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Advice about Duke Th.D. and Ph.D programs in theology

Here are my answers to the Frequently Asked Questions I get about doing a doctorate in theology.  In this post, I address the difference between the Duke Th.D and. Ph.D. programs, discuss financial stipends, dissertations, the application process, job prospects, and some thoughts on the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree offered at some theological schools.

I am doing my Th.D. at Duke and wrote this in my second year of the program.  I am happy to be corrected by emails to me or comments below.  I get lots of emails from people about the Th.D. program at Duke and so I thought I would just try to put this information in a blog post to be helpful.  This information should not be taken as absolutely correct but rather can serve as an introduction to the issues so that you can ask good questions to faculty and program directors who know what they are talking about.

What is the difference between the Duke Th.D. and Ph.D. program in theology?

  • Read the official information on the respective websites: Doctor of Theology degree at Duke Divinity School and Graduate Program in Religion's website and Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University.  Update May 3, 2009: the FAQ for the Th.D. program has been updated and is excellent.
  • I understand why people are confused about the Th.D. and Ph.D. at Duke.  The Th.D. program is only three years old.  Let’s start with the basics because it is easy to be confused.  The Th.D. is from Duke Divinity School--part of Duke University.  The Ph.D. is from the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University.  Like Duke, Harvard University has a Ph.D. and Harvard Divinity School has a Th.D..  Compare the Duke Divinity School faculty with the Graduate Program in Religion faculty--there is some overlap.  Mark Goodacre, a professor in the Graduate Program in Religion, says the best way of saying this is: "The Graduate Program in Religion is made up of faculty from both the Department of Religion and the Divinity School."  At Duke University, you can take courses in any part of the university (with some limitations) so courses are not an issue.  Many courses are cross-listed as both Duke Divinity School courses and Religion courses.  I have not mentioned that the Graduate Program in Religion offices are located in the Divinity School building.  No wonder people have trouble understanding the difference.
  • The first group of Th.D. students started in August 2006.  I started in August 2007.  They just sent out acceptance letters to the fourth class of students in February 2009 who will start in August 2009.  The Duke Ph.D. program had its first graduates in 1939.    
  • They are very similar programs.  They have similar requirements (coursework, languages, preliminary exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation) though there are some procedural differences.  For example, the preliminary exams process has to do with “fields” in the Ph.D. program and “concentrations” in the Th.D. program.  The Ph.D. program entails 4 preliminary exams and the Th.D. program entails 3 preliminary exams.  You can take classes with the same professors.   
  • The Th.D. and Ph.D. students take classes together and hang out with one another.  The discipline-specific colloquiums include both Th.D. and Ph.D. students.  For example, people interested in theology (Th.D. and Ph.D.) talk to each other a lot. 
  • My understanding is that the best funding for the Th.D. is:  tuition covered with a $13,000 per year stipend for 4 years (but the packages vary).  Th.D. students purchase their own health insurance through Duke individually (age 26 to 34, the annual charge is $1,690/yr.) and if they wish for their spouse and children.  My understanding is that the Ph.D. program offers:  tuition covered with a $20,000 per year stipend for 5 years and individual health insurance for the individual student.  (Students with families may elect to pay an additional premium for family coverage just like the Th.D. students).  I know Th.D. and Ph.D. students whose children have health insurance through Medicaid.  Spouses tend to work and bring in some additional income and/or people take out student loans. 
  • Note how similar the Ph.D. and Th.D. stipend numbers are to stipend statistics published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  "For instance, biology departments reported an average research-assistant stipend of $18,200 for an appointment that typically lasts a full 12 months. Students in English, however, got an average teaching-assistant stipend of $13,387 for an academic year." From "Graduate Students' Pay and Benefits Vary Widely, Survey Shows" By AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE in the Chronicle of Higher Education December 5, 2008.
  • My understanding is that the Duke Th.D. program this year accepted 9 students out of 75 applicants.  The Th.D. website has a description of concentrations.  You have a primary and secondary area of concentration; you do preliminary exams in both.  
  • See Student Profiles with all of the concentrations listed. Here is a partial list of the "concentrations" of some of the people in the program in the first four classes—(the repetition is intentional).  Some listed below are combined primary and secondary concentrations; for others it is just a primary concentration--I don't know which.
    • Bible and Christian practices
    • Christian formation and creation care
    • Evangelism and culture 
    • Evangelism and ecclesiology 
    • Homiletics
    • Homiletics      
    • Homiletics and reconciliation   
    • Homiletics and reconciliation
    • New Testament
    • OT Theology & Ethics
    • Theological Aesthetics
    • Theology (Friendship)
    • Theology and aesthetics
    • Theology and Christian formation
    • Theology and Pedagogy
    • Theology, narrative, and community
    • Theology, politics, and culture 
    • Theology, politics, and culture 
    • Wesleyan theology and practices
    • Youth Ministry / Education


  • My understanding is that Duke's Graduate Program in Religion Ph.D. program takes about one student per year for each of its 11 fields.

