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Frequently Asked Questions


What makes this program different from other Ph.D. programs in Religion?

Many things set Vanderbilt’s Program in Theology and Practice apart:
• a commitment to preparing fellows to be outstanding professors in theological schools
• a focus on practical theology
• a multi-disciplinary approach to religion in everyday life
• an emphasis on scholarship for broad publics
• extensive collaboration with local clergy, activists, and other leaders
• a final “externship” that gives fellows significant teaching experience beyond their Ph.D.-granting institution
• mentoring and partnership at every stage of the program
• financial support for publication of dissertations
• a stipend of $20,000 for up to six years, plus significant support for both domestic and international conferences
• a diverse, open Divinity School environment

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What do you mean by “practical theology”?

At the center of this program is a sustained conversation about the meaning of practical theology. At least two senses of “practical theology” are worth lifting up as starting points. First, we use the term to refer to the activity of critical, theological reflection on situations in everyday life. This program seeks to form faculty in every discipline in the GDR who can make connections between their scholarship and the questions that arise – or should arise – in individual and corporate lives of faith. Second, we use “practical theology” to refer more specifically to teaching and scholarship centered on the arts of congregational ministry. The program attends especially to the growing need for outstanding faculty in pastoral counseling, preaching, worship, and congregational leadership.

These two definitions overlap and begin to point beyond themselves. They are starting points, not settled conclusions. Our hope is not to begin with a single definition and mold students to it, but rather to open up a rich set of conversation between diverse groups of people. Vanderbilt has long provided leadership in practical theology of many kinds, and this program will build on and extend that history of leadership.

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How do I apply for the fellowship?

1. Choose an area of study within the Graduate Department of Religion (GDR).

2. Apply to the GDR by December 15. You can apply online at the GDR application page.

3. Complete the entire application. Please select yes in the application if you wish to be considered for the Fellowship in Theology and Practice.

4. Write a supplemental essay to apply for the Fellowship in Theology and Practice. The supplemental essay should be included in the application.

5. Please note that this essay supplements but does not replace your statement of purpose in the standard GDR application.

6. Finalists for the fellowship will be invited to visit the campus in early February.

7. Up to five fellowships will be offered to applicants who have also been accepted by an area of the GDR. Fellows will matriculate in the fall.

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Do I have to apply for the Ph.D. program in the Graduate Department of Religion (GDR) to be eligible for this fellowship?

Yes. Other fellowships are available for Ph.D. students in other departments, and for Master’s students in the GDR and the Divinity School.

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Is Theology and Practice its own area of study, like Historical Studies or Ethics and Society? If I became a fellow, would I get a Ph.D. in Theology and Practice?

The Program in Theology and Practice is not an area unto itself. It is rather a program that brings together students and faculty working in many areas. As a program, it seeks to cultivate a set of questions, habits of mind, and patterns of conversation – a certain style, a taste for the practical – that might shape a person’s work in any GDR discipline. A fellow must apply to and be accepted into one of the areas of the GDR. She or he will earn a Ph.D. in that area.

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Can I apply to any area of study within the GDR?

Fellows can work in any area of study within the GDR that offers the Ph.D. Over the life of the Program in Theology and Practice we hope to have fellows from every area: Critical Studies in Asian, Islamic, and Jewish Tradition, Ethics and Society, Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, Historical Studies, Homiletics and Liturgics, New Testament and Early Christianity, Religion, Psychology, and Culture, and Theological Studies. Applicants from every area are encouraged to complete the additional application for the program.

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What qualities will successful applicants have?

Candidates for the fellowship will be drawn from the pool of people already admitted to the GDR, so applicants must first display all the qualities necessary for admission to one of the areas of study. In addition to this baseline academic excellence, fellows in the Program in Theology and Practice should demonstrate wisdom for critical, theological reflection on the lived religions of people and institutions. We expect that many successful applicants will demonstrate that wisdom through experience in ministry. By “ministry” we mean not only leadership in congregations, but also activities like chaplaincy, social work, and faith-based activism. Outstanding candidates might also point to things like patterns of research, a history of active participation in movements or congregations, or writing and speaking for diverse publics. If you wonder if you fit with this program, please go ahead and apply.

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Is this fellowship open to people of all faith traditions – or no particular tradition at all?

Yes. The fellowship is open to all. Over the life of the program we hope to work with fellows formed in and between a rich variety of communities. The most important thing is not assent to some particular body of doctrine, but the ability to reflect critically and theologically on religious practices, and the ability and desire to teach such reflection to people preparing for ministry.

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Can I still get into the GDR if I don’t receive a fellowship?

Yes. Applying for the fellowship will not hurt your chances of regular admission. And GDR students often win other fellowships, both from Vanderbilt and from sources beyond Vanderbilt.

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I would like to finish my Ph.D. in less than six years. Can I do that in this program?

The program is designed to offer a formational experience for fellows. Every part of the program plays a role, and fellows need to complete the whole program, including the teaching externship. Some fellows may receive special permission to move through the steps more rapidly. And some fellows who complete their dissertation in the fifth year might be able to expand their teaching responsibilities in the externship year. On the whole, though, we are convinced that this program will help the vast majority of Ph.D. candidates to finish their degrees more quickly and at a higher level than they would otherwise. Quality and completion rates both soar when candidates have adequate funding, a supportive cohort, attentive mentoring, and opportunities for publicly sharing their work.

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What is the “teaching externship”?

The externship offers a set of unparalleled opportunities that serve as a kind of capstone to the program. In their final years of the program fellows will be placed in seminaries and theological schools within driving distance of Nashville. Fellows will teach one-half load of current faculty member each semester as primary instructor with full responsibility for the course. While they complete their dissertations, fellows will teach courses closely related to their major areas of research. Fellows will engage in limited service activities, participate in the life of the institution in appropriate ways, and work to complete their dissertations. Each fellow will be supervised and mentored by an experienced faculty member of the school. The dean of the school will provide a teaching and service evaluation. The president or another officer will help the fellow understand the culture and mission of the school. Occasional workshops at Vanderbilt will provide opportunities for all the externs and their advisors to come together to think through the vocation of the teacher in a theological school.

The externships offer fellows a chance to be immersed in the practice of teaching for ministry. Fellows get to practice teaching with a reduced load, a supportive mentor, and structured reflection. They learn at a new level how to combine teaching, research, and service. Working beyond the Ph.D.-granting institution, they develop a wider network that can help with job placement and with a lifetime of academic work. After completing the externship, fellows will be uniquely well-prepared as teachers for ministry.

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What is it like to live in Nashville?

Music City, Athens of the South, Cashville, the ’Ville – whatever you call it, Nashville offers a diverse population, a thriving downtown scene, a relatively low cost of living, a manageable size, and a whole network of colleges and universities. And, of course, Nashville has music. From Young Buck to Buck Owens to Emmylou Harris to the Kings of Leon, musicians give the city its distinctive character. Nashville turns up on just about everybody’s list of “best places to live.” (See, for example,’s feature on “Seven Cool Cities” ) Nashville is small enough that a short drive will take you from an urban center through exurban satellites to rural areas. And it is large enough to be the center of the religious media industry in the United States. It is a great place to study the forms of religious life in a complex global society.

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