© 1996 Michael Nielsen
Are you a student interested in pursuing graduate study in this
area? If so, this information is for you. Please keep in mind
that this advice is general, and that you should discuss your
plans with a professor who is familiar with your goals and
When compared with specialties such as personality-, developmental-, or clinical-psychology, there are very few programs that train people in the psychology of religion. Consequently, you may find it difficult to find your niche. There seem to be two methods for getting training in psychology of religion.
The Typical MethodThe most common way to get psychology of religion training is to take the same approach that I took. I received my formal training in social and personality psychology, and began doing research on religion from that social-personality perspective. Like most of my colleagues, I wasn't fortunate enough to have taken a course in the field myself. (See Richard Gorsuch's comments on psychology of religion's future--they are very relevant here!) Bit by bit, as I read other people's writing and research, and as I conduct my own research, I learn about the field.
Of course, there are strengths and limitations to this approach to graduate school. As I see it, there are two main strengths. First, it gives the student a solid foundation for understanding psychology, which is essential for anyone who claims to be a psychologist. We use the language and methods of psychology in our work, making this training fundamentally important.
Second, it gives the person some very marketable skills that can be used "down the road." That is my gentle way of saying that, when you have your Ph.D. and are ready to look for a job, you are not likely to have success if you limit your search to institutions that wish to hire a Psychologist of Religion. A quick look at any issue of the job listings in the APS Observer or Chronicle of Higher Education should be enough to convince you of that simple fact. In fact, I recall seeing such a position listed very rarely, perhaps once in the past five years. You will find greater success on the job market by matching your skills in psychology to the needs that potential employers seek to fill.
Note: I am not saying that you should give up on the idea of doing psychological research on religion! Instead, I am recommending that you obtain training so that you can do such research from one of the more traditional perspectives in psychology. Whether from a developmental, social, clinical, or even biological perspective, you CAN do research on religious experience, behavior, thoughts and emotions. But by placing yourself within one of the more traditional areas of psychology, you will have a better chance of getting the necessary skills to do good research, and you will increase your odds of finding a job when you finish graduate school.
One negative feature associated with the traditional approach to training is precisely what Richard Gorsuch mentioned in the 1995 symposium on the discipline's future. By not having formal programs that train people in this area of psychology, the discipline makes progress relatively slowly. In my opinion, this is one reason (among several) that we have not moved forward at the pace that some areas of psychology have experienced.
It also means that graduate school can be a somewhat lonely place because there are relatively few people who might share your passion for the topic. My experience as a student is probably typical of many people's. I remember hearing through "the grapevine" that at least one faculty member was quite dismayed at my choice to study religious thought and behavior. The impression that I had was that he thought I was not doing "real" psychology. Fortunately, my dissertation advisor and some other faculty were very supportive of my interests even though they did not share my enthusiasm for the topic. I have heard similar stories about graduate school from other people who study psychology of religion.
A Better WaySo, what is a better way to get training in the field? Study with an expert as your mentor. There are several advantages to this approach.
First, you will get a better understanding of religious behavior and phenomena. This will give you a more thorough understanding of the field than you will get by the traditional method. This also will help the discipline progress more quickly because it encourages more systematic investigations--your research is more likely to build on research that has proven to be useful.
Second, you will find it easier to meet other people who share your interests. This can make graduate school a much more interesting and stimulating experience. These people will be your colleagues in the years to come--why wait to meet them later? Likewise, it will help you get to know the influential people in the discipline, because your mentor will introduce you to them. Professors are more than happy to introduce good students to their colleagues!
Now, you might recall that an advantage that I listed for the traditional approach to getting training in the psychology of religion is that it may be easier to get a job after graduate school. It does not necessarily follow, however, that this "better way" results in disadvantages in finding a job. At most schools, you will be admitted to a particular program such as social psychology or clinical psychology. Because your mentor will be in the same program, you will have the benefits of getting training in that more traditional area of psychology. This is important not only because of the necessity of finding a job, but also because it will give you the theoretical foundation and methodological tools that you can use for studying religious behavior and thought.
The Steps to Take:
If you are convinced that you wish to study the psychology of religion, here are my recommendations for the steps you should take.
1. Make good grades in your classes as an undergraduate student. If you are like most people, you have weaknesses such as poor writing skills, or maybe a little trouble with statistics. Improving those areas now will make graduate school a better experience later.
