Advice for applying to doctoral progams

For those of you interested in pursuing a doctoral degree eventually, Allen Yeh has offered some Advice for Applying for Grad School. I’d encourage you to take a look at it, but I would like to offer an alternate perspective on a couple of things.

First, I’d preface everything that Allen says by arguing that who you know is even more important than where you went to school. (I’ll be blogging on this again soon.) The name of your school is helpful if you’re having to cold sell yourself to a school. But, if you’ve networked effectively, your best job opportunities will come through the grapevine, where the name of your school is not as much of an issue. That doesn’t mean you can ignore this consideration, but it does mean you should pay attention to your networking opportunities now.

Second, much of what Allen says applies more to those who want to keep the possibility of teaching at a state school on the table. Let me be honest with you. If you are doing MA/MDiv/ThM work at a private Christian school, you are probably not going to be hired at a state school no matter where you do your doctoral work. There are a few exceptions to this, but that’s generally true. And, be honest with yourself, if you are the kind of person who is attracted to studying at a private Christian school, do you really want to teach at a state school? Do you want to operate in a context where your evangelical convictions will routinely be marginalized, your objectivity challenged, and your research plans questioned? If you are an evangelical, why not simply embrace that fact and teach at a school where you will be free to present and pursue your evangelical research? That doesn’t mean I think we should abandon the state schools. There are many evangelicals who are gifted and called to just that kind of environment. The question is, are you one of them? If not, don’t arrange your doctoral plans around the idea of keeping something on the table that maybe shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Third, Allen talks quite a bit about the academic superiority of the American Ph.D. over the British Ph.D. And basically he’s right. But, what he doesn’t take into account is the kind of work that a person may have done before their doctoral program. If you already have multiple degrees in your field, I would not hesitate for a second to encourage you toward a British program. You’ve probably had enough time already to get prepared in your field and you’re ready to work independently for a while. And, as Allen mentions, a British Ph.D. is not going to set you back at all with American seminaries. But, if you have not yet done enough coursework in your other programs, by all means go the American route.

Finally, his point about which subfield to specialize in is well worth considering. The statistics on applicants-per-position in New Testament and Systematic Theology are not good; Old Testament is not far behind. If those are your passions and you want to pursue those fields despite the odds, go for it. But, if you are open to pursuing a subfield of practical theology, that might set you up better for the future.


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 9, 2010, in Th.M. Program and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. This is an honest question: What does it mean to pursue as a sub-field “practical theology”? Being willing to teach ministry classes? Does that mean doing a DMin (or at least DMin classes e.g. “spiritual MBA”)? Or having actual ministry experience coupled with an ability to teach a theological framework for ministry? Marc – do you think your experience in ministry made a difference in getting an academic position at WS? Do you also teach PT classes, or are at least willing to teach them, e.g. would you teach a DMin seminar on Youth Ministry and a ThM seminar on 19-20th C. German Theology in the same semester?:-) I’d probably take both. Thanks.

  2. I was thinking more about the focus of a person’s Ph.D. program (e.g. focusing on ethics, spiritual formation, pastoral theology, etc. vs. more “typical” dogmatic topics). Allen’s right that a Dmin really won’t do if your primary purpose is teaching, though adjunct possibilities are definitely out there.

    There is no question that ministry experience helped me get my job here at Western. Western really isn’t interested in hiring people who do not have extensive ministry experience. It doesn’t have to be paid experience, but there does need to be an established track record of commitment to and involvement in the local church. Otherwise, we’d never be able to maintain our commitment to integrating classroom and ministry. The same would be true at many other seminaries (unfortunately, not all).

    I have not taught a PTS class yet, but I like the idea. I already spend quite a bit of time talking about ministry in my church history and theology classes. But, somehow I don’t think that I’d have much success getting enough students for a Dmin class in youth ministry. We have a hard enough time getting youth pastors to take MA-level classes.

