Choosing a School for Graduate Studies
Seminary or Grad School?
The first obstacle that you’ll come across when dealing with theological education on the graduate level is the question: Should I go to a seminary or a graduate school?
_The difference is that a Seminary is traditionally designed to provide initial training for ministry. Many seminaries also offer advanced training such as the Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees. Many seminaries lack Ph.D. programs and the multi-discipline research libraries of universities. Most are affiliated with a denomination and have the Master of Divinity degree as their main program.
_A Graduate School, such as one found at a Christian college or even a secular university, is more likely to have degree programs such as the M.A. and other research-based degrees that are a good stepping stone to further research-based study. On the other hand, the seminary’s M.Div. programs will provide a more practical look at ministry.
_Another option to consider is the Divinity School at many private universities. While they are many times theologically liberal and ecumenical by design, they do house impressive libraries and provide seminary degrees such as the M.Div. The school name that is attached to degrees from such Divinity Schools is usually well known outside of Christian ministry. One downside is that they are usually much more expensive than a typical Christian seminary or college.
Accreditation in the U.S.
Accreditation is very important when considering any kind of degree program. Some smaller Christian colleges do not seek accreditation or are rejected for accreditation. There are several factors that contribute to a school not being accredited. These can include a lack of finances, a lack of qualified faculty, a lack of financial accountability, and a deficiency in the school’s curriculum. I found that schools that are accredited will state it plainly in their catalogs and on their website. Schools that are not accredited tend to dance around the issue more, stating various reasons why accreditation is not that important. Those with an undergraduate degree from an unaccredited school would have difficulty finding a graduate school or employer that would accept it. In the framework of ministry, it is very possible to be a senior pastor and hold an unaccredited degree. However, this does limit one’s options in the areas of ministry and further education.
Accreditation outside the U.S.
Accreditation is a big issue in the United States, but the rest of the world tends to use different terminology and it really becomes an "apples to oranges" comparison.
In the U.S., the Department of Education only has the authority to approve accrediting bodies, but it cannot accredit or grant authorization to any college or university. In contrast, most countries have a Ministry of Education or something similar that issues "authorization" for an institution to grant degrees. This is usually considered to be equivalent to regional accreditation in the U.S. To make certain, you can use a service like World Education Services.
WES is a well respected company that will collect the foreign transcripts or credentials and makes a written judgment that can be submitted to a university or prospective employer. They also have a good website that outlines country-specific information concerning both secondary and post-secondary credentials and degrees. You have to create an account and log in to view a lot of their material, but it's worth it if you need to know. The evaluation of your transcripts and credentials isn't free, but is also well worth it if you need a service like this.
You will occasionally see a foreign university accredited by a U.S. accreditation agency. This is normally done to cater to prospective American students. It allows their American students to receive more money in (U.S.) federal financial aid and it also allows the university to use the same terminology that the American students are used to.
Most post-secondary institutions, though, see no reason to go through this process. For example, Oxford University in the U.K. isn't accredited by any U.S. agency. Why would they be? They and other legitimate foreign universities must retain their authorization or charter to operate and grant degrees from their own government. This takes a while for some folks in the U.S. to get their minds around because it is quite a different process with different, and sometimes conflicting, terminology.
Once you’ve found a school that has your desired degree program, take a look at the school’s faculty. Even more so than your undergraduate school, take a look at your prospective school’s professors and see what degree they have. Most, if not all, should hold terminal degrees in the area that they teach (Ph.D., Th.D., Ed.D., etc.). If you plan to get a Master of Divinity in Biblical Languages and their main Hebrew professor has a doctoral degree in a field not related to Hebrew, then that should raise a big red flag. Another example is if you want to study Church History and the chief professor at your prospective school has a Th.D. in Biblical Studies instead of a degree in Church History, Historical Theology, or an historical field.
Be aware too that the majority of Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) and Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) holders had that degree conferred upon them, instead of earning it through coursework and/or research. Some schools are loaded with professors with honorary degrees. That should be a red flag too. (Also, be aware that some Doctor of Divinity holders actually did earn their degrees through writing a significant work. Universities in the UK especially will award these degrees on such people based on their writing. So, a D.D. from Cambridge University would not be given under the same circumstances as a D.D. from Po-Dunk College in the U.S.)
