Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thoughts on Applying for a PhD in Biblical and Theological Studies

Several times a year a student will make an appointment with me to discuss what it takes to earn a PhD degree. These are often students who enjoy learning and the academic setting and would like to continue on to the next level. I usually begin by asking them why they would like a PhD and why they believe they need one. After a few more preliminary questions I lay out for them what is involved in getting the degree. At some point in the conversation they begin to realize that this is not like earning a second, slightly more advanced masters degree. I then usually say something like “there is a reason they call it a terminal degree.” By the end of our 30 minute meeting many of those students leave my office wide-eyed at what it takes to earn a PhD and convinced it is not for them. This is a completely different degree with all kinds of new expectations and demands.

While I may sound like the fount of all wisdom to the students who visit my office, I remember being in the same situation. Not only did I not know what was required to earn a PhD, I had no idea what a PhD was. Honestly, I knew that professors were called “Dr” but I had never stopped to ask why (nor did I care). I entered my masters program with no intention of going beyond that degree. It was a miracle that I had made it that far in my academic pursuits and even wanted to go that far. School and I did not have a very positive experience. So when I entered a graduate program and began to meet people with PhDs I was introduced to a whole new aspect of the academic world.

Over time, however, I began to realize the need for a PhD, which in turn birthed the desire. I was fortunate to have some professors who not only encouraged me to move forward, but also provided some helpful guidance and contacted their own friends and mentors at the institutions where I was hoping to enroll. Long story short, I was accepted at the University of Durham and completed the PhD in 2002.

Ever since I have tried to provide my students with helpful advice as they seek to follow the same path. After eight years of teaching I have seen four of my students enter PhD programs and one a ThM. I am hoping and praying that they will all finish successfully. When I do find a student that I think will be successful and should apply to a program I provide some suggestions that might help them. Perhaps you will find them helpful if you are considering applying for a program.

Have a 5 to 10 year plan

Getting a PhD takes time. The average program in North America lasts five years (three years course work, two years writing). In the UK the program is slated as three years, but often takes four (or more). If you are in, say, the second year of a master’s program then you are at least two years away from entering a PhD program and at least five from finishing. That is at least seven years. And if you hope to find a job you will need to build in a one to two year buffer to find that job after completing the degree. Most people do not walk out of a program into a job. I started my master’s degree when I was 25 and started my first teaching job when as I was 35.

Take the Kaplan GRE class

If you are applying to programs in the USA (Canada?) you will need to take the GRE exam. I am not convinced that this is always the best policy since taking this type of exam is not necessarily an indicator of success, but that is the way things are. In order to prepare for this exam students will buy preparation books that help them to learn vocabulary, brush up on their math, and sharpen their analytical skills. This is what I did and my scores were satisfactory (my math skill was my lowest, which is why my wife has the business degree). But over the last few years I have had several students take the Kaplan GRE preparation course. This is not a way to cheat. The GRE is a particular kind of test, one you will most likely never see again. The Kaplan course helps you learn how to take the exam so that your score correctly reflects your knowledge of the subjects rather than your inability to figure out how the exam is written. At least two of my students have taken the GRE using the preparation book they bought off Amazon and then took the exam a second time after taking the Kaplan course. In both cases their scores increased dramatically. The course will cost about $1200. I know that is a lot for a student, but consider it an investment. A good score will not only help increase your chances of getting into a program, it could also help to earn you a scholarship.

Learn the Languages

Most PhD programs, especially in biblical and theological studies, require that you know a number of ancient and modern languages. Make sure that you learn your Hebrew and Greek in your masters program. Take advance level courses and, if possible, sign up for courses and directed studies that require you to use and advance your languages skills. And if possible learn at least German. Here at Ashland we offer two terms in Theological German. The course won’t have you ordering schnitzel and a beer at your favorite German restaurant, but it will help you to read Bultmann and others. If you can learn French do that as well. But I would also recommend learning a language like Spanish. The population of Spanish speakers (at least in North America) is growing and knowing another modern language will only help you, especially when you are looking for a job. I learned German before I entered my PhD program. The advantage of having some ability in the language before beginning the program is that it will reduce the pressure on you once you are enrolled. It will be one less thing you have to learn.

Be careful where you go, remember you want to get a job someday

Students usually already have an idea of where they want to enroll for a PhD. Since I work at a seminary the students often are thinking about other seminaries or denominationally affiliated institutions. That is fine if you only ever want to work in schools associated with that particular denomination. But if you are hoping to increase your employability beyond your own denomination then I recommend going to a university where denominational ties are either weaker or non-existent. Remember, there will be a lot of PhDs applying for about 50 jobs a year and you want to attract the attention of as many of them as possible. On the flipside, not going to a program sponsored by or associated with a denomination can also hurt your employability. Many schools require that their professors be a member of denomination “X” if they want to teach there. Consequently, a PhD from the denomination’s school is more attractive to them. So know what kind of institution you hope to teach at and plan accordingly.

