Since I’ve been getting numerous messages and emails on how to apply for PhD programs, I thought it may be useful to write up one piece on it. I realize there are way more qualified people out there to write on this topic and on academics in general (see especially Stanley Porter’s nicely written Inking the Deal), so I can write only from my own experience; I’ll write it with the UK PhD programs in theology in mind. Also, I write this especially for my Indonesian brothers and sisters who are thinking about applying for PhDs but are not exactly sure how to begin, and who do not know someone who can help them through the process more directly. If you are one of them please do not hesitate to contact me. I write for this Indonesian context in mind, though I hope it may still be useful for others who are thinking about applying.

Also, I realize that the academic job market is quite different in Asia than it is in the West. In the West, the academic job market isn’t looking too good. Oliver Crisp gives some warnings about it. And people are getting more low-paying adjunct jobs than ever. In Asia or Indonesia, however, the situation is the reverse. There is more need than ever. Not only that, there is much more work to be done in order to clarify just what the academic is supposed to be doing here – the nature of academic research is not exactly clear to many, and often times the academy is conflated with the church or the “school”. In worse cases, professors are not expected to write in an international level, but are often caged up in office hours or are expected to teach twice the normal course load as elsewhere, with little funding available for post-docs or research assistants. So, we need not only academics in general but more clarified thinking on what the academic task is.

So, for what its worth, here’s my advice.

1. Ask yourself why you want to do it

Pursuing a PhD takes a lot of time and a lot of work. It may even cost a lot of money, especially if you do not receive any funding from the school (in which case I don’t recommend it). Also, I would argue that a PhD is not necessary for ministry. It’s a specific qualification for a specific task, even though it does help in your ability to think critically and to ask good questions in general. Having a PhD does not make you automatically a better pastor.

In terms of a Christian perspective, I think it is thus worthwhile to ask whether God has given you the giftings and thus the calling to pursue an academic vocation. Is the prospect of researching specific questions that benefit the community something exciting to you? Do you find writing or reading something quite natural to you? Is writing for a specific academic audience something you’d like to do?

Of course, we are all still sinners by nature. Something in the “letters” behind your name is always going to be an enticement (just like getting the pastorate where you are an authority will always be an enticement to us). None of our motives for anything are hardly ever pure. But nonetheless, be sure that you are driven by a vocational vision rather than primarily a self-gratifying cause. See Allen Guelzo’s nice article on this issue.

2. The PhD is Not a Pastoral or Hyper-Spiritual Qualification 

Every two streets down in Jakarta, you’ll see a big billboard that promotes some big religious event with some heavy hitter prosperity preachers in line. You’ll notice something: all of them have doctorates. Sometimes two of them. A google search often reveals that these PhDs are PhDs from schools that they themselves have bought, or something like that. The impression one gets in Asia is that the PhD helps you preach powerfully or automatically makes you a spiritual authority.

Though knowledge is always inextricably tied with authority in some way, the above cases are highly misleading. Especially in the context of Indonesia where phony PhDs are granted all the time to give prosperity gospel preachers a fake legitimacy, we need to communicate clearly that the PhD is not a hyper-spiritual qualification. A PhD is simply a “badge” that says you have the requisite abilities to research specific questions, write in a way that is recognized in the scholarly community, and read with the capacity needed to penetrate into specific issues. It is much more about the abilities and skills you are recognized to have rather than the “content” you know, often times. There is more to be said about this, but I have to move on.

3. Get the Basics Down

Get a good GPA, and focus well on your coursework in your masters program. What does this look like? Discipline. Read as much as you can (and not just what the teacher assigned), focus on work that is graded, and write. The PhD isn’t a glamorous process. Most days it looks like drinking espressos in a library or a cubicle with dusty old books surrounding you while you are fighting a cold or recovering from last night’s insomnia.

Have a good relationship with your professors – they are the ones writing your academic recommendations. Networking is as important as writing and reading well.

If classes or writing or reading come unnaturally to you or if you dread the thought of writing that last paper, then you may not even want to get into a PhD program. Get a GPA of 3.8 or above (or, mostly 95% percent A’s).

Focus especially on learning languages. During seminary, I was advised by a professor that the difference between a good scholar and an excellent one is the evident use and command of research languages in your work. This means, especially, your Greek and Hebrew, and picking up at least one other research language before beginning the PhD. This means, usually, German or French or Latin, or, as in my case, Dutch. Also, of course, have a good command of English.

4. Know How to Write for an Academic Audience

There are two kinds of papers you can write. The first kind is the paper you write primarily to learn. Perhaps you want to learn about, say, the presence of infant baptism in the early church. Writing a paper on this is the best way to learn about it – you’d have to read papers and books on the subject and come to an argument concerning it on your own. However, papers like these are not the papers normally to be presented as original research or as publishable pieces. These papers are good, but preparing for the PhD involves knowing the current state of academic discourse on the subject and making a contribution to it – this is what writing your proposal would look like.

This is the second kind of writing or paper you’d want to be particularly keen on. I like to think of it as overhearing a table discussion. Each academic book or journal article on the subject you are interested in is like a voice in a room or a table. You want to know what each person has said in the past, and make sure that you keep up with what is being said in the present. This is why research has to be on-going – once you stop researching for a year or two, you’d find that there are 5-10 books per year (at least!!!) published on the subject and a couple dozen (or hundred!) articles already out that you need to catch up on. Writing for a journal or a good proposal involves tapping into the current discussion and knowing how you can make a distinct and original contribution to the discussion.

