So, you want a PhD?

(this is an old post, I’m planning on updating it in the next few months – but much of it is still relevant.) I’m fairly disenchanted with academia, so that might come through in a few places.

So, you want to go to a PhD Program?

Here is my take.

To begin with, graduate programs in religion expect a lot of their applicants, so be confident in yourself and do not be discouraged as you go through the requirements.

It’s also worth noting that academia has recently become cognizant of its guilt in flooding the academic market with doctorates – for example, I know three people with Ph.D.s in history, two in philosophy, and three in theology, none of whom can find employment in their field. Because of this, many departments have willingly shrunk their candidate pools to better reflect the realities of the job market. University of Chicago used to take fifteen to twenty students a year, now they take 7; Marquette used to take 12, now they take 5, etc.

This means two things: it is harder to get in than it used to be, but (assuming you get into a good department) you stand a slightly better chance of employment afterwards than for previous classes.

Thoughts on Picking a School & Program

It is expensive and time-consuming to apply to graduate schools, so it is important to choose your schools carefully. I know someone who applied to 30 schools, and when decision time came around, he had several opportunities – but I also know that he was independently wealthy, had a lot of spare time, and was mostly accepted to schools he didn’t want to go to anyway.

For my own experience, I applied to 6 per year. My first round of applications was submitted in the final year of my M.Div. – I wasn’t accepted into any doctoral programs with enough funding, so I did my Th.M. My second round of applications was in the first semester of my Th.M., and I again applied to six schools.

Choosing how many schools to which you want to apply should probably be your first consideration. Keep in mind that it costs $100-$150 to apply to each school and most folk are accepted into programs that they have visited, so there are additional travel costs. You have to pay for the application, to send your GRE scores and official transcripts, and sometimes to send language tests and background checks. This adds up. My application to Georgetown totaled like $210.

I also recommend, if you haven’t already, go to the make an account, and start reading about some of the application journeys of folk. It is a great place to start gathering information about different programs and to consult with like-minded folk.

If you don’t know where to start, here’s where I applied for my Ph.D.:
Yale University
Princeton Theological Seminary
Duke Divinity School
Notre Dame
University of Virginia
University of Chicago Divinity School
Loyola University Chicago
Aberdeen, Scotland
Emory Graduate Division of Religion
Georgetown University
Northwestern University

Other schools that I considered applying to but didn’t because I have limited funds:
Vanderbilt University
Stanford University
Drew University
Union Theological Seminary
Princeton University
Duke University
Notre Dame (Philosophy)
Fuller Theological Seminary
Claremont School of Theology
Brown University
Harvard University – intentionally not the Div. School’s ThD
Boston University

I would recommend any of these schools. But, of course, your choice should be based on your own needs and preferences. The initial step I took in coming up with my school list was to look at all of the schools that I would like to teach at someday and to see where their professors had graduated from. From that list (around 200 professors), I tallied the top thirty most-represented schools and set those as my initial goal. Obviously, I needed to narrow that more, but while not a guarantee, your chances of getting an academic job are much higher if you graduate from one of the better represented programs in your field.

Since there are lots and lots of really good programs out there –to keep track of them all, I recommend you make a spreadsheet or something similar. I also created a spreadsheet to help me manage the application process.

Here are some of my considerations for narrowing the list:

  • If you don’t know where to start or what schools might be good for your field, check out the ATS school list (link below), the American Academy of Religion, and Wikipedia.
  • It is worth noting that it is significantly harder to get an academic job in America with a Ph.D. from oversees than it is with an American PhD. This is for several reasons, but namely that European Ph.Ds. are often research based and shorter with limited teaching experience, and some programs, like Oxford, will admit almost any student who can prove they can pay for it. Thus in some eyes, the lengthier American Ph.D. is worth more.
  • Look at your books – what living theologians do you like, where do they teach? I only applied to schools whose faculty were represented on my bookshelves. This, I think, helps with determining fit, and gives you something to talk about in your statement of purpose and when you visit.
  • Consider geography – There are good schools in Texas (like Baylor), but I will never willingly live in Texas again, so I didn’t apply to them.
  • Is the program fully funded – as in full tuition, large stipend (near or above $20k/yr), insurance, etc.? There is an amazing correlation between being in a funded program and getting a job after graduation. Of note: not all of the top schools are fully funded, some offer very poor funding (Claremont) and some offer only ¾ funding (Toronto School of Theology). Since the job market is dicey at best, I think it is quite silly to take on a huge debt-load in pursuit of a career that may never happen.
  • Does your idea for a dissertation fit within the abilities or interests of the department? For example, I wanted to go to Vanderbilt, but my idea for a dissertation doesn’t really fit with any of the professor’s interests. Go to the faculty pages and look at the CVs of the professors, see what they are currently writing on, etc. Do any of them have blogs or youtube channels?
  • If it is a theologically oriented school, go to the ATS accreditation website and see if their Ph.D. is actually accredited. For example, both Liberty University and Garret Evangelical Divinity School offer Ph.Ds. in Theology, and neither is accredited = you can get your doctorate there, but you will get no job afterwards.

