PhD in Theology

Who Gets One & What to Expect

Theology involves the study of religious beliefs, God, and Scripture. Many people dedicate their lives to theology through ministry. Some choose to earn a Ph.D. in the subject, allowing them to commit years of their life researching their passion. Plus, it prepares them for a job in academia so they can continue to learn about theology.

Aspiring professors can look forward to entering a profession with significant job growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that jobs for postsecondary teachers will grow 11% from 2018-28, which is much faster than average.

Use this guide to learn more about a doctorate in theology, including possible curriculum, post-graduation job prospects, and the reasons for pursuing a Ph.D. in theology online. FIND PROGRAMS Select a Degree LevelSelect a CategorySelect a Subject

Reasons to Pursue an Online Ph.D. in Theology

Earning a Ph.D. takes 3-5 years, maybe longer for part-time students. Therefore, incoming students should examine their motivations for pursuing a Ph.D. and consider whether they have the conviction to stick with the degree.

  • Icon Work in Academia Many people earn a Ph.D. specifically for this reason — they want to work as a college or university professor. Since most faculty positions require a Ph.D., individuals must earn this degree to land the job.
  • Icon Advance Your Career A doctoral degree can help you progress toward your professional goals. A Ph.D. might help you earn a leadership position within your church or religious organization.
  • Icon Conduct Significant Research Ph.D. candidates spend years working on their dissertation, focusing on one niche research question to add new knowledge to the theological field.
  • Icon Passion for Theology Some individuals pursue a Ph.D. simply because they love the subject, and no other degree or professional position allows them to research theology to the same extent.
  • Icon Learn Transferable Skills A Ph.D. trains students how to perform complex projects, speak publicly, write clearly, and think analytically. These skills help students in any career.

What Can I Do With an Online Doctorate in Theology?

Doctoral students can choose between two degree types: a professional degree, such as a doctor of divinity (D.D.), a doctor of ministry (D.Min.), or a doctor of philosophy in theology (Ph.D.). Generally, professional doctorate candidates go on to pursue religious work as a religious minister. In contrast, Ph.D. graduates often stay in academia. They work as university professors, where they can continue to conduct research and teach college students. Sometimes doctoral candidates may follow a different career path than these two professional options. Read more about the possibilities in the section below.

Common Career Paths and Salaries

Doctoral candidates develop many useful skills that they can apply to several different professional pathways. In addition to theology expertise, they develop research and public speaking abilities they can transfer to any profession. That said, the list below does not comprehensively cover all career possibilities. Remember that job titles can vary widely.

  • Professor

    These academics work at colleges and universities, where they conduct original research and publish their findings in scholarly journals and at academic conferences. They also teach courses and lectures to undergraduate and graduate students.

    Average Annual Salary: $78,470

  • Ministry Pastor

    Pastors work in Christian churches. They give sermons during church services, and they may organize and promote mission or service trips. Pastors often meet individually with their congregants to provide guidance.

    Average Annual Salary: $46,359

  • Priest

    Unlike pastors, priests specifically work in Catholic churches. They lead their congregation by giving homilies during mass that draw upon their theological background. They must also give spiritual and holy advice to their parishioners.

    Average Annual Salary: $43,676

  • Director of Religious Activities and Education

    These professionals oversee several different organizations, such as the youth group or Sunday school. They might also work as the administrator for the entire church. These directors should possess a great enough understanding of religion to oversee and advise large groups of people.

    Average Annual Salary: $46,980

  • College President

    Sometimes theology doctoral candidates later find jobs as the top administrators at their college or university. They might work at a religiously affiliated higher education institution.

    Average Annual Salary: $150,143

Sources: BLS and PayScale

Theology Ph.D. Program Requirements and Outcomes

A theology Ph.D. curriculum can consist of 39-60 credits, although each university counts its dissertation research credits differently. Usually students complete their coursework within the first year or two, and then they focus on research during the remainder of the program. For students who want to pursue a Ph.D. in theology online, the Ph.D. program could last 3-5 years. Sometimes distance learning programs require students to visit campus for a day, a weekend, or a weeklong residency.

Schools include several admissions requirements for doctoral applicants. Prospective students need relevant undergraduate and master’s degrees with a minimum GPA typically ranging from 3.25-3.5. Some universities require prospective students to submit GRE or MAT scores, even if they already possess a master’s degree. Applicants must also submit an academic writing sample. Finally, most programs include a foreign language requirement, which means prospective students should fluently speak and read 1-2 non-English languages (usually Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, or German).

Common Courses

Theology students take foundational courses during their bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Therefore, Ph.D. programs offer higher-level courses, often on niche topics. The list of courses below does not represent the full breadth of options that students can find in Ph.D. programs. Rather, the list offers a general idea of typical courses in a Ph.D. in theology online.

History of Christianity

Students generally take a survey version of this course during their undergraduate degree. However, at the doctoral level, Ph.D. candidates dig much further into Christianity’s history. For instance, instead of requiring students to simply memorize dates, the instructor may focus on how the interpretation of Christianity and theology has developed over time.

