Advice on applying to Ph.D programs in Patristics/History of Christianity

Having completed my M.A. in May, I’ve spent the majority of the summer back in my native land (North Carolina) reading and translating. I’m working on a Syriac poem written by Jacob of Edessa. I’m also preparing for my first semester of courses as a doctoral student in the Fall. Having been accepted into the Ph.D program at Notre Dame, I thought I would offer some advice publicly on the Ph.D application process. I had considered writing this later in my Ph.D career,  but because I’ve just gone through the application and interview process in the last year, it made good sense to me to write this. 

My first bit of advice is to visit John Anderson’s blog and read his post on this same subject. 

To give you a run-down of things: I applied to three schools last year: Notre Dame (Theology – History of Christianity), Marquette (Historical Theology), Duke (Religion – Early Christianity). I was accepted at Notre Dame and Marquette and rejected from Duke. Why only three schools? Because of that ever-elusive quality of graduate applications: fit. I could have applied to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and U of Chicago just for fun, and then been subsequently rejected by all of them. That plan seemed neither financially nor emotionally responsible. Notre Dame was my top choice for obvious reasons. We have the sorts of scholars at Notre Dame who do the type of work I hope to do one day. We also have a wide array of interests floating about the department and I like that. Next semester I’m taking: 1) Advanced Syriac 2) Armenian 3) Latin West/Byzantine East and 4) Early Christian Biography. This sort of course selection is one of the advantages to coming to a place like ND.

Also, a bit of ND-specific advice for future applicants: if you are applying to the History of Christianity track, you are applying not just to do one historical period. If you want your application to get sent to the bin, talk non-stop about one topic and one professor in your statement of purpose. We have an amazing Patristics faculty, we have amazing Medievalists, and we have Randall Zachman who is just amazing when it comes to Calvin and Luther. You can mention professor so-and-so in your statement of purpose, but you have to fit the entire track, not just that one person. 

This advice is geared toward those who find themselves entering an M* program this Fall. I think one thing I did wisely at Notre Dame was to take courses in my first semester/year with individuals I knew I wanted to write for me letters of recommendation. I already had a general idea of where I wanted to end up for Ph.D work (Notre Dame) and what I wanted to do (History of Christianity, early through the Reformation). Therefore I found courses that showed an interest in those topics with professors whom I knew could write me good letters. Think about it: most M* degrees are 2 years long. You will begin applying your Fall semester of your second year. Thus, you have 2 semesters and a summer to impress people enough to write for you. Choose wisely.

I also had something of a coherence in my course work. I came out of an amazing undergraduate program at East Carolina University, but both the Classics program and the Religion program were small and thus course selection was not huge. Your schedule was basically determined for you by the offerings. This was not the case for me when I came to Notre Dame. When you sign onto the site where you can view and register for the courses, it is a buffet. You suddenly find that you would love to take 20 hours as a graduate student because you want all of that knowledge in your head now. This is noble, but misguided. Think about what sort of scholar you want to be when you leave your Ph.D program. Do you have even a vague idea of what you’d like to work on? I knew from the beginning of my time at ND that I have interests in Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation readings of the Psalter. I’ve taken courses on those topics as well as other relevant courses. My M.A. coursework made sense – especially to anyone on the Ph.D admissions committee who read my statement of purpose and then looked over the courses. 


Study languages. So many languages. Languages are the perennial concern of Ph.D programs in Patristics/History of Christianity. We deal with many authors in many languages, be they primary sources in Latin or Greek, or secondary scholarship in French or German. I was fortunate to basically knock out all of my language requirements during my M.A., so the Ph.D committee had nothing to worry about. I had already passed the Advanced Greek course and taken the Latin exam. I’ve also passed the French exam (curieusement). I also took up Syriac during my M.A. and I’ve done well with that. That I was able to knock out future language requirements had to have been a benefit to my application. As a side note: because of this, I’m now able to keep pursuing Syriac instead of having to take mandatory Greek and Latin courses, and I’m beginning Armenian in the Fall. Yes, I will be the least useful person on the planet if I have my way. 

Take the GRE seriously. I hate the GRE and I am in no way a fan of anyone involved with it. I think the GRE is a great way to test whether you can study for and take the GRE. That’s about it. It certainly weeds out some people who shouldn’t be applying to graduate school in the first place, but it’s still a stupid test. That said: take it seriously. I didn’t do well the first time I took the GRE, but thankfully the rest of my application was strong and Notre Dame let me in. I knew full well what my competition looked like when it came time to apply for the Ph.D. I studied like mad for it. This is not a position you want to find yourself in while in the middle of your M*. You have enough work as is, so don’t put yourself in a position where you have to retake the GRE. If you’re in this position, study like crazy. You might hate it as I do, but grad schools and committees love it. It’s an easy-to-understand metric. The GRE gets nobody into graduate school, it just keeps people out. Do well enough that you don’t have to worry about it keeping you out.


