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A Most Difficult Maze: Picking a Gradschool List

First Things has a list ranking theological gradschools for those having a hard time trying to figure out who they’re looking for. I have some serious misgivings with it (lacunae, passing over cons, etc.), but still, it is something. The top five are:

1. Duke Divinity
2. Notre Dame
3. Princeton and 4. Wycliffe College/Toronto
5. Marquette

Unfortunately this list misses a great deal. For instance, it glosses over the fact, that if I hear rightly, Hauerwas is done taking PhD students. And Hays isn’t getting any younger. Duke has made some excellent hires (i.e. Paul Griffiths), but the future is their biggest hurdle. The next five to ten years will tell if they will maintain their current status and perhaps even develop a ‘Duke school’.

The list also misses some of ‘liberal’ protestantism. Yes, I hear Harvard Div is a mess right now, with even faculty rumored to have had shouting matches in the halls, but I know for a fact that Union meets the list maker’s ideals and Fordham is moving up, not back.

The way this list works is simple, if you like First Things, you’ll like this list. But that is nothing new. This is the way lists go today: they point to a persuasion or school of thought. Lists have a bias. They’re supposed to have a bias because there is a telos involved.

So what good is this list, other than the fact that R.R. Reno likes Marquette? This is at best a spring board. Those of you looking for a solid school to match your interests could find much worse lists. Reno certainly takes into account a plurality of factors (but not enough I think, like finances). However, do not let this list be the end of your own list.

Some may find it surprising how much work it will take to apply for a position: a good list of schools, communication with professors, visiting schools, talking to current students in the institution, etc. The application process is indeed daunting, but without a good list that assumes purpose, soul searching, and research among other things, you won’t get anywhere.

How do you begin constructing your own list? Remember, the game has changed: once you get high enough up the academic learning ladder, you match your interests to the interests of an institution. Fit is vital. Of course each institution should have a flourishing and healthy atmosphere that is both financially supportive and has a respected past, these stipulations I cannot stress enough, but ultimately, if there is an institution on your list where you don’t fit, and if you miraculously get in, you’ll wither inside.

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9 thoughts on “A Most Difficult Maze: Picking a Gradschool List

  1. Michael Westmoreland-White says:

    I think Duke is going to be okay, though it may drop some for a few years. Yes, all lists are biased, but I DON’T like First Things and liked this list better than I thought. Union was left out. That may not be bias, but simply not realizing that Union has recovered from the confusion of its shake up about a decade back.

    The REAL problem with lists like this is that deciding on a theological grad school is more complex than deciding on a top law school or med school. One has to ask not about ranking, but about ‘with whom do I want to study?” What kinds of work do I want to do? Will this choice cause problems for my home tradition–which could lead to employment problems? How good are the people with whom I’d be studying at helping place their students after graduation–especially in a tough academic job market. (Even at the height of his popularity and Duke’s rep, for instance, Hauerwas wasn’t all that great at this. Many faculties were afraid that his students would all adopt his combative approach to issues. Seriously. Once someone gets past the qualifications hurdle, the first cut, one of the key factors, usually unspoken, in hiring academics is, “Could I see myself regularly having lunch with this person? Or having this person on the same committees with me year after year?”) Other questions include: What kind of support can I get to study at place X instead of place y? (Duke accepted me, but would give no $ for the first year of study–which ruled it out.)

    So, these kind of lists can only be somewhat helpful in the decision process–maybe as a place to get started.

  2. As a graduate of Emory and a doctoral student at Fordham, I have to bite my tongue a bit about Reno’s list. But the thing that is most baffling for me is how he prioritizes spiritual development without ever acknowledging issues like finances, job placement, pedagogical training/teaching opportunities, and all the other professional development things which is the whole point of going to grad school in the first place. Not to mention how he seems to make it look as if Emory or Vanderbilt or any other Liberal Protestant school represent some godless space in which faith is actively squashed.

    I suppose lists like these tell us more about the person making the list than the content of the list itself.

  3. dave says:

    I’m still wrestling with whether my “fit” is in a more traditional philosophy program or something interdisciplinary, such as Marquette’s Theology and Society program, but the list is interesting to look at nonetheless, so thanks for passing it along.

    I was considering applying to the Faculty of Theology at Oxford, which is the most attractive philosophical theology program that I could find anywhere. They have a “Centre for Theology and Modern European Thought” that is headed up by George Pattison, a Kierkegaard scholar (among other things). Plus, it’s Oxford. But, I was hoping to apply for the Marshall Scholarship, and I realized yesterday that the deadline was October 1st.

