PhD Preparation Guide

So, you’ve decided you want to get a PhD. This is rather like deciding you want to get married: a laudable sentiment, but one that has fairly little meaning unless you’ve found a suitable partner – or at least a list of qualities to look for in a partner.

Here are 8 steps to help guide you in finding the right program and school to fit your goals.

Step 1: Determine Your Area of Interest

Your first step in this process is to ask yourself just what general field you’d like to study: Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, New Testament, systematic theology, church history, ethics, intercultural studies, psychology, and so forth. People in a PhD program have been known to switch from one major field to another (e.g., NT to theology), but it’s not common or ideal. You need to know which field (or fields, if you hope to work interdisciplinarily) you want to go into.

Step 2: Find a Subfield within Your Area of Interest

Second, having identified the general area (e.g., church history), you should ask yourself (a) what subfield in this area do you hope to study: do you care more about patristics, the Enlightenment period, the Middle Ages, or another period or topic? And (b) what methodological approach do you want to take? Unless you are already very skilled in your field, it will be helpful for you to have a long discussion with a professor in your area about at least the latter of these two points. A methodologically oriented seminar, too, can be helpful, as is a close examination of the kinds of books you like to read in your field. If the question, “What kind of history/theology/biblical studies?” confuses you, you are certainly not alone at this stage of the game. But having an answer, at least preliminarily, will be a great boon for your applications.

Step 3: Identify Potential Mentors

Now you are ready to identify potential programs and mentors who might be a match for you. While there are, for example, a large and unwieldy number of “Christian Origins” professors in the United States (and beyond, if you plan to look elsewhere), faculty specializing in the historical theology of the Christian East during the third century are a lot less plentiful and a lot easier to identify. There are different ways of identifying potential mentors – you might, for one thing, ask a faculty mentor in your field for suggestions. You could also return to the prior step’s examination of books you enjoy and discern whether their authors are still alive, teaching at an institution that appeals to you, and so on. A similar process can be applied to scholarly journals: Who edits them? Who publishes there? And you can look at scholarly conferences: Who presents what? The latter of these has the additional benefit of experiencing potential mentors in their element. Finally, you might identify a list of the “usual suspect” schools – programs that you know to be strong in your field or subfield – and peruse their list of faculty members.

Step 4: Read the Publications of Your Top Potential Mentors

Once you’ve narrowed your list of potential faculty to a couple of dozen folks, read something from the ones that sound most interesting: an article, a review of one of their books, etc. There are different philosophies about whether applicants ought to contact potential mentors prior to the application process. My personal opinion is that it can be helpful if you are prepared to not receive a reply (these are busy people and some will on principle not answer student inquiries) and if you are further prepared to send a thoughtful, well-tailored, respectful message. When I did so, I learned, for example, that one particularly interesting mentor was on the verge of retirement, that another was leaving the university where she had taught for years in the immediate future, and that a third was simply not a particularly pleasant person with whom to interact. These are the things worth knowing before you spend $80 + transcript and shipping fees on an application!

Step 5: Find Funding

By this time, you ought to have been able to identify somewhere between three and twelve programs that might meet your needs (and vice versa). Note that so far the focus has been on identifying mentors rather than schools: That's quite purposeful – even the most elite school will not do you any good (and will not accept you) unless there is someone in your field able to and interested in working closely with you. You, nevertheless, need to take into account the quality of the overall school and program (two different things!) when assessing your applications. Two questions that loom large are “do they fund, and if so, how?” and “what’s the likelihood of them taking an interest in me?”

The former is, I think, much easier to answer than the latter. Know that there are schools that provide funding – as a rule, R-1 schools, Ivy and quasi-Ivy League schools, and schools seeking to build their programs (e.g., Baylor and, for theology, Wheaton) provide full funding for students, waiving tuition and offering stipends, travel grants, etc. Note that most of these schools cluster around a particular figure when it comes to funding – in 2007, for example, I found that a number of equally-tiered schools start students on annual stipends of $15K, with optional scholarship “upgrades.” By the same token, at least one school was offering a $30K/year (!) stipend for a select few candidates. On a related note, seek schools that fund for five years rather than four (or fewer!) – you don't want to stress about either working or petitioning for additional grant moneys.

Depending on your circumstances (e.g., an investment-banking spouse, a personal trust fund, savings from a prior career), you may, of course, be able to get by without funding from schools. Know, however, that money (as Dr. Thompson points out) means attention; a school that invests in you financially is much more likely to have a stake in the outcome of your studies and will find other ways of supporting you.

Step 6: Position Yourself as a Strong Applicant

The second question – “will they want me?” – is hard to answer authoritatively ahead of time. Some of the factors to consider involve your GPA, the school from which you’re applying, GRE scores, prior education, language abilities, etc. Given that programs are also seeking to diversify their student body, depending on your field, being of a particular ethnicity, being a woman, etc. may give you an edge over similarly situated candidates.

That being said, if you feel (and if your faculty feels) that you have at least a prayer at making the cut somewhere, don’t take yourself out of the running because one of these factors doesn’t measure up: In my own interview process, it rapidly became clear that I, a Fuller grad, was being matched up against candidates from Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, and Duke. While Fuller may not have had the name recognition value of an Ivy League university, an otherwise appealing application will not, in most cases, get eliminated just because the school of your choice has only rarely (or, indeed, never) accepted a Fuller applicant. (Similar considerations apply for your GPA , GRE scores, and so on – simply seek to make your application as strong as possible without automatically disqualifying yourself from the get-go.)

Step 7: Verify Where You Want to Be

Other helpful considerations: If at all possible, seek to get in touch with students or graduates within the program(s) of your choice. You will almost certainly get a better feel for the strengths and weaknesses of a particular school from them than you will from reading the glossy brochures or perusing the institution's website. Among the things I learned from students (albeit in several cases only when I had already reached the interview stage!) are these: Why they picked program X over programs Y and Z; what it’s like being a human being – a husband, wife, parent, teacher, person of faith, individual with needs beyond greater speed-reading abilities – in the program; which professors are known to grope female (or male) students (side note: they exist in virtually every program); how the graduate student body relates to undergraduates, to the surrounding area, and to the school in general; and whether a grad student might ever think of being able to buy a home during their PhD program.

Step 8: Visit the Campus/Attend a Major Conference

Visiting a school’s campus can be a considerable help, but don't torture yourself if you don’t have the time or spare change to fly to the other coast: Programs that really want you will fly you out, usually during the month of February, to give you the tour and discern whether you are someone with whom they want to work, study, write, and live for five years.

Do, however, attend at least the major conference in your field, For many Fuller applicants, the national American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature gathering is an easy opportunity to observe, hear, and connect with potential mentors. Be aware, however, that (a) not all professors attend this conference (e.g., they might go to a smaller, more specialized one in their field instead) and (b) just because they are there and you are there doesn't mean you will meet. If you want the opportunity to meet or lunch with someone at these events, contact them early – at least a month prior to the conference – and, if possible, do so with a letter (or at least a word) of introduction from one of your faculty mentors.

For additional resources, please download the document "So... You Want to Get a PhD?"

PhD Programs at Fuller Theological Seminary

PhD in Theology: Center for Advanced Theological Studies

PhD in Intercultural Studies: Center for Missiological Research

PhD in Clinical Psychology: Department of Clinical Psychology

The content on this page was adapted from materials prepared by Fuller alumna Maria Doerfler while an MAT student. If you have questions about this information, please contact the Academic Advising Office in Pasadena at

(626) 584-5200
(800) 235-2222
135 N. Oakland Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91182