PhD Application Tips From HDS Alumna, Laura Mucha

Editor’s Note: In this post, HDS alumna Laura Mucha shares about her PhD journey.

What did you study in undergrad? What did you study specifically at HDS? How did all that shift (or not!) going into the PhD program here?

As an undergraduate at Colgate University, I was an English major and a Classics and Religion double minor. I came to HDS in the Women, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion track, and was planning to pursue a career at the intersection of religion, gender, and the law after graduating. During my first year of the MTS, I took Amy Hollywood’s “Religion, Gender, Culture Colloquium” and realized that I wanted to stay on an academic path. In many ways, HDS provided the opportunity for me to clarify my interests before applying to programs, and to forge important relationships with faculty, PhD students, and my peers with similar interests. 

What made you apply to the Harvard PhD program? What were you generally looking for when applying to PhD programs?

I’m interested in the relationship between medieval mystical literature, critical gender theory, and contemporary “confessional” fiction. Most programs require that you specify one historical period and methodology in your application, but religion as a discipline is much more capacious, and I knew I wanted to end up in a religious studies department. I was able to carve out a niche at HDS and formed really strong relationships with faculty who shared my interest. I wanted to continue pursuing the questions raised by my time at HDS, so the continuity with the PhD program here at Harvard was exciting to me. 

How (if at all!) did HDS prepare you for/impact your PhD journey?

HDS provided me a great opportunity to form relationships with GSAS faculty and to hone my interests coming into the PhD. I came into the PhD program with a strong sense of direction and a feeling of momentum that’s helped me move through the program so far. 

What are you (currently) hoping to do after you graduate? Has HDS helped at all in envisioning this path?

I’d like to keep working as an academic once I graduate, but I would be happy working in criticism and commentary elsewhere, too. HDS helped me realize just how versatile and important the study of religion can be as a tool to address cultural and political issues. 

How did you navigate the world of conference presentations, research, and academic publishing before (i.e. while at HDS) your PhD program? Were these necessary?

I started at HDS at the height of the pandemic (August 2020), so that first year it was definitely difficult to get a sense of the academic world just because there were few events happening—no libraries, no archives, no interpersonal contact. However, I joined the Graduate Journal of Harvard Divinity School as a Managing Editor (and later became the Editor-in-Chief), which was an incredibly useful experience in learning “how the sausage is made” at an academic journal. It taught me how to quickly and concisely assess an article’s argument, as well as informing how I approached my own writing (i.e. what someone might be looking for in a piece). It was a great experience and I’d encourage incoming students interested in further study to join the Journal as a Reader or Editor. 

Coming into HDS, I felt a lot of pressure to publish in order to boost my PhD application. It turns out it’s not necessary at all. But professors are usually helpful about identifying potentially publishable material—the piece I did end up publishing was a term paper that my professor really advocated for. 

What support did HDS provide as you prepared your PhD applications (i.e. advising & career services)?

HDS offers an information session about applying to PhD programs, which provides a helpful survey for interesting students. The process is all very smoke and mirrors, so having someone explain (even in a general way) how the process works is really helpful. However, my applications were really supported by older PhD students who had TF’d for some of my courses. They were unbelievably generous with their time and provided such calm, sound advice. 

What advice would you give to prospective students who may be interested in a PhD? Are there any best practices or resources at HDS that you would recommend in preparation for doctoral studies?

I wish I had better advice here, but I think really throwing yourself into the master’s is a good way to prepare yourself for a PhD program—participate in academically-oriented extracurriculars, immerse yourself in your classes, and pursue the questions that interest you. It’s very rare to have the time and space to do this. I also think it’s worth pausing and thinking about why exactly you want to pursue further graduate study, because it can be isolating and it’s a long haul. Talk with your professors and current PhD students—I think they’re the best resources on these issues.

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