To those applying to Ph.D. programs . . . my advice.

Recently I have had the joy of conversing with several other bibliobloggers via email about the ins-and-outs of and tips for applying to Ph.D. programs.  In light of that discussion, I thought it may be a service to post something up here.  Please do feel free to weigh in, either with questions, or with your own sense of things.  I wish I had known then what I know now.  Here is a bit of my narrative, interspersed with what will hopefully be some helpful comments and suggestions.

I attended a small liberal arts college in South Dakota for my undergrad.  In preparing for further study, I was told by several professors independently that if you wanted to study Bible, you went to one of three places: Duke, Emory, or Princeton.  This was no doubt a bit disconcerting to me from the outset!  What do these ‘big three’ think (or even know!) of my undergrad?  But I semi-took that advice and applied to both Duke and Notre Dame for masters level work.  I was confident in my ND materials (an ND alum who was on faculty at my undergrad helped me revise them!), and not so much in my Duke materials (they were the ‘unedited’ ND materials).  In the meantime, in the chance I would get in to neither, I named other places to my profs I was interested in going.  One of them told me she could make a phone call to two places and get me in at both with no problems.  Good to know (in other words, feel free to exploit your connections; much of this is about who you know . . . things can get quite political).  Well, as fate would have it, I got accepted to Duke’s MTS program and denied from ND.  The choice was made for me.

I begin my narrative here because while at Duke I realized something appearing quite innocuous that could have worked out quite a bit to my detriment: course choices.  My program was a two-year masters degree; thus, at the end of the first year I had to start sending out Ph.D. applications and, of course, asking for letters of recommendation.  Here’s the glitch: in a year’s time I had surely made connections with various professors at Duke–Richard Hays, Joel Marcus, Jim Crenshaw, etc.–but some of them had either not had me in a class or had had me only in one (large) course, and while they may have had an opinion on my academic prowess (or lack thereof), they may not have felt it was adequate to write a letter for me.  I ended up making it work, but not without some panic.  I did have to ask some who felt less-than-prepared to write a full-length letter for me.  So the moral of the story: it is all fine and good if a professor knows you, but if they don’t know you academically, that could present a problem come letter time.

I applied to seven schools for Ph.D. work, all in the area of Bible/OT: Duke, Emory, Notre Dame, Marquette, Union-PSCE, Vanderbilt, and Baylor.  Within a few weeks I received a call from Baylor, who was offering to fly me to Texas for an interview.  Of course I said yes.  I thought this was a good omen.  It wasn’t.  Not only do I feel the interview went terribly (and I remain convinced I am NOT at Baylor because of the merits of my interview!), but when I came home the rejections came flying in.  In the end, I was accepted at Baylor, accepted at Marquette, and waitlisted at Union.  Obviously, I chose Baylor.  And I must say, I cannot be happier.  Followers of this blog will know well that I feel I have been blessed by my time here, and I feel I have been afforded some tremendous opportunities that some of my Princeton et. al. colleagues do not have: the encouragement (and success) in publishing, regular presenting at regional and national SBL, working intimately and closely with professors on various book/publishing projects, and actually ‘hanging out’ with profs outside of class.  In a little plug, I would suggest that anyone applying for Ph.D. work take a serious look at Baylor.  Anywho.

In light of the above, here is some of the advice I give to those asking me about applying to Ph.D. programs:

1) Your task as an applicant is to argue that you fit in with the school (its mission, philosophy, etc.) and with the interests held by the faculty in the department to which you are applying.  You must make that case.  Certainly most schools have the same or similar application materials (statement of intent/interest, personal letter/autobiographical essay, writing sample, etc.).  Do NOT send the exact same, unedited materials to every school.  Adapt each statement and essay to fit the school.  For instance, in my statements of intent, I included a unique paragraph in each one that discussed specifically, by name, the various faculty at that insitution and how my interests fit with theirs and how I could benefit from them.  This demonstrates a certain level of thoughtfulness, and shows you have actually taken the time to note their faculty and what they do.  You may also want to choose a different writing sample for each school if you feel different pieces fit different schools better.  All in all, taylor your application materials to each school.  But . . . .