Once you have narrowed the list to a reasonable field (like your top 20 schools or something):

  • See if you can find out who their current graduate students are, e-mail them to ask what they think of the school and if they think your interests would be a good fit for the department. See if they have recommendations for who you might work with. I struck three schools from my list because of what the students there told me.
  • If available, track down their graduate placement record. I wrote off one school because half of their graduates were not getting jobs in academia and another because three of their most recent doctoral graduates were teaching high school.
  • E-mail the professors you think are interesting – see if you can have a phone conversation or Skype with them to learn more about the department. I cannot stress enough the importance of face-to-face communication before the application process. If you can’t go there in person to meet the faculty, at least Skype – it helps them to attach a positive personal experience of you to your application. Try to maintain an ongoing conversation with folk at the schools you are most interested in.
  • If at all possible, visit the school and meet with students and professors. Two years ago (first round of apps) we booked a whirlwind (one week!) tour of almost all of the schools I would apply to. It was a busy and very expensive week, but it happened and was worth it – after the trip I even decided to not apply to one of the schools. Additionally, a number of schools waive their application fee if you visit!
  • See if any of your recent professors attended your top schools, talk with them about their opinions – I ruled out a couple of institutions this way.
  • Are you married, does your spouse need a job? Some schools are in the middle of no-where and/or in depressed economic environments. When we moved to Grand Rapids for my M.Div, it took my wife a year to find employment in her field – that was not fun.

Those steps, in addition to helping you decide if it’s a good school for your interests, will also give you a lot of information for your statement of purpose. I imagine by this stage, you should have kinda a top-10 list.

Some folk I have talked to say that you should apply to a broad spectrum of schools – apply to your dream school, apply to some you think you can get into, and then apply to some safety schools that you for-sure can get into. I disagree with this. I think that you should only apply to schools that you want to get into and that offer you the best chance of getting a job afterwards. Sure, we can all be admitted to the University of South Africa’s correspondence research Ph.D. or go to Billy Bob’s Theological Academy in the states, but both will cost money and will not help us out in the long-run. I would rather not get into any school and so go after my plan B, than go to a school that is going to be a bad fit, significantly increase my debt load, or limit my career choice.

Importance of People

Beyond learning about individual programs, it is important to start making an investment in personal relationships at the schools you are interested in. If you know someone in the department that you are applying to who is on the admissions committee, and they see your potential, they can save your application from the paper shredder and have it considered anyway. For this to happen, your person of interest usually has to be an active member of the admissions committee who intentionally seeks out your application and advocates for it. That said, a respected professor in any departmental position can influence the process. For my top four schools, I kept a running conversation with several people in each department.

How the Application Works

Most applications are online – there are still a few schools that have paper apps, but they are rare and suspect. As mentioned above, applications are expensive, so you should figure out your budget before taking the time to fill out applications you cannot afford to complete. It will likely take you several hours to fill out each application.

In general, here’s what you will need to have on-hand to complete an application:

  • Resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV)
  • GRE Scores, TOEFL if necessary
  • Make a short write up of your research interests
  • Make a list of why you think the department is a good fit for you and what professors you want to work with
  • ALL higher-ed. transcripts
  • Writing sample
  • Statement of purpose
  • Preview the application before you begin it to see if you need something obscure, like a federal background check (Princeton Theological Seminary)

GRE Scores

GRE scores are actually fairly important at American universities – they are seen as a gateway to school. A low score won’t necessarily disqualify you, but most schools see your ability to take the GRE as indicative of your determination to succeed in graduate school. Personally, I scored 165 in Verbal, 145 Quantitative, and 5.5 Analytical – fairly mediocre scores, but for most theological programs, they only care about your Verbal and Analytical skills, both of which I scored higher than 90%. Top schools (Yale, etc.) will toss your application unless all three scores are above 91% – they get thousands of applications each year, and this is a quick way to narrow the field. Everyone I know who got into Princeton, Yale, Duke, and Notre Dame had scores around 168V, 170Q, 5.5A – and that’s just the first step in getting your application seen.


As to languages, here’s how I have found it to work: Most schools in the United States assume you are very proficient in English and want you to have command of 2 modern languages, in addition to any other languages you need to study. For example, if I were a New Testament scholar, I would probably have to know Greek, Aramaic, and maybe Latin – additionally, I would have to learn German and French for dealing with contemporary literature. For theology, things are a bit simpler – schools generally say you need to know modern two languages, German and French being the normal ones (in addition to Latin, if you’re at a Catholic institution). But, if your research pulls you in another direction and you need a different language, then you are typically to test in one of the required modern ones (French or German) and one other, say, Farsi. Several schools, like Marquette and Washington University, expect you to arrive with at least one of your modern foreign languages complete and will allow you to certify in the other while a student, so long as you do it before your comprehensive exams. Other schools will let you learn all of your required languages as a student, but will not let you take your comprehensive exams until all have been certified. So, if you’re wondering what to do in the summer after you’re admitted, I recommend learning a language you don’t know.

