Applying to Ph.D. Programs


I have found that many students are unaware of just what is involved in the process of applying to Ph.D. programs. There are certainly many things I wish I had known ahead of time. For those interested in my experience and/or advice, here it is.

Reality Check

As a disclaimer I want to make it clear that I am not laying this out as a template for getting into a Ph.D. program. There is no way to do that (and if there was they’d change the rules so that there would not be).

The first thing you need to realize before you make plans to get a Ph.D. is that unlike most college and university degree programs, Ph.D. programs don’t need you. They have far more applicants than open slots, and so you will be fighting your way to the top of a very large and competitive heap. Thus, there is a sense in which being “qualified” does not necessarily qualify you – in other words, you don’t get in just because you meet a requirement checklist. The acceptance rates at many of the schools I looked into were between 2-5%, which means that 95% of the applicants will not get in no matter how good their applications look.

Further, there are only so many objective advantages you have control over. Subject area interest, available faculty that share your interest, the competition that particular year, and the like are responsible for more than a few people getting in (or being kept out of) programs. I have known people on both sides. Thus, in any given year the same applicant might get into several schools when the next year or the year before he would have been turned down.

Finally, even the objective areas that you do have some control over do not always tip the scales. I know of people who got into programs who did not do as well as others did on the GRE, or have as high of a GPA.

It just depends on . . . everything.

My Story

A lot of people like to hear the personal side of things. If you don’t, feel free to skip down to the section on The Application.


Here is how I looked, objectively, going in:



  • Graduate GPA: 3.97 (summa cum laude, top of class)
  • GRE score: 730 Verbal (100th percentile),
  • GRE score: 6.0 Analytic Writing (97th percentile)
  • Published (one book, several book contributions)
  • Experienced College Teaching
  • Professorship Position Secured
  • Undergraduate GPA: 2.7
  • GRE score: 610 Quantitative (49th percentile)
  • Previous Education Unrelated to Current Field of Study
  • Majority of My Recommenders were Not Well Known
  • No Prior Contact with Professors at Target Schools
  • No Substantial Foreign Language Skills

Applying to Ph.D. Programs: Phase 1

I was in a pretty unique position when I began applying. When I first decided to pursue a Ph.D. I already had a pretty attractive standing offer, so I really only applied to a few programs that would prove irresistible if I was to get in (e.g., Duke, Boston, Yale, and Princeton). I was also interested in switching to a new subject area. My undergrad was in Psychology, graduate was Apologetics, but I decided to switch to Systematic Theology. Further, I applied to mostly secular, liberal universities instead of conservative seminaries that matched my background. Why? Because the seminaries all wanted Greek and Hebrew completed prior to application and I just wasn’t willing to do that.

What is important to note there is that for most people these might not be very wise choices. The new subject area put me at a disadvantage to those with a typical M.Div. or a degree in theology, and the schools were already insanely competitive. But for me there was no reason to consider anything less than “dream programs.”

Thus, I was disappointed, but not terribly shocked, when I did not do get into any of them.

Lessons from Phase 1

Unless there are only a few programs that you would, for whatever reason, be willing to enroll, it is wiser to cover a wide range of acceptable possibilities. Apply to as many programs as you can find / afford. It’s not a bad idea to include a few “safety schools.” Be aware of your advantages and disadvantages and how those relate to each school’s requirements. Remember that every applicant you are competing with will probably meet the basic requirements – what will get you in is what else you have to offer.

Applying to Ph.D. Programs: Phase 2

After quitting my regular job and spending a glorious 9 months working as a full time professor going through the Ph.D. program, the school ran out of money and the president conveniently forgot that offering someone a Ph.D. program position did not stop at the end of the first year. I managed to remain in the program for another years or so, but as the writing on the wall got less and less optimistic I decided to finish elsewhere.

I first looked into an overseas program so as not to have to start classes over. I found support from a professor at the University of Pretoria and we started making plans to finish there. However, about a year in I once again was faced with a school that might be in serious trouble soon (civil unrest in South Africa). So, although I was accepted, my professor recommended applying stateside. That made sense, so I began all over again.

This time I needed to do things differently.

Lessons Applied During Phase 2

First, I needed to be much more precise with my school choices and make sure I could justify my interest in said schools (beyond simply “liking them”). My interests had developed over the last couple years and I was now interested in how one’s moral philosophy affected one’s theology. Being something of a thomist, I targeted schools that would be strong in his teaching. I ended up choosing Catholic University of America, Ave Maria University, The University of Iowa, and The University of St. Thomas.

