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Personal religious faith and intellectual curiosity compel many of us to study how religions engage questions about humanity’s relationship to divine forces. Students of theology explore language and culture and literary and historical as well as religious texts in the pursuit of questions from ephemeral ("why does evil exist?") to historical ("how did faith factor into a certain social movement?") to pragmatic ("what can faith do for a specific community or individual here and now?").

Theology programs tend to engage their topic from within specific religious traditions. The majority in the United States are affiliated with Christian denominations, but there are many programs either coordinated with or dedicated to Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and other traditions. A program may focus on the relevance of Christian teachings to contemporary life or operate under the principle that building relationships between faith traditions should be the heart of theological and religious training. Prospective students will most likely want to choose a school affiliated with the community or tradition in which they want to pursue career opportunities, whether or not they are or plan on becoming ordained in that denomination.

Degree Information

Masters of Arts in Theology (M.A. or M.A.T.) and Masters in Theological Studies (M.T.S.) may take from one to four years and mean different things at different schools. Some universities consider these degrees to be the first step on the road to a Ph.D. Others consider them either an extension of or a precursor to a Masters in Divinity (M.Div.). In such a case, the second degree is usually a year-long program in which the student focuses on a specific area of study. Fieldwork is part of some curricula. Almost every master’s program requires a written thesis, and some also require oral exams. Some programs are coordinated between universities or institutes or even departments and thus may require more than one application and/or offer dual degrees, such as an M.A.-M.S. combining religion and journalism or women’s studies.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program

  • Do you want an interfaith approach or to be rooted in a specific tradition?
  • Do you want to go on to ministerial-type work (for instance, pastoral counseling)?
  • What are the professor’s areas of concentration, and how accessible are they?
  • What funding opportunities are offered?

Career Overview

The majority of students getting degrees in theology pursue careers as scholars or educators in religion, working in academic settings, religious institutions, or, often, religiously-affiliated academic institutions. Many also go on to work in interfaith settings, social and human services, as outreach workers to homeless, as chaplains in hospitals and prisons, even as policy-makers and advocates. It is also common to combine theological training with other skills and knowledge as journalists, medical professionals, artists--you name it.

Career/Licensing Requirements

For many counseling positions, a master’s in social work and applicable state licensure may be required. To be ordained as a minister, rabbi, or other such religious leader, you will most likely need to go to a seminary school for your chosen denomination.

Salary Information

Professors in academic institutions average around $49,000. Social-service salaries (such as outreach worker and pastoral care provider) run from the mid-$20,000s to the upper $30,000s. Social workers (those with M.S.W. and appropriate licensure) average around $33,000. Religious leaders such as Catholic priests, rabbis, and Protestant ministers, usually make between $15,000 to $20,000, but are often provided with housing and have most daily living expenses covered.

Related Links

American Academy of Religion
The world’s largest organization of academics researching and teaching religion-related topics.

Offers information about a wide range of faiths with a strong religious-pluralism bent.


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