Mary Is My Homegirl

Coping with the terrible life choice of studying catholic theology in graduate school. Miserere Mei, Domine. hit counter
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Sometimes, in our spiritual lives, in prayer, and in introspection, but also in our relationships, our communities, our world, and even our Church, we try to stifle the workings of the Holy Spirit because of the inconvenience and even scandal that growing in holiness requires. But it is precisely when we get comfortable in our faith that it begins to decay. By the virtue of our baptism and our very name—Christian—we are all called to strive for Christ-like holiness: holiness that requires constant, revolutionary conversion.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.


People frequently ask me about how to prepare for and get into a graduate theology program. I don’t know why they think the author of a blog that makes fun of graduate theological study would be an expert on the topic, but I then I remember that I had little-to-no guidance back when I started my journey into the field and that I would have really appreciated some general advice. So here’s my inexpert guide to beginning graduate theological studies.

"Should I study theology at the graduate level?"

Have you exhausted all other career options? Only half-kidding. Listen, there are a lot of ways that you can use your theological education (I promise!), but they all necessitate additional skills that would be just as valuable in another line of work. If you’re considering ministry (lay, ordained, or religious), you will need to do some work in counseling and you have to love and be very good at working closely with other people. Business and managerial skills wouldn’t hurt either. If you want to teach theology, you’ll need training to be an effective instructor. Even those of us in the ivory tower of academia hoping to score a tenure-track job have to learn how to teach. And write. Like really, really incredibly well. And there isn’t a great need for PhDs in theology—the job market is already over-saturated with PhDs. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t aim for becoming a professor of theology if your skills would be put to better use in a high school classroom. BUT there is a need for and a benefit to studying theology that goes beyond purely practical considerations (of course!): just check out this compelling article from The Atlantic. You can use your graduate theological studies and training in a variety of fields and careers beyond academic and ministerial work and we could certainly use more well-formed theological thinkers in the world!

"What major will best prepare me for getting into a graduate theology program?"

Well, theology is a good choice. Various religion/religious studies majors (depending on your undergraduate school) are good options as well. It certainly cannot hurt your chances for acceptance into a graduate program if you already have a solid theological foundation.

If your interests are in moral or systematic theology, a philosophy major (or philosophy courses) will definitely serve you well. Aim to have at least 2 philosophy courses under your belt if you want to do graduate work in theology.

History, anthropology, sociology, classics, and degrees in language and literature (English, French, Russian, etc) are also great foundations for graduate work in theology. Each of these disciplines offer methodologies and interesting lenses for your theological research.

Keep in mind, however, that some truly incredible theologians didn’t turn to theological study until after they received their undergraduate degrees. Students coming from STEM backgrounds might have to work harder to hone their writing skills, but many have flourished in graduate theological studies.

"What do I need to do to get into a program?"

Have good grades, good GRE scores, good recommendations, a good personal statement, and a LOT of good luck. If you’re an undergraduate and you think that graduate work *might* be in your future, you absolutely must do all that you can to earn good grades (especially in your theology, philosophy, and humanities courses), acquire languages (Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, etc—the ones you want to do your research with), foster good relationships with faculty (this is key!), and really develop your passion for theological study and your particular approach. For example, is it the history of the Christian intellectual tradition, Church politics, religious movements, or worship that drives your research interests? Are you fascinated by matters of Church doctrine and Church authority? Do you really enjoy working out the intricacies of moral issues? Does a concern for the poor and marginalized push your work? Are you interested in the history and authorship of biblical texts and how ancient believers used them? Find your theological passion, follow it, and good grades and the favor of your faculty will come much more easily.

"What if I don’t know what I want to do yet?" or "I DIDN’T GET IN TO A PROGRAM, NOW WHAT?!?!"

There is nothing wrong with taking some time between your undergraduate degree and graduate school to figure some things out, gain some real-world experience, and hone your skills/interests. There are options for you, so don’t freak out. Some of the best theologians I know have done some fascinating work between college and graduate school: volunteer work, teaching, ministry, corporate work, retail, and even bartending and EMT work. And what you do in your “off” year(s) might make a huge impact on the way you approach theology. If you are applying straight out of college, consider applying to another option as a back up plan. You can always apply to grad school next year.

Volunteering: There are one- or two-year programs with a religious affiliation, such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps, and others. There’s also the Peace Corps and City Year as secular options. Or you can volunteer at your parish or for an organization (like The Catholic Worker) in your free time.

Teaching: JVC and Caps Corps may include some teaching, but there are other programs which focus solely on teaching such as UCCE programs (Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame perhaps being the most famous) or, in the secular realm, Teach for America. You can also substitute teach in private or public schools.

Other work: Do what you need to do to make a living, save a little money for grad school, and follow your research passions on the side. That might be retail work, waiting tables, or office work. You might have to move in with your parents for a bit, and that’s okay too. Just be sure that you use this time to improve your application (learn more languages, develop your passion for social justice, volunteer in your parish) and stay in touch with your faculty mentors.

"Which graduate programs should I apply to?"

Apply to the programs that are right for you, and apply to a few of them (more than two). Find out what degree programs your faculty mentors recommend, ask around and see which ones graduates from your undergraduate area end up in, google graduate programs in your area, figure out which scholars you’d love to take a class with or do research with. Come to know the reputation of each program, contact them and see what they offer, and spend some time discerning which would be the best fit for you. And don’t discount great programs outside of your tradition. For example: Duke, Yale, and Harvard are some of the most prestigious programs for students of any denomination or faith. And Notre Dame has a top-notch biblical studies program that Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Jewish students all thrive in. Do your research, have an open mind, and be your best self; if it’s meant to happen, it will happen.

Good luck budding theologians!

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