Further, my sample paper had to be a lot more relevant and up to date than my first. My previous sample paper was a discourse on Divine Impassibility and the cost of the doctrine’s rejection or misunderstanding at the hands of many scholars. It was good, but not terribly relevant to the kinds of schools I had applied to in phase 1. This time I looked at a debate between two contemporary scholars, did a bit of refereeing of the debate, and offered my own thoughts.

The rest remained basically the same – my GPA had not changed much even though I took more classes. My GRE scores were still applicable. The application process was easier for me this time because I had a better idea what to expect.

In the end I was accepted to more than one school this time. Which of the changes that were made did the trick, or whether it even had to do with those changes,  I do not know.


Below are some objective facts about the application process along with my recommendations for dealing with them.

Application Preparations

I have come to believe that simply surviving Ph.d. applications is a weed-out process. It can be frustrating, but if you consider the advice below it might lessen the pain somewhat.

When to Begin

First, I would allow at least six months for the actual application process. Given most schools’ application deadlines this means you should begin preparations no later than June the calendar year before the semester during which you wish to enroll. Here’s how it works out:

  • Summer: Prepare for and Begin Application Process
  • Fall: Complete and Send In Applications
  • Spring: Receive Notifications from Schools
  • Summer: Relocate
  • Fall: Enroll in Classes

How Much Money to Save

Applying to Ph.D. programs is an expensive process. There are application fees, GRE supplies and fees, transcripts, postage . . . plus little expenses that add up fast. Here is approximately what I spent in 2007 in applying to six schools:

  • Application Fees: $450
  • GRE Test, Materials, & Reports: $250
  • Transcript Requests: $50
  • Postage: $50
  • (Feeling you get when you’ve sent in all your applications: Nauseous!)

How much you can afford will impact how many schools to which you can apply, so start putting money away for it well before you begin.

Application Process

Choosing Schools

  • Decide on your school choices: is a good place to start.
  • Check class and faculty lists for those who share your academic interests.
  • Try to make contact and establish a relationship with at least one professor per school, preferably one who sits on the committee that will choose doctoral students.
  • Gather application details: Find the top level application section of the school’s web site and save those in favorites.
  • Make a detailed checklist of each school’s application requirements (deadline, fees, paper length, recommendation letters, required forms, GRE score requirements . . . everything).
  • Make a master list of everything you will need (including quantity). Particulars might include:
    • Academic References
    • Ecclesiastical References
    • Institutional Endorsement
    • Language Tests
    • Personal Statement
    • Transcripts
    • GRE scores
    • Housing and Financial Aid Requests
    • Curriculum Vita
    • Resume
  • Take the earliest application deadline, subtract a month, and make that date your deadline for all of them. It’s better to get them in early and if something comes up missing you will need time for replacement.

Taking the GRE

  • Sign up to take the Graduate Record Exam at
    • Make sure you take the GRE well ahead of the application due dates
    • If you don’t get high enough scores the first time (and it takes a few weeks to get your final scores) you will need time to re-take it (usually no less than 30 days).
  • Give yourself about 8-10 weeks to study– not too much more, not too much less.
    • You need the pressure of a looming test date to keep focused.
    • It doesn’t usually help to study any more time than this.
  • Get some GRE study materials. ETS’s stuff is good of course – and watch for alerts and changes.
    • Princeton Review is the best material that I know of.
    • Supplement with others like Kaplan, Baron’s, Dummies, or any that provide additional practice tests.
    • I have been told that the GRE classes were not helpful – I did not take any.
  • Skim through the basic test materials just to see what the test looks like.
  • Study mostly vocabulary for the first half of your study period (3-4 weeks), and continue to study vocabulary once you dig in to the rest of the prep materials.
    • The Verbal practice tests are useless until you have a lot of vocabulary memorized.
    • The Quantitative (math) score may not be important for your program so find out beforehand if you can.
      • It is high school math that you probably won’t learn in 6-8 weeks if you don’t know it already.
      • The engineers all destroy any possibility of a high percentile even if you do score high.
      • BUT . . . If this score is important to you, start studying arithmetic, geometry, and algebra much earlier.
    • The Analytic Writing section cannot really be “studied for” – only practiced.
  • Pick your top three schools and make sure you know their physical address and GRE codes on test day.
  • Take the test.
    • If you do well, great!
    • Otherwise take it again (don’t wait too long – there is probably not much more you can do to prepare and you are running out of time).
Once the GRE is behind you, celebrate briefly, then start working on your sample paper.

Writing the Sample Paper

  • Write, or re-write, a sample paper. If you have a good paper already, you can use that, but be sure to get it up to as high an academic standard as you can first.
  • Do not do this while studying for the GRE.
    • It will be a distraction and won’t do you any good if you blow the GRE.
  • Be sure to present an argument – not just a research report.
  • Deal with a contemporary issue.
    • Try to interact with journal articles.
    • Try to choose relevant writers to interact with.
  • Make sure you know how long it has to be.
    • Many schools want papers of different length.
    • You may need to write two or more versions, so look for sections that are easily removable.

