Friday, August 24, 2012

Road to a NT PhD

I had always wanted to write a blog post about my own experience in applying to PhD programs, and now that another season of applications is rolling by, I thought this would be a good time to write this post.

When I first set out with the goal of getting into a PhD program, there was a blog post that was very helpful (see Nijay Gupta's post here). This was all the more important, as I did not personally know anyone pursuing the same goal: none of my friends nor acquaintances were in doctoral programs. One good friend eventually matriculated as a PhD student, but his experience of getting into a doctoral program in the sciences was very different than my own, and another friend eventually entered into a PhD program for the same field as mine, but he went over to the UK, which again is different than my experience of the US system. I've ran into other blog posts dealing with this issue of doing PhD work (see here, here, here, here, and here) and more recently, one blogger has described his own experience of applying to PhD programs in patristics and/or early Christianity. So, I thought I would talk about my own thoughts on this process (for discussions on US vs. UK systems, a helpful starting point is a blog post from one of my teachers at Duke, Mark Goodacre).

(1) GREs: One of the necessary evils of this whole process. An advice that I repeatedly heard from students and faculty was to make sure that my GRE scores were high. Given the very limited spots per school, the admissions committee would need something off-the-bat to whittle down the candidate-pool. See, for example, this very useful summary from Duke University regarding PhD applications to their Graduate Program in Religion. In the last 10 years, the acceptance rate has been anywhere from as low as 4% to a still fairly low 17%. In my opinion, the GRE scores won't make you (i.e. secure you immediate admission to the program) but it will certainly break you. I suppose this might not be as important for some programs out there, but I'm using as my point of reference, schools in the realm of Duke, Emory, Yale, et al. that will probably take your GRE scores seriously. Also, I know for a fact that certain schools nominate some of their best admittees (i.e., high GRE/GPA) for a competitive university-wide scholarship or fellowship that will be added on top of the general stipend for their PhD students.

(2) Money: Unfortunately, none of this is cost-free so be aware of the following things that cost money: GRE prep books, GRE tests, sending GRE scores (per school), transcripts (some schools are free; Duke, for instance), and PhD application fees. I know students who applied to over 15 schools and by my estimation, that should have cost at the minimum close to $2000(!). That leads me to...

(3) Schools: I did not want to spend that much money nor did I even have thousands of dollars to spend on just applying to schools even if I wanted, so I went the route of applying to six schools. Some might think that casting a wider net increases one's chances of getting into a PhD program, but I'm ambivalent to that strategy: these schools have a specific philosophy, culture, and interest(s) within their faculty/students and if you are not a very good fit, no amount of money or applications will increase the chances of getting in. Furthermore, I know there are various "rankings" out there on who has the best religion program, and while that might be irrelevant to some, I often found a correlation between "rank" and the availability of funding. In other words, most, if not all of the "first-tier" programs (I take this term from N. Gupta's blog post) have tons of funding while other schools on the fringe or lower had less (far less in some cases). For example, I'm pretty sure Yale has one of the highest base stipend payments at around $26-27k per year while I know of other students pursuing PhD work at Fuller in Pasadena who are paying their way through the program. Fiscally speaking, there is really no comparison. But, lest that discount another factor...

(4) Lifestyle: This may play a factor in where you apply for your PhD work. For example, you (and/or your family) might have tons of fun in Pasadena, Hollywood, and downtown LA, but that does not mean this comes without a price: I'd guess that a comparable-sized apartment in Pasadena will cost two to three times more than New Haven (not to mention the traffic). So, do not just look at the school but consider what life would be like at school X in city Y. You might be fine spending five years in the libraries, but what about your spouse or children? For example, would you prefer life in Waco, Texas and attend Baylor University or life in Chicago and attend University of Chicago?

(5) Interviews: A month or two after the applications are due, schools will come calling (be aware that some schools do not interview). If you are invited to interviews, it's safe to say that you've done good work, so just try to be yourself. I flew and Skyped for interview sessions and during those weeks, I tried to remind myself that I did not have to fabricate knowledge, provide some undiscovered thesis, or be overly fawning. Personally, I just tried to display genuine interest in the faculty and showed how my interests overlapped with theirs and how my own research could be molded by their program. I can honestly say that all the faculty members were very friendly and interested in getting to know a potential candidate. As far as I can tell, they were not out to "get you," so try not to stress out, just act professionally and be yourself.

(6) The Decision: In a couple weeks, you should have heard something from the admissions committee. If you got accepted to just the one school, then great, the decision is an easy one. However, if you have been accepted to multiple schools, you now probably feel like the LBJ of academia, wondering where you should take your talents. My advice: take your time but be professional in the way you approach this process. If you have been accepted to schools A, B, and C, and know that you are definitely not going to attend school C, there is really no reason to string them along. When you reject their offer, they will seek to fill that spot with another candidate (either for your specific track or across the entire department), but if you tell them 1 hour before the deadline, they will probably be unable to offer that spot to anyone. Professional courtesy calls for timely decision-making.

Anyway, these are my thoughts for now. Hope this will help someone in this process, and to those applying this year, good luck!

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