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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Thinking about a Ph.D.?

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

(With thanks to friend and former colleague Prof. Bruce Hindmarsh of Regent College for much of what follows.)

As you undertake the process of discernment, ask yourself the following questions:

1.    Do I have what it takes to do a Ph.D.? •    Do I have a consistent “A” average (3.7 GPA or higher) in my graduate courses? Is my previous academic record strong, or is there a good reason why it isn’t? (Explain that good reason in any letter of application. Sometimes life intervenes in a way that can’t be helped, and good schools and supervisors don’t want to miss admitting someone who ran into a bad episode and recovered.) •    For American programs, are my GRE scores (for most theological and humanities programs, that means just the Verbal and Written, not the Math) at or above the 85th percentile—and, for most competitive programs, 90th or above? •    Have I won any academic awards in undergraduate or graduate work? •    Has a professor ever told me that my academic work is outstanding or publishable? •    Has a professor singled me out to ask me to work as his or her teaching or research assistant? •    Has a professor, on his or her own initiative, ever approached me to suggest that I seek a Ph.D.? (If not, then ask the professors who know your work best to give you a candid answer as to their estimates of your abilities in this occupation. And don’t settle for a polite, but vague, reply!) •    Have I written and defended a successful thesis? (There is nothing like completing a master’s thesis to tell you whether you have what it takes—intellectually, psychologically, and otherwise—to complete a Ph.D. and go on to a scholarly career. There may be good reasons to earn a master’s degree by comprehensive examination(s) instead—taking additional courses in your field, for instance—but nothing short of the Ph.D. dissertation itself resembles professional-level research like a master’s thesis. Remember, too, that you can always take a few extra courses, if you want to, and undertake a thesis over and above the minimum requirements for the degree. A graduate school’s minimum requirements for graduation are just that: minimum requirements.)

2.    Do I want to do a Ph.D.? •    Do I find delight in long hours of intense, extended, solitary study? •    Have I found some of my greatest satisfaction in researching and writing long research papers? Would I like to write more? •    Do I have a strong intellectual drive and curiosity that is becoming more concentrated in a certain field or several related fields? (This impetus needs to be distinguished clearly and honestly from a drive to have a Ph.D. in order to obtain something else, whether an attractive job, a certain status, a sense of accomplishment, and so on.)

3.    Have I counted the cost of doing a Ph.D.? Have I thought about the following particulars? •    The Ph.D. is an independent project and I should not expect, let alone require, significant help or personal interest from my supervisor. Some supervisors are very helpful; a minority become true mentors; but many give relatively little guidance. •    This will take up at least three, and as many as ten, years of my life—depending on the program (how many courses and examinations it requires). •    These will be years of lost earnings and financial insecurity. •    It is still very difficult to get an academic job, even with a Ph.D. from a prestigious university and a few publications. The promised openings in the academy have generally not appeared, while sessional/adjunct appointments have blossomed instead—which is good news only for those who prefer part-time work. •    Once I have a Ph.D. and get a typical academic job, I then will have to work long hours preparing new courses, participating on committees, and seeing students. I will do so, furthermore, under the pressure of a tenure clock for about six years to “publish or perish.” The job insecurity, that is, doesn’t end with getting the Ph.D. •    Many people begin but do not successfully complete a Ph.D. (Some reports describe an attrition rate as high as 50 per cent.) •   Many Ph.D. students have found that the Ph.D. puts significant strain on their marriages, families, self-identity, and spiritual life. •   And what about children? The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the challenges involved here, especially for women.

4.    Does God want me to do a Ph.D.? •    Do I feel I have gifts in scholarship and teaching? Do I feel inwardly moved by the Holy Spirit to pursue the Ph.D. as part of a calling to study and teach? How do I know this is the Holy Spirit? •    How has this calling been confirmed by others and by experience? What does my Christian community think? Would this decision have the enthusiastic endorsement of those closest to me, who know me best? •    How might I serve the Church and the Kingdom of God better with a Ph.D. than without one? •    The Ph.D. is the requirement for most postsecondary teaching positions, but have I considered whether God has gifted and called to teach and research in some other sphere? Have I fully explored my motives, and am I satisfied that I am not interested in a Ph.D. simply to prove something to somebody or to myself, to flee some other situation, or for other unsound reasons? None of our motives is ever entirely pure or unmixed with other motives, but how deep is my self-knowledge about my desire to do a Ph.D.?