  3. What’s some advice you would give to someone in fulltime ministry between a ThM and a PhD? What things could such a one be doing to better their chances of being accepted into a PhD program? I had one professor advise me that taking the time off from academia demonstrated a lack of commitment to the field. What do you think of his advice, and can the stain of academic haiati* be overcome?

    *This is the plural of haiatus, not the country misspelled.

  4. Obviously, you need to stay current. So, keep reading and networking. I’d also recommend finding opportunities to present papers at biblical/theological society meetings. That will help demonstrate that you’re not “out of the loop.” And, if you can work a paper like that into something that can be published, so much the better.

    Now, having said all of that, I’d also suggest that you reflect on the kind of place that you want to learn/teach. If it’s the kind of place that will ding you for spending time in ministry, is that where you want to end up? I received similar advice when I took my position at Western. Since Western is a “teaching” school rather than a “research” institution, I was told that I would probably never get a job at a good research university. Apparently if you spend too much time teaching, you’re also considered “out of the loop.” Fortunately, that didn’t bother me at all because I don’t want to be at a research university.

    So, if you stay current and continue networking, I think you’ll still be able to get into some good Ph.D. programs (particularly the ones that think ministry is actually a good thing).

    By the way, kudos for even knowing that hiatus had a plural.

  5. Kudos on indirectly pointing out that I misspelled a word in my comment about not misspelling a word.

  6. Great thoughts here. This is my question: how do you go about networking. This is something I’ve heard several guys talking about recently in our Th.M. program, and honestly, I’m kind of at a loss. It seems one of the most efficient ways to network in theological academia is through blogging, which is a problem for those of us who don’t. What are some suggestions at how one would go about “networking” with people, especially professors in Ph.D. programs?

  7. Brother Cash,

    In the early mid ’00’s, when I was seriously considering PhD work, I read the stuff of professors I was interested in perhaps studying under and then just wrote them. I did this with John Milbank, who was at UVA at the time and Paul Dehart at Vandy. I told them what I was interested in studying, and why I thought my interests would be apposite their strengths (I had to read some of their stuff so I could have a somewhat interesting and plausible letter for them to read). I asked them if they thought, given my interests, I could cultivate a relationship and pursue studying with them. Or if not, who/where could they direct me. My experience with both of these guys was very positive, and they gave me helpful advice. Direct approach.

    If you know of people who studied under them, or even in their programs, or with them when they were in grad school, that makes a huge difference, too. Utilize those connections! Two of my friends who did get their PhD’s (one in theology, one in NT – both are tenure track at evangelical schools, Samford and RTS) also had their professors advocate for them.

    My friend who studied theology, did so at UVA. He applied to study with a historian-theologian who was friends with one of our professors at WTS (they were PhD students together at Johns Hopkins). My other friend was Guy Waters, who studied under Hays at Duke. Guy went to Penn and graduated from there at 19, summa cum laude with a degree in Classics. So he is pretty bright (though a very hard worker). But Moises Silva was friendly with Hays and helped advocate for Guy. (Aside: The folks at Duke told guy that he got in mainly because he went to Penn and IN SPITE of the fact he went to Westminster.) Friend of a friend approach.

    2 cents and change,

  8. Pat, those are great suggestions. The best place to start in networking is always with the people you already know. Find out who your fellow students and faculty know, and how you might be able to tap into their existing networks. (Hint: I’m not very well connected. Try someone much friendlier than I am.)

    Like Pat, I have found most academics to be very helpful if you approach them directly, as long as you can demonstrate that you have some basis for contacting them (e.g. common acquaintance, common research interest, etc). There are some exceptions to this, but most academics remember what it was like to be in your shoes and they’re willing to do what they can to help. Don’t hesitate to ask.

    And, I wouldn’t underestimate the power of blogging for getting to know people. I know you’re not a blogger, but they are a great forum for meeting people with like interests. And, you don’t actually have to be that active in posting. Find some good blogs and become a regular participant in the discussions/comments. I know several people who now connect regularly with people at conferences that they met through some blog or another.

  1. Pingback: How to find and apply for a Ph.D. program « scientia et sapientia

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