Monday, July 18, 2016

Advice about the PhD

This post will both talk about what I am doing now and what lessons I learned (positive and negative) in applying to PhD programs. First, I have been accepted into (and in turn I have accepted) the PhD philosophy program at the University of Birmingham (UK). It’s an excellent program in which I will be in the UK for two weeks at a time, once per year. The British model of the PhD is one in which you do not take courses (this is due to particulars of the British education system going back to their high school curriculum), but rather write up a dissertation. I am beginning this program under the supervision of Yujin Nagasawa, starting this September, and I am very excited! My purpose in getting this PhD is to be able to work within the professoriate, where I will try to be a professor on mission, engaging the culture around me and attempting to shape its future for Christ. If you are interested in supporting me in prayer or financially, please follow this link.

What follows is a hodgepodge of lessons I’ve learned, in no particular order; please don’t use only me as a resource in applying for PhD programs.

1.     Apply early

This almost cannot be overemphasized. Because I was quite busy during application season, I honestly didn’t really begin applying at most programs until the week after Christmas. This was a mistake, for two reasons: a) several programs either had their deadlines quickly approaching (by Jan. 1), or else already passed (ahem, Indiana); and b) some schools had financial aid opportunities or partnerships that had deadlines pass, some as early as the end of September! My failure to move quickly may have cost me a place at one of these schools, or financial aid.

2.     Don’t swing for the fences too much

Here’s what I mean by that. I applied to eleven programs, eight of which rejected me. However, these were programs such as FSU, Virginia, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Oklahoma. These kinds of programs often receive record numbers of applications (sometimes over 250!), and often have anywhere from 4-8 spaces available. I’ve often heard that virtually nothing separates the top 20 or so applicants in these situations; it’s a virtual lottery. Perhaps I should have played the lottery a little less often, and went for an “easier” fully funded program. It’s not all luck, however…

3.     Be sure the program is a good fit

By this I mean a couple of different things. First, be sure the program is known for your preferred area of specialization (AOS) within philosophy. If you are really into the philosophy of art, but the school doesn’t talk about that being one of their strengths, that may be a sign the school isn’t a good fit for you. Second, you’ll want to peruse the faculty page to see if there are any professors whose AOS matches yours. If you haven’t already, try to read and become familiar with these professors and their work. Then, politely contact them via their preferred method (often email), referencing their work and your interest in it. Further, in a few succinct sentences, describe the direction of your research (in terms of dissertation, if you have it) or the specific questions you are currently interested in, and ask the professor if he thinks this might be interesting, or if you should apply, etc. Be sure to thank him for even reading your email. Preserve all email etiquette! This all assumes you find a prof with a match. When you do not contact a professor (which I did not do for some schools, since I had so little time), you really don’t know if you’re a match for the school. The hard truth is that if there is not a prof willing to work with you on your questions/project, then you will be rejected. This is especially true in British programs, where your entire application rises and falls, more or less, on whether there is a prof willing to work with you. It is telling that of the three acceptances I received, I had contacted and received some form of feedback from three professors.

4.     Be sure you’re OK with the location

This is a bigger deal than you might think. This is where you’re going to be spending 3-7 years of your life, depending on your situation and school. That’s a long time to be in a miserable location you hate. Your home (both town and place in which you live) needs to be a somewhat safe space for you to relax. If you’re bored to death or stressed out, that’s not going to help you complete your program and be healthy. One school to which I applied, had I been accepted (I wasn’t, so there’s that), would have required a significant adjustment in what I was used to. In some cases, that can be easy to accept; in others, it can be intolerable. With one of my other acceptances, I would have needed to move to the UK full-time. While I would love to do that, I have a family, and I would have needed to be sure they could handle the situation (they probably could). For two concrete examples, being in the middle of Manhattan for some people could be stress-torture, while living in a tiny college town with nothing for miles can give people a cabin fever. The key is to know your location, know yourself (and any family), and be honest about these prospects. If possible, visit the campus and check out area activities. I myself went to the UK this time last summer, and took a train to Birmingham one of those days (that part of the trip didn’t go well for a variety of interesting reasons, but at least I went!).

5.     Know your end goal

Part of what can help you make your decision is knowing what you want to do with your PhD. Overwhelmingly, people who get PhDs in the humanities want to teach. There’s nothing wrong with that; I certainly do! However, it does not always have to be that. You could be in a thinktank, or a consultant, or work for an academic publishing house, or any number of things! Although you cannot guarantee the future, it’s wise to work toward your end goal. For instance, I decided I wanted to be able to work in either a secular or a Christian collegiate environment. Unfortunately, I cannot do that with a PhD from a Christian school or seminary. Further, there are some American schools that don’t like to hire from British schools, either. Nonetheless, I would be comfortable at either type of school with respect to teaching, so I followed Birmingham’s offer. Just know what you’re getting into. There is not much worse in this area than getting a degree only to find out it’s worthless with respect to what you want to do!

6.     Count the cost

This cost-counting is in terms of time, money, and job prospects. We’ve already spoken a little about job prospects, but I should be honest here: if the sole or overwhelming reason you’re considering a PhD is a full-time, tenure-track position at a major research university, you should not do a PhD. Much like getting into the “best” PhD programs, these positions are a lottery amongst even the top candidates. I myself had to disabuse myself of this notion. I am pursuing a PhD because I believe that is what God would have me to do; I want a full-time position, but even if I do get one, it likely will not be tenured, may not be permanent, or may be in a context I didn’t envision. You may have to be willing to go international (I am, at least in principle!), or be willing to look outside of the university (other academic jobs, like publishing, for example). The point here is know that job prospects in the humanities for the dream job are dim. Be sure you understand that and can live with it.

