For the last few Saturdays, we’ve even working through some advice from Daniel Treier, who works with me in the doctoral program at Wheaton College. So far we’ve looked at his advice on “Should I Apply for a Ph.D. Program?” and “Knowing Where and When to Apply for a Ph.D. Program.” Assuming that you’ve made it through both of those steps and are still interested in pursuing doctoral studies, the next step is to apply somewhere. And that’s where this week’s advice comes in. What are the key aspects of a doctoral application, how do they factor into the admissions process, and what should you keep in mind as you work on each one?
In “Should I Apply for a Ph.D. Program?” we talked about the kind of GRE scores you’ll need to get into good programs. Beyond that, you will also need to get good references—people who know you well and whom others know well, with at least one in your particular field, if at all possible. Get as many languages in place as strongly as possible. Build some preliminary contact(s) at the various schools, and learn the nuances of what particular programs ask for in their applications. PRAY!
[To build on Dan’s advice just a bit, you’ll want to put some thought into your references as well. Make sure that your referrers can speak to specific aspects of your academic and personal profile. Generic letters that praise a student’s academic ability but give little indication of significant first-hand experience exposure to the students’ academic work aren’t terribly helpful. And feel free to let your referrers know if you want them to highlight specific areas of research/performance.]
The Writing Sample
Pay attention to guidelines a school provides, for instance regarding length. Not all schools throw out samples that are too long, but some probably do, and others are tempted! Professors on admissions committees have enough grading to do already; they aren’t interested in reading tons of papers. They skim the samples of students whose test scores, etc., interest them. They look at intros and conclusions to see if you can set forth a clear thesis and plausible, cogent arguments. They look briefly at the middle to see if you cite a range of good sources, and if you cite enough to be scholarly but not so much that you parrot others and demonstrate no creative thought of your own. If you provide a document that adheres to no style/format guide, and/or is replete with spelling and grammar errors, expect your application to go no farther. Ideally your writing sample bears some significant relation to the proposed subject of your doctoral research. (Many theology applicants send Wheaton writing samples of biblical exegesis. To be sure, this is an essential theological skill. But it is not the whole of the enterprise, and it is difficult on that basis alone to discern whether a student has aptitude for the tasks of historical or especially systematic theology.)
[One caveat on that last point: I think you’re better off submitting a high quality paper from another field than a mediocre paper from your intended field. As long as the paper demonstrates the kinds of things that Dan highlights above (strong thesis, clear argument, good use of resources, quality writing, etc.), it will at least give evidence of your ability to work at the doctoral level. And that’s really the purpose of the writing sample. So, a good paper in your field is best. But in the end, it’s submitting a good paper that’s most important.]
It is possible to cut and paste considerable amounts of text between various applications, but again do not neglect the nuances of particular programs. Application essays are your chance to “spin” yourself—honestly. If you have one or more perceived deficiencies, these essays offer a chance to interpret them for the committee. For instance, if you got a C in first-semester Greek, was this due to bad language aptitude? or instead to family trauma, acclimation to seminary, too many credit hours, etc.?
[As a personal example, my undergraduate GPA was not outstanding. So I used my own essays as a way of explaining the work/life commitments that contributed to those grades, and I also pointed out the fact that my grades were dramatically different in both of my grad programs. The data was already in my application, of course, but that was important enough that I wanted to highlight it for them.]
The Research Topic
For certain programs—especially in the U.K. and at Wheaton, with its hybrid U.S./U.K. model—your proposed research agenda is very important. (Even at other programs, the ability to find a dissertation area worth exploring can be an indicator of whether or not you’re called or ready to do a PhD.) You don’t want to have a dissertation proposal so entirely worked out that the school/supervisor would have no room for input. Yet you don’t want to convey that you have no idea what you’re doing. Some schools/supervisors use this as a weeding-out mechanism; one famous British New Testament scholar told me that whether or not an applicant could find a good thesis topic on their own was a crucial test for deserving admission. Others are more willing—indeed, prefer—to have the process be somewhat dialogical, especially in the year of application. The applicant states a fairly broad area of interest and the professor gives a hint or two about how to focus it; then the applicant writes again with a more focused version, with the professor giving a “right-track” or “wrong-track” response before the final application, etc.
In the next post, we’ll say more about how to identify a research topic and how to refine it enough that you’re ready to approach a prospective supervisor/program with your idea.