Religious Studies Graduate Programs

At the graduate level, a Religious Studies Degree program could acquaint students with diverse religious traditions and cultures around the world and through time. Religious Studies is a secular study of religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. Its many facets could include theory and content from several other disciplines.

How to earn a graduate degree in Religious Studies

Among them are theology, philosophy, history, languages, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. A Religious Studies degree might therefore be a pursuit with appeal to a wide range of students and goals.

Religious Studies Degree: Overview

Religious studies degree seekers could look for programs at the Masters, Doctorate, and Certificate levels. Within these program levels, students might look for a program that aligns with specific interests and aims. Whether this is to enhance personal faith, conduct scholarly research, teach, or serve in some way.

Comparative Religion

Universities that offer religious studies degree programs might take a comparative approach to the study of religion. These programs tend to emphasize both breadth of knowledge in several religious traditions as well as room for a selected concentration. Students who pursue a degree in comparative religion could therefore develop deeper insight into world religions and cross-cultural analytical skills.

Ministry and Counseling

By contrast, other religious studies graduate programs offer a practical focus. These programs might highlight a specific belief system, analyze sacred texts, or explore church ministry and organizational leadership. Students who pursue a practice-oriented degree in religious studies might therefore learn how to manage a congregation, motivate congregants, or apply scriptural knowledge in a counseling setting.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements vary by school and program. The minimum education for Religious Studies Graduate Programs is a bachelors degree, although a Master of Arts (MA) is often required for PhD degree seekers. To this end, some schools might offer a MA program with coursework that conveniently folds into their PhD program. These may be referred to as joint PhD programs and could come with specific admissions protocol.

Beyond this, religious degree candidates usually need to furnish transcripts, letters of reference, and a personal essay. Some graduate schools may require a personal or phone interview as well. GRE scores may be required for some, but not all programs. Applicants should therefore refer to the admissions information provided by each university.


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Masters in Religious Studies Programs

Masters in Religious Studies programs could award both academic and professional masters degrees, and both may have specific admissions and degree requirements. Additionally, each university defines their degree programs, so please refer to individual schools to make sure the course of study suits you.

Academic masters degrees such as the Master of Arts (MA) might provide a very individualized course of study in theology or an aspect of religious studies. Students who pursue a MA could gain advanced knowledge in the history and practices of a religious tradition, or an area of comparative religion. These programs tend to stress religious studies research theory and methods. Students might therefore learn how to use primary and secondary texts to develop a written thesis or research papers.

Professional masters degrees could be offered in seminal areas such as pastoral counseling, divinity, or Christian Ministry. These tend to be planned-out to prepare graduates to pursue leadership within their Church, and might require less written work but more hands-on practice in one’s technical field.

Master of Arts in Religious Studies

A Master of Arts (MA) in Religious Studies degree program could provide students with the chance to deepen their grasp of religious theory and spiritual practices. In some universities, the MA is a rather flexible program that can be planned-out with an academic advisor. Students are often required to complete 48 credits, which typically include core courses, core areas, electives, a focused study area, and final capstone (e.g. paper, project or thesis).

In their core courses, students might study to enhance their knowledge of sacred scripture, theology, ethics, spirituality, and worship. These courses might be supplemented with major content areas such as religion and society, history, and ministry arts. Electives could make up a significant part of the MA, and thus might help a student tailor their degree to personal areas of interest, as would a focused study area.

While these areas differ in each school, below are some general examples.

  • Biblical Studies
  • Islamic Studies
  • Christian-Muslim Relations
  • Spirituality
  • Theology and Ethics

Because of its breadth, the MA in Religious Studies could help students build basic and key knowledge of one’s own religion and may widen world views.

Master of Catechesis (MCat) & Master of Arts in Catechesis

A Master of Catechesis is a professional degree that focuses on catechesis and the Catholic tradition. It is usually aimed at adults who intend to or who presently serve the Church.

Students who pursue a MCat degree may have to complete 30 hours of coursework. Aside from its professional approach to catechesis, coursework might draw content from other disciplines, such as:

  • Theology
  • Scripture
  • Liturgy
  • Spirituality
  • History of catechetics
  • Psychology

The other component of an MCat program is usually a for-credit internship. The internship provides students a chance to work with professionals in their present ministry. As part of the internship, some programs might require students to design a ministry project and thesis.

By contrast to an MCat, a Master of Arts (MA) in Catechetics could introduce students to scholarship and research, and prepare students to pursue doctoral studies. Students who pursue a MA might have different degree requirements. For example, they may be required to complete 36 credits, within which they could take several electives. Furthermore, instead of an internship, students may need to write research papers and take comprehensive exams based on extensive readings.

Doctor of Religious Studies Programs

Doctor of Religious Studies programs are terminal degrees. Similar to masters programs, candidates might choose to pursue a scholarly or professional doctorate degree.

An example of an academic (research) degree is a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). PhD in religious studies programs often focus on anthropological, sociological, and behavioral inquiry into religions and related areas.