    One of my biggest questions right now is where my focus should be – a good MA program or the Phd program that I want? I wonder if I can get into any of the Phd programs with just a BA (Fordham is my top pick right now), but I really feel like I will need significant financial support to have a chance to attempt graduate work. For you guys and girls in grad school right now, did you apply directly to Phd programs or to MA programs first? The wording on some sites (such as Fordham’s) suggests that you can apply for the Phd and you will just get the MA on the way, but other sites seems to suggest the exact opposite.

    • Fordham’s track, while not unheard of in the academic world, is rather uncommon in the theological tracks in American schools. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at it, but know that it isn’t the norm. In my own circumstances, I have found a stronger case for multiple schools, rather than simply two. That is unless you want to always teach at a catholic school that would want strictly catholic training.

      Financial aid in Europe is often fraught with lots of red tape at best, if you even get it. By all means try — there are some very good schools that I would love to at least visit for an extended period, but applying there for admission doesn’t mean you’re applying for aid, like you would be state side.

      • dave says:

        I should have clarified that I was talking about Fordham’s philosophy program, since we’re in the context of talking about theology programs.

        To those who replied to my semi-hijack (sorry!), thanks for the info. Every perspective from someone with more experience has been helpful. I’m taking the GRE on Saturday, and if I score high enough, I think I will be a little aggressive with trying my luck at a Phd program. If I don’t, I’ll probably scale back and try to look at MA programs. I already have a few to which I will apply (Loyola Marymount and Duquesne University), but I guess it’s a matter of focusing my efforts right now. I’m trying to aim high and look at the MA programs as “backups,” even though I really don’t think going into a good MA program is a “backup” per se. My biggest concern is unfortunately financial, and it just seems like if I can get lucky enough to find a match for a Phd program, I can get the aid as well. I’m not sure if I can afford to go into even more debt for the next two years.

        Steering back to the topic, Duke Divinity is an interesting case. As you note, David, some of the profs aren’t getting any younger. I hadn’t heard that about Hauerwas not taking Phd students anymore, but it makes sense. I was going to/am still probably going to apply there, and one of my professors here was a student of Hauerwas who at least keeps loosely in touch (or so it seems). He was going to check for me, but he never got around to it, and then my interests got more “strictly” philosophical. Still, they have some exciting young faculty, from the little that I’m familiar with. One of the newer hires is Norman Wirzba, and I think his position is called something like Theology, Ecology, and Ethics. He has a pretty diverse group of interests, relatively speaking. For example, one of my Wendell Berry essay books has an introduction from him, but he’s also written about contemporary French phenomenology, as well as more explicitly theological stuff.

        I guess I’m going through the struggle of wrestling with tensions, which is fine. My interests in general are kind of sporadic, from philosophy to theology to poetry and literature as well as cultural theory stuff. For those reasons I sometimes feel like I might be better suited at a seminary, but on the flip side I know that I’m primarily interested in, and best at, philosophy, so I think at other times that I should just focus on MA and Phd programs.

        I’m sure that my experience is not unique for humanities majors, but it helps to have lists like these to look at, even if they have a slant, as well as others further along who went through the same things.

  4. signonthewindow says:

    It’s not my experience that Duke grads are having a particularly difficult time (any more or less than others) landing jobs. Of late, grads have found appointments at places as diverse as Seattle Pacific, Eastern Menno, and Providence College. A recent change in hiring, perhaps? That said, I know the same isn’t true for Master’s students applying to doctoral programs. There does seem to be some bias towards the potential closed minded-ness of DDS grads.

    And I’m not sure I would completely count Hauerwas out, potentially as an advisor, but certainly not as a catalytic force in the department. Additionally, I was always impressed by how H seemed fairly moldable, despite reputation, especially by his students (take the foray into Radical Democracy, Rom Coles). But it’s the younger faculty that continue to draw me to Duke.

    Dave – Some people, a very small percentage, do get in with just BAs. It’s rare. It certainly not looked down upon to go to one school for your MA and then somewhere else for your doctoral work. The diversity might be nice, unless you really plug into a mentor and topic you love and decide to stay on. I’d certainly pay more attention to your Masters studies at this point.

  5. d barber says:

    Just wanted to second “Sign”‘s comment wrt Hauerwas. He is an astoundingly talented point guard, creating all kinds of possibilities. And J Carter is a powerful thinker. (Though beyond those two not much to say, at least in terms of anything innovative, so I can understand some skepticism wrt its future.)

    Dave, if you’re talking philosophy programs, i have a friend who made it directly from ba at Fordham, though I understand that’s generally an exception.

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