2) Don’t be fawning.  Academics all have egos, and we like to have them stroked from time to time.  But, don’t bleed all over the page.  If you think Richard Hays is the greatest NT scholar to ever live, that’s fine—but don’t include that in your application as such.  This is where making the case is important.  One can find a balance by simply acknowledging something to the effect of “Given my interest in the use of the OT in the NT, I have found Richard Hays’ work to be invaluable, especially his work on Scripture echoes in Paul.  I understand he is currently working on a similar volume on echoes in the gospels; I have done some work on this myself in . . . . ”  Ok, maybe the connection won’t always be as neat and tidy as that, but that reads a lot better than “I have learned much from Richard Hays and I would like to study with him.”  Be precise, but not too precise.  Acknowledge the work being done there, but don’t suck-up.  Balance is key.

3) This is a biggie.  Apply to a diversity of schools.  Having a list of all ‘top-tier’ programs and applying exclusively to those may set you up for disappointment.  Note my list above–I consider that a good mixture of programs.  It is unwise (although I’m sure it has worked for some) to apply ONLY to a list consisting of Duke, Princeton, Harvard, Emory, Notre Dame.  There are many very fine second-tier (whatever that means) schools.  My advice?  Compile a list of schools you want to attend–as many as 15 or 20 if you want.  Then, order them by how badly you want to attend that school, but don’t let your reasoning be “well it’s Duke, so I should want to go there.”  No you shouldn’t, not if the type of work they are doing doesn’t match what you want to do.  Take the faculty, the school, everything into account.  And then, honestly rank them.  That should serve as a nice starting point for adjudicating where to apply and where not to apply.  But diversity is key.

4) Read books and articles by the professors at the places to which you are applying.  Not only do you then possess an even greater sense of what is going on at this school, you can also interact with this material, possibly in your application materials if you do it responsibly and wisely; but, do not be afraid to email those at the school either.  I had a healthy email correspondence with several people from the various schools I was applying to—long, thorough, and persistent, good conversation.  Don’t be afraid to email, but again, don’t fawn.  Be professional.  This is your first impression.  And, best case scenario, if you are invited for an interview you can discuss the work with that professor face-to-face.  I did this at Baylor, and I trust it was at least in part instrumental in my acceptance.  Another great place to make contacts is at SBL, and if you are presenting papers at SBL (regional or national) already in your masters program, you are taking a huge step in the right direction.

5) The GRE is important, unfortunately.  Take it seriously.  Get a Princeton Review book and memorize the vocab.  Likely you’ll see one, maybe two of those words on the actual test, but that’s one or two more correct answers than you may have had.  GRE’s are also a great way to get you money at schools.  It is unfortunate that such a test plays this important of a role, but it does.  So do what you can to beef up your scores.  I took it twice, once before I applied for masters work, and once before the Ph.D., and between those two times my score went up 110 points. 

6) Be prepared to be humbled . . . but stay sane.  Rejections will likely come, and probably from some of your top choices.  But a knowledge of the overall process is helpful in alleviating such feelings.  For instance, when I applied to Ph.D. programs, I am fairly confident Duke accepted NO ONE in OT that year.  Many of these schools have 1, maybe 2 spots open for well-over 100 applicants.  Comparatively, next year Baylor is bringing in 3 new OT students and 5 NT students.  There are still just as many applications but a few more spots.  It will vary by school, but don’t be too terribly let down—you have a lot of competition!  This is precisely why making the case that you fit at a given school is so important; if you can make that case strongly, i would bet you can make it past the initial ‘weeding-out’ phase.

7) Lastly, know yourself.  Could you see yourself attending here for 4-6 years?  Living in this city?  Can you afford it (I firmly believe that one should not attend a Ph.D. program that is not covering your tuition)?  Does this school match your academic interests, pursuits, and goals?  Compromising yourself simply to ‘get in’ or to attend a program will leave you miserable, and that will not bode well for any future career plans or prospects.

What do you all think?  Questions?  Additions?  I welcome and look forward to your comments!


30 thoughts on “To those applying to Ph.D. programs . . . my advice.

  1. John Anderson says:

    Good question. I had some conversations with various folk about that, and was disabused of that idea. Not to undermine the work they do there–my teacher and dissertation advisor, Bill Bellinger, is a grad of Cambridge–but in terms of US job prospects, I was advised, if possible, a Ph.D. in the U.S. is preferred. The system is quite different over there. Again, that isn’t to say these schools aren’t top notch. So, to answer your question, I considered it, but very very very briefly.

    Plus, I don’t like to fly, let alone over water! And deep down, I’m a momma’s boy and can’t wait to go home–being in Texas is hard enough!

