Ph.D. Applicants: Don't Apply Unless You Mean It

As I’ve mentioned here earlier, we’re in the throes of moving houses–just as the world’s financial markets decided to jump into the toilet undergo an overdue correction. So my beloved and I have been more than usually busy these days.

Still, one does one’s duty, and cheerfully. So here is some intelligence I gathered recently for our own prospective doctoral students that may well be useful to many of you, too:

Don’t apply for a Ph.D. program and hope to defer an acceptance you receive. It’s not like undergraduate acceptance. If you don’t take the offer, you’ll have to reapply–in all but the most extraordinary circumstances. (One of my correspondents, at a major school in the eastern United States, says he has seen that once in seventeen years. Another friend, at another major school who previously taught at a midwestern American powerhouse, says he’s never seen it at all.)

I didn’t ask my correspondents a follow-up question I should have asked them: Would it actually count against you to refuse to accept an offer and then apply the next year? I could see it argued both ways, so I won’t speculate.

One more thing. I did hear from a senior professor who has held posts at two of America’s top universities that a student who has applied, is turned down, and then applies again the next year does indeed have a strike–or two–against him or her. He didn’t presume to speak for every school everywhere, of course, but he did seem to think this was the way it was commonly done, and he is very widely connected.

So by all means apply, friends, but only when you’re ready to give it your best shot.

UPDATE: As of now, April 2012, I have encountered several very good Ph.D. programs in the U.K. that do, in fact, let you defer your acceptance for a year. Since few of them offer non-Brits any money, I can see why they can afford to do that, since many of them need non-Brits to keep functioning, so they really have to be a bit flexible about letting you line up your scholarships from elsewhere. My column was written in the context I know best, namely, North American programs that do give significant funding and therefore generally are quite particular about you applying and then either taking the offer or starting fresh the next year.

0 Responses to “Ph.D. Applicants: Don't Apply Unless You Mean It”

  1. Patrick George McCullough

    Wait, your second to last paragraph switches circumstances. In the first part, you’re talking about people who apply and, if accepted, ask to defer. I’m with you there. That is not wise.

    But it also counts as a “strike” if the applicant gets rejected by the school and tries again the next year? That goes against the wisdom that I have heard. My understanding was that if the applicant gets rejected, then he or she may try hard to beef up the CV, work on languages, communicate with the profs, and hope for a realignment of the stars in her or his favor, and it could work out. I don’t see why an institution that has rejected an applicant would dismiss them the second time around simply because they rejected them in the past–unless the applicant somehow regressed. Do you know why there would be a strike against the applicant?

  2. John Stackhouse

    I understand your confusion and, perhaps, dubiety, Brother McCullough. I strongly supported one of our graduates who was in precisely this case and whose case elicited this response from my friend. I only pass it along as something my friend sees as common in elite schools: If you’ve been considered and turned down once, you face a steeper hill the next time. It doesn’t make sense to me either, but there it is.

  3. Kyle

    This has me scared about applying anywhere. I’ve got an M.Div, and will hopefully soon start a Th.M., but there are still so many questions about what languages I need to have and to what level. I’m interested in NT and Patristics, so should I have a good basis of (outside of Hebrew and Greek), German, French, Latin and possibly Aramaic? Plus, from everything I’ve read it seems like you need to be published in at least a few respected journals before even applying. Then (due to a rough first semester in seminary), my GPA was only a 3.72…will that disqualify me? If I’m aiming at doing my Ph.D. in either England (top-tier such as Durham, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, etc. or at one of the top American evangelical seminaries (i.e. Fuller, Trinity, etc.) then I feel like I’m going to need to be forty before even applying. Even after my M.Div/Th.M. it seems like there will be at least four or five years or preparation, language study, further study and writing for journals before I should even apply since this post makes it sound like you only get one chance? Is that the norm?

  4. Andy Rowell


    See John’s post and the comments:

    I also have some additional links at:

    See especially
    Nijay Gupta, a Ph.D. student in New Testament at Durham University: Interested in a NT PhD?

    In one sense, you should be “scared” in the sense of “cautious and thoughtful” about spending 4-10 years of your life after grad school doing more grad school. This is a big decision.

    But “four or five years of preparation” before applying is too much unless you are trying to get into Chicago, Yale, Princeton, Duke, Emory, Harvard, etc. and even then it is a crap shoot and not worth waiting that long to try.

    My sense is that getting into a Ph.D. school in the UK has more to do with connecting with a professor who is interested in what you are interested in since you immediately start writing the dissertation but see the links on my post above to a bunch of students doing Ph.D.’s in the UK for advice.

    Fuller and TEDS, which you mention, certainly do not require all of the things you mention.

    But with the UK, Fuller and TEDS, you are likely paying your own tuition with no stipend though these schools should be contacted directly and asked these questions.

