Religious Studies Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Course Info

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What kind of job can you get with a degree in religious studies? Read on to find out about graduate degree requirements, online options and info on courses and career paths.
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Study Religion: Graduate Degrees at a Glance

Graduate degree programs in religious studies allow students to learn not only about a wide variety of religions both ancient and modern, but also about the social and cultural impact of philosophical and spiritual practices around the world. While many religious studies graduate programs are open for those pursuing a religious vocation, you don't have to be seeking a career as a clergyman to study religion. Religious studies graduate degree programs encompass the study of many religious systems, texts, and languages across the globe.

A majority of religious studies graduate students seek jobs in academia; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for postsecondary educators was expected to remain stable - at a rate of 17% growth - from 2010-2020. The most common careers in religious studies outside of academia weren't expected to grow any faster than other industries for the same ten-year period (17% growth for directors of religious activities and 18% growth for clergy). Additional training offered by many graduate degree programs can give you an edge in careers in journalism, business, and social work (among other fields) through your specialized knowledge of religious systems.

Master's Doctorate
Who should apply for this degree program? - Students looking for a multicultural exploration into a variety of religions and philosophies
- Students pursuing clerical ordination for careers in religious ministry
- Students with a background in religious studies who want to work in postsecondary education or specialized ministries
Common Career Paths (approximate annual median salary)* - Religious programs director ($36,500)
- Chaplain for college, hospital, or military ($44,000)
- Journalist ($34,900)
- Editor (including those working on religious texts) ($52,400)
- Professor ($65,000)
Time to Completion Average 1-2 years Average 3-6 years
Common Graduation Requirements - Foreign language requirement
- Thesis/Capstone
- Foreign language requirement
- Dissertation and defense
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree - Bachelor's degree with experience in religious coursework
- Master's degree in related field
Online Availability - MA degrees (limited by religion/career)
- Master's certificates
None available

*Source: O*NET (2011 figures).

Master's Degree in Religious Studies

Entering a graduate degree program in religious studies isn't solely for those looking to become postsecondary teachers or for those going into ministry. While an MA or MPhil in religious studies is often a requirement for such careers, religious studies master's degree programs are usually designed to be interdisciplinary, allowing students to explore the social, cultural, and regional effects of religions all across the globe.

Many universities also offer the chance to pair religious studies courses with additional training for different fields - such as journalism or social work - though such options are limited to certain schools and the interactions of each department. Still, you should know that the pursuit of a career as a chaplain (for a hospital or military base) or as a clerical minister requires ordination based on the conventions of certain religions; likewise, other careers in social work, education, etc. require further training for certification in those fields.

Pros and Cons of a Master's in Religious Studies

Pros

  • Master's degree programs encourage a wide exploration of religions with a range of connections to a variety of university departments
  • Many religious studies departments are intentionally small, making the program of study more focused and intimate between students and faculty*
  • Many religious studies programs have connections through journalism or education departments, giving you the opportunity to gain practical training while completing your program of study**

Cons

  • Many religious studies graduate programs do not accept students seeking a terminal master's degree, and master's students don't usually continue on to a doctorate program***
  • Smaller departments can mean limited funding for master's students
  • Most programs won't consider you unless you are proficient in at least one or two foreign languages (usually French and German)****

Sources: *Stanford University, **New York University, ***University of California - Riverside; Yale University, ****University of Virginia; Yale University; University of California - Santa Barbara

Courses and Requirements

As a master's student, you aren't expected to choose a narrow concentration or a specific religion to study; rather, most programs require their master's degree students to take a multiregional approach, seeing the impact of religious systems on various cultures and times. Before entering the program, students are usually expected to have at least reading proficiency in an appropriate language, most often French or German. Upon entering the program, most religious studies departments require students to finish 30-45 credit hours (on average) of course work; most programs require taking specific foundations courses on religious studies along with seminars on various religions, relevant language courses, and a set number of elective courses. Graduation requirements often include passing a language-reading exam and sometimes writing a thesis; students seeking a terminal degree are rarely asked to do both. Some commonly offered training includes:

  • Methodology of studying religion
  • Asian religions
  • Interpretation of religion
  • Philosophy of religion

Online Course Information

There are various institutions that offer both graduate certificates and degree programs online. Usually, achieving a graduate certificate in religious studies takes less time and can be more concentrated to a particular religion or region. However, note that a graduate certificate is rarely considered to be the same weight as an actual master's degree in many job fields within academia. Also, master's degree programs offered online are often limited in regards to what religions you can focus on.