2. Take extra care to learn research methods. Your graduate education will build on your understanding of research methods and statistics, so give these courses a solid effort. This doesn't mean that you have to be a mathematical wizard, but you will use these tools throughout your career. (Remember--they are tools to be used, not instruments to inflict pain on students!)
3. Get involved in research while you are an undergraduate student. By helping with a professor's research, or by conducting a study of your own while supervised by your professor, you will be learning the "tools of the trade." You also will be demonstrating that you are serious about psychology. Even if the research has little to do with religion, it will be useful for your professor when writing your letter of recommendation that will accompany your application for graduate school.
4. Find several people who do research that interests you. While you are in graduate school, you will be working for many years with a professor. You want to make sure that the topics she or he studies are interesting to you! The best way to do this is by locating research articles that are interesting to you. Start by looking through the journals and books listed in my Resources section. When you find something that grabs your attention, write to those professors. Introduce yourself, and ask for more information or for related research that they may have done. Let them know that you are interested in graduate school, and ask about their program. If you do this, when they later see your application, they will be more likely to remember you. (So make sure that you leave them with a good impression!) To get you started, I have included on this page a list of several psychologists who actively study religion.
5. Begin this process early! Deadlines for applications to graduate school often are more than seven months before the beginning of classes. You want to be certain that the institution receives any transcripts, test scores, and other materials that are needed well before the deadline. Be sure to talk with the faculty at your school about your interests and goals. You probably will need several letters of recommendation to support your application, so keep your professors informed of your progress.
A Word About MoneyHow do you finance your graduate education? In the USA, the most common way is to use a combination of teaching or research assistantships and student loans. An assistantship is a terrific opportunity because it gives you professional experience while you are still in graduate school. In exchange for assisting with teaching or research, you will get a reduction in tuition and probably a small monthly stipend.
Once you have narrowed down your choices for graduate school, you should write to the school for an application. Included in the application will be information about assistantships. If you are offered an assistantship, take it! It will give you tremendous experience that will help prepare you for your profession.
Student loans also are a common way to help finance graduate education. You may already have used loans to help pay for your undergraduate education. The process is basically the same for graduate studies. The financial aid office at your school will have information about the student loan program.
Fellowships are another way to finance your graduate education. A fellowship is basically like a scholarship, and is offered to promising young scholars. When you contact the financial aid office of the school you select, they should send you information about any fellowships that you might qualify for. The bottom line is that there are several ways to finance graduate school, so don't let money get in the way of your dream!
A Third PossibilityA third way to pursue a career in psychology of religion is to become a chaplain at a mental hospital or other institution, or as a counselor in a religious setting. This kind of work can be demanding, but the rewards also can be great. The paths to employment will vary because different religions--and even denominations within a religion--will have different requirements to fill. But from the perspective of psychological science, some religious institutions are much better than others. For example, if you sought your training at an institution such as Fuller Seminary, you might work with people such as Newton Malony and Richard Gorsuch, who are respected by psychologists around the world for their insightful use of science in understanding people's feelings, actions and thoughts. Not all religious schools are this fortunate, however, and I know of some that present a strange, distorted perspective masquerading as psychology. My advice to people who wish to follow this path is to find out what the options are within your religion, and then aim for the training that will open the most doors for you. Remember, too, that a good undergraduate degree is essential, and that understanding research methods will help ground you in science. You'll get plenty "religion" in your training, but a good background in psychology will help you maintain balance.
Psychologists who Study Religion
This is a list of psychologists who actively research religion and who are involved in graduate education. I encourage you to contact them and learn more about their research, and talk about graduate school in your country. Although I haven't had the pleasure of meeting all of these people, every one that I have talked with has been quite friendly and has had an interesting perspective on psychology and religion. Take the time to contact the people located near you, and get to know the kind of research they do. There is a great deal of diversity among these scholars, and it would be worth your time to learn about the perspectives taken by the people you are considering as a mentor.
Finally, be aware that this list is not complete! Please use the address at the bottom of this page to send me the names of anyone who should be on this list! Alternatively, if you contact someone who wishes not to be contacted, or whose institutional affiliation has changed, please let me know so that I may update the information as needed. Thanks for your help in keeping this list useful!
United States of America