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Gain a fuller understanding of world religions, take a closer look into testaments and texts, or prepare for a specific career in service or ministry with a master's degree in religious studies. Whether you hope to begin a life of service and ministry, a career researching or teaching world religions in the K-12 or college level, or you have another plan for your education, a master's degree in religious studies offers a high level of education.

How to Earn a Master's Degree in Religious Studies

Choosing to earn a master's degree in liberal arts & humanities in religious studies means making the commitment to a degree program that may have the power to guide the future of your career. The process of earning your master's degree is very personal, yet everyone may take the same first steps in understanding the master's degree options themselves.

Ready to get started? You can begin your search for the perfect religious studies program by learning the basic distinctions across the degree, and end it by narrowing down a long list of potential master's programs. The research process may be time-consuming, but the rewards can be found in the time and money you save during the application process itself.

Step 1: Learn More About Religious Studies Master's Degree Options

Far from a one-size-fits-all master's degree, graduate work in religious studies may change based on your career goals. Within the school of religious studies, you can find a range of master's degree programs designed to work with a number of different career profiles. Choose among the most popular degree types:

  • Master of Arts (MA): In religious studies, the MA allows you to study religions more broadly. The degree is designed for students who might not wish to teach, but still want to expand their study of religions in a focused academic environment. A terminal MA in religious studies represents the highest level of training you can receive.
  • Master of Arts in Religion (MAR): The purpose of this two- or three-year degree varies by school. It is designed to either prepare you for a career in ministry or service, or to offer advanced study in a particular area of religion, like the terminal MA.
  • Master of Divinity (MDiv): This specialized master's degree is designed to prepare students for ordination and service within the Christian ministry.
  • Master of Sacred Theology (STM): If you've already graduated from a theological school with a Bachelor of Divinity (BD) or an MDiv, the STM is designed to offer one more year of advanced study.

Master's degrees in religious studies typically take two years of full-time study, with a few exceptions. If you attend school part time or earn a master's degree online, it may require a longer period of study. Because many careers for religious workers require graduate education, a master's degree may be an essential piece of your career preparation.

Step 2: Choose a Category Within Religious Studies

Because the concept of religion is complex and broadly studied, you may want to focus your study into a single facet. Coursework in a religious studies master's degree could be grouped into various specializations or categories, including:

  • Religion, politics, and the public
  • Representations, histories, and interpretations
  • Religions in context
  • Western religions
  • Asian religions
  • Philosophy of religion

Students generally move between categories but ultimately focus on one that best meets their interests and needs. Related coursework in history, anthropology, or comparative literature may be encouraged or required, depending on the specialization you choose.

Step 3: Choose Among Campus-Based and Online Master's Degrees

Master's degree programs in religious studies are a popular and growing online degree option. After you've thought about the types of majors and specializations you can earn in a religious studies master's degree, you should think about how you'll earn your degree. Earn your religious studies master's degree online, and you may enjoy:

  • Interacting with other religious studies students from various backgrounds and locations
  • Logging on from anywhere in the world to complete your studies
  • Keeping family and work commitments while earning your degree

But online education isn't the only way to earn a master's degree in religious studies. Campus-based master's degree programs in religious studies often come with their own benefits:

  • Complete hands-on community work and theological study
  • Access resources like libraries and other materials
  • Work face-to-face with peers and professors

Whether you choose to attend a traditional campus or divinity school, earn a master's degree online, or do both with a hybrid degree program, it's important to choose the educational style that best meets your preferences and needs. Your lifestyle and learning style should help dictate whether you'd be better off completing your religious studies master's degree online or on campus.

Step 4: Create an Initial List of Religious Studies Master's Degree Programs

Now that you've learned about the different potential degrees, specializations, and learning types, you can begin to compile your list of religious studies master's programs. Don't worry too much about the details during this step; simply choose among schools that meet your most basic qualifications for a master's degree. Here are a few resources to get you started:

  • The U.S. Board of Education maintains a list of institutions approved by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc., Accreditation Commission. Schools can be arranged by name, address, city, or state.
  • WorldWideLearn.com keeps a list of online religious studies degree programs. Use this listing to contact schools and learn more about individual programs.
  • See WorldWideLearn.com's list of campus-based religious studies degree programs to expand your list of religious studies schools and departments across the country.

