How to Get a PhD, EdD, DMin, or ThD in Religious Studies or Theology

The U.S. and European university systems have their roots in religious education. From the middle ages through the 19th century, theology dominated the university curriculum. Today, religious studies is one among many humanities disciplines, and theology has migrated to college divinity schools and seminaries. Nevertheless, religious studies and theology departments continue to support advanced religious scholarship and professional development in ministry.

Religious studies and theology graduate schools offer four doctoral degrees: the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), the Doctor of Education (EdD), the Doctor of Ministry (DMin), and the Doctor of Theology (ThD). Depending which path you choose, you might find yourself advancing scholarship as an academic professor, or deepening your spiritual understanding and service in a ministerial leadership role.

Realizing your academic or ministerial vocation takes vision and planning. This guide helps you through the process of applying to an advanced religious studies degree program. You’ll be able to determine which doctoral degree is best for you, find the right doctoral program, and take steps to prepare for advanced study. You’ll also learn about online doctoral programs and why earning your degree online might be right for you.

A Guide to PhD and DMin Programs in Religious Studies & Theology

Advanced religious study has evolved to include a broad array of doctoral programs. The first step on the road to an advanced degree is to understand which type of religious studies doctorate degree suits your personal convictions and career goals.

Religious Studies or Theology?

Most colleges and universities make a distinction between religious studies and theology, often sponsoring one discipline or the other. As with any other college degree, it’s important to choose the discipline that bests matches your career goals.

  • Religious studies is the academic study of world religions from a neutral, anthropological perspective. Like other humanities fields, religious studies is dedicated to advancing knowledge through research. Religious studies interprets religious history and contemporary practice in the context of other liberal arts and humanities–history, philosophy, philology (historical linguistics), anthropology, or sociology.
  • Theology, by contrast, focuses on developing a deeper understanding of spiritual issues in the context of a particular religious tradition. Though the disciplines bear some relationship to each other, theology is distinct in its focus on achieving spiritual insight through both liberal arts research and scripture.

Religious Studies and Theology Doctorates: Doctor of Philosophy, Theology, or Ministry

Religious studies and theology programs feature a selection of doctorate degrees tailored to different career objectives.

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the academic degree that most closely resembles the humanities research doctorate. The purpose of this degree is to advance knowledge of religion as a historical, anthropological, psychological, or sociological phenomenon.

The Doctor of Theology (ThD) is also an academic degree involving original scholarship, but the focus is on interpreting a religious tradition from within, with reference to its texts, doctrine, historical record, etc.

The Doctor of Ministry (DMin) is a professional degree that focuses on applying theology to the practice of ministry. The DMin differs from the PhD and ThD in its research aims: rather than fostering an original contribution to religious scholarship, the DMin project applies existing scholarship in the practice of ministry. As one Doctor of Ministry admissions counselor puts it: “While the DMin involves research, the desired outcome is greater insight into the nature and purposes of ministry, for the improvement of its practice.”

The Doctor of Education or Philosophy in Pastoral Counseling (EdD or PhD) is a professional degree aimed at preparing graduates to help others in need of spiritual guidance. While this degree has many overlaps with traditional counseling programs, the religious focus sets it–and you–apart.

Career Track

Your career ambitions will determine which discipline and which doctorate degree you pursue. Religious doctoral degrees may lead either to an academic career or a professional career. Academic careers focus on research and teaching; options include university professor, researcher, and librarian positions. Professional careers may focus on religious ministry or other leadership roles, such as administration. Other venues for a religious doctoral degree include museums, social service agencies, private foundations, libraries, and publishing companies.

  • The PhD in Religious Studies offers the most straightforward path into academia, since it equips graduates with the research and teaching skills sought after by research universities and colleges
  • The ThD in Theology can lead either to a faculty position at a college, seminary, or parochial school, or to a career in ministry. Theology graduates may also go on to positions in religious education administration
  • The DMin in Religious Studies or Theology leads to religious leadership positions, often in Christian ministry
  • An EdD or PhD in Pastoral Counseling, much like a DMin, can lead to religious leadership positions, but graduates of one of these doctorate degree programs also positions as professional, spiritually oriented counselors. An EdD in Pastoral Counseling typically won’t be very different form a PhD in Pastoral Counseling. Schools offer one or the other, and programs are similar

PhD in Religious Studies & Theology Specializations

Since each religious studies doctoral program has its own emphases and religious affiliations, you’ll find a vast array of specialized fields. Knowing the available options can help you find the best match for your interests. Some common PhD in Religious Studies specializations include:

  • American Religious History
  • Ancient Christianity
  • Asian Religions
  • Islamic Studies
  • Judaic Studies
  • New Testament
  • Old Testament/ Hebrew Bible
  • Philosophy of Religion
  • Religious Ethics

ThD or DMin in Theology specializations emphasize issues related to spiritual practice and ministry. Examples include:

  • Missions
  • Evangelism
  • Church Leadership
  • Pastoral Psychology
  • Homiletics
  • Spiritual Formation
  • Liturgical Studies

Each program offers its own take on these areas. With a little research, you can find one that matches your interests perfectly.

How to Apply for PhD and DMin Programs in Religious Studies & Theology

Your career goals and specialization interests offer a valuable compass for navigating the religious studies doctorate degree options available today. The following steps will help you find a doctoral program that matches your needs and start your journey to an advanced degree.

Find Your PhD, EdD, ThD, or DMin Program in Religious Studies

Finding the right doctoral degree program for you takes careful research. The following four steps will help you organize the process.

