms, please don’t underestimate the importance of your GPA and GRE scores. At Duke, these are key in determining not only who gets admitted but also who receives funding for graduate study since the graduate school alone makes the financial decisions. Few doctoral students are admitted to Duke without also being offered a full five-year fellowship that includes all tuition and fees, health insurance, and a relatively generous stipend. (A significant childcare subsidy is also available for grad students with children who don’t have a stay-at-home spouse.) Several fellowships are also available beyond the fifth year for students who are in the dissertation-writing phase of their programs as well.
While the LDS community in the doctoral program in religion is extremely sparse (i.e. I am the only Mormon student to have matriculated since 2002), there are several LDS graduate students at Duke and the LDS community in the Durham/Chapel Hill area is surprisingly strong. I attended both the Duke/UNC YSA ward and the standard “married” ward for different periods of my time in Durham and enjoyed being surrounded by LDS graduate and professional students in both. The cost of living is relatively inexpensive in Durham so Duke is a more affordable option than many other top schools, especially for those who may be beginning a doctoral program with a family in tow.