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.