So You Wanna Get a PhD?

If you're thinking about getting a PhD, or if you're a very serious MA/MDiv student, then check out these resources that have been very useful to me during my studies:

PhD Prep -  Nijay Gupta's Blog was very helpful to me as I considered whether pursuing a PhD was the right thing for me, and as I began taking steps to prepare for applications. Lucky for you, he's also published a book with tons of helpful information to help you along the way. However, be warned! PhD work is intense, and it's not for everyone. If you're married, make sure that you and your spouse are on the same page about further study. It will be a significant investment for both of you, and you should both be absolutely sure that this is the right path for your family.  If it's the right thing at the right time, it can be a joyful journey. And, yes, it's possible to do as a mom of small children . . . but it will be intense! 

What questions should you be asking when you contact a school?
  • What are the strengths of your school?
  • Describe a strong applicant.
  • Where are your graduates teaching?
  • What types of dissertations are being written in your program?
  • Is it appropriate for me to contact a professor directly to discuss research interests?
  • Is there a current student who would be willing for me to contact them with questions?
  • Is it possible to have you evaluate my transcript to see what I need to add before graduation?
A friend wisely recommended to me that I start thinking seriously about a MA thesis topic a full year before I had to propose one, and that I begin to identify my research interests for doctoral studies at least a year before I applied. Researching doctoral programs can take a huge amount of time, and even after 18 months of thinking about the process, it still took all my energy for at least 6-8 weeks just to apply (and part of my energy for many weeks after that). Each school has a different system, different expectations, and different requirements. Knowing where I wanted to apply well in advance made it possible for me to customize my MA degree with those expectations in mind. It also allowed me to begin researching in my area of interest so that my writing sample could be geared towards my dissertation topic.

Schools will most likely require (in addition to your transcripts, GRE scores, and a writing sample) a CV (curriculum vitae, an academic way of referring to your resum√©), several academic recommendations, up to six essays answering specific questions, and a statement of your research interests (or in some cases, even a dissertation proposal).  Believe me, gathering all these pieces takes a lot of administrative patience.  I requested transcripts and recommendations months in advance and several documents still barely cleared the deadline. It's a great feeling when it's all behind you and you can simply leave the results in God's hands.

GRE - All American schools and some schools in other countries require GRE scores from applicants to PhD programs. Plan to spend at least a full month, if not longer, preparing for the GRE.  Reviewing basic math concepts and learning high-frequency vocabulary words will go a long way towards strengthening your score.  There are a number of test-preparation books on the market.  I used bits and pieces of several of them (which I borrowed from a friend).  You may be able to find some at the public library.  Nijay Gupta's blog talks about the strengths and weaknesses of each brand.  Another way to work on your vocabulary is to play Free Rice, which is leveled similarly to the GRE.  If you don't like your GRE score, you have the opportunity to take it again, but the old scores will remain on your score report for 5 years, and schools will see those scores.  Better to prepare well and have great scores the first time!  If at all possible, don't wait until the last minute to take the GRE.  Applying to a PhD program takes a tremendous amount of time and energy.  Better to take the GRE well in advance when it's too early to work on applications.  Most schools recognize scores that were taken in the past 2 years (some longer).  You must schedule an appointment to take the test, and application time is very busy at testing centers.  Plan to schedule your test at least a month in advance to make sure you get the best time slot for you (i.e. the time of the day when your brain is at top performance!).

Your GRE score can actually help you determine where to apply.  If you want to go to an Ivy League school, you'll need verbal and math scores greater than 700 (out of 800) on the old scale (it will take a while to figure out what standards will be on the new scale).  If you score in the 600's, then that narrows down your options to second-tier schools.  If you score below 600, then doctoral studies may not be for you.  One final note about the GRE.  I took many self-scored practiced tests before taking the real thing.  On the actual GRE I scored higher than I had ever scored on a practice test.  A friend of mine had the opposite experience.  Do practice, but don't base your decisions on practice tests.  Wait until you know how you really did.

Language Learning Resources - There are some very useful tools available for teaching yourself (or re-teaching yourself) languages used in biblical studies.  In case you didn't realize it yet, a PhD in Biblical Studies requires a knowledge of not just Hebrew and Greek (the languages in which the Bible was first written), but also modern German and usually French (or Spanish).  Why?  In order to write your dissertation you'll need to interact with everything that's been written on your topic, whether or not it was written in English.  Germany has been a hub of biblical scholarship for a long time now, so German is essential.  Some programs also require Aramaic (parts of the Bible were written in Aramaic, as well as other books in the history of interpretation, such as the Targums).  The good news is that the more languages you learn, the easier they become.  The bad news is that the more languages you learn, the harder it is to hang on to all of them!
     If you need (or want) to learn Hebrew or Greek on your own, I highly recommend the curriculum from the Biblical Language Center in Israel. You learn by listening and speaking, rather than just reading, which really helps with retention. I studied Hebrew using their curriculum, and then went through a more standard Hebrew textbook and workbook to become familiar with classroom terminology. That was great preparation for passing the Hebrew competency exam at my school and jumping right into exegesis. You can listen to the Hebrew Bible online, too. Why not just take the classes offered on campus? Taking a class in person with a professor is usually a much easier way to learn a language. Because I had some background in both Greek and Hebrew, I decided to try to pass the competency exams for both languages so that I could substitute higher-level electives in place of language classes. It strengthened my applications considerably to have double the required number of exegesis courses in both Old and New Testament. Once you have Hebrew, Aramaic is no big deal. I used Van Pelt's combination book and workbook to learn on my own. You can also find free lessons online, as well as free flashcards, and other resources.
     Believe it or not, you can also teach yourself German. There's a great book written with graduate students in mind who don't need conversational/travel German but rather need to read academic articles and books. I used this book, followed by translation practice with this book. The author has her own website with links to online German games, and if you email her she'll send you a pdf of the full answer key for the book. I recently found a free audio German Bible online so I can listen through the Bible and hear how the language is supposed to sound as well as build my theological vocabulary.  Most schools require PhD students to pass a competency exam in their first few months on campus, but they love to see evidence of German competency at the time of application.  I found a professor who was willing to give me a German exam (not for credit) and then write a letter of recommendation to accompany my applications.
     I've discovered that I can even "read" French articles without having studied French! Google has an online translator that works reasonably well for French (it struggles to make sense of German syntax, as most of us do). There is also a toolbar that can be downloaded to your computer that will give you instant access to dictionaries in many different languages. This is especially helpful when you're reading along in an English book and the author uses a Latin phrase or a German word that you don't know.
     Finally, for lots of practice with any of the primary languages used in biblical studies (Aramaic, Greek, German, French, Hebrew, and even Ethiopic), check out this great language website, designed by Dr. Michael Halcomb:  Getting Theological Languages. For Hebrew you might like to check out this one, too. The best way to hang on to the languages you learn is to use them regularly. One idea that has worked well for me is to make a table in a word document and insert parallel columns of the biblical text in the languages I have studied. I started with Hebrew, Greek, and English side-by-side, and added German and Spanish along the way. Each night before bed I would read a few verses of the same passage, first in Hebrew, then in Greek, then in German, then in Spanish, and then (if needed) in English. I often found that "holes" in my vocabulary in one language were helped by one of the others. GlossaHouse has even produced a polyglot of Matthew and Mark including English, German, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. So, you really have no excuses left! There are plenty of resources out there to help you learn and retain research languages. Go for it!

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