Students considering undertaking advanced academic study in a religion-oriented subject often have to choose between a ThD and a more traditional PhD. While the ThD and the PhD in a religious subject are academically equivalent, and in some circumstances the topic of study can be identical, the ThD is generally a much narrower degree focused on theology.
Because the ThD and PhD in a religion-oriented subject overlap considerably, the admissions criteria are often nearly identical. Both are academic degrees, and admissions boards expect to see strong performance in a social science or humanities subject. The major difference between the two programs does not concern GPA or GRE scores, but rather the content of previous study. A ThD candidate will be expected to have studied a theological matter closely, while a PhD candidate could simply have broadly studied a religion in an historical, anthropological or other context. In addition, while both programs prefer knowledge of an ancient language, this is sometimes a requirement for the ThD.
In general, both the PhD and the ThD require between five and seven years of study. For course requirements, both programs also require proficiency in at least one relevant language, which could include Hebrew, Arabic, Latin or Sanskrit. Students in both programs begin by working with their advisers to choose courses appropriate to their area of interest. In the case of a theology ThD, the coursework will be narrower and focused on concepts such as church history and major religious texts. A PhD, on the other hand, will be broader, and coursework could be in subjects such as sociology, anthropology or history.
The focus of a dissertation may vary between a ThD and a PhD. While this is not always the case, the ThD will generally focus on a close analysis of a theological concept, while a PhD will focus on religion more generally. At the Harvard Divinity School, for example, ThD candidates' interests include Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New Testament and Early Christianity, and Islamic Studies. PhD topics of study can overlap considerably with these same topics but can often include a broader topic.
Post-Graduate Career Prospects
Because the ThD and the PhD are largely comparable degrees in terms of their admissions standards and curricula, the two mostly overlap when it comes to post-graduate career prospects. The one area where the two diverge, however, is in their ability to serve as a qualification for ministry and pastoral services. The ThD is much more likely to lead to a career in ministry and church service, whereas the PhD is almost exclusively for people interested in academia.
- Boston University: Doctor of Theology (ThD)
- Harvard Divinity School: ThD Program
- Duke Divinity School: Doctor of Theology (Th.D.)
- Duke University: Graduate Program in Religion
- Harvard Divinity School: Degree Programs
- Boston University: Doctor of Philosophy in Practical Theology (PhD)
- Harvard Divinity School: Doctoral Students (ThD)
- Duke University Graduate Program in Religion: Recent Dissertations
Kevin Wandrei has written extensively on higher education. His work has been published with Kaplan, Textbooks.com, and Shmoop, Inc., among others. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Cornell University.