Applying for a PhD in the field of NT/Christian Origins is a monster of a task (or at least a significant part-time job!). As I went through this process over the last twelve months, I was helped and encouraged by the words of others who had recently been through the same thing. Probably the most thorough example is Nijay Gupta’s fairly comprehensive write-up here, which you can also buy in book form through his website. While I recommend Gupta’s advice, it is nevertheless just one person’s perspective, and I think the more different opinions you can glean, the better you will be able to make your own decision.
My target audience is also considerably narrower than Nijay’s: I did my graduate work at an “confessional” seminary (Th.M., Dallas Seminary) but wanted to do doctoral work at a “secular” (that is, a public or non-confessional private) university here in the US. If you find yourself in a similar place with similar ambitions, then this post is (particularly, but not exclusively!) for you.
First, though, a few questions to consider before going any farther:
–Are you sure you want to do this? Even with the funding provided by secular schools, finances are almost certainly going to remain tight for the next half decade or beyond. And even if you manage to complete the doctoral program, you’re not guaranteed a job! In fact, the job market in religious studies is quite poor at the moment, and not expected to improve in the near future. To have a chance, you’ll likely not just have to get your doctorate, but do so with great distinction. In other words, know what you’re signing up for and count the cost before taking the plunge! And if you have a spouse, make sure he/she is on board with your decision and is affirming of your passion or call in this regard.
–What are your theological non-negotiables? To put it as bluntly as possible: if you swear fealty to the Chicago Statement, if you believe Karl Barth to be a liberal heretic, if Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is a hill you would die on, then pursuing a secular PhD is probably not the right fit for you. Notice what I did not say; I very much believe there is room for people of faith in major universities, and do believe that many (if not all) are genuinely open to taking students with faith convictions. But these schools do (rightly) expect critical thinkers who are willing to interact with and respect people bringing different presuppositions to the table. It’s important to, as far as you are able, get a feel for what kind of bibliological presuppositions will and will not fly at the different universities you are considering, and then be honest about where you’re coming from–both for your own sake as well as the university’s.
–What methodologies are you most excited about? If you’re passionate about the use of the aorist participle in the pastoral letters, that’s great, but that’s not the kind of topic a secular research institution is going to care much about. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in applying the insights of rhetorical criticism, reception history, social-scientific theories, or Wirkungsgeschichte to the biblical text, then you’re on the right track.
The Big Picture: “Fit”
Assuming you’re still tracking with me, the first step is undoubtedly to identify which schools would be a good “fit” for you. This includes, of course, things like geography, funding, length of program, and program requirements. But pride of place must go to the idea of “fit with faculty resources.” US programs, as opposed to those in the UK, do not require you to have a fully fleshed-out dissertation idea, but they do require you to show evidence in your statement of purpose (SoP) that your interests match up, broadly speaking, with those of the school to which you’re applying. The only way to do this is, of course, research. Browse faculty profiles on the school’s website, looking at what and where they publish. If you’re interested in what they’re doing, consider writing them a kindly worded e-mail introducing yourself and expressing interest in the program. This might lead to a phone conversation or an invitation to come visit. While not strictly necessary for being accepted somewhere, at the least it will help you have a better sense of if a given school is where you want to spend the next 4-6 years of your life (and, at some schools, making the effort to visit and meet with faculty can significantly raise your chances).
When should you start doing this? Ideally, consider doing some initial online research to get a feel for what’s out there the spring before you apply. That summer, start narrowing down your list and e-mailing prospective faculty supervisors. Once the academic year resumes in the fall, you’ll want to schedule visits for well before the admissions deadlines (usually Dec 1 or Dec 15).
Now to the question you’re probably really wondering about: “what can I do to improve my chances of getting accepted at a top school?” While recognizing that different schools are looking for different things, here’s my thoughts:
The Non-Negotiables (getting your app taken seriously)
-Graduate GPA >3.80. I don’t buy the idea that you have to have a 4.0 or very close to that to have a chance (I know too many counter-examples), but the further south you go from 3.8, the more trouble you’re going to have getting your foot in the door.