  2. Jill says:

    Thanks John for your helpful comments. Someone in a previous blog discussion observed that it is a lot harder to get out of a PhD program (with an academic job) than it is to get into one (even the “Princeton, et. al.” grads from what I’ve heard) Other grad students have told me that we should be just as strategic about getting out as we are getting in. But often that is unfortuately not the case. When considering a program, I was told to ask them about their placement record. If they say 90% of our grads have teaching jobs, ask how many have tenure track positions. The number will drop from what I’ve heard. Also, I was advised to notice at what type of schools they place their students. Basically, if you want to end up at a research university, go to school that has a record of placing students at a research university. If you prefer a seminary or small liberal arts college, go to a school that places students in those types of jobs.
    Since then, I’ve been trying to keep track of who got the top research university jobs in terms of where they went:

    Yale Div: Joel Badin (Harvard)
    U of Chicago: Jeffery Stackrett (Brandais)
    U of Chicago (2nd search): ????
    Harvard Div: Andrew Teeter (Notre Dame)
    Temple University: ???
    Princeton University: Simion Chavel? (Hebrew U)
    Emory: Jacob Wright (somewhere in Germany)
    Emory (2nd search): Joel LeMon (Emory)
    Vanderbelt: ???
    U of Minnasota (sp): Alex Jassen (NYU)

    For seminay jobs:
    Fuller: Christopher Hays (Emory)
    Princeton Seminary: Jeremy Hutton (Harvard)
    Howard Div School: ???
    Union NY: Esther Hamori (NYU)
    Union-PSCE: Samuel Adams (Yale)
    SMU: ???

    I don’t know about about liberal arts colleges because I haven’t followed their hirings since I’m not hoping for that type of position, although I know Alan at U of Pacific went to Brandais (based on his blog). If anyone can fill in the gaps or correct mistakes in my records, please share.

    • Ellis Jayus says:

      Update on Professor Alex Jassen. He begins the fall semester as a tenured professor at NYU…Isame school where he earned PhD. That should alert everyone that the research does pay off!

  3. Jill says:

    Okay, I found the link to the discussion that I mentioned in my previous comment:

    Also, I think James Getz (another Brandais grad) got the Temple University job. Also I forgot to mention that Amy Erikson (Princeton Seminary grad) got the Illif seminary job. Also, my records go as far back as 2005 since many grad school bloggers started PhD work since then.

  4. John Anderson says:


    These are helpful and worthwhile comments, thank you! I would guess this is information that one might be able to find on a school’s website (for instance, Baylor has a list of some of the various schools they have placed grads at), but if not, it may behoove an applicant not to ask for such information as part of the discernment process concerning to which schools one applies; it is a legitimate question, but I always am hesitant to appear presumptuous. I invite you all to make your own judgments when you apply. Of course, I am just interested in getting a job–where is, at some level, inconsequential.

    Indeed, the job marking is thin enough the way it is in our field, and the present state of the economy is not of much help either. That said, this is where it becomes a case of “who you know.” Connections are key in this line of work. So at SBL, chat up a familiar name in the book display. Or even shoot off an email; my experience has been that many scholars–even HUGE names (see my post on emailing with Brueggemann) are quite cordial and accomodating so long as you present yourself in a sophisticated, professional manner. I am fully expecting that my job hunt will rely heavily on who I know. So, consider the Ph.D. a journey into the process of making those connections.

  5. Jill says:

    Thanks John. Just out of curiousity, mentioning huge scholars like Brueggemann got my wondering who Bible bloggers think the big names will be in 20 to 30 years? I’ve seen the splash that mid-career people like Carr or Sommers have made. Maybe its a little too soon, but I’m wondering about the next generation (the 30 to 45 years olds). I know you had mentioned the influence of Porter-Young (sp) on your blog. I thinking about people of that generation. I’m just curious what people think.

  6. Mike Koke says:

    Thanks John. This is helpful as I hope to begin the PhD application process in the Fall and I will definitely take the advice. As a Canadian, I am looking into a school like the University of Toronto but I am also curious about the differences between PhD programs in the US and Europe?

  7. brian says:

    What about guys like me who have been out of seminary a couple years pastoring a church? Maybe it wasn’t the best of circumstances that led us to where we are but we know God has placed us here – and I tend to be of the mindset the the PhD doesn’t necessarily have to be for the professors only – I wonder if PhD’s could be good pastors too?