I mentioned time as well earlier. You will likely lose 3-7 years’ worth of job experience (you likely will not have a career-style full-time job during this time) and earnings. Beyond that, you will be making a major investment whose final emotional payout won’t occur for years. Think about that for a minute. Can you go years in delayed gratification for this? Or are you likely to become very frustrated and mentally exhausted, in an unhealthy place? Don’t gloss over this question.

Finally, count the cost in terms of money. Most reputable American programs in the humanities offer full tuition remission and a stipend in exchange for TA-ing and eventually teaching undergraduate intro courses. With few exceptions, if it is an American program that doesn’t offer this, watch out.[1] However, many stipends are very low—some as low as $12,000. If you get involved with this, you need to do a thorough inventory of what this school is going to cost you and for how long. How much will you need to live there? How much will you take home? Are there fees to pay? If single, will finding roommates be easy? How much am I willing to take out in loans? This final question is huge. Student loan debt does not go away, and it’s worth it to evaluate carefully how much total debt of all kinds you have currently before answering that question.

I myself am trying a combination of my own personal funds (jobs), student loans, and fundraising to finance my PhD. We had to set a limit on what we wanted to take out in loans total. Most of all, in this area, be honest with yourself: you’re not going to buy dollar meals in boxes for five years. Having realistic numbers helps paint a picture to help you decide what to do.

7.     Speak to current students

I only did this a few times, and I wish I had done more. Why? First, because if you get in, these are the students who will become your colleagues. What are they like? Are they interested in the same AOS as you? Are they believers also? Second, because current students rarely put on a show. They’re not trying to sell you on the school. They’ll let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly. How long it really takes to get through, whether or not you can work an outside job, how accessible the profs are as supervisors, any nightmare stories, and any positive stories as well. If a student wants to warn me against going to a school for some reason, I am very likely to take it seriously. On the other hand, if a student goes out of her way to tell me her supervisor is excellent and should be considered, I am very likely to respond favorably to that as well.

8.     Know there are biases, Part 1 (Academic Background)

Unfortunately, there are definitely biases that admissions committees have. Your school could have the best accreditation and be well known in your subfield of philosophy. If the admissions committee doesn’t like it, though, it won’t matter. Here’s what I mean: there are some schools that, if you attended any school with the word “seminary” in its name, will not give you the time of day. This is not necessarily an unfounded bias, and isn’t necessarily malicious. I finally asked one school to which I was going to apply if having a philosophy degree from a seminary ruled me out of the PhD program: short story was, yes, it did. I appreciated their candor, and it saved me some time. It did make me wonder, however, if I should have found a tactful way to ask each school before I applied, and see which ones responded that there was such a bias. Bottom line: if you went to a seminary for your qualifying degree, and you want to apply to a secular school, it’s worth asking. You may receive a response ranging from “it doesn’t matter” to “you won’t be admitted here” to “you would need to do a secular master’s first.” Again, it’s just worth knowing before you dive in.

9.     Know there are biases, Part 2 (AOS)

Another mistake I made concerns the AOS. I went into it believing it should be philosophy of religion. I applied the advice given in (3), and searched. If a school had neither the strength of philosophy of religion nor a philosophy of religion professor, I just didn’t apply. Now, what I didn’t quite realize was that philosophy of religion, as an AOS, is extremely minor. That is, it doesn’t tend to get you admitted or to get you jobs. It’s best to pick one of the four major branches of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics), or a popular or major area of focus that the school is involved in (such as philosophy of science or philosophy of math). I may have unwittingly eliminated myself from schools I should not have, either by listing philosophy of religion as my AOS or by not applying because I assumed that would be. I have an MA in that area. Thus, I believe I have the strength to have that be a second AOS, while focusing on metaphysics as my primary AOS.

10.  Follow up, but don’t be annoying

Often, schools will tell you around the time you should be receiving notification (but not always). I was fortunate, in that most schools informed us around the timeframe they said they would. Do not contact the school to check on your status before the time they have given you. They are extremely busy, and it’s the academic equivalent of “Are we there yet?” However, if the school has not given you either a date or a timeframe, it’s completely acceptable to call (trust me, email can take days or even a week to be returned) and speak with someone about it. If you’re polite, and thank them for taking the time to help you, they will usually be happy to give you something.

However, some schools just keep telling you that it will be a few more weeks, and when that happens, there is still no decision. I had two such situations out of eleven, and my only advice is to be polite, patient, and persistent. Don’t be annoying, but an occasional email mentioning that you’re “just checking in to see if there has been any decision) is OK—when the timeframe the school has given you has passed. It is OK to let them know that you have other decisions riding on theirs; if they tell you, however, that it will be another week, then give them another week.

Have any other questions about my experience? Have any comments or stories you’d like to share? Do so in the comments below!

[1] I give an exception for my own Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and others like it. This is because their programs are designed to allow you to remain in your context, and thus you can work a full-time job to support your family.


  1. I also wanted to add one other thing: based on my reading, as well as confirmed through experience, if the deadline has passed and they have told others of positive offers for PhD places, but not you, then you are likely (though not necessarily) going to be rejected. They wait in part because of the competition for top applicants, and also because they want to "keep you in reserve" if you are at all acceptable, since a spot may become open for you. But if not, you will eventually receive "the letter." :)

  2. I want to be clear about one thing, lest I am wrong: about the numbers of applicants and places: these are largely rumors of what so-and-so has been told. Nonetheless, I was told by more than one school that a record number of applicants had applied!


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