Other degree seekers might look for a practice doctorate such as the Doctor of Ministry. Doctor of Ministry programs could prepare graduates for pastoral or ministry career paths. They therefore tend to expand on skills such as leadership and management.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Theology

A PhD in Theology is typically designed to foster intellectualism, teaching formation, and research skills. PhD degree seekers usually build a breadth of knowledge, while at the same time, they could build expertise in one focal area as they anchor their own research.

In some universities, students who pursue their PhD in Theology might focus their studies in one of several areas. Usually, along with their courses, candidates take comprehensive exams and serve as teaching assistants and teaching fellows. Their research usually precedes a dissertation that is presented and orally defended in front of a committee.

  • Historical Theology/History of Christianity: A focus in HT/HC could highlight the faith and practice of the Church, and medieval Christianity. In their courses, students might look at the social, cultural, and institutional contexts through time.
  • Systematic Theology: A  program focused in systemic theology could help students treat theological material through methods that factor in coherence and a sense that each element is connected one to the other.
  • Biblical Studies: A concentration on Biblical Studies could delve into the historical and cultural contexts of the Old Testament and New Testament.
  • Theological Ethics: A focus on theological ethics could include the study of major Roman Catholic and Protestant thinkers as well as current topics in social ethics.
  • Comparative Theology: A focus in comparative theology entails the study of one or more religious traditions in addition to one’s own, and could foster critical reflection.

Doctor of Ministry (DMin)

A Doctor of Ministry is typically designed to hone ministry skills as students study to develop a deeper grasp of Biblical principles and strategies. Typically, students take a series of courses and culminate their degree with a thesis project. In some universities, DMin degree seekers must choose an area of emphasis that features related courses. These areas of focus may include:

  • Discipleship: discipleship and the exploration of theology, evangelism, and leadership. Students might learn outreach techniques and address how they could apply to a ministry.
  • Pastoral Counseling: pastoral counseling could help students gain the skills and knowledge needed to address the mental, emotional, and spiritual challenges. Coursework might expand on individual, family, premarital, and marital issues.
  • Chaplaincy: chaplaincy might explore practical theories and ways to apply them as chaplain leaders. Students might take courses in strategic leadership and ethics.

Graduate Certificate in Religious Studies

A Graduate Certificate in religious studies could be available as stand-alone awards and/or as programs designed to enhance a Master of Arts. For students currently enrolled in graduate programs in fields other than religious studies (e.g. business, international studies, law, or another discipline), a certificate might build on the skills gained in their primary program. Or, it could enhance your existing professional credentials.

Most graduate certificate programs provide seekers with graduate-level content in the academic study of religion and world religious belief systems. Also, certificates typically target a single topic in fewer courses and credits than masters programs. Candidates could therefore study to gain a grasp of a specific theoretical approach or discuss a key issue associated with a religious tradition or aspect of religion.

Because there are different certificates available, core classes vary. In some schools, students may take up to 24 credit hours, which gives room for religious traditions courses, theory, and electives. Religious traditions courses could expand on ones such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism.

Other subject matter could expose students to religious studies theory such as the psychology of religion or religious ethics. Additional electives are usually drawn from an approved list. In these courses, students could further explore topics of interest. These could be as diverse as religion and race in the United States, religion and globalization, or a deep dive into the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Graduate Certificate in Christian Spirituality

A Graduate Certificate in Christian Spirituality could explore scripture, dogmatic theology, and moral theology. Students might examine points of view from theology and spirituality to help them better grasp issues related to Christianity and ministry. For instance, coursework could explore prayer, discipleship, and community. In some schools, students who successfully complete their certificate might be able to apply earned credits toward a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry.


One of the criteria religious studies degree seekers might use to help find a graduate school is to look at accreditation status. Accreditation could exist at two levels.

On one hand, the school itself could be regionally or nationally accredited. This assessment process could let students know, among other things, that the university is financially stable. Approval is also key if you plan to apply for federal financial aid or hope to transfer credits to another program.

The other type of accreditation is for individual programs within approved schools. Some of the agencies recognized for approval of religious studies degree programs include the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc., the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools, and the Association for Biblical Higher Education, or the Association of Theological Schools accreditation commissions.

Choose a Format: On-Campus or Online

Religious studies graduate programs may be offered in two formats: online and on-campus. An online religious studies degree might suit busy professionals who don’t have time to take classes in a traditional (daytime) format. Sometimes, distance programs mirror the campus ones except for the format, and that students could conveniently log in from wherever they have internet.

Campus programs are, however, more interactive. Students might sit in classrooms and engage with faculty and peers for lively discussions. Whatever your preference, you could look for graduate schools with religious studies degree programs in a certain city, state, or country. Or, just refine your search to include only online degrees.

Find a Religious Studies Program Now

Whether you are primarily interested in personal growth, scholarly study, or practical counseling and ministry leadership, a graduate degree in religious studies could be dynamic and rewarding. Find the perfect religious studies degree for you right here. Filter by degree level (masters, doctorate, certificate) and format (online, on-campus). Then, look through the list of sponsored programs and connect with the schools directly.


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