I routinely get questions from undergraduate and master’s students about applying to PhD programs. Here is some of my standard advice to those thinking of pursuing a PhD and a career as a college or university professor.
How do I choose a PhD program? I had a wonderful experience in my graduate program at Notre Dame, especially because of the particular historian (George Marsden) with whom I worked. Many people make the mistake of thinking “school” instead of “adviser” when considering PhD programs. Not that the quality of school is irrelevant—there are some lower-quality PhD programs out there that do not offer adequate financial or academic support to current students.
But typically the most important issue in considering a program is the faculty with whom you plan to work. This includes your prospective dissertation adviser, as well as professors who might compose your field supervisors and doctoral committee. If you are an undergrad or master’s student, and as you continue to read in your field, are there particular scholars whose work you really admire? Are those professors still active, and do they work with graduate students? This is one of the best ways to think about where to apply—the focus is on particular professors, not so much an institution.
Should I apply to a PhD directly, or to an MA program? I was a political science major as an undergrad, so it made a lot of sense for me to switch to history for an MA before I applied to PhD programs. It helped me get my bearings in a new field (even though I had been a history minor) and made me a much stronger candidate for PhD programs. If you are not sure a doctorate is for you, a terminal MA can make a lot of sense. You can apply directly from a BA to a PhD in most cases, but students with only a BA will obviously have a harder time justifying preparedness for the PhD.
How hard is it to get in? At strong programs, it is phenomenally difficult to gain admission. If you do not have at least a 3.7+ GPA, and 90 percent+ percentile scores on the GRE (verbal and analytical for humanities programs), you probably will not receive serious consideration. These programs often have far more applicants than spaces, sometimes accepting fewer than 5 percent of those who apply. Be honest with yourself about your credentials. Even some people with 4.0 GPAs and perfect GRE scores do not get in everywhere they apply. Thus, you are going to have to apply to multiple programs if you are serious about pursuing a PhD—including a range of “dream schools” and “backup options.”
What about the job market? I hear it is rotten. As I have noted before, the job market is indeed terrible, and anyone going into a PhD program needs to take a broad, flexible view of what they might do career-wise at the end. There can actually be a few more opportunities if you would be open to teaching in either a Christian or a secular school environment (Christian schools sometimes struggle to find candidates who have both a serious PhD and a serious faith), assuming that the secular schools in question do not get scared off by signposts in your c.v. that you are a Christian.
If you are a Christian thinking about graduate school, let me say this: we desperately need serious, thoughtful Christians to be active in academia and publishing, as a matter of Christian witness to both students and other professors. Being a professor can be a great life, assuming you can get a job. But graduate work is not for everybody.