Master’s in Religious Studies Programs
Religious studies graduate programs offer the chance to acquire a deep understanding of world religions, their impact on society, and their philosophical underpinnings. Pursuing a master’s degree in religious studies could help you develop critical thinking and analytical skills, as well as a broader perspective on life and spirituality. It could also enhance your professional prospects, depending on the career path you want to pursue.
Overview of Religious Studies Graduate Programs
A master’s in religious studies could be a unique degree that might appeal to the scholar and spiritually-minded individual. The courses you might take are often linked to a specific program focus. General religious studies courses could span elements of politics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology. Some examples are listed below.
- Literature and Art
- Scriptural and Textual Studies
- History of Religion
- Logic, Ethics
Most master’s in religious studies programs also allow students to shape their studies around personal goals and interests. However, some students might prefer to focus exclusively, and the following are some common areas of emphasis.
- Biblical Studies
- Christian Counseling
Importance of Pursuing a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies
Earning a master’s degree may be important for certain career paths. For example, those who wish to become educators at the postsecondary level typically need to earn at least a master’s degree.
A master’s degree in religious studies may also be important to you on a personal level. Learning about diverse religious traditions could help you grow spiritually and as a world citizen.
Finally, earning a master’s degree could increase your salary potential. Across many fields, master’s degree holders have a higher median annual salary than those with a bachelor’s degree—in 2021, the median annual salary was $12,480 higher.1
Mastering Religious Studies: Key Concepts and Theories
Religious studies graduate programs cover a wide range of key concepts and theories that help students understand religions and their impact on society. By exploring these ideas and practices, students could gain a more profound knowledge of the role of religion in human life, history, and culture.
Many master’s of religious studies degree programs involve a deep dive into major world religions—including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. You might expect to study the historical origins of these religious traditions, their central teachings, and how devotees practice their faith. You’ll typically also spend time connecting religious beliefs and practices to other areas of the humanities, such as history, philosophy, and anthropology, to learn how religion has shaped thought and civilization. Areas you could explore in your studies may include the following.
The nature of religion and religious experience
What is religion? Religious studies master’s degree programs seek to answer this and other questions related to religious belief and how people worldwide experience religion.
Religious practices and rituals
Religions around the world differ not just in their central teachings but in their rites and rituals. In a master’s of religious studies program, you could expect to learn how devotees put their faith into practice.
Religious texts and traditions
From the Koran to the Bible, religious texts are critical to understanding the central tenets of any faith. In your graduate program, you might not only study religious texts firsthand but explore others’ interpretations through the ages.
Religious diversity and globalization
Globalization has led to the spread of religious ideas, which in turn has impacted global politics, economics, and culture. In your master’s program, you might explore the role religion has played—and continues to play—in the changing global landscape.
DID YOU KNOW? 13,228 theology and religious vocations master’s degrees were conferred in 2020–212.
Master’s in Religious Studies Degrees: MA, MDiv, ThM, and MTS
Schools may offer a variety of degrees centered around religious studies. Common programs include Master of Arts (MA), Master of Divinity (MDiv), Master of Theology (ThM), and Master of Theological Studies (MTS). Typical admission requirements are having a bachelor’s degree, a minimum GPA, and personal and pastoral references. Applicants to programs designed for those seeking to enter the ministry might ask students to show they are currently active in a ministry.
The way a university or seminary school presents these programs could vary. However, there may be some general differences in programs that could help you determine which degree might fit your goals.
Master of Divinity (MDiv)
A Master of Divinity (MDiv) is a “professional” master’s degree primarily designed for those who want to pursue a ministry career. The Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the body that accredits most seminaries in the US, defines the MDiv as a program that prepares “persons for ordained ministry and for general pastoral and religious leadership responsibilities in congregations and other settings.” Some students who enter the pastorate might stop with the MDiv, but it could also serve as a pathway to a Doctor of Divinity program.
MDiv programs typically require at least three academic years of full-time study or the equivalent and could require between 70 and 100 credit hours. Aside from the academic required courses, students may study independently or through directed research to complete a capstone. Another common requirement of an MDiv is a period of intense and supervised practice, which might enable students to gain some hands-on experience in the tasks of ministerial leadership.
Courses and curriculum
Master of Divinity program curriculum is often planned around four themes: (1) foundational courses, (2) praxis courses, (3) spiritual formation, and (4) electives. Actual course topics could vary between universities, though, so read through program descriptions.
Foundational courses could help learners understand Christian religious heritage, cultural realities of the ministry, and the Bible as the Christian Scripture.
