Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Considering a PhD in Theology?

Since in the past month I've had half a dozen people ask to speak with me about the possibility of pursuing a PhD in theology, I figured it would be wise to get a few of my ideas down here for posterity's sake. Before I do that, a little back story is in order. I'm a PhD candidate at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA where I am studying New Testament under Donald Hagner. I have been at this for more than two years now and I am currently working on my dissertation proposal. Now that I am past the halfway point I think I have a new perspective on the process of graduate-level education and I want to share some of my thoughts on the subject.

  1. Getting a PhD in theology should not be something someone does because s/he doesn't know what else to do. The personal, financial, and relational cost is too high for an endeavor of this sort to be entered into flippantly. Besides, if someone who doesn't really feel passionate about graduate school is admitted, then it is highly possible that someone who actually wants to be there was not accepted...and that would be a tragedy.
  2. What are you passionate about? Teaching, research, history, academic interaction? Whatever it is ask yourself this question before applying for a PhD: how can me earning this degree help me attain my passions in life? If the answer is not somewhat clear, perhaps graduate work is not for you.
  3. Consider the costs. First, there are often steep financial costs, unless you are lucky enough to be admitted to a program that is fully-funded. Even then, considering the demands on your time, working may not be an option, thus tightening the financial belt a bit more. Second, there will be steep personal costs. You will sleep less, read more, and interact with other humans less than you ever have before. Are you willing to do that? Third, the relational costs can be steep too. If you are married and/or have children you will not be able to spend as much time with them as you might like. Your time with friends and family will decrease too, as will your opportunities to serve in your local church. You may be thinking, "Geez Matt! Debbie Downer much?!," but I just want to be honest with you. Getting a PhD is more about how determined you are to complete the degree than about how smart you are.
  4. The next major question to ask yourself deals with where you want to go. In my opinion, there are three basic factors that should be centrally important: the reputation of the institution, the quality of the faculty with whom you will work, and the financial situation. Ideally you want to go to a school that excels in all three areas but this is not always possible. It is quite common to get into a top-tier school but work with a lesser-known scholar or receive a full ride financially but not get to study at the school you wanted or with the faculty you wanted. Everyone is different but in my case it was the quality of the faculty that tilted me toward Fuller. However, I have good friends who have chosen their situation because of the school's reputation and/or the financial situation.
  5. Related to the fourth point is this question: are the institutions to which you are applying beneficial for you achieving your passions? If you are passionate about the Church but apply to a school that is almost solely interested in academics, is that a good fit? (It very well may be, it's just something to think about!) If you are passionate about research, then would it be a good idea to attend an institution that has a reputation of being "easy"? Just something to think about.
  6. Do your research. Before you apply to an institution check out the school. What is the school's vision and does it match your passions? Who are the faculty? With whom might you work closely? Do their research interests mesh with yours? If not, are you willing to change yours? My advice is to get a large binder and create a section for each school that interests you. In each section print out the PhD requirements, the general program information, and some sample research from the faculty with whom you might work (articles, chapters, papers, etc). This will be helpful going forward so that you don't have to constantly refer back to the school's webpage to access information.
  7. Prepare a research sample. The best way to do this is to ask a professor of a class in which you are enrolled if it would be okay if you turned in an assignment that you hope to submit as a research sample. Most professors are okay with this, sometimes even allowing you to do this in lieu of other assignments. You could also revamp and beef-up an older assignment. Whatever the case, do your absolute best and edit it as many times as possible. It would also be wise to have others read it: some for content and some for form.
  8. Think carefully about which professors you want to write letters of reference on your behalf. These letters are very important and often tilt the scales in the direction of one applicant over another. The best way to do this is to think of classes that you have had which relate to your desired PhD focus and ask those professors to write for you. For example, if you are applying for a PhD in systematic theology, a letter from a prestigious theologian will have more impact than one from your favorite preaching professor. However, if you did well in several classes with an well-known scholar outside your field, it is okay to have him/her write for you since they are renowned. Whatever the case, you'll need three or four letters depending on the wishes of the particular schools. Choose wisely!
  9. Study hard for the GRE. Many schools have a very high standard with regard to the GRE so that way they can legally narrow their number of candidates down quickly. Duke often sets the standard when it comes to religious higher education, so check out their stats to get a feel for what kind of score you might need (click here for Duke's GRE stats). If you are unhappy with your GRE score, then take it again. If you still didn't score as highly as you might have liked, then you may consider not applying to schools that you know won't accept a GRE score of that level.
  10. Narrow your school list down to a number of your choosing. I applied to a dozen schools, which is a higher number than what is usual. Most people apply to six to eight schools. My advice is to apply to a few "dream schools" that you would attend no matter what, a few that you feel fairly confident about getting into, and a few that you are almost certain will accept you. Following this procedure will help you cover all your bases. However, most schools have application fees ranging from $50-150, though a few are free (such as Vanderbilt when I applied).
  11. Be prepared for the application process to be long and tedious. I liken my experience to having a full-time job for a couple of months. It took lots and lots of work getting everything together. Be sure to meticulously follow directions because you don't want to get rejected for not submitting a form or something silly like that.
  12. Be prepared for rejection. The top-tier schools usually respond first, which means that people almost always receive several "no's" right away. Don't let this discourage you. Even if they all say "no" it is not the end of the world. You could wait a year and apply again. If that is the case, then use that year to bolster your application. Take German, enroll in a ThM program, study for and retake the GRE, whatever it takes. For some the rejection letters will serve as a sign that graduate-level studies may not be for them. That's fine too. You can most likely still pursue your passions, though the road leading there may be different than what you expected.
  13. If you are lucky enough to be accepted by more than one school, make the decision to attend very carefully. Compare and contrast their programs, reputations, financial costs, TA/RA opportunities, faculty, cost of living, etc. If you are married or engaged, be sure to include your spouse in this decision since s/he will likely be doing a lot of the heavy financial lifting for the next half-a-decade. Also, I would highly advise you you pray about this, seeking God's guidance in the matter.
I hope this has been helpful to some of you! Feel free to leave a comment or question, I would be happy to help you out in any way that I can!