The third faculty warning sign is when most of the faculty received their graduate degrees from the school they are teaching at. Theology is a field where there is a right answer to each question. The problem is that we as Christians don’t always know what that answer is. There is much that we do know, obviously, and we can point to the corpus of Scripture as evidence. However, many schools will state dogmatically what the Scripture is unclear about. In addition, these schools will only hire those that agree with their limited position (for example only hiring those that only use a certain translation of the Bible). In graduate school you should be taught to do your own research and come to your own conclusions. There is no room in theological education for a stifling of ideas or a derailment into side issues that are not biblical. Instead, theological conclusions should be researched and critiqued ultimately in light of Scripture. Find a school that allows you to do that and you will have found a good theological school.
If graduate school is your first experience with theological training, then choose a school that has a good history of training quality pastors, teachers, and Christian leaders. If you are continuing in theological training and are confident in your theology, then it is less important to choose a school that aligns with your specific doctrinal statement. Sometimes going to a seminary with a different theological tradition than yourself will open your eyes to others views in a way that simply reading a book cannot. Many times this will sharpen your writing and thinking as you will have to examine your own beliefs and defend your position.
Post-Grad Work: What to do after your Masters
Choosing a school for post-graduate studies is usually a difficult choice, and one that can be very time consuming. Once you have found the specific area that you want to pursue, the search begins to find the right school to fit your needs. For some, they have enjoyed a previous school they’ve attended so much that they want to do their doctoral work at that particular school. Others may look into a completely new realm of schools, going to a university or seminary that is outside of their denomination or is secular in nature. By this time in your theological training you should have a good idea of what you want to do. If you still don’t know, then I would generally suggest that you postpone any further education. It will be very hard to do the great amount of work required in many doctoral programs without a goal in mind and without a career plan.
There are a couple of tips that can be useful in finding the right school for your doctoral degree. If you are looking to teach, then look at various schools where they have professors that already teach in the field that you are looking to pursue. This is easily done on the internet. Simply search for the degree that you want (for example “Th.D. New Testament”) and many of the search results that you receive will be the faculty page of seminaries and theological departments at universities. Once on the faculty page it will list their degrees and where they came from. This will give you an idea of where current professors have received their terminal degrees. Also, talk to people already in the field you want to teach in. They usually know where the good schools are!
The realm of distance education is quickly growing with many competing schools vying for your attention. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when looking into distance education. The first thing to make certain is that the program is accredited (if you're in the U.S.) or authorized to grant degrees (if you're in most other nations). Secondly, try to understand the overall format of the program. Some schools will send you all of your course materials in a package and you will listen to tapes and have someone act as a proctor for your tests. Other schools have DVD courses of real classroom lectures that you can watch and then take tests online. There are other schools that provide an internet based classroom where you can see your professor and interact with them and your fellow students. The latter two methods are becoming more popular, thanks to technology. There are many other variations on these formats, though, that you may come across. For instance, some graduate programs will only require reading and writing, without lectures or seminars. The key is to find out what you really want out of your education. A good, quality theological degree can be completed online. However, there are also below average programs out there too that, while easier in your coursework, will not teach you what you need to know for effective ministry.
Theological Education in the U.K. and the British Commonwealth
The United Kingdom has a very long history in education and still excels in the training in the areas of theology and church history. When looking into schools and degrees in the U.K. you will notice a distinct change in the meaning and use of educational terms. For example, a masters-level degree in the U.K. is called a post-graduate degree (because it takes place after your graduation from your undergraduate school). Another thing to be aware is that many schools in the U.K. offer similar degrees as schools in North America, but give them different titles. For example, a Doctor of Philosophy might be called a D.Phil. instead of a Ph.D. and a Doctor of Theology might be a D.Theol. or a D.Th. instead of a Th.D.
A major difference in the U.K. graduate and doctoral programs is the great independence that is usually given to its students. These particular programs are called Research Courses (where the term ‘course’ is equivalent to our use of ‘program’). The other options are called Taught Courses. These are courses where seminars are attended in addition to research and writing. There are several degrees not mentioned in the degrees section of this website that you may see while looking through a U.K. catalog. The first degree is the Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.), which is a one or two year research program in a particular concentration. There is also the Master of Letters (M.Litt.) which is available chiefly in Scotland and can either be a one or two year taught program or a two year research program.