Praxis courses focus on topics that could help students grasp the ins and outs of pastoral leadership, Christian worship, and congregational spiritual formation. Courses in personal and spiritual formation aim to help create the opportunity for students to grow in “personal faith, emotional maturity, moral integrity, and public witness.”
Master of Arts (MA) in Religious Studies
A Master of Arts (MA) in Religious Studies degree program typically has either a specific ministry or academic focus. These programs might help students prepare for further graduate study or enhance other studies such as law, business, or education.
Professional MA in religious studies programs may be organized in three broad areas of emphasis: (1) Religious Educational Leadership, (2) Specific Ministry, and (3) Pastoral Studies.
Academic MA in religious studies programs are, by comparison, intended to help students explore the phenomenon of religion as well as religious traditions from around the world.
An MA in Religious Studies might take a full-time student up to two academic years to complete. Students might be required to complete between 30 and 60 credit hours. To complete their degree, students may be required to write a thesis, revise a major term paper as a publishable journal article, complete a special research project, or pass comprehensive exams.
Courses and Curriculum
Courses for a Master of Arts in Religious Studies often encourage breadth of knowledge through core courses and depth of knowledge through an area of emphasis (track). Some students may also apply credit hours to independent research for a thesis.
Master of Theology (ThM)
A Master of Theology (ThM) is typically a one-year academic degree taken after a student has completed a three-year Master of Divinity program. The ATS considers a master’s degree in theology the minimum required education to teach Bible or theology at an accredited Bible college.
Pursuing a ThM may also help students: (1) prepare for a PhD in Theology, (2) enhance their ministerial practice through scholarly study, and (3) engage in disciplined reflection about a certain function in ministry. Students may take classes in topics such as biblical and religious studies, ministry duties, and divinity. Some programs have a strong emphasis on language studies such as Latin, Ancient Greek, Arabic, and Aramaic.
Master of Theological Studies (MTS)
A Master of Theological Studies (MTS) is a graduate degree that may provide a holistic academic program for non-MDiv students who want to broaden their grasp of theology and focus more deeply in a theological discipline. Theological studies is essentially concerned with the nature of the divine. An MTS program may therefore be taught as a scholarly (academic) discipline in universities, seminaries, and schools of divinity.
Master of Theology programs usually require students to complete two years of full-time study or its equivalent to earn the degree. A master’s thesis might consist of an individual research project, which could allow a student to investigate a topic of their choice.
Courses and Curriculum
Coursework could cover four core disciplines of theology: literary, historical, systematic, and practical. Students might take classes in Greek and Hebrew, as well as the philosophy of religion.
Areas of emphasis
In addition, students might need to choose an area of emphasis to help anchor their thesis research. Possible areas of emphasis might include:
- History of Church and Theology
- Biblical Exegesis
- Practical Theology
- Systematic Theology
DID YOU KNOW? The top-paying states for clergy in 2022 were California ($74,940), Washington ($74,310), and Hawaii ($72,630)3.
Navigating the Application Process: Insights from Admissions Professionals
Once you’ve found a religious studies program that aligns with your goals, it’s time to apply. These tips could help you ace the application process:
Tips and advice for crafting a strong application package
A grad school application is your way of showing a prospective school that you’re a competitive candidate and a great fit for the program. To craft a strong application package, you could try the following:
- Do your research—learn as much as possible about the program and faculty and mention why these specifics drew you to the program.
- Be clear on your goals and research interests and articulate these in your statement of purpose.
- Know your audience and write for them. Ensure that your statement of purpose and other parts of your application are polished and proofread.
- When seeking letters of recommendation, choose recommenders who might be able to speak to strengths and experiences that are relevant to your prospective program.
Highlighting unique strengths and experiences
In many cases, you’ll need to submit a statement of purpose as part of your application package. This is a great opportunity to highlight what makes you special—such as experiences, skills, or personal challenges that made you who you are today. Highlighting your unique qualities and how they connect to your goals as a religious studies graduate student could help you craft a compelling application.
Preparing for interviews and campus visits
When meeting the admissions committee, make a good first impression by dressing and speaking professionally, turning off your cell phone, and being mindful of body language. Do your homework to learn about faculty members’ research interests and recent publications and prepare questions about their work and the program in advance. Be ready to answer questions about yourself, too—such as about your research goals and what you hope to do with your graduate degree.
Resources for financial aid and scholarships
The financial aid office at your prospective school is there to help you understand your funding options. In addition, many organizations—including religious groups and nonprofits—offer potential scholarship opportunities based on your qualifications for graduate students.
DID YOU KNOW? The top-paying states for postsecondary philosophy and religion teachers in 2022 were Rhode Island ($132,660), Massachusetts ($114,710), and Maryland, ($114,500)4.