Once you’re in the actual application process: make it easy on your recommenders. They likely have to write letters for other individuals. As brilliant as your work was, chances are they don’t remember every aspect of everything you’ve written for them. What I did was create a CD for each of my recommenders which had:

1) Every paper I had written for them

2) Every course I took with them 

3) My statement of purpose

4) My transcripts

5) A word document with a list of schools to which I was applying, the specific programs, the due dates of all the letters, and the contact information for the DGS. 


This, I think, makes it easier on them. They don’t have to scramble through emails or try to remind themselves which paper was yours. Be helpful, but not pushy. If they ask for something else, respond in a timely manner. Also, once the process is all over and the applications are in, be sure to write a thank you note. I gave my recommenders a little note and a small gift card to Starbucks. Being collegial is a big part of making graduate studies go smoothly. 


As for the interview weekend: one thing I think I did well was to read an article or a chapter in a book from each person with whom I was interviewing. I had already read a lot of their work – that’s the reason I was at Notre Dame for my M.A. But I went back and read specific articles. I found this helpful numerous times during the day, particularly as an internal candidate. I didn’t have the questions outsiders have – I know how the department works, which professors do what, how awful it is to live in South Bend, etc. To avoid sitting there for 20 mins and staring at one another, you can read an article and say, “So, I read your article on X and I was particularly surprised by….” One of my interviews was with the former DGS of the Theology department, Dr. Matovina. He studies Latino Catholicism. If you’ve read my blog, you know this isn’t exactly my area. I found an awesome article of his that actually brought up early modern American Latino readings of Augustine. I think he was pleased I had even bothered to read the article and I liked getting the chance to pick his brain during the interview process. 

Other schools may have different ways of interviewing, but I found that the professors with whom I spoke at ND had a few questions, but really just wanted to see how the conversation went. If you bother to read their work (and you should have already – why else are you applying?!), you’ll find your conversations go a lot more smoothly. 


That’s basically all I can think of right now. If you have specific questions, feel free to email me or look me up on Facebook. I’m happy to answer what I can about the process, particularly as it relates to Notre Dame. 


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14 responses to “Advice on applying to Ph.D programs in Patristics/History of Christianity

  1. Pingback: Around the Blogosphere (07.13.2012) | Near Emmaus

  2. This is excellent and very thorough advice. I cannot agree more with your stress upon fit and language preparation.

    I would just add one nuance to your post – for those applying to top tier doctroral programs who are not also from the traditionally recognized institutions (the Ivies, ND, etc), it may be helpful to cast their net a bit wider than three schools. At least, this was my experience.

  3. Joshua McManaway


    I agree completely. I only applied to those three because they were the only places where I felt like I fit, with ND being the best fit. I think anyone, whether they’re attending a place like Duke/Yale/Harvard/Chicago/ND or not, should apply to as many schools where they believe they would be well-served academically and otherwise. That’s what I mean by fit being a really elusive quality. In my program at ND, we had 3 of us applying for Ph.Ds with only one overlap between all of our applications.

    For me it just came down to knowing that ND was probably the best place for me and seeing that many of the other schools just don’t have the types of programs I would be interested in. For instance, Yale is obviously amazing, but for someone like me, it’s a little hard to fit in – I could go the ancient Christianity route, but they seem mostly focused on Egypt and that’s not really my thing. Harvard doesn’t do much with Patristics like we do at ND, etc. ND’s program is nice because it allows me to do the sort of broad history of interpretation stuff that I really like. So, my application route is not meant to be a model for anyone. Also, I’d like to say that although I was coming from ND, I was still just as nervous as anyone else during the interview weekend and decision process. At no time did I ever think I had it “in the bag.” I think that may be another bit of advice I’d give: don’t show up to your interview thinking you’ve already nailed it.

    • Again, well put on the issue of “fit”. It is usually the most important factor between being an excellent candidate and becoming the candidate that is chosen. I think that you’re also wise to caution those who are applying to their own institutions – oftentimes they can actually have a more difficult route since many schools are worried about homogeny. Besides that, this process is often so chaotic due to multiple factors (the program for which one is a perfect fit may not be taking anyone with one’s proposed specialty in a given year, for instance) that to ever think of oneself as “safe” is ill-advised.

      If you have any time this summer, it may be helpful to follow-up this post with one exploring the methodological split that divides programs in the field of late antiquity (often most easily seen by the monikers they prefer: Patristics or Early Christianity). It may help students more quickly determine within which programs their approach to scholarship is a better fit.

      Thanks again for an excellent post. I will definitely be referring people here.

  4. Pingback: From Elsewhere — Bryce Walker

  5. Jonathan

    Dear Josh,

    Thank you for your thorough reflections: clear and sound advice in my opinion. Several of these sorts of posts exist in cyberspace for those with ears to hear and they certainly helped me during the application process.

