Study Theology: PhD, Master's Degree & Online Course Info

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What kind of job can you get with a graduate degree in theology? Find out about program requirements, career paths and online master's and PhD options.
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Study Theology: Graduate Degrees at a Glance

Theologians study religious texts and hone their critical reasoning skills in order to learn how to discuss, preach and teach on topics of faith. As a student in this field, you'll learn about ancient languages, literary criticism and become familiar with hermeneutics. Some - but not all - programs are designed to enhance a student's experience of a particular faith.

Employment of religious workers was expected to grow about as fast as the national average (10-19%) from 2010-2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Because the skills learned in these types of programs are most relevant to those involved in a community of faith, agnostics, atheists and those in a crisis of faith may need training in another field, like politics or law, in order to find a fulfilling career path.

Master'sDoctorate
Who is this degree for?Students who want to focus on either practical objectives or academic inquiry and intellectual developmentStudents who want to pursue careers in academia and research
Common Career Paths (approx. median annual salary) - Religious Activities and Education Directors ($36,470)*
- Clergy ($44,140)*
- College Philosophy and Religion Teachers ($65,100)*
Time to Completion 2 years, full-time 2-3 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements Roughly 96 quarter-units of training in: Christian ethics, recovery ministry, at-risk children, Biblical context and international development - 12-20 classes (depending on the program and concentration)
- Research and teaching internships
- Dissertation
PrerequisitesBachelor's degree in any majorMaster of Divinity or a Master of Arts in Theology (assuming applicants are proficient in relevant languages like Hebrew and Greek)
Online AvailabilityAvailableMostly available, though a period of residency may be required

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (figures for 2011).


Master's Degree in Theology

These 2-year, master's programs in ministry and theology, theological studies as well as Master of Arts in Theology programs are found at traditional academic institutions and denominational seminaries. If you are interested in critical thinking about various religious traditions, look into a program at a large university, since programs at denominational settings emphasize developing a systematic understanding of a particular faith. In order to prepare for careers in the parachurch, marketplace, or the church, both types of programs require you to perform textural criticism, learn about thought, practices, normative claims, as well as structures of a variety of theological fields and religious traditions.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Earning a master's degree in theology can lead to an emotionally and/or spiritually rewarding career.
  • Job growth in these fields was expected to increase about as fast as the national average.*
  • These research-intensive degrees prepare graduates for further study in a variety of fields.

Cons

  • Even with a master's degree, most careers in theology do not usually offer high salaries.*
  • May be tougher to find a job if you are not a member of a community of faith.
  • Some positions in this field require knowledge of other disciplines, like business.

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Courses and Requirements

As a graduate student, you will be expected to prove competence in a relevant language - like Spanish, German, French, classical Hebrew, Christian Latin or ancient Greek - in addition to declaring a focus for your studies. Though degree requirements are dependent upon your focus area, commonly offered topics include:

  • Ancient Near Eastern literature
  • Christian ethics
  • Exegetical methods
  • Global ministry
  • Israelite religion
  • Philosophy
  • Semitic languages

Online Degree Options

Plenty of schools - both secular and non - offer online degree programs in theology. Because these programs involve less in the way of interpersonal relationships, they are best suited to students who get satisfaction from online communication and do not specifically need to pray alongside their classmates.

Some schools require students - within a certain mile-radius to the institution - to take examinations on-campus. If you are unable to attend an examination, you may arrange to take your examinations in the presence of a qualified proctor.

Stand out with this Degree

Those who decide to supplement their education with volunteering and internship experience - available through campus ministry, parish educational programming, literacy programs, campus newspapers and humanitarian organizations - will have a broader set of career options. Experience in journalism could open the way to write for or edit diocesan and denominational newspapers, religious magazines, journals and books. If you are interested in pursuing a career in politics or social-aid, think about taking on a second major in sociology or political science. Those thinking of becoming a teacher might want to take coursework in educational technology.

Degree Alternatives

Master of Arts in Pastoral Administration

If you are interested in acting as a leader and making business decisions for a Christian flock, pastoral administration - also found as a concentration in pastoral ministry programs - may be the right field for you. Professionals foster communities of faith by making decisions about human resources, program initiation and finances. Applicants to these 3-year programs need to have completed an undergraduate degree and may need two years of experience as a minister; some programs may also have a residency requirement.

According to the BLS, there were 42,560 professional clergy members employed in the United States, as of May 2011.

Master of Theology Degree

If you've already earned an M.A. in Divinity - or have been studying theology at the graduate level for three years - and are looking for a stronger understanding of theology prior to going into the ministry, many schools offer the Master of Theology (Th.M.) degree. Th.M. students prepare for life in service to others by focusing on the theological relationship to church history, worship, Christian ethics and the philosophy of religion.

