To Those Applying to Ph.D. Programs – A Helpful (Re-)Post with an Update!

It’s that time of year where folks are beginning to put together Ph.D. applications.  And since I am nearly done with my own Ph.D. work, I have a lot of opinions on what is and is not helpful in the entire process.  I made this originally back in June, but my traffic wasn’t near then what it is now, so some may have missed it.  I am glad to bring the discussion back to the fore, and I hope this advice proves worthwhile for the many who are applying.  Please do weigh in!

(Here is the link to the original thread, if you want to read the comments there)


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) Know your languages.  If in biblical studies, get a solid grip on Greek, Hebrew, and if possible Aramaic during your masters’ work or even in undergrad.  If you are doing theology, patristics, church history, etc., get Latin under your belt as well.  And if you can have at least some facility with German and/or French, that is all the more to your advantage.  You will need these languages for purposes of research.  Most schools will cover the cost of you taking these languages at the Ph.D. level, but if you are able to test out of them and save them some money, that may be attractive.  But it also makes you more attractive as a candidate.

8 ) 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!  Happy applying!



7 thoughts on “To Those Applying to Ph.D. Programs – A Helpful (Re-)Post with an Update!

  1. bdheyink says:

    I’ve shared on my own blog my experience of applying to and attending a Dutch university for my Ph.D. I’d agree with you on your advice, although some of the things (like the GRE) don’t apply to European institutions – and some things apply even more (like making use of one’s connections).

    • John Anderson says:


      A lot of times the schools differ in what they want. I’m guessing these are limited to about a few pages, right? Here is how I did handle them:

      If they want an “intellectual autobiography” then give them precisely that. How you came to study religion academically, where you did it and what you focused on. Why, in your case, did you transition into another area of religion? Make sure you end up concluding that what you are interested in now is something this school offers, and that you would be a good fit.

      For a straight statement of intent, here is what I included, in order:
      -what has motivated me to study religion, emphasizing my passion and dedication to the field
      -what my program of study would entail at the given institution; also note secondary interests that may be relevant (i.e., Jewish-Christian relations, etc.)
      -how that program of study fits with that school; be explicit, naming specific faculty and what they focus on and how it matches up with your work and interests
      -a final paragraph or two about why this school would be a great fit for you, and again return to your passion and interest in the field.

      I know this is somewhat general, but I do hope it is helpful. I would say fitting your interests to the faculty there explicitly is a necessary move. It shows you have done your homework.

  2. Jerry Jacques says:

    Due to the current economic status of our country (and the world), I was wondering: are doctorates in Theology/Religion will result in employment?

    As one who would like to obtain a Ph.D. in Old Testament, my reflections led me to one point which then led to this question stated above. They are:

    1. Professors of Religion/Theology tend to be around for a very long time when the economy is good. I doubt that changes in a bad economy.

    In connection to this point…I wonder when will the economy improve?

    What say ye?

  3. John Anderson says:


    Interesting questions. Starting with the latter, when will the economy improve, I don’t know. Soon, I hope. I am optimistic.

    Second, I would disagree a bit. I have been told by some that there are a host of professors wanting to retire at present but who have not because of the current economy. Once things get turned around, they will be in a better position to retire. So, at least in the present situation, it seems some important folk with whom I have spoken seem to think the economy and number of positions available are related.

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