While working on your paper, gather . . .

Getting Letters of Recommendation

  • Get on this fast – it sometimes is very difficult to get recommenders to complete the process.
  • Pick as many professors as you need to fulfill the quantity requirement.
    • It’s not a bad idea to have more than you need in case someone drops the ball.
  • Ask them in person (if you can) if they would be willing to write you a letter.
  • Prepare all the materials they will need (some schools want forms to accompany each letter, some want them in sign-sealed envelopes, etc.).
  • If the school will allow you to send in your letters with your application, do so.
    •  Try to do the mailing yourself.
    • It makes it easier to be sure you have all you need in your application package.
    • It makes it easier to be sure your recommender actually writes the letter.
  • Make sure the recommender highlights work you have done with them, grades, ability to complete the program, etc.
  • Have the recommender  use official letterhead and envelopes.
  • You might want to have them seal the letters, sign the envelope seal, and turn them in to you as many are not comfortable with allowing you to read the letters.
  • If the recommender  will allow it, get a good, full resolution color scan of the letter – some schools accept electronic filing and it’s a good way to archive them in case you need them later.
While waiting for these letters to come in start collecting your official forms.

Collecting Official Forms and Other Fun Things

    • Order these at least two months before your application deadline, you need time to re-order if they do not make it.
    • Be prepared to pay $5 or so for each one.
    • Order these for any school that did not get them from your initial schools on test day.
    • These cost about $15 per additional school.
    • You cannot use a generic letter for this.
    • Be specific about why you want to go to this school.
    • Don’t just talk about the school’s reputation, show that you know who is there and what they are working on.
    • Some schools may not require a CV or Resume, but it’s good to have one ready.
    • It is helpful to keep a simple “master list” of jobs / schools / addresses / etc. so that you can make sure you say exactly the same thing on every application.

When all this is done . . .

Application Submission

  • Access the school’s application.
    • Download, print, or use the schools online application system.
    • If the school sent you a hard copy make sure you can download another if you mess up, or else make copies and practice first.
  • Read through the entire application and make sure you know and have everything the school will want.
    • Make a separate checklist for each school to avoid doubling up or missing anything.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute.
    • There may be information needed that you missed and do not have yet.
  • Don’t get in a hurry or become impatient.
    • These applications are long, tedious, repetitive, and can make you crazy if you try to do them all at once.
    • Take breaks and allow plenty of uninterrupted time.
  • Make clear and disinct piles of your application materials school-by-school.
    • Compare these to the checklists you made earlier.
    • Do not seal into an enveope until you are 100% confident you have all you need.
    • Do not do this late at night.
  • Keep copies of everything.
  • Mail before the due date.
    • Send as certified / delivery confirmation so you know the school received your package.
  • Call the admissions office after a week or so to make sure they have all they need.

Now, take a deep breath, and . . . PRAY!

Concluding Advice

As indicated above, I did not get in to my top picks the first time around, on the second round I was accepted to more than one.  I know of others with the same experience. Which of the changes that were made did the trick, or whether it even had to do with those changes,  I do not know.

The moral of the story is:  Have a backup plan. Remember, given the acceptance rates at most schools it is mathematically more likely that you will not get in. There are too many variables for you to control and the schools do not reveal their thought process to you. There is simply no way to know ahead of time what will get you into that 2-5%. This does not mean you should expect to not get in anywhere – but you should prepare for it.

If you do not get in, you need to decide if you want to try again next year. If you choose to try again you need to decide if it will be the same schools. If so, you’ll need a new paper so you might as well get started. Plan to get to as many academic conferences as you can. Rub shoulders with the people who can help you get in next time, or at least write you good letters of recommendation. Try to get something published. Take more classes . . . basically, do the same things you should have done the first time and hope something sticks next time.

Keeping all this in mind might help keep you from going crazy while waiting to hear back from your chosen schools.

But probably not.


4 thoughts on “Applying to Ph.D. Programs

  1. Doug, this is incredibly helpful. Thanks for sharing what you learned from this arduous process!

  2. One thing I would add (but again, not as a guarantee) is keeping touch with the schools, especially the ones in which you are particularly interested. The trick is to keep in touch enough to let them know you are still interested, but not so much that you are annoying them.

    I actually knew a girl that did not get into a program. When she called them about it, they said that they didn’t think she was still interested because she did not come to visit them. This is certainly not a completely normal situation. But I do think being in touch with the graduate director helped get me into my current program.

    And Doug, that is cool about getting in to some programs. You’ll have to let me know what’s up.

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