Again, the goal in this step is not to decide which schools you should apply to. Instead, you should be getting an idea of how many religious studies program options you have available. Give yourself a broader sense of choice, and you should have the freedom to pick a program that is essentially tailored to your needs.

Step 5: Determine Religious Studies Master's Degree Accreditation

At this point, you should be ready to complete what may be the most important step in your degree search. Confirming the accreditation status of each potential school is important for a number of reasons.

Accreditation is one way for an institution to prove its value to you. If a religious studies school is not fully accredited, you may run some risks with your education:

  • Your degree may be put into question by hiring managers in the clergy and academia
  • The degree or credits you earn may not be accepted by other institutions on a transcript
  • You may not be able to access certain federal grants and loans while you're in school

During the accreditation process, third-party agencies look closely at schools, noting the quality of each college or university's academics, faculty, and financial practices. From there, the agency makes its findings known through the U.S. Department of Education. Find out more about the accreditation process by visiting WorldWideLearn.com's Accreditation Answers page.

It's your responsibility to confirm the accreditation status of the religious studies master's programs you're looking at. Fortunately, online tools make it easy to find the information on schools across the nation and online. Browse the U.S. Department of Education's searchable database of accredited institutions and search by institution name, location, or accrediting agency.

Step 6: Narrow Down Religious Studies Master's Degree Schools

Take your list of accredited religious studies colleges and universities, and begin to examine them. You should now have a long list with a lot of different options. You might include MA, MDiv, STM, or MAR degrees, online master's degrees or campus-based programs, and a laundry list of specializations. From here, use these categories to help you find the strongest contenders on your list:

  • Location: Think about the cultural and religious environment within the region in which you may study if you choose to earn a campus-based degree. If you're interested in working and worshiping in the area around you, local churches, community groups, and volunteer organizations can do a lot to challenge you and make you feel at home.
  • Admissions: Religious studies master's programs may require you to submit a statement of purpose, scores from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores, and letters of recommendation. The most exclusive schools may require proof of academic religious studies experience as an undergraduate.
  • Specializations: Some religious studies programs include specializations as broad as Eastern or Western religion, while others may require students to specialize in Old or New Testament studies, historical studies, or another focused category. There's no one right specialization here--the broad or narrow path you choose should reflect your own learning goals.
  • Financial aid: Get more information on funding designed for religious studies master's degree students. Options like stipends, scholarships, and grants are designed to entice prospective students. Attend an accredited school, and you may work with the federal government for even more financial aid.
  • Faculty: Look for a group of professors that offer a challenging and relevant course of study during your master's degree program. Make sure that you don't base your application on the strengths of one faculty member in particular; if they retire or take a year off, you should still be happy with the strength of the program.
  • Other perks: Extras like service-based volunteer opportunities, additional project funding, and other perks are important to your happiness in religious studies master's programs. Consider these perks last when zeroing down your list.

Narrowing down the best religious studies master's programs for your needs requires time and energy, but the effort should be worth it. You can save money on application fees and enjoy the benefits of choosing a school that truly fits your need. Plus, you may increase the chances of being accepted by a school that fits with your personality and goals.

Step 7: Apply to Language Master's Degree Programs

At this point, you should be ready to apply to the religious studies master's degree programs on your short list. In this final step, anticipate what you may need for the application process. Use these tips to start your religious studies applications:

  • Personalization: Take some time to consider the personality of each religious studies school on your list. Some may offer more community involvement, while others feature a deep exploration of topics that interest you. Your application's cover letter or statement of intent should speak to how you fit the individual personality of each master's degree program on your list.
  • Requirements: Applicants may need to have maintained a certain GPA in high school, have a history of community service, or meet other requirements. Make sure that you detail how you fit each of these categories.
  • Deadlines: Each school may have different deadline requirements for students. Look for deadlines of undergraduate transcript receipt, letters of recommendation, and application packets. Keeping an organized calendar can help you stay abreast of essential deadlines without feeling bogged down.

Researching individual religious studies master's programs may give you a fuller picture of each school. Though it is a time-consuming process, the confidence you can feel when you turn in your application packet may be its own reward. From there, you should have the confidence that you applied to the schools that match your interests and goals as a student.

Sources

  • Religious Studies, University of California Riverside
  • Religious Studies Resources, The University of British Columbia
  • Search Institutional Accreditation System, U.S. Department of Education

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