If you're interested in a more specific career in pastoral work or in religious ministry/education, you may be able to take advantage of the joint master's degree programs offered online, such as a dual Master of Pastoral Studies and a Master of Business Administration program. Still, note that the courses offered are again very narrow and are designed based on career type.

How Do I Stand Out with this Degree?

If you're not thinking about trying out for a doctoral program in religious studies or if an academic career doesn't interest you, consider taking advantage of the joint programs of study offered by some universities. While you may not immediately expect to find a career outside of academia with a religious studies background, you can put specialized knowledge of religious systems and practices to good use in fields that are seeking such knowledge, such as journalism. A grad student of religious studies can also easily pursue careers in religious education, youth ministry, or other vocational services depending on the institution, so keep your eyes open for such positions, as well.

Doctorate Degrees in Religious Studies

The majority of doctoral degree programs in religious studies are designed to prepare you to enter the academic field. However, while the overall growth for postsecondary teachers and researchers was expected to remain on par with the national-average growth rate from 2010-2020 (www.bls.gov), know that applying for religious studies positions can be very competitive. If you're thinking about a PhD in religious studies, you should be aware that having a handle on multiple languages (ancient and modern) is a must, as is a willingness to teach religion courses to undergraduate students. As with master's degree programs in religious studies, you will have to have special training and sometimes ordination for teaching or directorship positions at some religious institutions, such as seminaries or religious academies.

Pros and Cons of a PhD in Religious Studies

Pros

  • PhD programs allow you to choose a specific concentration for a religious system or text.
  • You don't necessarily have to have a master's degree to start a doctoral religious studies program*
  • Earning a PhD in religious studies along with supplemental training (in business, journalism, social justice, anthropology, education, etc.) can give you an edge in career fields within and outside of academia

Cons

  • Intentionally small religious studies departments are highly competitive for doctoral students
  • Many programs expect you to have taken religion and philosophy undergraduate courses*
  • No online degree program options are available for doctoral students in this field.

Source: *University of California - Riverside

Common Requirements

While most master's degree programs take a broader approach to studying religion, expect to narrow down your focus upon entering a doctoral degree program. Most doctoral students must have a specific religion or region in mind when pursuing their PhD; it varies depending on institution, but the concentration often determines the intensity of the coursework, which may involve greater interaction with religious texts, extended language requirements (beyond the language requirements to enter the program), or more time spent teaching undergraduate religion courses.

Required courses look similar to what is found in a master's degree program of study, but often include both philosophical and methodological approaches to religion for doctorate students. In addition to credit hours, most programs require passing qualifying exams in the appropriate languages and religions studied, a research prospectus, as well as a dissertation and defense. On average, a doctoral degree program can be finished in 5-6 years.

Online Course Information

Presently, there are no PhD programs offered fully online for religious studies. While a handful of schools do allow you the opportunities to take online courses, such programs and courses are rare and they are extremely limited in regards to the topics they focus on. If you are seeking a doctorate degree in religious studies, expect to take a majority of your classes on campus and don't expect to have online options for coursework.

Related programs in ministry and divinity are sometimes offered online, with a short period of residency required of students in these mostly online programs.

How Do I Stand Out with this Degree?

Consider the variety of concentrations that PhD programs offer. Doctoral students are expected to choose a specific concentration; depending on what religious systems or texts you focus on, you may make yourself more valuable in the academic field if you choose an area of study that is in-demand or not as commonly studied, such as Islamic studies.

Additionally, consider the opportunities for supplemental training in foreign languages as well as in other career fields. A position as a researcher or professor isn't guaranteed after getting your PhD, but having extensive practice and proficiency in multiple languages or having training in business, education, journalism, etc. may open more doors for you outside of academia.

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