If after thinking and praying through all of this you want to begin making your first enquiries into Ph.D. studies, then you need to find the right Ph.D. program and the necessary funding as your first research task. Furthermore, if you intend to proceed from spring graduation to September or October matriculation in a Ph.D. program, you will need to begin your research on such programs no later than the previous summer, in order to apply properly in the autumn of the year before you expect to begin doctoral work.

Many students take at least one transitional year after graduation to earn some money, to gather information, and to make applications. Some students also find it better to delay applications for a year in order to complete a thesis in time to impress their references (that is, by the late autumn), who can then write even more powerful letters on the basis of this substantial piece of work.

(In the mid-1990s, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the average age of recipients of the Ph.D. in the humanities in the United States was 34. In theological or religious studies, it was 37—many of these students had taken time to work between master’s degree [typically M.A. or M.Div.] and the Ph.D. Some programs have tried to shorten the time to degree, but the figures I saw a decade later hadn’t dropped at all.)

Note also that there are three main forms of Ph.D. program in Canada and the USA: (1) the secular university Ph.D. in religious studies, that generally requires a B.A. and M.A. (or equivalent) in religious studies (or a closely cognate field); (2) the (usually secular university-affiliated) mainline divinity school Ph.D. in religious studies, theology, biblical studies, etc., that generally requires a master’s degree in religious studies but does not require a B.A. in religious studies (these programs can be quite rigorous and prestigious—such as Duke, Chicago, Princeton Seminary, or the Toronto School of Theology—and tend to have more courses and examinations required than option 1 in order to compensate for students not having the B.A. in the field); and (3) the evangelical university or seminary Ph.D. (e.g., Wheaton, Fuller, Trinity Evangelical, and the like that generally have the same requirements as option 2). Note that degrees from option 3 schools generally will not advantage you outside the evangelical higher education network. British university Ph.D. programs—even the best—tend to be less strict about formal requirements and thus sometimes accept theological students without a B.A. in religious studies. They also, however, sometimes require a second master’s degree, usually thesis-based (e.g., M.Phil., M.Litt.), in order to make sure you have what it takes to enter the doctoral program.

A Few Suggestions about Applying:

