For seminary students planning to do doctoral work: Advice on applying for grad school in theology

Here‘s an illuminating post by BIOLA missiologist (and Oxford University/Gordon-Conwell Seminary/Yale University grad) Allen Yeh on preparing to apply for grad school in theology. I’d be interested to hear feedback on this piece from you readers–especially those of you currently in grad school or those who have completed doctoral studies.

5 responses to “For seminary students planning to do doctoral work: Advice on applying for grad school in theology

  1. And again from Kurt Richardson:

    “This was a very curious point actually. Years ago, pre-1960’s and in the eternal past (Oxford has one) what Yeh described was quite real. If you got all firsts you were drawn into some junior fellow status and began to publish; there were many non-doctored dons in the milieu. Let’s also remember how often in the pre-war world that, unless one was from a wealthy or noble family, a don’s life was much like a monk’s: very minimal pay and lodgings suited for a celibate man. PhD’s were considered a kind of professionalization infecting the system from the Continent. But there is hardly a chaired professor today at Oxford who does not have the pedigree. What Yeh also didn’t mention is American ranking is just as hard won on the way to full professor / tenure status.”

  2. Steve Gertz adds:

    “Chris, I might add a postscript to my note. Just read an official review of Oxford’s funding priorities, and it mentions that 47 percent of Oxford’s undergrads go on to do graduate work. Not sure how that compares with top American schools, but I don’t think Yeh’s assertion that undergrads as a whole do not respect graduate work is sustainable, though there are probably some who hold that view.”

  3. And one more from a friend currently studying at Oxford

    Steve Gertz
    Chris, an interesting read, and a lot of what he says is spot on. I have a couple of quibbles with him though. I’ve not encountered at Edinburgh or Oxford the attitude that grad degrees are bad because undergrads didn’t do their job properly. It’s an interesting assertion but my experience doesn’t bear that out. Graduate work is respected, and if not pursued, it’s generally because students don’t have the vision for it or it’s expensive (at least Brits think it is!) and there isn’t much funding to go round.

    Also, as far as length of degrees, yes, many masters degrees in Britain are one-year programs. Mine was at Edinburgh. But the MPhil is a two-year program and is defn. more rigorous.

  4. Another Facebook response from another colleague:

    Thorsten Moritz
    Chris – As a US-based British PhD adviser with a London PhD I agree with about 80% of Yeh’s article. Maybe that’s a lot. But the 20% I don’t agree with seem to be the bits he’s most emphatic (dogmatic?) about. Not convinced, for instance, that search committees are nearly as robotic as he suggests. And some of his international comparisons and what he says about about how MDiv and MTh relate to PhD and hiring seem odd to me. But c’est la vie. There is also much that he gets right.

  5. A comment posted on facebook by a friend who is a professor:

    Kurt Anders Richardson
    Yeh is interesting and you do need to read the Chronicle article first. An awful lot of points there! On calling that leads you to seminary: you embody already in undergrad the passion and expression of faith and intellect. You take seriously that the Bible at the center of what you are doing impels you to a high level of literacy as well as wise practice for a lifetime. You go for it. When you get there you see that ministry and / or teaching are vitally connected. You rise quickly in the first or second semester with one or more profs. One asks you to TA in the second or third year. You are sacrificing not only to be a full time student but to do ministry along the way. I agree about the part that a very solid biblical background is necessary if the MDiv is being got at a ‘mainline’ div school – and yet, there are a number of places where one or more profs will profoundly nurture you. By the time you are ta’ing your prof is excited about your prospects as a future prof and ready to recommend you with ‘highest approbation and without reservation’. If you can, do an ‘MDiv’ thesis that is basically an MA piece of research and writing. It carries real weight. The big point Yeh left out is how difficult the GRE is in terms of competitive entrance just to a PhD program. He’s right on in terms of US degree programs they strip the paint off all others. In fact, there are ways that Yeh underestimates their superiority in terms of say, the top 15 programs. Four top places in Britain are very attractive but it will take extra efforts to ‘get back’. Then don’t forget the Continent – there the tuition rates are lowest, between 400-600 dollars US per year. Learning the language is the steep curve to achieve academic level but then that becomes your unique angle: German or French becomes an extraordinary angle. The archives are incomparable – only US libraries are superior. On dissertations, I disagree about avoiding topics and just to narrow it, identify a problem and go after it. Try to emulate the best journal articles. In a way, a dissertation is like publishing 6 or 7 closely related, heavily researched, tightly argued articles and weaving them together. If you are not careful about the selection of your topic, you wind up getting caught in historical theology and not acquiring constructive skills. Actually, you have to write on the greats and you don’t have to read everything on them when you follow one key rule: pick your methodology wisely. This means that the classic and greatest authors are studied and queried by a new hermeneutical set of questions which gives the doctoral student great currrency when they finish. They become fluent in one of the critical discourses being used by their contemporaries. Once entering the program, try to attend and contribute at annual conference, eg, AAR. Well, this is getting long; more later perhaps.

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