Graduate Study

Advice to Applicants

In any given year, the Department of Religious Studies at Brown receives 80 to 100 or so applications for Ph.D. study. Of these, fewer than 10% will be offered admission. The advice we offer here is intended to help you think realistically about whether to apply for Ph.D. work in general, and whether to apply specifically to the Religious Studies Department at Brown.

Some General Things:

Doing a Ph.D. is a major commitment of time and resources. Obtaining a Ph.D. at Brown in Religious Studies normally takes at least five years, and frequently more, even for students who come with a master's degree in a related area. It's a long haul, even with the five years of full-funding offered to all accepted applicants (which includes tuition, a stipend for living expenses, health care and health insurance, and modest support for a few professional expenses like research and conference travel).

The workload of doctoral study will probably far exceed anything you have previously encountered, from extensive weekly reading (and often rigorous language courses), to the research and writing time necessary to produce multiple lengthy research papers each semester (25 pp.+ each). So-called “vacation breaks” are generally used for more work; and many students feel considerable pressure. At the same time, of course, for students who love the field they're studying, it can also be a source of much intellectual excitement, satisfaction and pleasure.

So are you sure, this is what you want?

What alternatives have you considered? Have you thought about what you will do if you are not accepted for Ph.D. study at a program appropriate for your interests? Are there other professional possibilities that might appeal to you equally?

Do you have a well-informed understanding of what academic life is like, and what the academic job market is like? 

For instance, do you know how much college professors make? Current starting salaries for assistant professors in liberal arts environments are are as low as the mid-$50Ks a year, although some research universities pay as much as $75,000 a year, usually plus health benefits, retirement contributions, and varying amounts of research support (including use of a computer). Compared to a graduate stipend of about $20,000, this may sound like a lot, but compared to salaries in many fields requiring comparable (or sometimes even less) preparation, like medicine, law, business, engineering, it's not. Some offer more generous benefits, including subsidized child-care, assistance with college tuition, and so forth: others offer substantially less.

We have an excellent placement record: our former Ph.D. students are teaching at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), Emory University, Marquettte University, Holy Cross, as well as Haverford, Oberlin, Brooklyn and Colorado Colleges. Still, the academic market is highly competitive. Every year there are far more applicants for entry-level teaching positions in Religious Studies than there are positions. Many of these positions are in large public universities and colleges with heavy teaching loads and little support for research. Others are in small colleges, or small departments. where faculty are routinely expected to teach broad undergraduate courses, and have little opportunity to teach the research specialties they acquired in graduate school.

Assuming that you've satisfied yourself that you want a Ph.D., is the Department of Religious Studies at Brown a good place to do the work in which you are interested?

Do you have a clear understanding of what the academic study of religion entails, as opposed to the practice of religion?

Are your interests centrally located in academic work in religious studies, including explanatatory accounts of religion? Have you read work in the study and theory of religion? Are you familiar with some of the classic theories of religion (e.g. Durkheim, Eliade, Freud, Hume, James, Weber) as well as more recent theorists (e.g. Asad, Bell, Bourdieu, Boyer, Douglas, Horton, Mahmood, McCutcheon, Pyysaïnen, J.Z. Smith)? While we don't require applicants to have studied these theorists previously, all students take a required seminar that considers theory of religion at a professional level. Applicants who have read some of this work often have a better understanding of the academic study of religion.

Do you have appropriate preparation for Ph.D. work?  

While we do occasionally accept students who have only a B.A. degree, we only do so when those students have majored in Religious Studies, or in a closely related field (such as classics, or philosophy, or Asian studies), or have done considerable coursework in Religious Studies, and have studied some of the languages they will need in graduate work. Students who lack such preparation should first do a master's program, or a post-baccalaureate language program elsewhere, since Brown does not offer such study.

Do you have a good sense of why Religious Studies at Brown is a good fit for your interests?

Admission is based not simply on the academic potential of the applicant but also on the match between the applicant's interests and the areas of expertise of Department faculty.  Every year, we receive applications from prospective students who do not demonstrate much awareness of the areas of expertise of our faculty, and whose own interests would not be well-served at Brown.  All applicants should read our website carefully, and take time to learn something about the specific research and teaching interest of our faculty, available on our research profiles.  Don't just crib a line or two off our website and insert it into a generic application statement.  Show us how our interests and yours intersect.  Applicants who have read at least some of our work should have a better sense of whether and why Brown might be a good fit.  (This will obviously be true for applications you make elsewhere as well).  

Graduate applicants often ask what we look for in prospective students, and whether there are any minum requirements for GRE scores, undergraduate and Masters GPA, etc.  

We look for evidence that applicants have the intellectual capacity to do excellent scholarly work, as well as the requisite preliminary training, skills and personal traits to complete a Ph.D. program in a timely manner, and go on to a productive professional academic life. We also look for evidence that students are appropriately prepared to work in their particular areas of interest, including sufficient preliminary language training. To gauge your qualifications and preparation, we pay particular attention to your recommendations, and your personal statement. We also give considerable weight to your prior academic work, and to GRE scores, particularly the verbal and analytical scores.

Students who take the GRE's numerous times should be aware that we usually receive all GRE scores, not just the highest scores. While most students admitted to our Ph.D. program tend to have very strong verbal and analytical GRE scores (650 or higher; 5.0 or higher) we have no absolute minimums for either GRE scores or GPAs, and we consider each applicant's file on its total merits. Applicants who are otherwise well-prepared and well-qualified for doctoral study, but whose GRE scores are below these levels are still given the most careful consideration. 

Last but not least, some advice on the application itself:

Ask for recommendations from current and former teachers who know your work well, and, if at all possible, who work in fields close to those you wish to study, and can comment knowledgably about your preparations in these areas.  More general recommendations, or recommendations from scholars in other areas are of less help to us in assessing your scholarly potential.

Put considerable effort into your personal statement. This is where you demonstrate to us that you are well-prepared to undertake doctoral work; that you know enough about the areas you wish to study, and about our work; that our interests and yours mesh well; that you write well and think clearly; and that you have the capacity to do innovative and imaginative academic work.  This is your chance to shine: use it wisely.

Think seriously about coming to visit before you apply.  Such visits are not required, and we regularly accept students who have not visited, but such visits are often helpful to prospective students, as well as to us, in clarifying whether Brown is a strong fit.  You should give this especially serious consideration if your currently live relatively close to Providence, or will have some other occassion to be in the area.  Fall (before Thanksgiving) and spring, are esepcially good times to visit: classes are in session and faculty and current graduate students are usually available to meet with you.  

If you can't visit, still be in touch with faculty.  Even more important than a visit to campus is some form of contact with faculty.  Email exchanges and in some cases phone calls can ve very useful in determining whether the Department of Religious Studies at Brown is a good fit for someone with your interests.