    Some people do a Th.M. to boost their standing. If you do, if possible do it at a school that the school you are applying to respects.

    In summary, you are right that all of the things you mention help (GPA, languages, publishing, Th.M.–I would add references, visiting the school, personal connections, great familiarity with the professors where you are applying, and GRE) but everyone applies with some of these things lacking.

    all the best,

    Andy Rowell
    Th.D. Student
    Duke Divinity School

  5. John Stackhouse

    Thanks to Brother Andy for his helpful response. Brother Kyle, just a few bits to add:

    You don’t need to have published anything before you apply. Few students have done so, and even then, it might be just a book review or article in a popular-level magazine.

    Each field has its own linguistic expectations, with OT generally the most demanding and American church history probably the least. But most good PhD programs expect you to have at least French or German (“languages of modern scholarship”) at the reading level when you apply and Biblical studies will expect at least a year or more of both Greek and Hebrew. Beyond that, it depends on the school, so find out specifically what is required from the schools you’re most interested in.

    GPA should be 3.7 or higher. A B or two won’t sink you, but more than that probably will at the most elite places. What matters more, however (since MDiv and other theological degrees require students to work across a number of disciplinary lines and include pastoral skill courses), is your average in academic courses–since you’re applying to an academic degree program.

    A ThM is a good idea if you have an undergraduate degree that is not at all relevant to religious studies (e.g., accounting, engineering) OR is not going to impress the doctoral program (either because your grades are low or because it’s from an unimpressive school). The ThM gives you a further opportunity to pile up relevant credits and impress the doctoral program even more.

    Writing a thesis is excellent preparation for doctoral work, but is not a necessity for application even to the most elite programs–since many of them don’t require, or even offer, a thesis track at the master’s level themselves.

    (I’ll blog soon on the pros and cons of electing to write a master’s thesis.)

    Onward, friends!

  6. Patrick George McCullough

    Just a note about Fuller. I know several NT PhD students there, having just finished up my MDiv there. A few of my friends do get scholarships, but they have to work hard for it (can’t drop below an A). Plus, one guy teaches Beginning Greek classes for 3k a pop. That helps.

  7. Patrick George McCullough

    I’ll also say that I’m glad to know this piece of advice so I can pass it along. My entire strategy was based on applying to the elite programs first, doing a ThM if they all rejected me, and trying again the next year. I thought it would have helped me if I could show dedication and they could get to know me better than some of the other applicants. Apparently, I was wrong. I am so happy I got into UCLA, which is the *perfect* program for my interests. I can’t imagine a second grueling round of applications.

  8. John Stackhouse

    Here’s another exception to the rule about re-application, received from one of my own thesis-writers (with identifies stripped off, of course, but he’s writing from the American Mid-West):

    As for the PhD entry, I can say with experience that one can defer an offer and reapply with more success the second time around, but success is no given and it is in fact very rare.

    Last I spoke with you, almost two years ago, I had been accepted into University X’s PhD program but without funding. They had told me that, should I defer, there would be an even slimmer chance at getting the funding on the second time around.

    Yet, in the face of such pessimism I still decided to take the gamble (or more appropriately I took a step of faith since I felt called to this). After all, I thought, why not? I knew that there were several objective things I could do to improve my application. So I retook and bettered my GRE, scoring in the 98% in verbal (along with my already very high scores in the other areas), I also started to do some private lessons in languages, did a few more interviews at a journal I worked for, and I finished up all of my coursework from my previous year of PhD studies at Seminary Y with perfect marks so that they had an updated transcript — not to mention that three of the highlighted courses on the transcript were philosophy graduate seminars taken with notable scholars at nearby University Z (with one of them writing me a fantastic recommendation).

    All of this to say, the application review committee was very impressed with my improvements and the extra work done during the deferred year. They recommended me as one of the top finalists for their highest award, and after several weeks of waiting the top person on their list took an offer at Princeton which left their top award to me. In fact the committee chair told me that I was the first deferred applicant that he could think of to reapply with such success.

  9. Josh

    I just finished my first semester at Duke Div. (M.Div) and didn’t do as well as I would have liked. I made a C+ in one of my core classes. Will this be detrimental to getting into PhD programs, even if I redeem myself with my GPA? Thanks

    • John Stackhouse

      There’s no doubt that a C+ is a pretty ugly pimple on an academic transcript of someone wanting to go on to Ph.D. work. Your goal is to make sure it stands out as a wild exception to the rule, and then (perhaps) explain it in any application letter you write in future.

      Your other grades need to be A- or A, in other words, from here on in. Maybe a B+ or two, especially in a program as diverse as the typical M.Div. regimen. But there sure have to be a nice forest of A and A- grades in which B’s (and a C+) can hide–otherwise, forget it.


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