January 2022 News Perspective Online

Collegial, flexible and rigorous, GPRS attracts top students

For three hours in the morning, Lane Davis jumps on a Zoom call with fellow students working on their doctoral dissertations in the Graduate Program for Religious Studies (GPRS) at SMU.  They update each other on their progress, hold each other accountable and offer mutual support and encouragement.

“Those of us in the doctoral program are not just colleagues,” said Davis, a fourth-year Ph.D. student concentrating on Christian history. “We are good friends.”

That communal feel is one reason why GPRS is so exceptional – and one reason why the program attracts top talent every year. GPRS students pursue M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New Testament, History of the Christian Tradition, Religion and Culture, Religious Ethics or Systematic Theology. While students in many graduate programs at other universities may toil for years in solitary library carrels – especially during the writing phase of their Ph.D. studies – GPRS students enjoy the fellowship of a tight-knit community.

“The competition for entry is fierce – we admit less than 10% of applicants in a typical year – and the work is rigorous,” said Roy Heller, the program’s director and Professor of Old Testament at Perkins. “We have students who come to us with multiple master’s degrees or from professional backgrounds such as law or biochemistry. But once in the program, students enjoy a collegial atmosphere, and they get a lot of support.”

Currently, there are 21 GPRS students; only three to five students are admitted each year. Typically, Ph.D. students complete two years of coursework, including core courses in their areas of specialization, and spend three or more years writing a dissertation.

GPRS is one of the few fully funded graduate programs in the U.S. Once accepted, students’ tuition, fees and health insurance are paid, along with a stipend to help cover living expenses. The program was rolled out in the fall of 1965 and recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first GPRS graduate in 1970.

The program serves primarily to prepare students for academic leadership in their chosen fields and for professional careers as teacher-scholars in colleges, universities, and schools of theology. However, given that tenure track job openings are increasingly rare, faculty and staff assist students as they consider other career possibilities.

“Our students have been successful in finding jobs in nonprofits, libraries and museums,” said Heller. “The reality is that many won’t land in academic jobs, but there are ways to make it work.”

Leslie Fuller (Ph.D., 2018) is one of those graduates who made it work; she’s now reference and digital services librarian at Bridwell Library.

“I saw the job description for this position and thought, ‘I can do all those things,’” said Fuller. “And I do get to do some teaching, as a librarian and as an adjunct at Perkins.”

Another key advantage of the program is support and funding that enable students to attend conferences and professional gatherings in their fields such as the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) annual meetings. That helps them academically and in building networks in the job market.

“We see students developing their scholarly ‘family’ within their fields during their years in the program,” said Pamela Hogan, Coordinator for GPRS. “These students will leave from here, but they will stay connected their entire lives.”

Students get practical support in their job searches, too.

“When I was at GPRS, students organized professional development luncheons, where faculty members helped us prepare for interviews and to craft a strong CV and cover letter,” said Grace Vargas (GPRS Ph.D., 2020), now assistant professor in the department of religion at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

“Partly because it’s a small program, there were very few other students doing what I was doing,” said Fuller, whose area of specialization was Hebrew Bible. “When you’re not competing with each other, it’s easier to be supportive.”

Heller adds, “You don’t see the same kind of cut-throat competition here that some other graduate programs might have.”

GPRS is officially part of SMU’s Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies within the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. But in its day-to-day operations, GPRS is closely linked to Perkins. Many Perkins faculty members teach and advise GPRS students. Hogan coordinates GPRS along with the D.Min. and D.P.M. programs at Perkins. Fundraising for GPRS is handled through Perkins’ Development Office.

Many students and graduates interviewed for this story noted their appreciation for these dual ties to Perkins and SMU.

“I’ve taken Old Testament classes from three Perkins and one Dedman professor,” said Kelsey Spinnato, a fifth year Ph.D. student who hopes to teach at a university. “I have access to both types of work, and I will be equipped to teach in either environment.”

Other resources at Perkins and SMU also attract students to the program. Grace Vargas’ decision to attend GPRS was influenced by the presence of the Center for the Study of Latino/a Christianity and Religions at Perkins, GPRS’ connection with the Hispanic Theological Initiative Consortium, and her faculty advisor, Dr. Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, then Professor of World Christianities and Mission Studies at Perkins.

Spinnato adds that the program offers a lot of flexibility in the direction students can pursue as they choose their coursework and the topics for their dissertations. Spinnato is writing her dissertation on narrative retellings in 1990-2019 in the U.S. related to the character of Rebecca in the Old Testament.

That flexibility is also a key advantage for first-year student Shandon Klein (M.Div. 2021).  She’s pursuing a Ph.D. in Religious Ethics. Working with her professors, she has tailored directed and independent study courses to her specific interests and her planned doctoral dissertation topic: risk-taking behavior and ethics with Steve Long; Christianity and colonialism with Tamara Lewis; and Womanist theology and ethics with Karen Baker-Fletcher.

Said Klein: “When you have great relationships with professors, there’s an open door to pursue whatever you want.”