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Language Preparation for Religious Studies...I'm confused.

SanguineHybridSanguineHybrid Registered User Posts: 2 New Member
edited August 2007 in Graduate School
Hey, I'm going to be a Junior at Harvard, I'm majoring in Medieval History and Literature, and I've realized that I want to pursue a Master's and PhD in Religion, probably either in Judaic Studies or something more comparative with a focus on the conception of women through religious texts, cultures and traditions...or something like that :-P

The problem is, now that I just started researching this, they expect me to come in knowing so many languages!!! Right now am pretty proficient in Italian and can read Old English...but that sounds pretty useless when compared to the requirements of most of the schools I would like to attend. I may not be able to take it as a graded course since I've already taken Italian for four semesters, but I am completely interested in learning Hebrew. I have started teaching myself this summer anyway, and I'm sure somebody at the school's Hillel or Chabad could help me out if the language won't fit into my schedule.

But I have no time to learn French or German by the end of my college career. I also admit I never had an interest in learning these languages. Why are they seen as so essential? You would think being able to read the primary sources in Hebrew or Greek would take preference to reading modern scholarly commentary in that original language...you'd think it would be less of an issue to read an English translation of something written only a century ago, no?

Anyway, can I learn both of these languages after getting in, or do I already have no chance? That does sound like an awful lot of time learning languages.

I had no idea this would be so complicated! Why don't they warn you about all the different requirements grad schools have when you are registering for college classes?

I recall the highschool CC to be very big on stats, so I obviously haven't taken the GRE yet, but my GPA is around 3.3-3.4 right now...would be higher if I didn't have one bum semester. I have no idea if that means I'm doomed or not, though I am pretty sure that GPA would fly better for grad school than for law school.

I've only researched Ivy League schools and Stanford so far about this, so also let me know if you have any suggestions for solid, academic (no desire to become a priest, reverend, rabbi, etc.) religion programs.

I'm also worried about course preparation for this sort of thing--I'm already kind of in a double major, with lots of requirements, and while I could easily work a course on Maimonides in there and medieval history courses do love discussing Catholic history, Islamic-Christian-Jewish relations, and Christianity's adjustments to gain pagan converts, I guess I won't have the same background as an actual religion student. Is this a problem?

Thanks so much!
Post edited by SanguineHybrid on

Replies to: Language Preparation for Religious Studies...I'm confused.

  • WilliamCWilliamC Registered User Posts: 785 Member
    First, you won't have to have everything on day 1 but...

    For Judaic studies you'll obviously have to learn Hebrew and it looks like you have that under control. You don't have to master the modern research languages - just be able to read them. And read them you will, because, like it or not, a HUGE amount of material has been (and continues to be) published only in those languages. That said, there are special (usually summer) intensive courses designed to give you that knowledge. So its not too bad.

    Now, you have 2 years plus 1 summer to ge before grad school and knowing that language difficulties are the number one delayer of graduate school progress I'd suggest:

    First and most important: Talk to your professors this fall about how to shape your last 2 years

    That will probably include:

    1) Getting as much Hebrew as possible (i.e. 4 full semesters)
    2) Taking a summer intensive German "for graduate reading knowledge" class.

    Greek will be more exciting - but I know of at least one person who was admitted to programs at Yale and Harvard (she went with Harvard even though both her parents were Yale alums) for this coming fall with only 1 year of Greek. Again, summer intensive will be the way to go to get "caught up". Here at Penn (and elsewhere) you can actually cram 2 years of Greek into a single summer.

    A 3.4 GPA may be lowish for a top ranked school but you have one full year plus a summer (plus maybe fall depending on deadlines) to pump it up. Again, your professors will be the ones who can give you the best advice here. You'll need about 3 LORs so you want to impress a small handful of professors with your interest and enthusiasm.

    You'll also want to refine your research interests. Fit is crucial to grad school admissions and the closer you can get to already knowing what you want to do, the better chance you have of finding faculty with corresponding interests.

    Also, take the GRE far enough in advance that you'll have PLENTY of time for a do-over. Late spring next year is not too soon.

    Good luck!
  • Professor XProfessor X Registered User Posts: 893 Member
    Language preparation necessities for admission to religious studies programs depend on your intended area of focus, of course.

    In your case, Hebrew is crucial. It would be MUCH preferable for you to have classes on your transcript rather than just self-reporting study with a tutor.

