Tips for Getting a Doctorate Degree in Theology

Posted date: June 23, 2017

Essentially, theology involves the study of the concept of religion. A theologian is someone who systematically researches, analyzes and discusses a range of philosophical, historical, and spiritual texts. It is the job of those who have acquired expertise in theology to develop and advance our understanding and knowledge of religion, to test various religious concepts and theories and publish their findings, and to write on and explain a number of religion-based topics. If one is to obtain a doctorate degree in theology i.e. get a PhD or a doctor of philosophy degree, it is necessary to complete a specialist training program and related coursework at a seminary, university, or divinity school. First, though, they must complete a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree program.   

First Part

Prerequisites for Taking a PhD Program

To be eligible to study for a PhD, the student must first sit the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). It is necessary to complete this nationally recognized standardized exam to be admitted to any graduate study program. Currently, the GRE comprises of an essay, math, and verbal test. The majority of humanities faculties, including religion, pay more attention to the scores obtained in the verbal and written tests.

  • Locate past test papers and use these as practice to help you get an improved score in a real test situation.
  • The scoring rules for this test are prone to periodic change.
  • Check the average acceptable score in the guide provided for your prospective program.
  • Scores that are more than ten years old are not likely to be accepted by your institution or program.
  • Choose the schools or colleges where you plan to submit your scores at the time of the actual test.
  • Study for a Master’s degree in a related field. The social sciences and humanities cover a lot of subjects. Think about getting your first degree(s) in a religion-related subject.
  • Look closely at what the college where you plan to take your Master’s degree program has to offer by way of philosophy and/or religious studies.
  • Ask professors at the college where you plan on taking your Master’s program for recommendations on how best to start a scholarly career in the field of theology.
  • Examine similar areas of anthropology, history, and literature for classes and degree programs that may advance your academic career.
  • Try to find out if your degree program has a “fast track” option. If it is the case you are already embarked on a theology Master’s degree program, you may want to inquire about remaining at the same college for your doctorate degree. It may be that you can incorporate the results from your Master’s program into a doctoral program.
  • Remember to make decisions concerning the “fast track” option by the program’s indicated deadline.
  • Obtain a list of the precise requirements for the doctoral program. Look especially for more credit-based hours and the requirements for your dissertation.
  • Even if there is no option for a “fast track,” it may be that you can remain at your present school for your PhD studies. This, however, may require you to submit a new application.
  • Consider learning another language. The majority of doctoral programs in the humanities, at least in the USA and including theology, require at least minimum-level reading knowledge in one other language. In the event your dissertation or thesis involves any international investigation or research, it is likely you will need to learn at least one foreign language over and above that.
  • See what language courses are offered on a regular basis in the program you are interested in.
  • Obtain a schedule that shows when reading knowledge exams or similar tests are run during each college semester.
  • Inquire what the rules are for passing the language credit test as these pertain to the program you are interested in i.e. establish if classes or exams are required to obtain the language credit.
  • Start writing a thesis paper that you can use later. A thesis is an important research paper that one writes as a Master’s degree program approaches its end. In humanities subjects, these projects are usually source-based written works where the writer interprets topic-related evidence.
  • Choose a suitable topic that contributes further to or fills in gaps that currently exist in a particular field. It is important not to duplicate current effort by writing about something that has already been written about. Find a different or fresh angle for a topic that is already well-known.
  • Save any research work you do. Any manuscripts, archived materials, interviews, and books (secondary source materials) you find may be of use later in your doctoral program.

Second Part

Applying for a Doctorate Degree in Theology

  • Select a program that is right for you. Check that any schools you hope to study at have theology departments or a similar faculty i.e. a philosophy or religion department.
  • Check each faculty’s program list, choose those you are interested in, and identify the names of the professors responsible for the areas of theology you would like to study.
  • Try to make contact with any professors you think might be able to advise you. These are the experts who will be directing your study program and future dissertation.
  • Begin by introducing yourself and your aspirations and ideas for the theology studies you hope to cover with these professors.
  • Discuss any work you have done already, particularly the work covered on your Master’s degree program. Discuss theological concept and ideas with individual professors with the aim of developing a professional and productive bond.
  • Think about visiting college campuses. Personal visits to your top choices of college can help you decide where you would like to spend the years it is likely to take you to obtain your doctorate degree.
  • Try to meet with any professors you are likely to be working with. Try at least to meet with your future primary advisor with a view to discussing potential dissertation courses, subjects, and the general expectations of the program.
  • It is worth visiting the department you are likely to be studying in. Look at the work that the professors and other graduate students are doing in the fields of theology, philosophy, and religion.
  • Inquire about and collect contact details for any religious-oriented organizations that might be working with the university or department where these might be able to help with your area of interest.
  • Fill out college application forms as applicable. Requirements vary from one university to the next, and apart from personal information, it is likely you will require recommendation letters, including one or two from the faculty where you completed your Master’s degree program and especially from your thesis supervisor/advisor.
  • Include transcripts and other sample documents from the undergraduate studies and Master’s program you have undertaken. Make sure you submit all documents by the stipulated deadlines.
  • Send in samples of your writing. The majority of PhD programs expect to see samples of a candidate’s writing e.g. a research paper or chapter from a thesis. Additionally, you may be required to provide a copy of an essay you have written. It is important to carefully read the requirements of each application.
  • It is advisable to apply for a number of programs – at least six schools or more. The departments in each school can differ a great deal in terms of their size and their manner of funding, and the competition you may face can be difficult to predict. 

