- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.