Step One: Develop a List of Accredited Programs

Start by developing a list of program candidates. Let your must-have criteria guide you at this initial stage: your own faith (or neutral disposition) and your desired degree type and discipline. Many schools are affiliated with a particular religion or religious denomination; others are independent, emphasizing a neutral approach to religious studies as a social science discipline.

Be sure to vet your list of degree programs for the most fundamental requirement: accreditation. Accreditation by an independent accrediting association ensures the value of the degree and could be a factor in your eligibility for federal financial aid.

Step Two: Online or Campus PhD in Religious Studies?

Graduate-level education has embraced online learning technology as a means of making advanced degrees more accessible to mid-career professionals. However, some doctoral programs require temporary residency or even full-time campus study to help students realize the benefits of faculty mentorship and other program resources.

  • Online programs offer flexibility for working adults balancing pastoral, family, and other commitments alongside their education. Online Doctor of Ministry degree programs are expecially popular, since most DMin students are already practicing their vocation. Online programs in ministry or theology typically take advantage of the synergy between vocation and education, encouraging students to develop and apply research projects in the context of their ministry.
  • Campus programs favor academic doctorates such as the PhD or ThD in religious studies, because they afford unparalleled access to campus resources. Students on the academic career track gain from close contact with faculty mentors and academic ‘apprenticeships’ like teaching and research assistant positions. They also take advantage of school library collections and research facilities. Many online PhD degrees and online ThD programs in religious studies require periods of campus residency to allow students to reap these benefits.

Step Three: Explore Academic Programs

The third phase in your research is arguably the most important: exploring and evaluating the available academic programs. The goal of your research is to identify faculty and programs that reflect your own interests. The director of a graduate religious studies program explains: “Perhaps the most important factor in PhD admissions is called ‘fit,’ and it focuses on the match between the applicant’s intended area of study and faculty specializations.” Finding a kindred spirit among faculty members is especially important if you are applying to a PhD or ThD program in religious studies, since these academic programs involve close collaboration with a faculty mentor.

Assess the fit of a program by investigating:

  • Faculty research interests
  • Specialized fields and areas of concentration
  • Course curricula
  • Special programs

You can also narrow down your list using an automated school matching system and gathering more information via the school’s Web site. Doctoral program information generally covers course requirements, faculty bios, and links to research publications, admissions details, and more.

Step Four: Evaluate Program Quality

In this last stage you’ll narrow your list to four or five schools by evaluating the quality of the programs that match your interests. Your goal is to identify schools that match your academic qualifications, taking into account factors such as your grade point average and test scores.

The following factors can help you evaluate the quality of a PhD, EdD, ThD, or DMin degree program in religious studies.

  • Reputation
  • Selectivity
  • Graduation Rate
  • Job Placement Statistics
  • Career Support Resources
  • Student Body Profile

You can determine a program’s reputation by asking your undergraduate or graduate faculty mentors and other professors in the field for recommendations. Another source of information regarding reputation is graduate school rankings published by independent researchers. The National Research Council’s 2009 Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs offers a reliable ranking of graduate religious studies programs. U.S. News & World Report ranks humanities graduate schools, but does not offer a specific report on religious studies or theology programs.

School admissions departments can provide you with the remaining data you need to evaluate program selectivity and quality. Information on student demographics and job placement can give you an idea of what the experience will be like and what career opportunities you can expect.

Preparing for a PhD in Religious Studies or Theology

Next, prepare for the program by completing program prerequisites and compiling the application materials. Admissions requirements differ from program to program, but standard requirements include:

  • A bachelor’s or master’s degree (Master of Theology, Master of Divinity, etc.) in a related field. If you have a degree in another field, you may be required to take prerequisite courses before beginning the program
  • Ministry experience is a common requirement for the DMin and, in some cases, the ThD. The PhD in religious studies does not require work experience
  • Statement of purpose–schools use this to determine whether your interests fit well with their program emphases
  • GRE or TOEFL (for non-native speakers of English)
  • Transcripts
  • Academic and professional letters of recommendation

Financial Aid

A PhD in liberal arts & humanities with a specialization in religious studies may be one of the most important investments you ever make. Doctoral students typically fund a significant part of their educational costs through teaching assistantships and financial aid. Funding options include scholarships, teaching and research jobs, research grants, and student loans.

Joining the Academic Community

Getting a PhD or DMin in religious studies is not just a good career move–it’s also an opportunity to join a community of people who share your academic or religious vocation. Prepare for your degree by cultivating relationships with your peers. Resources include:

  • Academic or professional associations. General religious studies associations include the Religious Research Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Association of Practical Theology, and the Religious Education Association.
  • Academic journals. Reading journals in your field builds your familiarity with leading scholars and issues in your chosen field. You’ll also begin to develop a sense of your own research interests. American Journal of Biblical Theology, Harvard Theological Review, Studies in Comparative Religion, Religious Studies Review, and International Journal of Systematic Theology are just a few journals that publish original research in religious studies and theology.

With your entry into the academic community, you’re officially on your way to achieving the highest distinction in your profession. The PhD, ThD, and DMin in Religious Studies offer powerful tools for developing your vocation as a religious scholar or minister. To get there, you’ll need an uncommon degree of vision and discipline. Focus your quest, and take the first steps on your journey to a doctorate degree today.



  • Beeson Divinity School, DMin
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Ethics of being a Theologian, by K.L. Noll
  • National Research Council, 2009 Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs
  • Graduate Theological Union, Doctoral Studies at the GTU
  • National Research Council, 2009 Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs
  • Religious Education Association (REA)
  • Tyndale Seminary, Doctor of Ministry
  • U.S. Department of Education, Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
  • Yale University, Religious Studies, PhD Program
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