•    You are not ready to make direct enquiries and apply to Ph.D. programs until you have narrowed down a field and at least one possible research subject. Before you make enquiries with a program or a prospective supervisor, you should have a written statement of your intended research subject. Ideally, you will have all three of the following statements: a one-sentence description of your research question; a one-page summary (c. 300 words); and a longer, more detailed elaboration (perhaps 3 or more pages). You will be repeatedly called upon for one or more of these statements in conversations, letters, program applications, and grant applications, and the sooner you get them down precisely on paper, the better. Everyone knows that this subject and question might change (maybe quite dramatically) as you get into your work, but this is a necessary beginning, and a test of your ability to propose an intelligent, significant, and “complete-able” research project. •    Search out possible Ph.D. programs by asking your current or former professors for suggestions, writing to authors you have read in the field, consulting recent bibliographies, and looking up entries in guides such as the Dictionary of American Scholars. You can also search the web pages, of course, of individual professors at schools you’re considering. •    Rather than think in terms of generating an ideal academic résumé and then pitching it to various Ph.D. programs, work it the other way around. Early in the process, contact the admissions personnel of the several Ph.D. programs you have targeted (if you can’t find this information on the school’s website), and ask them what you will need in terms of course work, foreign languages, and other prerequisites. Then see if you have what it takes before you apply. •    Before you write to a prospective Ph.D. supervisor, make sure you read at least the major works that he or she has written in the area of your interest. Otherwise, you appear not to be a serious enquirer. The formula then for writing to a prospective Ph.D. supervisor is this: “If my application were to be accepted by the admissions committee, would you be interested, in principle, in supervising me as a Ph.D. student working on —–?” The conditional elements in this formula allow your academic correspondent the freedom to engage with you without worrying that he or she is making any promises. You might also ask for advice in preparing your application to that particular program. Many students have found it worthwhile to travel to visit prospective schools and supervisors and ask these questions on-site. (Downstream of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are willing to do this by video.) It is not necessary to do so, and it provides no guarantee of admission, but it likely helps everyone involved to determine whether there is a good “fit” there or not. •    When it comes time to make formal application to a Ph.D. program and to granting agencies, you will need at least the following: transcripts for all academic degrees, three academic references, one or two substantial specimens of your writing, and a short statement of your intended research subject. (This last statement will be scrutinized more closely than anything else you send in your application package.) You should also compile a list of any academic distinctions such as awards or prizes, publications, research experiences, and so on. In the USA and in some Canadian programs you will also usually need GRE scores—and the Verbal and Writing parts of this examination are particularly important for entrance into most religious studies programs (philosophy programs often lean hard on Mathematics scores also). They are seen as “validators” of the good grades and recommendations that you send along, and if they aren’t high enough, everything else in your package will be devalued. Some preparation courses are reputed to help students improve their scores, but I can’t give you advice about those. It will be well worthwhile to take the test more than once if your first scores are not high enough—for premier programs, that means 90th percentile or higher—because low scores almost automatically disquality you, and high scores likely will increase the level of financial aid offered. •    Think of each of your applications as a customized application, geared for that particular Ph.D. program. It is worthless to try to mass-market yourself to dozens of schools. Prepare to apply particularly to each program, explicitly taking into account the research and teaching areas of all the professors in your main field—not just your prospective supervisor’s. •    Your first source of funding, and of information about other funding, is the Ph.D. program itself to which you are applying. Make your first enquiries there through the admissions office. But there may be university-wide scholarships, government-funded scholarships, and other programs that can substantially help you pay for even very expensive programs (such as in the U.K. and U.S.A.). And if you don’t get substantial funding, it’s almost certainly a sign that you shouldn’t proceed. Doctoral work is ‘way too expensive—in terms of moving expenses, tuition, and lost wages—to undertake without significant financial support. If you can’t compete for that support, I’m afraid you won’t compete on the job market, either. •    Make sure that the Ph.D. program meets your requirements and standards, rather than just worrying about whether you will be accepted. Ask for the names of present and former Ph.D. students from the institution, and ideally from your prospective supervisor, and interview them. Ask them whether the program has met their expectations and the demands of their jobs (if they have graduated and found work in the academy).  Note: It is not uncommon for a professor to be well known in a given field and prolific as an author but also to have a dreadful record as a supervisor of doctoral candidates. •    Consider carefully the differences in program requirements (and therefore the length and breadth of the requirements!) among universities, especially (but not only) among different countries. The U.S. tends to have the longest and broadest Ph.D. programs (with courses and comprehensive examinations, as well as a dissertation); the U.K. to have the shortest and narrowest (some with only a dissertation); Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (e.g., the very good University of Otago) are in between. •    Apply to several schools, and at least one a little more demanding than you think you might be accepted in, and one that you’re confident of acceptance by that is a place to which you would be happy to go.

Some Recommended Reading:

The Chronicle of Higher Education—print edition and on-line edition: Many articles deal with this issue from various angles. Wayne C. Booth et al. The Craft of Research. University of Chicago Press, 1995. John Goldsmith et al. The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career. University of Chicago Press, 2001. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. “Why Johnny Can’t Produce Christian Scholarship: A Reflection on Real-Life Impediments.” Chapter in Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day. Baker Academic, 2001. Pp. 141-60. David Sternberg. How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation. St. Martin’s, 1981.


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