    I'm not clear where your need for Greek comes in. You've mentioned comparative work, but you didn't say anything about an interest in early Christianity. Greek is, of course, necessary if you're working with early Christian texts, and helpful if you're a medievalist, but you can probably get by with Koine Greek, which is so much easier than Attic Greek. I'd suggest a course in Koine. Harvard's Div School offers it regularly.

    With Italian, French will be much easier to pick up than German. Just take a summer course in "French for Reading." That will satisfy most admissions committees.

    Finally, I strongly suggest at least one course in theory and method in the study of religion. Both MA and PhD programs in Religious Studies will look much more favorably on your application with such a course on your transcript.

    If you are feeling unprepared for PhD admissions, don't think you are "stepping down" if you consider an MA programs prior to PhD application. All Religious Studies MA programs are "feeder programs" to top PhD programs, and help to prepare students both in theory/method, and in languages.

    Finally - Top PhD programs in Religious Studies vary widely according to one's specialization. In your case, it sounds like you will DEFINITELY want to look outside of the Ivies. Harvard is fine, but The University of Chicago is better. Look at Brown as well. Maybe Duke, Emory, Vanderbilt. And keep in mind that graduate work is all about with whom you want to study. Whose work do you admire most? Find out where they are, and see if they have a PhD program in Religious Studies. If not, find out where they studied.

    Oh, I forgot to mention -- I direct a grad program in Religious Studies, so if you'd like to correspond, please feel free to send me a private message.
  • SanguineHybridSanguineHybrid Registered User Posts: 2 New Member
    Ok, thanks you guys! It seems it would be smarter to get an MA first to prepare myself for this. Brandeis actually has a program that combines women's and near eastern studies, that looked interesting. Harvard Divinity School's Theological Studies degree also sounded great, especially with a focus on Religion, Gender and Culture. I guess the main reason all the requirements scared me is that my family really wants me to try for law school, and I'm realizing that trying for both programs and deciding later would be really stressful.

    Financial Aid is another huge consideration, and HDS is the only place I have found so far that gives financial aid to MA candidates. This all ties in to the larger worry of wanting to find something where I can both make a living and be happy with my day-to-day life.

    I'm thinking if I learn Hebrew outside of my transcript but take a class that requires reading knowledge Senior fall, it would work out. Ideas?
  • Professor XProfessor X Registered User Posts: 893 Member
    HDS is far from the only place that supports MA candidates! Every single terminal MA program in Religious Studies fully funds (full tuition remission plus stipend) top candidates.

    And in my opinion, if you take a class that requires reading knowledge of Hebrew on your transcript, AND get a letter of rec from that professor, AND note your Hebrew reading knowledge in your personal statement, you have absolutely covered your bases. Great idea.
  • ReDbUll298ReDbUll298 Registered User Posts: 290 Junior Member
    I'm having the same problem. I'm going to be a junior at Haverford and want to attend graduate school for English directly after graduation, but I've only had Latin throughout middle school and high school and then introductory Italian in college. I've only looked at Harvard and Yale's programs, but do most graduate schools require fluency in three other languages aside from English? I wish I would have known this well in advance.. I can resume the Italian next year without too much of a problem, but apparently two languages still aren't sufficient ..
  • Professor XProfessor X Registered User Posts: 893 Member
    The normally required research languages for a PhD in the humanities are French and German. This is because in many fields, much important research is done by scholars who write in French or German.

    PhD programs have risen in selectivity of late, and one of the ways in which they have expressed this selectivity is by preferring candidates with reading knowledge of at least one of these languages. Note that READING KNOWLEDGE is quite different from fluency. Evidence of READING KNOWLEDGE can be acquired by taking one graduate level course in "French for Reading" or "German for Reading." Undergrads are often allowed to take such a course. Such courses are typically offered during summers. Taking such a course will put evidence of competency on one's transcript. This will suffice for most PhD admissions.

    When in a PhD program, prior to taking qualifying exams, one will likely be required to pass exams in reading competency in both French and German. If a student comes into the program with only one of these languages, then the student will typically take a reading course in the other language sometime prior to his or her third year in residence, again, often during the summer.

    Languages that are directly relevant to one's area of study are another story. If a student's subfield of specialization is going to be 17th century Portuguese history, an aspiring PhD student had better get that linguistic competency documented on his/her transcript prior to application to PhD programs. The crucial factor here is to anticipate your subfield early enough in your college career to acquire the relevant language(s).
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