  8. John Anderson says:

    Mike: Good luck with the application process; please do let me know if you have questions. I am glad to help. Regarding the difference between US and European Ph.D. programs, I honestly am a bit ignorant on this topic. I do know that if you are planning to teach in the US it would probably be in your best interest to get a Ph.D. in the US; that is a terrible overstatement, though, but at many schools it is the nature of the beast. Nijay Gupta would be a good one to talk to about a UK Ph.D. I am uncertain about, for instance, German Ph.D. programs. My implicit understanding is that US programs tend to focus on and include coursework prior to the dissertation stage (which I honestly think is quite valuable . . . it elongates the process, but I wouldn’t have done it another way. It really helped fill in my gaps), while overseas everything often seems to be oriented towards the dissertation from the outset. Perhaps another can offer better clarity? And if you find out further information, please do share it here for others.

    Brian: Two points: 1) Yes, I think pastors can be Ph.D.s. I don’t know that it is necessary to be so, but I am actually quite pleased with a pastor who has sought to reach such a level of acumen and takes such issues seriously in preaching and research. 2) Regarding those who have been out of seminary for a while (or any school for that matter) and want to return, I would say—GO FOR IT! At Duke in my masters program there were countless people who didn’t even have a religion major in undergrad; many second-career people. Similarly, I don’t think this should inhibit one’s acceptance to a Ph.D. program so long as you can make a strong case for your fit, as I outline above. Again, I know those in Ph.D. programs getting their degree in something entirely different than what their masters work was in, for instance (i.e., an OT masters getting a Ph.D. in theology). I wouldn’t be deterred. My experience shows that applying is a worthwhile process, and if you can make a strong case, have good letters, etc. your chances should be as good as anyone else.

    I hope this is helpful!

  9. brianfulthorp says:

    Thanks, John. FYI – I got an MDiv from AGTS, but instead of seeing that as a terminal degree, I see it as just the beginning. One possibility I have considered is the PhD in Theology at Regent – it is uniquely designed for people already in ministry. That’s the thing, most PhD programs are fulltime and require full residency to complete – in our situation that just wouldn’t be good at the moment. I refuse to abandon a church to pursue my own interests – too many other pastors do that – they get their two years or so in and then take off to enter acadamia and I am not comfortable with that. Does that make sense?

  10. John Anderson says:


    Yes, that makes sense and is admirable. You may want to consider also looking at Th.D. programs. I know Duke added one a few years ago, and several other schools have them as well. Perhaps given it is a ministry-related degree they would be more conscious and accomodating to a full-time pastor’s schedule. Worth checking out.

  11. brianfulthorp says:

    I like the looks of the ThD program at Duke – but I know fro what you have shared it is notoriously difficult to get into – but I suppose it never hurts to ask – I took a special DMin class at AGTS with Grant Wacker (that allowed certain Masters students to join in on) and he really hit me hard on my paper. really hard. He is a really nice man and good professor too. I can’t imagine that would help any. 😉

  12. Carl J. Loucius says:


    I tried searching the blog to see if it has your email address posted, but unfortunately I could not find it, so I had to write this comment.

    I have a question about something. It kind of pertains to the post and at the same time it does not. I was wondering what methodology does Religious Studies use. I have always been interested in the Religious Studies field, but unfortunately the college I attend does not have any classes or degree for the field. I am currently in the History field for my B.A. with a focus on topics of Ancient and Medieval Religions. Hence, I was wondering what differences there are between the two fields with the approach to methodology.

    Carl J. Loucius

  13. John Anderson says:


    Methodologically I would say the field of religion is typified by plurality. Method is a hard thing to pin down at times. But, quite broadly, there are those who employ historical critical methodologies (archaeology, historical reconstruction, etc.), there are more modern methods (social-scientific models, which often are used on the historical-critical side of things), there are literary methods (which I espouse; close readings of the text, semiotics, poetics . . . all in all, employing methods adapted from english/literary studies). It kind of ends up becoming a grab bag, at times, but most scholars are committed to a particular methodological emphasis.

    On this topic, see my post HERE.

    I hope this is helpful!

  14. Carl Loucius says:


    Thanks for giving the brief points. Now I understand some of the approaches Religious Studies use, but it seems like it is not far from some of the approaches History use except they probably have a ultimate goal of a different outcome and some Historians will be more interdisciplinary than others.

    I, also, read the post you have linked in your post and I found it quite engaging. I am glad someone wrote on methodology (I have seen so many people who tend to ignore that aspect and I have seen undergrads having a hard time understanding methodology).