Who you work with can be just as important as where you go

Simply saying that got your degree from the PhD program at Ivory Tower University does not mean that you will get a job. Sometimes it matters who you work with in that program. Don’t simply choose a school based on its name. Who is teaching there? What are their areas of research and publication? How can this person help you to advance in your own academic career? Once you have isolated a dozen or so potential mentors write them a short email, introduce yourself, and explain you research interests and your hopes for the future. Ask them about the program at their institution and whether or not it is the place for you. Keep the email to no more than a paragraph or two. Long emails from strangers are not always the kind of things professors like to find in their inbox. Some of the people you write will answer within a few days to a few weeks (they are busy). Some will never answer you. Take that as a hint. Remember you need to work with this person for several years and you want to finish. So, when possible, try to find a person who will at least respond to you and perhaps would be a good mentor

Apply to a number of schools

Finally, once you have taken your GRE exam, learned your languages and located some potential mentors, you need to make application. Do not apply to only two or three schools. The competition is fierce for these programs; some only take ten or less new students a year. I suggest that if you are serious about getting the degree that you apply to as many schools as possible. I once had a student apply to twenty different schools. A bit excessive, perhaps, but in the end he had both acceptance and rejection letters, which means that he had the opportunity to choose from the acceptance letters where he wanted to go. True, the application fees can add up. But, if you apply to two schools and don’t get in you are not only out the application fee, you are stuck at your current degree level and your career has stalled. On the other hand, if you apply to ten schools and get accepted by two or three you are then in the position to choose and can move ahead in your career. Yes the process was more expensive, but in the end your investment got you where you want to be.

There is much more that I could say. And then of course there is the other whole topic of actually completing the PhD program successfully once you are enrolled. But if you are getting ready to or thinking about applying, then the above should help. I would be interested to read any other advice that others may have for those interested in getting a PhD. Leave a comment below.


  1. These are extremely helpful, John. There's lots of good, practical advice here. To these fantastic suggestions I would add three, as one who is currently in a Ph.D. program. Summarized, they are: Do what you love, know your working style, and NETWORK.

    1. Do what you love; don't sacrifice, at least not entirely, a field about which you are passionate just because of the realities of the current job market. If you love to study 4th century North African monasticism, or whatever, find a way to fit it into your thesis. If you don't, you'll find that you miss it. It's no good working on a topic you may think will get you a job if you fizzle halfway through for lack of passion. You're going to spend years of your life on your thesis. Make sure you can enjoy it for the long haul.

    2. Know your working style. Do you thrive on dialogue? Do you need regular interaction with your supervisor? Do you rather prefer to be left alone in your peaceful study with your books, coming up for air only when you have a fully written chapter in hand? Know the answer to this question BEFORE you start your program and be sure to discuss it with your potential supervisor. Practically speaking, you need to find someone who not only has research interests that coincide with yours, but also will complement your working style. Or you need to be willing to adapt to your supervisor's. Remember, you are not working with a CV, you are working with a person, who potentially could be a long-term mentor for you.

    3. NETWORK. Conferences are expensive, and nobody's paying your bills. But they are goldmines for injecting fresh life into your research and making connections which could serve you well in your career. Also, find people nearby geographically who are interested in things that you are working on, and meet with them. You'd be surprised how many established scholars would actually be willing to take time to meet with you. And if you can find the time, write and present papers in your area; this is a great way to get feedback on your work and begin to make a name for yourself.

    I am in a European program, so my tips might more reflect that reality, than the North American Ph.D. program style (which is its own beast). But I think, based on my own experience, keeping these things in mind could be helpful to anyone looking into doctoral study.

    Thanks for opening up the floor for other suggestions. This is a great post.

    Krista Mournet

  2. John:

    Your post was affirming of the steps that I have gone through during my second round of applying to schools. I didn't take the Kaplan course but did use their preparatory resources. My GRE verbal jumped 20 percentage points (as quantified by the percentile ranking).

    Here are a few other things that are helping me:

    1. If you can visit the school and meet with faculty and students that can give you a good feel if that's the place for you. [Some schools want to know if you can work with several people in the department].

    2. Check with former professors (especially key mentors) and see how they respond to your school choices.

    3. Find ways to build up your CV. If you're a student in a masters program see if you can be a Graduate Assistant during your time. See if you can help a professor with a research project.

    4. Your purpose essay (research history, trajectory of study, research interests, who you want to work with at the school, and your career goals) will be expected in all applications. This essay, alone, can make or break an application.

    Please hear all of the above not in arrogance but from a guy who is in the thick of applications.

    Blessings & Peace,
    Jason Barnhart

  3. "A good score will not only help increase your chances of getting into a program, it could also help to earn you a scholarship."