Statement of Purpose

Following scores, your statement of purpose is the most important piece – in one or two pages, you have to explain your interests and demonstrate why this school and this faculty are the best fit for your work. This is usually the piece that decides whether or not folk make it into the round of consideration. A friend of mine on an admission committee says that not only must the content be excellent, the writing itself must be impeccable, because if it isn’t, no one will ever read your writing sample.

Writing Sample

Your writing sample is simply a research paper that you’ve written that reflects your area of interest and your ability as a scholar. I definitely recommend that you purposely write this paper with your PhD application in mind and work with your professor towards this end. As a general rule, your writing sample is not going to come from your Thesis or a major research paper – most applications are going to limit you to 20 to 25 pages and in that space want to see you propose and idea and logically defend it using good research and credible methodology. This means that while you could submit a chapter of your thesis, it probably won’t hit all the marks that are being looked for in the writing sample. Like your statement of purpose, it pays to go through your completed work very carefully for grammatical and organizational errors – this really needs to be representative of the best work you can accomplish.

Letters of Recommendation

After the school has determined who is a good fit, they then look at academic transcripts, letters of recommendation, and read writing samples. From what I’ve been told, at this stage in the process, the candidates are all super-similar in ability, so the admissions team is just looking for who is going to be the best fit and has the most interesting ideas. At this point, your letters of rec. are super important – most schools are looking for letters of recommendation from professors who really know you and your work; they want recommendations that are two to three pages and very specific as to you interests, your ability to fit into the school, and your aptitude as a scholar and teacher.

For my recommenders, for each school, I provided them with a copy of my statement of purpose and a write-up of the school, who I wanted to work with, what my focus would be, and why I thought that the department was a good fit.

The Process after Application / Recommendations

Make sure that you take the time to contact each of the people you have been talking with at all the schools to tell them that your application is complete and that you are looking forward to working with them in the near future.

Then sit, wine, and wait until February.

Now is a good time to start checking the previously mentioned GradCafe, as they keep a searchable “results” page where folk can record their accepted/rejected/wait-listed status at each school. If you see that four people have been accepted into your program in early February and it’s late March and you’ve not heard anything, you’re probably not getting into that school.

Most apps are due in December or January – most departments have finalized their applicant pool by the end of February (some earlier) and will begin to send out rejection notices and start inviting in good candidates for interviews.

I only know of one school that doesn’t do interviews – Princeton Theological Seminary. Those who do usually interview two to three times the number of candidates they have positions for. For example: Marquette had 300 serious applications and they interviewed 20 of us for 5 slots. If you apply and don’t get an interview by March, it is generally a bad sign; though, you could have been placed on a wait list and not informed of it (this happened to me).

April 15 is the standard cut-off for accepting a funded position, so it is almost completely unheard of to go past this date without hearing from a school.

Addendum of Real Life

Applying to graduate school is hard, and Ph.D. programs are even harder, and certainly longer. Four, five, six years, maybe more, is a lot of time to invest in a degree that may or may not get you a job. Even if its fully-funded, that’s at least half a decade of your life that could be spend making money or otherwise enjoying something else you like to do. As such, for your own mental health and future success, I highly recommend that you invest some time in making a few Plan Bs.

Plan B:

I just noted that Plan B is not only a monetary concern, but also a task of self-care. This is because up to now, you have invested a lot in yourself and must necessarily think highly of yourself in your ability to succeed in academia. Since you have poured so much mental effort and dealt with building stress throughout your current degree and the thoughts of a doctorate – having a solid Plan B in place that you are happy with is key to mourning the death of your first career aspiration and moving on to a fulfilling future.

First plan B is for if you don’t get into a Ph.D. program. What are you going to do with your M.Div. or Th.M.? Are you going to sharpen your application, retake the GRE, and apply again next year, or the year after? Is there a cut-off to your attempt to get into a good Ph.D. program? What do you think about becoming a chaplain, or a high school Bible teacher, or a camp leader, or an accountant?

Second plan B is for while you’re in a PhD program and things just aren’t going the way you expected. Maybe you’re massively depressed, perhaps your department lost 5 tenured faculty and effectively collapsed leaving you with no supervisor, perhaps you got witch-hunted and are now looking for an out. What’s your plan for when things go south?

Third plan B is for when you graduate with your doctorate and can’t find a tenure-track job anywhere outside of West Texas. Do you want to be an adjunct? Probably not, it’s a horrid life (just read the internet about it), so what are you going to do now that you’re both under and over qualified for almost every job out there? Found a non-profit think-tank? Work for a larger organization as a resident theologian? Be a professional X, whatever you are (for example, many hospitals have ethicists on staff who have PhDs in theological ethics)? Enter the pastorate, mission field, secondary teaching, college ministry, run for political office – what sounds good?

In the end, just make sure that you don’t put all your hopes on getting into a PhD program and becoming a professor. I’ve seen the results of chasing this particular dream well past when it should have been dropped, and it isn’t pretty. Be kind to yourself and keep your options open.

* I wish you the best as you go forward in this journey and pray that come decision time you will have lots of options.