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Matt. Great stuff. One thing for myself... I knew I was determined to do a PhD in New Testament, but I floundered a bit finding my true passion while I was at Fuller. The reason for that is, while I am so grateful to have a top quality theological education from Fuller, not much really fit my interests in social history and especially apocalyptic thought (one NT professor at Fuller told me apocalypses are tedious). It took me a long time to even realize that these were my true interests. The application process itself was a kind of soul searching process. In the end, I am at the perfect program for me. Perfect. I couldn't be happier.

One correction of sorts... don't use that GRE explorer link for Duke. Since it is based on all programs (not just religion or even humanities), its numbers on verbal are WAY OFF for our specialty. If you are going to use Duke as a standard, use this link instead (specific stats for the religion department): http://gradschool.duke.edu/about/statistics/admitrel.htm.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

Thanks for the suggestion Pat. I just changed the link!

I understand what you mean about soul searching. When I first began thinking about PhD studies while at Truett I was convinced I was going to write on the Psalms or on something from the Apocrypha/Pseudepigrapha. It wasn't until I took a class on Philippians that my outlook changed. Luckily for me my earlier interests fit well with my current research interests since I'll spend a great deal of time in Second-Temple Jewish literature.

Actually I was more interested in eschatology and ethics in Philippians when I got to Fuller and it was an early conversation with Hagner that switched me over to Paul and the Law.

Chris Spinks said...


Great essay. Very sage advice. You and your readers might also be interested in a much longer and more detailed essay by Nijay Gupta, a recent NT graduate at Durham. His essay, "Interested in NT PhD?" can be found on his very good blog, nijaygupta.wordpress.com. The essay link is http://nijaygupta.wordpress.com/phd-advice/.


J. Matthew Barnes said...


It's funny that you mention that blog post because I read it shortly after entering the program at Fuller and it helped me put things in perspective. I've actually referred to it and pointed people to several times in conversations!

Mike S. said...


Thanks for this post, I've been very thankful for a handful of guys like yourself, who are a few steps ahead in academia, providing some great resources/insight for people like myself.

All the best,

cj said...

Thanks for the advice. Any sense of a timeline on ramping up to pursue a Ph.D?

J. Matthew Barnes said...


It all depends on the program(s) to which you are applying. Knowing the due dates for your applications will help you figure out how much time to put towards doing the different things that need to be done prior applying. Most schools want application materials to be turned into them during the winter months prior to the fall semester/quarter you will begin. So if you want to begin in the Fall of 2011 your materials would likely be due from October 2010 to January of 2011, depending on the school. You would likely hear back from schools beginning in January 2011 and would continue to hear from the later application date schools until March 2011 or even a bit later. Therefore, I would plan on spending several months of dedicated preparation before application materials are due, maybe even a year. You also want to give ample time for your references to write for you. If you are applying to more than one program the amount of preparation time needed goes up quite a bit.

I hope that helps.