Online Religious Studies Master’s Programs: Flexibility and Accessibility
For prospective students who work full time or otherwise need a more flexible graduate program, pursuing an online religious studies master’s program might be a great choice.
Online programs offer the convenience and accessibility of taking classes from home, so you could pursue your religious studies degree while balancing work, family, and other obligations. However, online programs involve fewer in-person interactions, which is a drawback for some students.
Prospective students should carefully consider the pros and cons of online programs before deciding to pursue one. The pros of online religious studies master’s programs could include flexible scheduling to fit your busy life and the ability to study anywhere (no need to move to attend grad school!). Some of the cons could include less involvement in grad student life and potentially fewer research and experiential learning opportunities.
Religious Studies Careers: Opportunities and Trends
What could you do with a religious studies master’s degree? The answer may be different for everyone, with some graduates seeking religious leadership positions, others pursuing teaching, research, or further graduate education, and still others looking to work in private or nonprofit settings. But generally speaking, the skills practiced in a religious studies master’s program, including communications, critical thinking, and analytical skills, could have applications in many fields.
Religious studies graduates could bring their knowledge of world cultures and faith traditions to many diverse career paths—in both secular and non-secular work environments—potentially including:
- Religious leadership
- Nonprofit and advocacy work
- Journalism and media
- Government and international relations
- Business and entrepreneurship
Following are examples of specific career paths, with salary and employment information.
Median annual salary, 2022: $55,550
Employment, 2022: ~45,000
Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary6
Median annual salary, 2022: $78,780
Employment, 2022: ~21,000
Directors, Religious Activities and Education7
Median annual salary, 2022: $49,380
Employment, 2022: ~22,000
|State||Employment||Annual Mean Wage|
|Metro Area||Annual Mean Salary||Employment|
|Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX||$73,020||130|
|Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX||$67,680||90|
Current trends and challenges
Current trends in religious studies include the rise of religious diversity and the need for interfaith dialogue and understanding. Challenges could include the fact that fewer students pursue religious studies today, which could impact the opportunities available in this field.
Tips for Excelling in a Religious Studies Master’s Program
Like any graduate-level program, a master’s in religious studies may be demanding as well as mind-opening. These tips for academic success could help you excel in your religious studies program:
Strategies for developing strong reading and writing skills
Developing strong reading and writing skills is essential for engaging with complex texts and producing quality research papers as part of your religious studies master’s degree program. Some strategies include:
- Don’t read every word—skim for critical information
- Take notes while reading to help you retain key concepts
- Practice good time management skills—don’t wait until the last minute to start your reading or writing assignment
- Make use of the writing center to fine-tune your work
Building relationships with faculty and peers
Learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom. Building relationships with faculty and peers could lead to benefits ranging from fascinating conversations about world religion that go beyond the syllabus to research opportunities or even fellowships. So, attend your professors’ office hours and take the time to get to know them and your classmates.
Participating in research and experiential learning opportunities
Whether you encounter the chance to conduct research in your field or go on a field trip to gain firsthand knowledge of a religious tradition, try to take every chance that comes your way. Diving in to explore your subject could enrich your graduate school experience and lead to new discoveries and research interests.
Exploring career options and networking
It’s never too early to begin learning about the career paths you could pursue with a master’s in religious studies—or to network with peers and faculty who could help you uncover new opportunities.
ConclusionPursuing a master’s degree in religious studies could be a rewarding and fulfilling experience, helping graduates acquire a deep understanding of world religions and their impact on society. Now that you know what to expect from a master’s in religious studies program, how to apply, and what career paths to consider, you might be ready to start your grad school search. Browse the programs on this page or fill out the form to get matched with master’s in religious studies programs that may be a great fit for you!
Popular Schools with Religious Studies Master’s Degree Programs
GradSchools.com offers 455 Graduate Schools with Master in Religious Studies
1nces.ed.gov/ipeds/cipcode/cipdetail.aspx? 2https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d22/tables/dt22_323.10.asp?current=yes 3https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes212011.htm (figures represent mean annual wages, May 2022) 4https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes251126.htm (figures represent mean annual wages, May 2022) 5https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes212011.htm 6https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes251126.htm 7https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes212021.htm
Based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Accessed 5/24/2023.
This is an offer for educational opportunities that may lead to employment and not an offer for nor a guarantee of employment. Students should consult with a representative from the school they select to learn more about career opportunities in that field. Program outcomes vary according to each institution’s specific program curriculum.
Grand Canyon University
University of Denver
Loyola University Maryland
McGill University Faculty of Religious Studies
St. Patrick's Seminary
Bangor Theological Seminary
La Salle University