Questions from the Readers: What is the purpose of the Th.M. degree? Do I need a Th.M. degree to begin Ph.D. work?
These two questions were sent in concerning the Th.M. degree. Greg Moore answers.
Q: I am looking into masters degree in theology and saw the Master of Theology (ThM) at several seminaries. They said that you had have a masters to get into the program. Why would someone do another masters after already completing one in the same field?
Q: I am planning to get a PhD in Biblical Studies and the seminary I am looking at wants me to do a ThM first. Is this normal? I already have a MDiv!
A: Theology is such a strange academic field sometimes. This really stems from the fact that for centuries one of the key purposes of a university was to train clergy. Because the field has existed so long in so many countries, both in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere, we now have an odd mix of degrees that is particular to our field of study. One of these is the Master of Theology degree. While in Europe this degree is often similar in scope to a Master of Arts, in the United States it is a different thing altogether. Concerning the first question as to the purpose of the degree, it is for someone to have a concentrated study in a particular area. This study is usually a mix of masters and doctoral-level seminars with a thesis. The idea here is that it will prepare one for teaching in a particular area (which is not the goal of a typical M.Div. program) and better prepares one for a Ph.D. (which is also not the goal of a typical M.Div. program).
The next question is "Do I need it to start Ph.D. work?" Not usually. In just about any other academic field you would do a bachelor's degree, a master of arts degree (or equivalent), and then go into a Ph.D. program. Seminaries in the U.S. have been designed so that students get a liberal arts background somewhere else and then come there for theological training. This led to the 3 year Master of Divinity programs that are the standard now. The Master of Divinity is a practical degree, meaning that it isn't designed to be a research-based, academic degree. Now, though, many are looking to go from M.Div. into Th.D. or Ph.D. programs. Because of that, seminaries now offer the Th.M. degrees as sort of a preparation degree for the doctoral programs. Normally, you'd be able to get time off of your doctoral program if you have a Th.M., so that is one benefit. The other benefit is that it can be a good qualification for teaching on the undergraduate level and the thesis provides you with great research experience.
There's always a disclaimer for this kind of thing, so here is mine. Dallas Theological Seminary's Th.M. is not like the one above. It is a four year degree done after your undergraduate degree. It is basically a combination of the M.Div. and the type of Th.M. I just described. I'll also say that some seminaries really push their M.Div. program and as a result push everyone that is interested in a Ph.D. or Th.D. into a Th.M. program first. That is likely the situation the student that asked the second question is in.
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.