Mike S. said...


What do you think about 670 verbal and 770 math? Just tooked that darned test earlier and that's what it said I got on the comp... waiting for the essay. Granted I'm not applying to PhD yet and will probably do so for NT after I do a MTS at one of the major universities.

I hate these tests.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

Mike S.,

Thanks for your comment!

Those are fine scores but the crux of the situation is what the school to which you are applying requires.


PhD Research Paper said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

That's very true. Or many schools have hard-to-use or out-dated websites, which makes things difficult as well.

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Jesse said...

Is there a similar GRE statistical enrollment form for Fuller Seminaries PhD program? I am interested to know how many applications they receive and students they admit per year.

J. Matthew Barnes said...


I'm not sure what the answers to your questions are and I'm not exactly sure how to tell you to go about finding them.

However, from what I understand and from my experience, Fuller receives many applications each year. Even though Fuller's program is fantastic and it's professors are top-notch, for many, Fuller is a second choice behind Duke, Princeton, etc. Thus, some of the applicants will turn Fuller down due to being accepted at one of their "better" options.

All of that being said, Fuller is highly selective and the standards here are fairly high. Don't think that just because Fuller isn't considered "top-tier" by some that it is easy to get into or a cake walk once you are admitted.

Anonymous said...

Hey Matt,
My name is Brian I am an M.A. student at Multnomah Seminary. I am applying to Fuller for my PhD, and I was just wondering if you could give me some advice: What are they looking for as far as the personal statment and writing sample? I am feeling a little lost on the application. I dont want to try to sound to smart, but I also dont want to be to relaxed. Any thing wold help.

J. Matthew Barnes said...


For your writing sample I would choose the best academic paper you ever wrote in the your chosen field. If you are unhappy with all that you have written in seminary, then I would compose a new paper that is at least 15 pages which highlights your skills, interests, and research abilities.

For you personal statement I would simply compose a document that covers why you want to get a PhD, why Fuller would be a good fit for you, what you hope to pursue academically, and how what you have done up to this point has prepared you.

As for the not-wanting-too-sound-smart thing, don't worry about that. Your job in your application is to be honest but also to impress the application reviewer(s) as best you can.

I hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

Brody H

HEY! I just turned 18 and have applied at a few different Christian campuses and i am up in the air on whether i want to get an undergraduate degree in Theology/philosophy or a degree in pastoral ministry... any advice?

Anonymous said...

What do you think about a program like the D.Th program at the University of South Africa?

Eric said...

I'm currently considering whether or not I want to pursue a MDiv at Westminster Theological Seminary. I don't have a desire to become a pastor. I'm considering it because I love studying biblical topics (e.g., theology, apologetics, church history, etc.)

I have considered using the MDiv in order to pursue doctoral studies and possibly becoming a professor but I'm hesitant. I don't know if I want to go for doctoral studies at this point.

Do you have any advice? Should one pursue a MDiv without having a desire to become a pastor? What are your thoughts? Thank you.

J. Matthew Barnes said...


I have two bits of advice:

1) The fastest way to get to doctoral studies in biblical studies would be by getting a Master of Arts degree instead of a Master of Divinity. The MA is shorter and more focused and, generally speaking, encourages you to produce a piece of research at the end that could end up helping you get into a PhD program.

2) Getting an MDiv prior to getting a PhD could possibly help you get a job as a professor at certain types of institutions. Small Christian liberal arts schools, for instance, may look favorably on an MDiv because it would allow you to teach more courses to undergraduate students. (If you have at least 18 hours of graduate studies in a particular topic, such as theology, history, etc., then you can teach undergrads that topic.)

I hope that might help you a bit!

J. Matthew Barnes said...

I forgot to respond to two earlier posts, so I'll do that now:

1) Re: undergraduate religion studies. I think getting a major in religion/Bible/etc is great, if you think you are going to pursue academics in religion. If you see yourself pursuing work in the church, on the mission field, etc., then perhaps majoring in a field that might apply better to that specific field might be better (like psychology, business, etc.). You can always minor in Bible/religion. Why do I say this? Because you are going to take a ton of Bible/religion courses when you do your Master's degree, and unless you just really enjoy double-dipping, it's best to avoid it.

2) Re: a D.Th in South Africa -- I really don't know. Doing a cursory search reveals that they have different directions you can take (Practical Theology, Philosophy, Theological Ethics, Systematic Theology). My guess would be that all of them would require a fair amount of research (since 5 years is expected) but I'm not sure how the degree would be viewed in other places, such as the US, England, Germany, etc.