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.