    Bryce brings up a helpful point that some who are new to the field may not understand well, and that is the importance of methodology. I, for example, will begin at BC in the fall studying patristic/medieval theology and a major reason I chose this school is for its strong commitment to theological analysis and engagement in the methodology of the scholars there (e.g., Khaled Anatolios and Boyd Coolman). While most departments are not so uniformly devoted to a certain methodological approach, perspective students need to think through how they wish to approach their subject and how that coheres with the faculty and resources of various schools.

    You referred to this in mentioning why you chose ND, Marquette and Duke (interestingly, I applied to ND, BC, and Duke), but perhaps you might consider blogging more on what these different methodologies might be (historical theology, socio-cultural history, comparative religion analysis, etc.). Once again, thanks for your blog. It will help any who are willing to listen.

    Best regards,


  6. Joshua McManaway


    Thanks for your comment. Maybe I’ll write a post on the different reasons I was looking at the different schools. That sounds like a good idea. Congrats on getting into BC. I know a guy there, Nathaniel Peters, who was at ND. Between the early and Medieval periods, what are your interests?

  7. Aaron Lockhart


    Thanks a MILLION for this post. I am in the process of applying for both the MA in ECS and the MTS at Notre Dame and this was very helpful… and no doubt will prove to be even more helpful if I’m accepted and begin to progress toward my Doctorate. I would love to pick your brain a bit and ask you a couple of small questions… if you’re willing and available. Please let me know if you are. But regardless, thank you for the help you’ve already given HERE.

    Most sincerely,


  8. Matthew

    How would Notre Dame receive an applicant interested in History of Christianity who received his M.A. from Wheaton College, since Wheaton has the Center for Early Christian Studies?

    • Joshua McManaway

      Hi Matthew,

      We currently have a student in the Early Christian Studies MA who also did an MA at Wheaton. I can’t say for sure how the application committee will look at your application. I can say generally that what they care about are things like facility with languages and good recommendations.

    • Josh

      Hello Matthew,

      I imagine you probably already applied to ND from Wheaton, so this may be a moot response. I went to Wheaton too and got my MA in Syst/Hist Theo, with a focus on Patristics under George Kalantzis. In my opinion, ND likes taking its own students for the Ph.D., though they’ve been known to take a few token external candidates on occasion. If you are serious about a Ph.D. at ND, I’d say to apply to one of their Master’s degrees simultaneously with your Ph.D. application and see what pans out. That student Joshua mentions, who is now a doctoral student at Notre Dame, also did her MA at Wheaton and then did the MTS at ND, before moving on to the Ph.D.

      Some heavy-hitters at ND also like Wheaton, and George particularly. Brian Daley is just such a person. The program from which you come, however, doesn’t matter much at all. One of my friends from Harvard just got shot down at seven schools for the Ph.D. and only got into one program, but that program was Duke. Another one of my Harvard friends got into no program except Fordham, which is also a rather remarkable program. On the other hand, some current heavy-hitting professors of theology, like Aristotle Papanikolaou (Fordham), went to the practically unknown Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology for his M.Div. and then did his Ph.D. at U of Chicago. The school you attended doesn’t guarantee you anything.

      My advice is that your writing sample is a natural extension of your statement of purpose and both need to be a coordinated effort to give the admissions committee at any of the schools a good impression of who you are, both as a thinker and as a person. Your proposal can’t be just good. It needs to excite the professors, make them think, “Shoot, that’s an awesome topic; why did I never think about that?”

      As for the rest of the stuff, it’s all a presupposition for you even to be considered for the Ph.D. The GRE scores, GPA, excellent letters from remarkable scholars, the prestige of the undergrad and grad schools, languages you know (seriously, a number of doctoral candidates enter the Ph.D. knowing only English), and the resume get no one into a Ph.D. program: they only keep people out. It is only the writing sample and statement of purpose, in my opinion, that actually get a student in. In a few exceptions a powerful letter from the right array of world-renown scholars might get you in too, but don’t bank on that. On any given year you can be sure that there will be sufficient applicants with such letters, titles, and scores to edge you out if your statement is not better than theirs.

      • Aaron

        What you had to say about what keeps a person out/gets one in was important for me. Last year I applied but was turned down. After a rescored GRE Essay score (5.5 instead of the 4.5 of last year), I’m reapplying this year, but wondered if you had any additional advice about the writing sample? Last year I submitted one of my exegetical papers on a passage, but after reading your response here, I’m wondering if that wasn’t the best writing sample to submit.

        Also, since we’re at it… any great tips for the SoP? 🙂


  9. Joshua,

    I found your post most helpful. I’m a Mdiv student right now and plan on applying to ND along with several other next fall for Doctoral work. I’m trying to decide what area of study I would like do. As you said in your post it would be foolish to try and attempt to do everything and spread myself thin. I studied medieval history in undergrad and reformation history here in my Mdiv. I really would like to study the patristics, but not sure if it will ok since I don’t have a background with it, besides knowing Koine Greek and Latin. Advice? Thanks.


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