Graduates prepare for careers as religious educators in churches, synagogues and other houses of worship. The May 2011 BLS reports showed that there were 17,560 employed directors who handled religious education and activities. Graduates might also become chaplains or counselors in hospitals, hospice centers, correctional facilities, nursing homes and military bases.

Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling

If you are interested in counseling others on spiritual and mental health matters - without being affiliated with a specific church - you might be interested in an M.A. program in pastoral counseling. Students in these nearly 3-year programs prepare to obtain a license as a mental health professional by studying therapy, ethics, prayer, psychopathology, scriptures and completing a supervised stint as a clinical counselor. According to the BLS, job opportunities for mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists were expected to grow 37% from 2010-2020. The American Association of Pastoral Counselors offers a voluntary certification program for Christian ministry-related counselors. Program requirements include 125 supervised counseling hours, 375 other counseling hours and an established membership in a community of faith.


Doctor of Philosophy in Theology

These highly competitive, research-intensive, 2- to 3-year degree programs prepare you for teaching careers by focusing on the relationship between theology and academic areas like anthropology, political science, economics, education and psychology. Specialization areas are available in fields like systematic theology, historical theology, the Christian healthcare mission and Biblical antiquity. Because doctoral training is designed to prepare graduates for careers in academia, students are expected to have skills in at least three research languages. You will be expected to write and defend a dissertation on a topic of interest to you.

Programs are found in both denominational and non-denominational settings. If you know that you would feel more comfortable in a denominational setting, look for a seminary, rather than a large academic institution.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • There may be more opportunities open to missionaries or pastors who have earned a PhD**
  • The increase in university-level teaching jobs was expected to remain on par with the national average from 2010-2020*
  • These programs provide students with the opportunity to study topics that fascinate them and contribute scholarly works in their areas of specialization.

Cons

  • Research training does not specifically prepare graduates for the ministry**
  • Postsecondary teaching job openings in the humanities were expected to increase more slowly than those for more concrete, science-based fields*
  • The acceptance rate is low even in programs that aren't well known, as schools tend to accept small numbers of applicants (12 students out of an applicant pool of 170 is not unheard of)***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, ***The University of Virginia.

Courses and Requirements

Because a PhD is the terminal degree in this field, it is the degree program that prepares gradates for teaching careers at colleges, universities and seminaries. Some - but not all - programs require that students participate in teaching internships. You will be able to develop your high-level research skills and teaching abilities in courses like:

  • Church leadership
  • Christian ethics
  • Evangelism
  • Philosophy of religion
  • Religious education
  • Spirituality
  • Church and society
  • Congregational studies
  • Mission

Online Degree Options

It is uncommon to find a doctoral degree program in theology that you can finish completely online. Because students are training to better understand their relationship with The Almighty - and by extension, behavior in interpersonal relationships - a period of residency tends to be required at these programs.

Stand out with this Degree

Serious theological scholarship is generally relegated to academic spheres, where doctoral dissertations are often published by academic publishers, edited for inclusion into peer-reviewed journals and quoted by authors of academic articles. However, Joseph Ratzinger - the Roman Catholic also known as Pope Benedict XVI - founded the Ratzinger Prize in March of 2011. This prize - valued at $70,000 - is awarded to writers who have demonstrated excellence in theological scholarship and is funded by private donations and from the royalties of Pope Benedict XVI's books. Many other grants are available to applicants who demonstrate theological promise in writing, such as the John Templeton Award.

As technology - like websites, video sharing and social media - become more commonplace, certain organizations have founded research fellowships to help churches increase their visibility and outreach. Technologically savvy theologians looking to advise religious leaders - on the role that blogging Twitter, Facebook and church websites should play in their ministry - are able to apply to these types of fellowships to distinguish themselves as 21st Century leaders of the community of faith.

Degree Alternatives

Doctor of Theology (ThD)

ThD programs are designed to focus training on multiple elements of Christian theological disciplines as opposed to a PhD program's more general scope, which includes classes in the arts and sciences. The 18- to 24-month ThD programs allow students to learn about church history, theological ethics, pastoral psychology, liturgical studies, homiletics, sacred music, sociology of religion and evangelism.

Graduates are prepared to work in either an academic or a religious community setting. There were 21,930 college professors focusing on religion and philosophy - as of May, 2011 - teaching in the United States, according to the BLS.

Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.)

These professional doctoral programs have been designed to help ministry professionals update skills, refine their understanding of faith and deepen their knowledge of theology. In addition to requiring that applicants have completed a master's degree in a religious discipline, schools require that applicants have at least three years of professional ministry experience.

According to the BLS May 2011 reports, clergy took home a median annual wage of $44,140, but those in the 75th percentile took home around $58,670 per year. The highest employment numbers in this field - as of the same report - were found in religious organizations, hospitals, home health care services, nursing homes and state government.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership - Christian Ministry
      • Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership - Christian Ministry
  • Campus and Online Programs
    2. South University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Ministry (DMin)
      • Ministry (DMin)
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Grand Canyon University

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South University

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