Professors’ Availability in Graduate Theology Programs

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Though already a few months old, I just stumbled upon R. R. Reno’s musings on what to look for in a graduate program in theology as found in the online edition of First Things. (Reno is associate professor of theology at Creighton University). In essence, Reno advocates for a program that will keep you breathless academically, i.e., one that won’t let you settle into mediocrity.  But he also rightly cautions:

Graduate students need professors they can trust to give time and attention to mentoring.

And right after this,

The moral character of a program matters a great deal. An uneven academic climate can be overcome by the special chemistry that can develop between an excellent mentor and a few really good professors and fellow graduate students. A culture of selfishness among faculty that leads to the neglect and poor treatment of graduate students—this is fatal.

As I’ve talked to students at various points who are either looking at a Masters or Doctoral program in one of the theological disciplines, I’ve made a similar point. While there is no doubt something fantastic about big theological departments or faculties that can offer dozens of advanced and specialized electives (I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit covetous about those situations!), in the end all of those electives can begin to taste a bit sour in the academic mouth if your professors don’t have the time of day for you. The size of the school doesn’t necessarily mean anything here. I’ve heard from students in large schools with dozens of professors report about the good one-to-one relationships they have with some of their professors, and I’ve also heard of students in very small schools where the professors lock themselves up in their office (or aren’t in their office at all) and seem to excel at avoiding students. What matters is, as Reno calls it, the “chemistry” or “academic climate” of the school. This is extremely important to discern long before you enroll.

So if you are one of those people looking for a grad program in theology or biblical studies, let me just build a little on Reno here: In addition to finding out about the faculty’s areas of specialty, locate and have  a conversation with some students who have studied with the professors under which you are interested in studying. Find out how often the professors were able to meet with them, and to what extent they were truly personally, intellectually and spiritually available to their students. Of course, professors are usually busy, busy people, and so you need to be realistic on what you can expect; almost no one has an extra dozen hours a week to hang around with you for one-to-one mentoring. Nevertheless,  if the professors can only see students on the rarest of occasions, that factor alone should be enough to give you pause. Is it the definitive factor? Not necessarily. But in the end, if you do a graduate degree in a theological discipline and come out feeling isolated and more individualistically inclined than you may already be–you might want to think twice.

When I was looking for a doctoral program, I sought to meet the professors who I was interested in studying under long before I applied at her or his school. I had about 6 names in mind, and had opportunity to sit down for a meal with 3 of those. Though it was not the only consideration, having had spent time with my supervisor over a meal was a significant factor in helping me decide to apply at the university where he was.

Galatians 6:6 says, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor” (NIV). By all means! But at least part of the ability to share all good things with the instructor must come from the instructor’s availability to her or his students. If a professor doesn’t appear to be willing to be available to you, why would you want to study with her or him?

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