-GRE Verbal >160; Quantitative >160. It’s hard to pin down an exact number for these, but again I doubt it’s having a perfect score that matters so much as being generally towards the top. I get the sense that the writing section doesn’t count for too much; definitely, it is the Verbal number that will matter the most.
-Glowing references. I’ve heard of application committees receiving “recommendations” from professors who effectively told the committee that they either didn’t really know or actively disliked the student in question. Don’t let this be you! Having a stellar recommendation from a more junior scholar is better than having one of the above “recommendations” from a senior scholar. Still, getting awesome recommendations from professors who are highly respected outside of evangelical circles or who have connections to the school to which you are applying certainly won’t hurt!
Key Factors in Getting In
5. Course Work. Whether you’re a ThM, MDiv, or MA, you’re likely going to have to go above and beyond in the classes you take at the graduate level. Pride of place unquestionably goes to languages: the better your Greek and Hebrew, the better your application will look for biblical studies programs. A fair number of programs require German upon matriculation or shortly thereafter, and so it makes good sense to let schools know you’ll have a start on that prior to matriculating. Electives in textual criticism, Greco-Roman backgrounds, and early Christian foregrounds (Apostolic Fathers) are also going to be more attractive than Preaching III or Advanced Biblical Trivia. If your school doesn’t offer all of these courses, consider doing them as independent studies. An independent study course can also be a great way of focusing on one topic and working on a paper for potential publication (see #2 below). Push off required courses that are less “academic” to your final semester and get quality electives on your transcript instead.
4. Life Experience. This is an admittedly nebulous category, but I think it really matters. US universities increasingly pride themselves as being international, globally-minded institutions, and they want students who reflect that. The key here is diversity. You can’t help where you were born or your ethnic background, and it’s too late to change where you did your undergrad degree (a conservative Bible college plus a conservative seminary is going to be a hurdle to overcome), but it’s never too late to become more globally minded. Maybe take up the foreign language you learned in high school or college and raise your level of proficiency. Consider spending a summer living outside of the US, volunteering or otherwise. I think that my background in Chinese language and extensive travels in China were significant factors in my acceptances. Plus, this will help you in crafting a more unique, interesting SoP (see #3 below).
3. Your Story. Unlike your CV, your SoP should not be a laundry-list of facts about you and your educational background and goals. Instead, it should read more like a life narrative, showing how your unique background and interests have perfectly equipped you for a given program, which you believe to be the only logical next step for your life trajectory. Be sure to include some thoughts on why you’re doing this and how you want to use your degree in the future.
2. Publication. I think this is the single most important factor in getting your application to the top of the pile for serious consideration. By “publication,” I have in mind an article or short note published in a first-tier, internationally recognized, peer-reviewed journal. These would include NTS, JSNT, NovT, JBL, JTS, etc. Publishing in a confessional or denominational journal, e.g., TrinJ, BSac, even JETS, simply don’t count as much, and might even count against you at schools where the journal’s bibliological presuppositions are looked at askance. Similarly, an SBL presentation will count for more than one at ETS. Published book reviews probably won’t help or hurt your cause too much either way.
1. Fit, fit, fit! Lots of people get into great PhD programs every year without any publication to their names. Why? Because they succeeded on the most important level of all: the question of fit. Different schools are known for different methodologies and specialties, and your application needs to clearly demonstrate why you and your research interests (in general terms) fit best at this particular institution. This is why I recommend starting to communicate with potential supervisors the summer prior to your application season! Invest your time here and you won’t regret it.
Things That Don’t Matter (in my opinion)
-Thesis. Most of these aren’t finished until well into your last year of the program, after admissions decisions have already been made. I’d pour all of your time and energy into an article you hope to get published (likely in your second-to-last year of grad school) rather than the thesis.
-Marital Status. Contrary to some fears I’ve heard expressed, I really don’t believe this affects your chances one way or the other.
-Undergraduate Major. I’ve seen plenty of people with a BS degree get into religious studies doctoral programs. Sure, having been a classics major would have given you a big leg-up at seminary/grad school, but not having that background won’t count against you.
Hope this helps! Fellow doctoral students or students-to-be, feel free to weigh in with anything you think I’ve missed.