    I will have to bookmark this blog, so I can return to at later times. So, keep posting the interesting blog posts!

    ~Carl J. Loucius

  15. Will says:


    Excellent suggestions in the blog. Applying for a PhD program is something I have been thinking a lot about in recent months. I just began a graduate program at a relatively small university.

    I actually know someone who works at Emory and I have talked with him on a couple of occasions. He said that they typically have 2 or 3 spots open and this past year it was filled with candidates who received their Masters degree from Emory, Yale and Duke. It seems inconceivable that I could compete with the likes of that.

    One of my current professors suggested that I try to get a Masters at Emory (or wherever) and then hopefully get recommendations from those professors for the PhD program. In your opinion, do you think this is the best option seeing that my eventual degree (hopefully) from a small school will not compare to the likes of Yale, Duke and Emory? Thanks.

  16. John Anderson says:

    Will, thanks!

    If you are currently getting a masters (may I ask where, and in what) you would have to figure out for yourself whether an additional two years , and a second masters, is worth it in the off chance you got accepted at one of the big schools. If you are fine with this, then forge onward. I, however, would not do such a thing. Even with a masters from Duke, you can see above how my stats with programs ended up being. But I would say also that very much relies upon the kind of work you do and the recommendations you can get from where you are currently.

    There are, of course, no guarantees at getting into a masters program at these big name schools either.

    In the end, there seem to be a lot of “if’s” in your scenario, and that concerns me. I would say just work hard, do well, make connections with your profs where you are, perhaps attend SBL and make those contacts, etc. I promise . . . promise you, that even those from ‘lesser known’ schools get into programs.

    I hope that is helpful.

  17. Will says:


    I currently attend Heritage Christian University in Florence Alabama. I am pursuing a Masters in Arts with an emphasize on N.T. Greek.

    Since performance and politics play such an important role, it seems like one of my best options would be what my professor suggested and that is, take a couple of classes at a prospective university and hopefully show them what I can do. Hopefully, this would allow me to get some letters of recommendation. Would you agree?

  18. John Anderson says:

    I guess it depends on how you would go about taking these courses. Would they be in addition to the coursework you are doing now? Would they be summer courses? Or would you go for another masters? Is there such a school nearby? And, the ever-important question of acceptance.

    I have also found the issue of letter writing to be quite finicky at times (as I think I describe above). Making a mark on a professor can certainly be done in the course of a single class, but pending where you are, it may be much more difficult. In some of my masters courses at Duke, for instance, there were also Ph.D. students who would at times dominate the class; this made it hard–at points–for me and others to draw attention to ourselves.

    I don’t know your specific situation, what school you have in mind, and the logistics of how you plan to do it. But if you can do it, and make a good impression, then go for it. But if you aren’t actually going to be enrolled at the school some of the professors may be a bit hesitant to write a letter.

    Just some musings.

  19. Will says:


    I hate to keep bothering you, but I don’t know many others who could answer a question I have concerning the languages which are obviously a necessity for anyone desiring to apply for a PhD program.

    I have learned N.T. Greek on my own and I was able to skip three classes at the university I attend and take Greek Readings II. I did fairly well in the class and I am scheduled to take the next class in the fall. I am currently studying Hebrew on my own and to continue on learning German, Latin and French (hopefully).

    I know that most of the PhD programs I am familiar with require proficiency in all of the aforementioned languages. Someone suggested that it might be a problem for me since, when I plan on applying for the PhD, I will have only had Greek in a university setting. In other words, some schools may not look favorably on me being self-taught. Is this a concern do you think?

    Thanks again.

  20. John Anderson says:


    No bother. Here are my thoughts:

    I don’t think it will be much of a problem on German and French being self-taught, so long as you can pass a basic proficiency exam in the language. But, with Hebrew and Greek, most schools (Baylor among them) requires a certain number of credit hours on transcript prior to admittance tot he program and taking any of their other courses. Perhaps if your facility with these languages was off the chartes you could make a case, but I would think you need as much classroom experience with the languages as possible.

  21. Bryan says:

    I’m just now getting to this post, John, but it is excellent. I have this conversation every fall with students who are looking at Master’s programs. There are so many factors to consider. I also agree with Jill above that one should think about the end result. Where you want to end up has an impact on the road you take to get there.

    However, as we all know, roads have a way of diverging in unexpected ways. 🙂

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