St. Augustine

Graduate programs sometimes offer courses that focus on certain theologians. St. Augustine, one of the most famous of these theologians, often receives his own course. Required reading includes the saint’s most famous works — Confessions and City of God — and lesser-known writings. Students examine moral controversies surrounding the saint’s life, such as his position on pelagianism.

Current Debates in Theology

Christianity and other religions continue to attract controversy. Disagreements remain about how worshippers should interpret holy texts and live holy lives. This course introduces students to influential theologians and prominent topics of dispute. The course also usually allows students to engage in debate with each other.

Old Testament and Semitics

This course not only examines the Old Testament, but it also explores ancient Israelites’ way of life and the Semitic languages. Learning about cultural context and Hebrew syntax and grammar helps students more deeply interpret the Bible in their future research.

Making of the Christian Bible

Students in this course learn about how the Bible came together during ancient times. The course covers questions about the oral histories of biblical stories and theories of authorship. It also investigates how the Hebrew Torah became the Old Testament of the Christian religion.

Other Requirements

Unlike bachelor’s or master’s degrees — during which students spend most of their time enrolled in courses — Ph.D. degrees only require students to take courses during half of the program. Because of this, doctoral programs include several other requirements, which you can learn more about below.

Choose a Concentration

Several theology Ph.D. programs require students to specialize within a certain area. Universities offer emphasis tracks such as biblical and historical studies; Christian ethics; Christianity and Judaism in antiquity; or the New Testament. Students’ coursework and research occurs within their chosen concentration area.Pass ExamsWrite Dissertation

Pass Exams

Ph.D. programs in theology often require students to take exams after they complete their coursework and before they fully advance to their dissertation research. These examinations cover everything students learned from their coursework in the first 1-2 years of their program.

Write Dissertation

A large part of any Ph.D. involves completing research and writing a dissertation. Dissertation requirements vary depending on the school, but doctoral candidates generally spend 1-3 years working on their dissertation. The process starts with submitting a proposal, which students usually do when they apply for the program. Before they graduate, candidates must defend their research results in front of a faculty committee.

Skills and Competencies

A Ph.D. equips students with many transferable skills that can help graduates go far in the workplace.

Public Speaking

Even in online programs, Ph.D. candidates must practice their public speaking skills. They might present their research at a conference, for example. Professors engage in public speaking when presenting lectures, so this skill becomes useful in the job search.

Research

Before students begin their dissertation research, they must take research methods courses. These skills remain essential throughout any scholar’s career.

Critical Thinking

Research requires learners to synthesize complex information and analyze their findings, training them to become effective critical thinkers.

Writing

When Ph.D. candidates write their dissertations, the final product adds up to tens of thousands of words. On top of that, students must write several non-dissertation essays throughout their degree.

Project Management

With so many moving pieces and a timeframe that can last years, a dissertation requires many of the same components as a long-term workplace project.

Foreign Language

Not every Ph.D. program in theology includes a foreign language requirement, but most do. Students often must learn Hebrew, Greek, or Latin to help with their research, and sometimes additional languages, such as Spanish, French, German, or Italian.

Theology Professional Organizations

A professional organization provides several advantages to both established scholars and doctoral students just getting started on their research. The organizations publish resources that can help Ph.D. candidates with their dissertation research. Students can also apply for scholarships and grants from professional associations to help fund their studies and research. These groups not only help academically, but they can help with employment, too. Student members can access job boards and network at annual conferences.

When it comes to theological academic organizations, many groups operate with a specialized purpose. One might prioritize Catholic research, while another connects evangelical scholars. Make sure to look for a group that matches your research interests and goals. Once you join the group, participate as much as you can to make the most of your membership. Try volunteering with your local chapter or serving on a committee.

The list below highlights five professional organizations that focus on theological research.

American Academy of Religion

  • With more than 8,000 members, this organization prioritizes academics and scholarships in religion. Members can attend the annual and regional meetings, subscribe to three journals and magazines, and access Aurora, an e-learning platform with webinars, forums, and classes.

Institute for Biblical Research

  • Established in 1973, IBR promotes academic interpretation of biblical literature through an evangelical lens. IBR hosts an annual conference where scholars can present their research. The group also publishes the Bulletin for Biblical Research.

The North American Patristics Society

  • This organization primarily focuses on research in late antiquity and early Christianity, so scholars interested in church history might consider joining. In addition to an annual meeting and academic journal, the group also publishes several resources, such as Christian encyclopedias. Student members can apply for dissertation progress grants up to $8,000.

Society of Professors in Christian Education

  • The society unites evangelical scholars who conduct research in practical theology. The group hosts an annual national scholarship, where members can present their research, network, and learn from other theologians.

Catholic Biblical Association of America

  • Founded in 1936, this group prioritizes Scriptural scholarship within the Catholic faith. Members can apply for emerging scholars grants, subscribe to several publications, and seek employment through CBA’s job board.

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