    This is less the case for Biblical Studies/Theology departments than for other departments, but having a very high GRE score (1500 or above on the old scoring system) will also give you a shot at competing for university-level fellowships at US schools (where one is nominated by the department to which one is applying and competes with people applying from other disciplines). These fellowships pay you more money for a yearly stipend while working on the Ph.D. as well as require you to spend less time teaching while taking your own classes and writing your dissertation.

    Sometimes these university-wide fellowships will pay as much as $7-8K more per year in salary than one would make with the standard teaching assistant stipend and they involve SIGNIFICANTLY less teaching than otherwise. As I said, this applies less in the case of Biblical Studies and Theology departments for various reasons, at least one of which is the fact that most Ph.D.s in this area are not done at a state-affiliated school but rather at a private institution.

    Anyway, all of this is to emphasize how important it is to do well on the GRE. One person I know of spent an entire summer studying for the GRE.

  4. I am one of the students Dr. Byron helped get into a PhD program. I would agree with everything in this post. I bought all the helps in the world for the GRE and took the test and didn't do as well as I wanted to. I took the Kaplan test and my score on the verbal went up 120 points and my writing went up 1.0 (old scoring). If you don't want to take the whole Kaplan course, they do subject only courses which are cheaper (I took the verbal one). Also, a good website during the application process is (or org maybe?) It is both helpful and maddening. You can see others' posts about their credentials (if they share them) and when they got response letters.

    Overall, it's a fun process, but costly and annoying. I think with the Kaplan course (the verbal only course was like 400), 2 GREs and 9 application fees, plus transcript ordering fees it cost me easily 1500 bucks. Worth it in the long run.

  5. John:

    Thanks for this post! This advice, if taken, will provide great dividends. (And I too, am one of the four he helped to get into a PhD program).

    The other thing I would add is the need to work on writing and critical thinking skills. If you are attending a seminary, you probably are not required to write many traditional research papers, in which you argue a point with supporting evidences. (I would suggest reading "The Craft of Research by William Booth, et. al.) This type of research is different from writing "exegetical papers." I would encourage potential PhD students to negotiate their assignments with professors in doing a combination of exegetical and "traditional" research papers.


  6. Generally, PhDs share their abilities and practical knowledge through educating, and they are tools also for the advancement of new concepts by means of their exploration. With regards to the employment market, online PhD programs provide more doors of opportunities in instruction and research leadership. They could be employed in colleges and universities, government entities in addition to private companies.

  7. I appreciate your thoughts about the decision-making process regarding the question of getting a Ph.D. I am in the early stages of selecting potential schools and have an unusual situation. I took some time away after graduating with my M.Div. in order to address some personal circumstances that arose. I had some academic chapters published outside biblical studies, presented a paper at SBL one year, and have been active in local church ministries and other miscellaneous community services. The bulk of my activity has been editing and transcribing for an agency that is converting Hebrew texts from print into digital braille format for people who are visually impaired. All this is to say that my academic writing sample in biblical studies is several years old. Should I find a way to write a new one? Or should I explain my circumstances, highlight my unique activity, and submit the older sample?

  8. Thank you for putting this together. I was recently accepted to 2 doctoral programs for NT studies, I wanted to get your opinion on something. I was accepted to Regent University in Virginia Beach. It is a PhD in New Testament studies but it has Pentecostal bent to it (renewal studies). How do you think this will affect my academic potential when I finish the program? How do you think Regent stacks up against other programs?

    Also can you provide some links to PhD theses and outlines for examples? Thank you again for all you advice and help.

  9. Thank you for putting this together. I was recently accepted to 2 doctoral programs for NT studies, I wanted to get your opinion on something. I was accepted to Regent University in Virginia Beach. It is a PhD in New Testament studies but it has Pentecostal bent to it (renewal studies). How do you think this will affect my academic potential when I finish the program? How do you think Regent stacks up against other programs?

    Also can you provide some links to PhD theses and outlines for examples? Thank you again for all you advice and help.

  10. Brian,

    Congratulations on being accepted to the program. There are some fine scholars at Regent, including Graham Twelftree and Archie Wright.

    You will have some challenges finding a teaching job when you are done since the market is somewhat daunting. And coming from a school with the theological tradition you find at Regent will make narrow the field. I went to Regent for my MA, but went to Durham for the PhD. With the program being so new at Regent it's hard to say how it stacks up.

    I can send you a link to my own thesis,


  11. I found your entry most useful, however I had thought about furthering myself in my studies from where I am now.
    I've just completed a 4 year full time theology course and have been ordained and installed to the ministry as the senior minister of a church in Ulster, but the course I did is not affiliated with any College or University. Is it possible that the work I've done to date could be reconised outside the denomination?

    Many thanks in the Saviour's name.

    Paul Hanna