PhD Programs

In part one of this series I presented two pieces of advice which I prepared for the SBL panel Things I Wish I Knew about a Ph.D.  During this panel I focused on embracing one’s role as a student and preparing for one’s career from the beginning of their Ph.D. program.  In this installment I will discuss some other issues that I addressed during the SBL panel discussion and other pieces of advice that I should have mentioned.

Live close to campus –  This is more important than it may seem.  In addition to saving money on gas and time on the road, living close to campus will allow you to stay more connected to your program.  Unfortunately, I live an hour (when traffic is light) from campus and this has prevented me from attending many functions I wanted to attend.

Understand your funding options – This is especially important when choosing a program.  Don’t choose a program over another based on incomplete funding information.  For instance, I nearly chose a program that was going to give me 8k a year because UCLA was unwilling to give me a financial package.  However, once I did my research I found that nearly all 2nd year students get TAships worth over 15K.  These TAships are then available every year after, along with dissertation grants and other options.  However, other programs that do not award financial packages do not ever provide financial aid and expect their students to pay tuition.  Make sure you thoroughly examine all of the options before choosing a school.

Qualifying Exams – My advice here is two fold.  First, warn your family, friends, etc. that this is a major time commitment and extremely stressful.  You will disappear for extended periods and even when you are present in body your mind will almost certainly be elsewhere.  Second, when you see your exam questions don’t panic.  Answer the questions as well as you can.  Some professors purposely make difficult questions knowing you will struggle.

Establish a relationship with your advisor and examiners – Establish a positive relationship with your advisor, faculty, and examiners as early as possible.  The better your relationship the better your recommendations will be and the more confident your will be going into your qualifying exams.  By the time I took my exams I knew my examiners so well that I was able to guess (accurately) the types of questions they would ask.  There are a number of steps you can take to establish positive relationships with these individuals.  Most obvious is taking their courses.  There’s no better way to determine what is important to your faculty then taking a course from them.  Another great way to connect with your faculty is to grade for them.  I was either a TA or grader for most of my examiners.

Rely on your departmental staff and treat them well – Don’t assume your professors know everything about the nuts and bolts of your program.  They may actually have all the answers, but they may not.  Even worse they may have outdated information.  Essentially, it’s not their job to know this information.  Get to know and rely upon the knowledge of the department staff.  These people know what forms need to be filled out and which hoops need to be jumped through when.  Finally, treat them well and when you are in a bind they will go to great lengths to help you out.

Children, wait – My advice here is wait, wait, wait.  Wait until you are done with your program if at all possible.  For some reason at UCLA it seems to be a requirement to have children during your program, as all of us in the Christian Origins program have children.  However, if you are going to have children during your program wait until after your exams.  If you read my above advice you know that exam prep is brutal and I cannot imagine preparing for exams and caring for one or more children.

Marry someone with a “real job” – Okay this advice is a bit tongue in cheek, but most people I know who are successfully navigating Ph.D. programs have a spouse with a “real job.”  Having someone in the family earning more than 15K a year makes life a lot easier.

Massive time commitment – If you don’t realize Ph.D. programs are a major time commitment then you either are not in a program or have never talked to anyone who has gone through a Ph.D. program.  My advice here is to be as straightforward with those around you as you can.  My first quarter was rough because my wife and I had worked out a time schedule before I started my program.  However, after I began I quickly realized we had not allotted enough time for my work.  Things were rough until we reassessed the situation and made a new schedule.  Be honest with yourself and those who rely on you, they will understand (at least you hope they will).  Set aside time to spend with your family and do your best to honor this time.  Date night is a great idea.

Well that is all the advice I can think of at this moment.  If I think of more advice I will post a third entry for this series.  If anyone else out there has some advice please put it in the comments section.  Perhaps, if there are enough suggestions, I will add a third entry into the series consisting of your advice.


My colleague Pat McCullough has created a page for those thinking about becoming a Bible scholar.  His tips are quite useful.  I particularly appreciate his tips concerning a 2nd related major, learning languages well, and getting to know one’s professors. 

Pat suggests that double majoring allows one to expand one’s knowledge in useful directions and I could not agree more.  Particularly a classics major is a great choice and dovetails nicely with the need to learn Greek and Latin.  Also, learning about the ancient world generally is imperative to understanding the world of the Bible.

Pat is dead on with his suggestion that one needs to learn their languages well, including German.  Peruse Reumann’s Philippians new AB commentary or the UCLA library and you will quickly understand the importance of German for our field.  You do not want to be like the PhD student I met who remarked with a bewildered tone, “you won’t believe how many works are in German, I am thinking I should know it better.”  Of course I was thinking, “Yes I would believe it I have been inside libraries!”

If you want to get into a PhD program of any substance, getting to know your professors is critical.  Not only will your recommendations be much improved but professors know other professors.  A professor who knows you well is more likely to go the extra mile and contact professors at other programs on your behalf.

Thanks again Pat, these resources are always helpful and I can only lament the fact that I didn’t have any as I was beginning my journey.

For all those interested in information on getting into a PhD program, Nijay Gupta has an excellent and comprehensive post that all should read.  However, my post focuses more on those (since the April 15th deadline just passed) that have been told they did not get into either the PhD program of their dreams or any program at all.  Put simply my advice is Don’t Give Up!  Actually, if you are the type of person who gives up easily, you probably should give up now as PhD programs are not easy and require intense amounts of hard work and resiliency.  However, if you are the type of person willing to work as hard as necessary, a rejection from some or even all PhD programs does not have to be the end of the line. 

Rather than giving up a better approach is to assess your particular situation and take the next year to improve yourself as a candidate.  Concentrate on your German, French, Greek, and Hebrew.  If those are not weaknesses improve your application in other ways such as:  improve your GRE score, complete a research project, beg a professor to let you assist him/her, or go to SBL and make contacts.  Simply put, do whatever it takes if this is what you really want to do!

For myself I know that while I may have been ready academically to do graduate work after my days at the University of Illinois ended, I was certainly not ready in many other ways.  I was not prepared for the intense amount of work graduate programs require.  Instead of going to graduate school immediately I improved myself as an individual doing both humiliating and stimulating jobs and careers.  As a side note, delivering pizza was not the most stimulating job I had.

Just because you have been rejected from a PhD program once, this is not an eternal condemnation of your chances to ever get into a program.  There may be at least three potential isssues.  First, you may not be as strong of a candidate as you thought you were.  As I stated above there are many ways to improve the strength of your application.  Second, and this is critical, get to know both the programs you are applying to and faculty members you are interested in working with.  Read their words and email/call/visit them.  I know I sat in on a number of Dr. Bartchy’s courses and had many conservations with him before I applied to UCLA.  A friend of mine took this one step further and made road trips around the country visiting potential schools and speaking with a large number of professors (by the way he was accepted into Emory!).  While this step may seem unneccesary, put yourself in the shoes of your potential professors.  They are committing to work with you for 5-10 years.  That is a massive commitment.  A third possibility is that you are indeed an amazing applicant with an M. Div from Harvard, two publications under your belt, and a few presentations at SBL, but in the particular year you applied there was just someone better.  Bear in mind that there are not many openings each year.  So while your rejection may indeed be disappointing, it does not have to be the end of your academic career.

I will leave you today with one final thought, Don’t Give Up.  If you want it, go get it.  The best things in life don’t always come easy.