1.    Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
2.    New Testament
3.    Early Christianity
4.    European Christianity
5.    American Religion
6.    History of Judaism
7.    Islamic Studies
8.    Christian Theological Studies
9.    Religion and Modernity
10.  Asian Religions
11.  Religion and Modernity

  • I am told that the Christian Theological Studies has 70 applicants for one spot.  New Testament has perhaps 50 applications for one spot.  But I am told that some of the fields may have only 3 applications for one spot.  In the eleven fields in the Graduate Program in Religion, they accepted 9 out of 207 applicants total in 2008-2009.

What kind of work/ministry do Th.D/Ph.D. students hope to do in the future?

Do you have access to all the incredible faculty at the Duke Divinity School and Duke University?  Is that through coursework, or just as advisers?

  • You take 12 courses in the Th.D (3 per semester for four semesters).  You can basically take the 12 courses with anyone you want.

Did your seminary work adequately prepare you for doctoral work? 

  • Yes, seminary prepared me well and I bet your seminary prepared you fairly well.  But one needs to be passionate about the field they are interested in and to have read beyond seminary courses.  Reading needs to be a barely-in-control-passion in your life.  :-)  See the next question about the difficulty of getting in.    
  • Reading Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley, Barth and MacIntrye will serve you well.  Schleiermacher, Kant, Yoder, Hauerwas, and Milbank wouldn't hurt too.  Besides reading their foundational works, I wonder if reading a biography about each of these theologians might be the best way to orient oneself to their theology and context. 
  • You might want to read secondary sources that orient you to postliberalism which is what many at Duke have wrestled with—few would still label themselves that way—who likes labels?—but most operate from a position close to postliberalism at Duke Divinity School.  (For evangelicals, this is actually not that different from what you believe even though you may never have heard of it—see the works below). 


Do you have any advice for me on applying to the Th.D./Ph.D. program? 

To get into a first-tier program that provides a stipend, you must be special in some way and you must be adequate in most every area. 

  • GPA (Duke Ph.D.Religion averages 3.6 undergraduate GPA)
  • GRE (Duke Ph.D.Religion averages 729 Verbal and 739 Quantitative).  Th.D. FAQ #6: "There is no specific minimum score. Students admitted to the Th.D. through our first four years had a mean GRE verbal score of 690 and a mean GRE quantitative score of 655."  See my post How to Study for the GRE.
  • Writing sample (See mine on Bonhoeffer here).
  • Languages (See my website Theological German: Advice and Resources.
  • Previous quality of schools you attended
  • References: quality, connections, and impressiveness of people giving references and how highly they rave about you.
  • Personal Statement (like a cover letter.  “This is why I want to study at your school . . .” ).
  • Previous publications.
  • Visit—personal impression you made of intellect and social skills.
  • Inside connections
  • Previous teaching experience at high school or college level and/or compelling ministry experience and/or international experience
  • A compelling story and vision for publishing, teaching and ethics in the future
  • Diversity
  • Th.M. from Princeton Seminary, Duke, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale Divinity (called a S.T.M.), or another school might help.
  • Masters degrees or doctoral degrees (MBA, M.D., J.D.) in other areas in addition to your 3 year—MDiv or 2 year—Masters of Theology would be a bonus. 
  • Be in touch with the director of the Th.D./Ph.D. program at the schools of your interest if you have questions.

I would visit on your own dime all the schools you want to go to.  Get familiar with the work of 4-5 professors who you like from the school.  Then visit and meet with the professors—one-on-one appointments for 15 minutes each all in one day; plus one with the Th.D./Ph.D. program director.   You want to be able to name why the school is the best possible place for you to study because your interests coincide with A, B, C and D professors and that they could uniquely prepare you in your areas of interest.  (See also Maria's comment below that she didn't visit and still got in to the Ph.D. program).  

