What image comes to mind when you think of doctoral life at Harvard?
For many people, this question likely conjures images of cutthroat competition, hostile debates, and interpersonal disputes. Such is the image I often carried with me as an undergraduate and even as an MTS student at Harvard Divinity School. Much to my relief, when I entered the ThD program last year, I found the opposite to be true. Contrary to the apocalyptic scenes that I had envisioned, life as a doctoral student at Harvard is one of immense intellectual growth, supported by intelligent, compassionate faculty mentors and a fantastic group of peers and colleagues.
Part of the collaborative ethos of the program can be seen in how the program is structured. In the first semester of coursework, all doctoral students in the Study of Religion are required to take a common seminar on the history of the study of religion. While the seminar is designed with certain academic goals in mind, one of the most enriching parts of the class is that you meet the other doctoral students in your cohort and bond with them throughout the term. Even though the first semester of doctoral studies is often filled with moments of existential crisis and more late nights of reading than I care to admit, I also look back fondly on the conversations that I had with my peers over coffee and beer, and I know that I’ve found an excellent group of colleagues whom I can rely on for the rest of my academic career.
Such an ethos of collegiality is not limited to students alone; I have also found the faculty to be among the most supportive and compassionate professional mentors that I have ever had. One of the first things we are encouraged to do as incoming students is keep our interests broad and allow ourselves room to explore new topics and ideas. Certainly, we all have our specific subfields, but the faculty also encourage us to test out new ideas and take courses in a variety of areas. This advice helps keep us in a broader conversation about religion, even as we learn the more specialized discourse of our subfields. Such an ethos of academic breadth and depth is facilitated by our excellent faculty mentors, all of whom are committed to providing the best academic preparation for their students and broadening their own interests and research through interdisciplinary conversations with students and colleagues.
The program also provides a number of opportunities for doctoral students to come together for both academic and social gatherings. Even though I spend most of my time around other faculty and students working in Comparative Studies, I have also listened to Karen King speak about her methodological approach to teaching and research in her classes on New Testament and Early Christianity. I have joked with students in Theology and Buddhist Studies over beer and pizza at monthly social gatherings at the Center for the Study of World Religions. I have talked about the guilty pleasures of reality television at post-conference dinners. All of these events are an integral part of doctoral life at Harvard, and they create a vibrant sense of community among the doctoral students at all levels of the program.
At the end of my first year as a ThD student, the image that now comes to mind when I think of doctoral life at Harvard is one of friendship, collegiality, and intellectual excitement. I’m so grateful for the experience so far, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.