How to find and apply for a Ph.D. program

Deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. can be an angst-ridden process filled without doubt, financial uncertainty, and regular bouts of self-pity. At the very least, the would-be doctoral student must wrestle with the following questions:

  • Do I really want to put myself and my family through the upheaval that a doctoral program involves (e.g. moving, financial stress, etc.)?
  • Am I okay with the fact that I may well not be able to find a teaching position at the end of the day?
  • What do I want to study and do I enjoy it enough to spend that much time on it?
  • Where should I do my doctoral studies?
  • Am I even qualified for the doctoral program that I want? If so, how do I get in?
  • Should I just stay home and watch Lost on Netflix instead?

And, those are just the questions for the first week. If you get past these, you’ll run into many more down the line.

Given the number and significance of such questions, it’s no surprise that people are always looking for advice on whether/how to pursue a doctoral program. So, I’m always keeping my eye out for good resources to help with the process. And, just this morning, someone sent me a link to a very helpful post by Daniel Treier at Wheaton College on preparing for a PhD.

Treier divides his post into three sections:

  1. Discerning Whether to Apply
  2. Determining When/Where to Apply
  3. Developing an Application

He offers some pretty blunt advice in the first section that may be eye-opening. But, I particularly liked one comment that he made regarding the job market and the needs of the church:

The job market suggests that in most fields we evangelicals do not need more applicants; we need a few better-prepared ones. In the church, meanwhile, we quite likely need more intelligent and intellectually-curious pastoral staff members. Let the one who has ears, hear.

One of my arguments for the value of a Th.M. is that it’s a degree program well-suited to training “intelligent and intellectually curious” men and women for pastoral ministry in the local church. I think we have too often directed our best minds into the academy, thinking that somehow such people were “wasted” in local churches. What a tragedy. (For another take on this, read Sean Lucas’ post “Ministerial Students, Calling, and PhD Studies.”)

But, if you still want to pursue a Ph.D. after reading his post, I found the third section particularly helpful. I’ve run across other posts on the first two issues, but this is the best that I’ve seen to focus closely on what it takes to develop a quality application. (See also John Anderson’s post “To Those Applying to Ph.D. Programs…My Advice“).

And, here are some other posts that you may want to check out:


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 5, 2011, in Academics, Th.M. Program. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. These will be good resources for current and future ThM students. I think most ThM graduates realize how close they are to the doctoral work and that they could get into a program. That makes it tempting, but it is also likely not for everyone, even those who have gone this far.

    I have appreciated the few discussions that I have had with those who are in PhD or have graduated from PhD programs. It keeps me for going into any future commitments blindly.

  2. Thanks for this. The article by Dr. Treier is definitely worth the read! These are all questions that my wife and I are asking right now.

  3. I would add Daniel Treier to your list:

  4. Yikes. Fail!

  5. No worries, it happens. 🙂

  6. I especially liked Sean Lucas’ article. He endorses the idea of students (who are inclined/gifted) getting PhD’s to be pastors (and not burden the unemployment office by trying to get a job in the academy). I think that he is probably right. (And it seems much better than getting a D.Min. Q: If the title earned was something other than “Dr.” would pastors still get D.Min degrees?) That being said, I plan on taking Willimon’s class in January ’11. But only because it is Willimon! (what a coup for Western to get him to come in, btw).

    My experience working on a Th.M. is that it can help scratch theological itches (e.g. reading more deeply in your own tradition as well as outside of it), and it gives you an opportunity for enforcing some intellectual discipline i.e. you have to finish the books you start and give some account of it:-).

  7. Marc you are one of the best minds on the internet and I really appreciate your thoughts. As someone who just withdrew from a THm for the first reason you mention (time more than money) I wish someone had taken the time to ask me these questions.

    • Careful, I haven’t been insulted in a while, so I don’t think I have a sufficient stockpile of humility to resist too much affirmation.

      Thanks! 🙂

  8. @Pat – I have a harder time recommending a PhD for pastoral ministry. I’m site it’s a great got for some pastors, but I’m not convinced that the skills that doctoral programs emphasize are necessarily the best fit for pastoral ministry. Given the time, money, and effort involved, I’m hard pursed to recommend that pastors go down that road. (I’m sure that I’m biased, but a ThM seems like a much better fit.)

    And I do think that a god Dmin has value (beyond just the doctor after your name). The key is that a Dmin had to be more than just an upgraded conference experience, and many aren’t.

  9. Ryan Collins

    This thread has shaken my world up a bit…bittersweet, maybe? Haha.

    • Wow, I just read your post and it’s obvious that you’ve been on a bit of a journey lately. I’m glad that my post helped spark some good thoughts or you. If you’re ever up in my part of Portland, let me know. I’m always happy to talk about where God’s taking people in ministry.

      • Ryan Collins

        I’ll take you up that, Dr. Cortez. I’ll be moving up there (just a couple exits north of Wilsonville) late June.

      • Great, I’ll look forward to it. (And BTW, “Marc” is fine. I’m not big on formality.)

  1. Pingback: Elsewhere (05.05.2011) « Near Emmaus

  2. Pingback: Nehemiah, Church, and PhD’s. « Ryan K. Collins

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