I think it is pretty hard to get into a school without the inside knowledge of how to get in (whether that be an acquaintance who is there who gives you the scoop or a professor who wants you.)  I don't mean to paint it too scary but I did not get in anywhere in my first round of applications (0 for 5 the first year) and then got in at 3 out of the 5 places I applied the second year after talking to people.  (Details in the comments below).  Get your friends and others (at the school ideally) to help you with your statement and sample writing. 

Basically, you have a better chance of getting more scholarship money and a better chance at getting a job at "first-tier" schools.  (See Stackhouse and Gupta links below).  Duke professors seem to have strong relationships with Yale University, Emory University, Princeton Theological Seminary, University of Chicago, and Notre Dame so one hears a lot about these schools at Duke but it depends on the field what schools are first tier institutions.  A professor or author you respect can easily tell you their opinion of what schools to consider and you can weigh their opinion.   

See also:


What's the big deal about dissertations?  What will your dissertation be about?

First a couple comments about dissertations. 

(a) It is difficult to finish one.  It is long solitary work on some piece of obscure scholarship.  Therefore people say things like, "A finished dissertation is a good dissertation." "Write for your adviser not the whole world."  "Unleash all your creativity and genius in your second book--not your dissertation."  "Limit its scope.  Write the __________ topic in the writing of __________ scholar."  "Let each of your 12 seminar papers be dissertation chapters if possible."  "Remember that everything one writes is in some sense unfinished."  I recommend How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia for advice about churning out lots of written work--everyone should read it.

(b) You can get hired before your dissertation is completed and be ABD (All But Dissertation) but then you carry the heavy burden of trying to finish this obscure piece of scholarship while you are preparing lectures for introductory courses to undergraduates and grading their papers.  These are two very different ends of the academic spectrum and therefore one should try very hard to finish the dissertation before starting work as a professor.  For balancing teaching and writing, I highly recommend Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice.

Note the similar advice of Steven Cahn from a review of his book  From Student to Scholar: A Candid Guide to Becoming a Professor (Columbia University Press, 2008).  JAMES M. LANG, "'From Student to Scholar': A senior professor writes a new guide for graduate students on pursuing a faculty career," February 3, 2009, Chronicle of Higher Education

In the conclusion to his first chapter, "Graduate School," Cahn asks, and answers, a question in a way that I think most graduate students need to hear: "What is the most important ingredient for success in graduate school? Many might answer 'brilliance.' I, however, would choose 'resiliency.'"  As he points out, most students who are admitted into graduate schools are capable of handling the work on an intellectual level. Many students who end their graduate careers prematurely do so because they have become discouraged by the endless series of tasks and obstacles that lie in the way of the degree — not because they have been unable to hack the academic work. Thus, when he sees students walk across the stage to receive their Ph.D.'s, he writes, "I'm not convinced that all the recipients possess remarkable intellectual talents. I am certain, though, that every one has demonstrated the power to persevere."  On the time needed to complete a dissertation, Cahn's advice is equally brisk and demanding: "Any time beyond two years is excessive. Indeed, I would expect the task to be completed in 12 to 18 months."  That advice might sound hard to graduate students in the midst of dissertation projects that seem to stretch out endlessly before them. But projects that run far beyond the normal time frame often do so because the students want to produce that perfect book, and so they bog themselves down in revisions — hoping to pre-empt their mentors — and turn in a near-finished product. In the end, as Cahn points out, "no one will ask you whether your dissertation was passed with major or minor revisions. All that matters is that you have fulfilled every requirement for the degree."

My dissertation is still being developed--that is more of a third year thing and I am in the second year--but my paper on John Howard Yoder on my blog is probably the best thing to see the direction I am interested in: leadership, ecclesiology, mission, church planting, evangelism—the church functioning at its best.  I’m interested in questions like: What is the theological basis of the church?  What are the dangers the church faces today theologically given an array of sociological data?  What should new and innovative churches focus on theologically?  What should established churches focus on?  I would love to tease out these themes in the form of a commentary on 1 Corinthians—but I think that is too ambitious.  I have put a list of Eight Important Theological Books to me on my blog.  Update May 3, 2009: I have given you the latest draft of my research topic at: My Th.D. program progress update    

Is the Th.D. a "practical theology" degree? 
No.  "Practical theology" does not have the best reputation everywhere because it has a reputation for being associated with liberal theology and liberation theology in particular—partly because it was Schleiermacher’s idea.  This is not altogether fair—see Practical Theology: An Introduction by Richard Osmer at Princeton Theological Seminary and The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry With Theological Praxis by Ray Anderson at Fuller Theological Seminary—both people I like very much.  In evangelical settings, the term may not be related to any of these prior meanings; rather it just means "theological reflection on Christian ministry" or "practical ministry skills."

