Should You Pursue a Ph.D.?

Should You Pursue a Ph.D.? April 14, 2015

I routinely get questions from undergraduate and Master’s students, at Baylor and elsewhere, about applying to Ph.D. programs. Here is some of my standard advice.

How do I choose a Ph.D. program? I had a wonderful experience in my graduate program at Notre Dame, especially because of the particular historian (George Marsden) with whom I worked. Many people make the mistake of thinking “school” instead of “advisor” when considering Ph.D. programs. Not that the quality of school is irrelevant – there are some lower-quality Ph.D. programs out there which do not offer adequate financial support to current students. But typically the most important issue in considering a program is the faculty with whom you plan to work. This includes your prospective dissertation advisor, as well as professors who might compose your field supervisors and doctoral committee. If you are an undergrad or Master’s student, and as you continue to read in your field, are there particular scholars whose work you really admire? Are those professors still active, and do they work with graduate students? This is one of the best ways to think about where to apply – the focus is on particular professors, not so much an institution.

Should I apply to a Ph.D. directly, or to an M.A. program? I was a political science major as an undergrad, so it made a lot of sense for me to switch to history for an M.A. before I applied to Ph.D. programs. It helped me get my bearings in a new field (even though I had been a history minor) and made me a much stronger candidate for Ph.D. programs. If you are not sure a doctorate is for you, a terminal M.A. can make a lot of sense. You can apply directly from a B.A. to a Ph.D. in most cases, but students with only a B.A. will obviously have a harder time justifying their preparedness for the Ph.D.

How hard is it to get in? At strong programs, it is phenomenally difficult to gain admission. If you do not have at least a 3.7+ GPA, and 90%+ percentile scores on the GRE (verbal and analytical for liberal arts programs), you probably will not receive serious consideration. These programs often have far more applicants than spaces, sometimes accepting less than 5% of those who apply. Be honest with yourself about your credentials. Even some people with 4.0 GPAs and perfect GRE scores do not get in everywhere they apply. Thus, you are going to have to apply to multiple programs if you are serious about pursuing a Ph.D. – including a range of “dream schools” and “backup options.”

What about the job market? I hear it is rotten. As I have noted before at Patheos, the job market is indeed terrible, and anyone going into a Ph.D. program needs to take a broad, flexible view of what they might do career-wise at the end. There can actually be a few more opportunities if you would be open to teaching in either a Christian or a secular school environment (Christian schools sometimes struggle to find candidates who have both a serious Ph.D. and a serious faith), assuming that the secular schools in question do not get scared off by signposts in your c.v. that you are a Christian.

If you are a Christian thinking about graduate school, let me say this: we desperately need serious, thoughtful Christians to be active in academia and publishing, as a matter of Christian witness to both students and other professors. Being a professor is a great life, assuming you can get a job. But graduate work is not for everybody.

-Information about Baylor’s graduate program in history, which offers both Ph.D. and M.A. degrees.

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  • When I started my Ph.D. at Fuller (Historical Theology) now nearly thirty years ago my prospective mentor made clear to me the challenges of the job market. I finally found a teaching job, after 4 years of searching. It wasn’t a good fit, and it ended two years later. I have found my niche as a pastor who also happens to be a scholar/author. Jim didn’t discourage my pursuit of the Ph.D., but reminded me of the smallness of the academic job market. That market has not gotten any bigger, and schools are turning more and more to adjuncts (minimum wage jobs for scholars). Am I sorry I took this route? No, I appreciate greatly all that came my way, and I think I’m a stronger pastor as a result. Just remember that there might not be a teaching job waiting for you at the other end. So, I agree — be flexible with your vocational plans!

  • Jordan Steffaniak

    Thanks for the helpful post. Any recommendations for someone who is legitimately interested in Baylor for a PhD for the Fall of 2016? Any tips on landing on a good dissertation topic? How to make yourself stand out? Etc. Thanks!

  • stefanstackhouse

    I’d suggest that if one is going to consider a Ph.D. program, one had better be passionately in love with their subject – and a relatively narrow subject at that. I am talking about eating, drinking, breathing, sleeping, and dreaming the subject, 24/7/365. I exaggerate of course, but only slightly, in describing what it will be like. It isn’t an investment in time and money that an indifferent scholar should undertake.

    I’d also suggest that if you can’t make it into one of the clearly top-tier programs (understanding that there is going to be some disagreement as to which institutions make the cut), you had best reconsider your options. Graduates of second-rate programs might still get a shot at a third-rate position, if one is lucky. It seems like a tremendous gamble with one’s life, though.