One of the most difficult decisions facing anyone who has begun to develop an interest in the academic vocation faces is whether they should go “all in” and actually apply for a Ph.D. program. It’s a huge commitment in time, money, and energy, one that will shape your life for years to come. How do you go about discerning if you have it in you to make that kind of a leap?
There are no easy answers to a question like that. But for this week’s Saturday Is for Academics, here is some advice from Dan Treier, one of the supervisors for the PhD in Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College. This won’t make the decision easy, but it will help you understand the range of issues you need to consider.
7 Factors in Discerning Whether to Apply
1. Time & Money
A Ph.D. program takes several years, requiring money in hand and/or debt. Make sure your family is supportive, with the stability and infrastructure to handle this. Do not be naive about how much money you’ll make with the degree. You’ll probably start out making $50,000 per year if you’re fortunate. Depending on the cost of living where you land, that doesn’t leave a lot for paying off loans. (b) Do not be naive about how much money you’ll have during the degree. Relatively few schools provide stipends for students in biblical and theological studies; by no means do all schools even provide free tuition. Often these schools lie in expensive metropolitan areas. Students who want to “start a family” at the same time face additional, not just financial, pressures. (This poses particular challenges for women, which unfortunately the academy still far too often accommodates only partially and grudgingly. However, that problem makes it all the more important for strong women candidates to apply!) It is naive to think you’ll live comfortably in a nice-sized house during or even after the degree.
A Ph.D. program takes other forms of perseverance, including the right blend of humility and confidence for weathering storms of competition while struggling with quantity and quality of work you’ve never faced before. Then, after the degree is in sight, you face the job market!
A Ph.D. program takes high academic aptitude, not just interest in studying more or the ability to get decent grades from your master’s level courses. Grade inflation is a common reality that easily misleads you. Moreover, most master’s level assignments—especially in seminaries—are structured very differently from doctoral level work. Thus many well-meaning applicants have no conception of what a PhD program means by “an original contribution to scholarship” (see below).
A Ph.D. program therefore takes distinguishing application features, such as strong GRE scores (for U.S. programs anyway). If your scores (especially verbal) are in the 90th+ percentile and your analytical writing score is 5.5 or 6.0, then you might be competitive for a top-tier program (e.g., Notre Dame; Princeton Seminary; Duke). If your scores are in the 80th-85th+ percentile and your analytical writing score is at least 5.0, then you might be competitive for other quality programs like Marquette, Wheaton, or Fuller). If your scores are significantly below the 75th percentile and your analytical writing score is not at least 4.0 or 4.5, then you probably should not apply at this time. With less than ideal scores, you might be competitive for some second-tier programs depending on the rest of the applicant class in a given year. Even with ideal scores, such tests are only a threshold through which one passes to start a more competitive process; they are no guarantee of admission unless they are exceedingly high, and then only at certain places.
Moreover, a Ph.D. program requires “counting the cost” in general. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else besides a PhD, then you should consider that alternative. The job market suggests that in most fields evangelicals in particular do not need more applicants; rather, we need a few better-prepared ones. The church, meanwhile, quite likely needs more intelligent and intellectually-curious pastoral staff members. Let the one who has ears, hear.
Yet, having laid out the sobering realities, I would also say that you should consider your particular gifts and opportunities. The depressed academic job market has led to fewer and fewer PhD applications in biblical and theological studies in the last couple of years. In general, well-prepared women, ethnic minority, and international graduates—and therefore applicants and students—remain desperately needed at institutions like Wheaton. In addition, ability to sign faithfully certain evangelical confessions remains a high institutional priority, beyond other paper credentials. Therefore it remains possible for really strong students of any background to gain admission and later job placement, while it is also possible for less-prepared “diversity” applicants to enter into conversation about how to gain the preparation that would make a subsequent application and PhD experience successful.
Finally, a bottom line is that you should ask your potential recommenders to be really honest with you rather than simply agreeing to write bland, secret reference letters. You need to give them the freedom to do this, because—speaking from experience—it is not easy to tell someone with a heart set on a PhD that they’re probably not cut out for it. But you need someone to care for you enough to be as helpful as they can—and it is more helpful to have a little direct pain quickly than longer indirect pain later on. Furthermore, on a positive note, I had a seminary professor voluntarily tell me that I was not well cut out for pastoral ministry in certain respects, whereas “if you don’t go into the academy, you’re wasting your gifts.” If a professor tells you that, then again let the one who has ears, hear.
Anything to Add?
What do you think? Would you add to or take away from anything that Dr. Treier has recommended here? For those who have already been through this decision making process, were there factors that you found particular important/helpful in making that decision?