What do you personally want to do with your Th.D. degree when you finish? 
I want to teach church leadership at a seminary but I might pastor again.  We'll see what kind of offers I get and my wife's dreams—it is her turn next.

If the Th.D. is an academic degree, why is your blog written at a more popular level for church leaders rather than for academics?

First, I want to teach at a seminary and I was a pastor and so I am interested in church leadership issues.  Second, it is a way for me to keep a foot in the practical while I have a foot in the academy.  Third, I am doing my academic work precisely so that I can help others more wisely address ordinary church issues—this is a chance to keep testing that out.  Fourth, I realize that many of my blog entries are long and not easy for everyone to read and thus not as accessible as they could be!  Partly, I write long stuff because I assume some level of theological education.  But the other issue is that everything written on my blog could be written better!  My attitude toward the blog is to "write something—even imperfectly—because if I don't now, I may never return to addressing it and it is something I want to put out there because it might help someone." 

What do you think of the D.Min.? 

I like them.  Pastors usually do a Doctor of Ministry degree part-time while they are doing ministry.  It gives them a chance to reflect, read, and write in a disciplined way with insightful colleagues and advisers.  Yay!  I think churches should encourage pastors to do the D.Min. work and pay a portion of each class they complete—perhaps 2/3 of the tuition.  It is good for pastors and churches to have reflective pastors. 

Pretty much everyone says that the D.Min. degrees vary in quality—some are easier than others.  Of course that is not unique to D.Min. programs—ask people about MBA programs or law schools and how they vary. 

Duke Divinity School does not offer a D.Min now offers a D.Min!.  I hear people recommending those at Fuller Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary--though there are many other excellent programs. [Later addition: Consider Bethel Seminary!]

The real issue people need to know about the D.Min. is that academic institutions like colleges, universities and seminaries will not see them as an academic doctorate—therefore someone with a D.Min. will not be considered to have a terminal degree—the highest academic qualifications for a position.  For example, a school looking for a preaching professor will put the Ph.D. and Th.D. resumes to the top of the pile whereas the D.Min. applications will be mixed in with or just above the MDiv applications.  This does not mean that they will not end up hiring someone with a D.Min. but they will hire that person for their other credentials—they have written 10 books and pastored a church of 2,000 for 30 years—not because they have a D.Min..  Again, I love D.Min’s and I think people who do them should be compensated for their efforts and praised and encouraged.  But it is understandable that an institution will value a D.Min. differently from a Ph.D./Th.D. which was earned with 3-7 years of full-time study when a D.Min. was earned part-time over three years.  Again, 90% of the time the person with the D.Min. has better ministry skills and pastoral sensibilities than the Ph.D./Th.D. graduate!  But the Ph.D./Th.D. graduate has demonstrated a degree of academic perseverance that the D.Min. person has not (unless they have written a few books).      

What about doing a Ph.D. part-time?

I don't know the answer to this but I will give you some leads. 


For UK programs see page 92 of Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008: December 2008 (PDF) (ranking 61): Theology, Divinity and Religious Studies.

Someone else wrote me:

London School of Theology has a strong reputation internationally, but isn't as well known here.  They have a relationship with Asbury.  Asbury also has a relationship with University of Manchester / Nazarene Theological Seminary.  The University of Wales - Lampeter has a relationship with Vancouver School of Theology.  All of these allow for part-time PhD studies with one trip overseas.  Of course Durham allows for two trips each year for part-timers . . . By the way Exeter in the UK allows for one trip over per year and usually four months residency over the course of the programme. Birmingham is the same, but "normally" the student is expected to reside in Birmingham for six months.  There might be some flexibility in the six months, but I'm not sure.  Exeter and Birmingham supposedly have reduced costs for split-site students.  So far, I don't think Durham has any reduction in costs, which is surprising - you get the same level of supervision (they say) but you are not using their research facilities.  I'm not sure, but I think the PhD's awarded by the London School of Theology are through Manchester or Brunel.  I would prefer Durham I think, but the costs are significant and there are not many financial aid options for part-timers. 

See also Russ Veldman exploring South African schools

For other related posts about the Th.D. program and seminaries, you can try my categories:

Th.D. / Ph.D.


See also my post:

Advice about moving to Durham, North Carolina

See also the updates and interesting new information in the comments below!