Third Part

Completing any Necessary Coursework

  • Choose the area of theology you would like to specialize in. Fields of study can vary in the way they are named from one school to another. The following are some examples of course names: Ethnography, History of Ancient Religions, Iconography, Philosophy and Ethics, and Philosophical Theology.
  • In most cases, universities expect students to choose a subject to major in as well as a number of minor fields. The aim here is to improve the academic credentials of the student.
  • Choose an advisory committee. The professors on this committee will guide your minor study fields and act as consultants for your exams in addition to or in conjunction with your major supervisor/advisor. These professors may also form part of your future dissertation committee or they may not.
  • Arrange meetings with the academic advisor at your department and with the professor guiding your major as often as possible to ensure you are achieving the necessary credits for all fields.
  • Choose classes according to the minor and major fields you have selected. In the majority of theology doctorate programs, you will require at least two years or thirty hours of credit for full-time study over and above your Master’s studies.
  • Choose classes that will assist with your dissertation and with any research and other papers you may need to complete.
  • Become a teaching assistant. Graduate study programs often fund students by offering them the opportunity to assist professors and the relevant department with grading and other tasks during semester.
  • Teach classes if such an opportunity is available. This acts as good practice for a future teaching position and it is a great credential when applying for jobs.
  • Sit and pass comprehensive exams. Many universities, seminaries and colleges expect students to sit and pass a comprehensive oral and/or written exam before they can begin studying for a PhD. All coursework is then complete with only a dissertation standing between you and your desired degree.
  • Such a test covers both the minor and major fields of concentration.
  • Obtain test questions and do the necessary preparatory work with members of your committee in plenty of time.
  • After you have passed the test, schedule a meeting with the professor in charge of your major to begin planning your dissertation. This point is sometimes referred to as “all but dissertation” or “ABD.”   

Fourth Part

Complete Your Dissertation

  • Start writing your paper’s prospectus. Meet regularly with your course advisor to discuss the work. The best option is to continue with a topic related to your Master’s thesis, but in any case, a large amount of extra research work and writing will be required.
  • Create an outline setting out your thoughts, ideas, religion-based theories, theological issues, source materials, philosophical discussion/arguments, methodologies, and a working reference page or bibliography.
  • Produce your dissertation’s outline with chapter titles/headings, subtopics, and rough bibliography.
  • Seek funding. A number of funding options exist for graduates and students of humanities subjects in the areas of researching and writing. Look for any programs offered by your college or through any societies you are involved with.
  • Check that the funding options opened to you match the stage your work is at, e.g., “pre-dissertation” during the research stage and other options at the writing stage or as this nears completion.
  • Do the research work for your dissertation. Mostly, this will be based on primary and secondary (support) source materials. Where appropriate, use any work previously undertaken for your Master’s thesis.
  • Ask archivists to help you locate more subject-related information. It is likely they will find materials that you cannot find.
  • Give presentations in conference environments to get early-stage feedback on the research work and writing you have done, even if this is not in final version. This is an opportunity to exchange ideas on concepts and methods.
  • Start writing your dissertation. Sticking to a regular schedule can be very difficult, particularly if you are likely to be distracted by other things.
  • Try writing a little - perhaps a couple hours’ worth - each day. Alternatively, put chunks of time aside when you know you will not be distracted or disturbed.
  • Show blocks of what you have written to your advisor, college mentors, and/or other students at the same stage as you.
  • Your dissertation will need to be defended. After completing a dissertation, the student has a meeting with a committee, usually made up of the major supervisor/advisor, a nominated member of their department, and an “outside” member. Then, provided your dissertation is approved by this committee, you will be awarded your degree.