This is very important. There are lots of papers written that merely reflect the writer’s learning or position but make no relevant contribution to current dialogue when that’s exactly what the PhD means, and what academic writing involves. The academic paper is neither a mere assignment, a sermon, or a learner’s task, but a contribution to a scholarly discussion. This is also why it is almost impossible to be an expert in every field of theology.

Also, read the footnotes. Follow the footnotes. Treasures await. Perhaps another post is needed to discuss how to write papers well, but its really just better to consult Stanley Porter’s book, that I mentioned above.

5. Write Book Reviews or a Journal Article

Following step four, it is helpful to have a book review or two or an article under your belt for funding purposes. This would communicate, of course, that you have a good grasp of the relevant literature out there, and that you are already a motivated independent researcher. Acquaint yourself with the best available journals. They are the ones usually catalogued by SCOPUS.

The book reviews should be on books that are newly published. The best journals only accept or solicit reviews that are on books no more than 1 or 2 years old, with the exception of a republished book or a new edition or a new translation of some kind.

6. Find a Topic and a Potential Supervisor

In the course of your research to write a journal article, or perhaps even through the coursework of your masters program, you may have already stumbled upon a current discussion on a particular topic that requires further research in which you are interested. This part of the process is probably hardest to define, and it will differ entirely depending upon the current topic into which you are looking.

Perhaps an example may help. As I was reading the third volume of Bavinck’s dogmatics on the section on Sin, I also picked up a few articles and books on the doctrine of sin from various authors. As I read through the works, I realized a significant contemporary debate was taking place on the question of whether imputed guilt is a necessary aspect of the Reformed doctrine of original sin. Bavinck thought it did, but others today do not think so. So, a research question arises: why does Bavinck think in this way, and what are those reasons he asserted for his position that the contemporary discussion is unaware about? See the next step for further comments on this, as it also helps in writing the proposal. (The product of this process is my upcoming article on the doctrine of sin and the Imago Dei in Herman Bavinck for the IJST).

Once you’ve found a topic and a broad research question, it is essential to first e-mail your potential supervisor, and have a conversation or two first via skype or at a conference or the like. The British system, in my experience, prioritizes the relationship between supervisor and student, and acceptance largely hangs on whether your potential supervisor thinks you would be a suitable, capable, and cooperative candidate. This is perhaps unlike the application to other schools or programs, where what matters are GRE scores or the “numbers” on your application, which is not necessarily a bad thing (Most UK PhD programs don’t require the GRE). The supervisor may then likely help you through the proposal writing process, honing it and sharpening it in a manner that he or she thinks will be acceptable to the board when they consider your application as a whole. I’ve been told by some professors at the University that most of the applicants that are rejected are those that have not made a personal contact with the supervisor prior to applying. It is key that before you do make contact with your supervisor, though, that you have made some progress in thinking through and reading the relevant literature on the topic of your interest. And, of course, pick a supervisor that is an authority in that field.

7. Write a Proposal

The proposal does not have a fixed form, and you can survey the examples or advice that individual Universities give on their websites. Here’s a little bullet-point list of things to consider when writing a proposal from Oxford:

A research proposal is assessed in terms of:
• the intellectual coherence and academic originality of the project;
• evidence of the applicant’s motivation and understanding of the proposed area of study;
• the demonstration of aptness between the proposed research and Oxford’s resources; and
• the feasibility of successful completion of the project in the time available for the course of study (a maximum of four years full-time and eight years part-time)

Here’s how I may structure it.

  1. Survey of contemporary material on your particular topic. Be specific. Not everything is relevant
  2. Assertion of what you can contribute to the current discussion
  3. Research methodology: how you will go about answering the questions involved in making your contribution (what languages do you need to learn? What primary sources are you consulting? What are the relevant secondary literature out there that you need to consult?)
  4. Reasons for why you are qualified to undertake the research in this topic (What research have you already done thus far? How are your languages? What did you focus your Masters degree on? And so on.)
  5. Reasons for why you believe the University into which you are applying, and why the potential supervisor, would be a good fit for you as you undertake this research project.
  6. Bibliography

Again, be specific and precise. Narrow it down. A good proposal may be between 3-5 pages, with 3-5 pages of added bibliography.

8. Check If An Extra Application is Needed for Additional Funding 

Some Universities consider your PhD application as also an application for scholarships, grants, and so on. But this is often not the case for every source of funding – though the Divinity school may give you funding, there are also opportunities from the University to receive further funding from other schools within the University independent of the Divinity school/department (such as the Humanities department, or some generic research grant available through the University, or some International Student grant). Again, you’d want to take a week or two just surveying the University websites, asking questions through e-mail, and the like.

Most of these grants or scholarships depend on merit. This means that they will look at your publications, employment history, grades, and take all of that into consideration. This is why having a few publications, again, would be useful.

9. Have Fun

This process can be intimidating and overwhelming. Remember to have fun! Getting to know your supervisor should be an exciting thing, and remember that the reason you do this should not be ultimately for your vainglory, but rather because you may be a contributor to the furthering of human knowledge, for the future direction (even in some small way) of scholarship, for the transmission of education, and for the health of the church. If, like me, these are all things you always think about and love to do anyway, the PhD process is a delight, even through (and perhaps because of) the rigor and hard work involved.

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