There’s a reason that it’s been nearly a year since I wrote anything on this website. I’ve been neck-deep in the application process for a Ph.D. I’m happy to report that, after nearly 2 years of applying, waiting, and getting rejected, I’ve finally gotten accepted into a wonderful Ph.D. program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I’m incredibly thankful for the application process, because it’s taught me a lot about grad school in general, about myself, and about God. But I’m also glad that I don’t have to do it again.
Here’s what I learned through the process:
Much work; little guarantee.
I underestimated how hard this process would be. When I first began applying, I applied just like you would with any run-of-the-mill college application: Name, personal info, GRE scores, a couple of pithy statements about why I want to get my Ph.D., and some references from professors. Submit. Voila. When do I start class?
I learned (the hard way) that no Ph.D. application is complete without a research proposal. The goal of a doctoral degree is contribute to the spectrum of knowledge in a particular subject field. It’s not just extra schooling. In the sciences, this is usually done by joining a research lab under the supervision of a professor who is conducting a study that aligns closely with an applicant’s research interests. In the humanities (and the field to which I applied, biblical studies, is considered a humanities subject) it’s quite a bit different. As part of your application, you are expected to bring a proposed research project to the table that you have devised, on your own, that has not been done before. And coming up with a project is, in itself, a project.
A professor I consulted compared the process of drafting a research proposal to finding a 1-square-foot patch of unplanted dirt in a lush forest. Others likened it to old-West claim jumping, where prospectors would rush to find a plot of land that had not yet been claimed by someone else to mine it for gold. Because humans have studied the Bible for over 2 millennia, finding a patch of dirt that someone else hasn’t already planted is a huge task. There are plenty of horror stories of Ph.D. students getting all the way to their dissertation defense (the last phase of the Ph.D. process) before learning that some obscure, German theologian had conducted their exact same project, with the same conclusion, in the 1700s. And there’s no guarantee that won’t happen to me as well! So that’s fun.
The other tricky caveat is that a Ph.D. project is generally 4-5 years of work. So, the topic you are researching has to be specific enough that it is a genuine, original contribution to the subject field, but broad enough that you have enough material to justify your 4-5 years of study and your 60,000-100,000 word dissertation.
Among other things, your research proposal involves a great deal of reading, and not much writing. Admissions committees only want a 1,000-2,000 word summary (sometimes less) of your research proposal, so you’re probably reading about 1,000 words for every 10 words you actually write.
Like I said – it’s a project. And all of that work with no guarantee that an admissions committee will agree to take you on as a student in their program.
Another thing that I learned (again, the hard way) is that the process of applying to Ph.D. programs requires thick skin. You have to be able to withstand rejection. I’m not known for that. Rejection and disappointment tends to cause me to spiral…
I applied to 4 programs, and got into 1. The best part is that the one program I was accepted into was the last school to get back to me.
So, if you’re counting, that’s over a year of application prep, only to receive 3 emails that say,
Thank you for applying to [program] at [university]. We are sorry to inform you that we are unable to offer you admission at this time. Due to our admissions process and limited number of spots, we were forced to decline a number of qualified applicants. We wish you the best in your future endeavors.
The most fun part (and I’m being sarcastic here) is that I got the same exact letter – same wording and all – from two different schools. They don’t even write their own rejection letters!
In all seriousness, it was exceedingly difficult to not view these rejections as a personal indictment. I had never felt like more of a failure and a disappointment.
If you’ve been in the church, you’ve heard a thousand people say, “Find your worth in God! His opinion of you is all that matters!” As corny as that refrain is, and as much as I’ve rolled my eyes at it, it was never more important to me than it was over the last year.
It’s not just a pity catchall statement; it’s a fact. Our worth is not in what we do. When Jesus was baptized, God proclaimed from the heavens, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). This was before Jesus began his ministry. Before he performed his first miracle; before he preached the gospel for the first time or began to disciple, God proclaimed that Jesus is his son, with whom he is pleased.
That same Spirit that baptized Jesus is within us, and with that Holy Spirit, we are called sons of God (Rom. 8:12-17). I have to believe that God approaches his children with the same posture with which he approached his first Son. Before we do anything, he loves us, and with us he is pleased.
As the rejections kept rolling in, I was practically forced to meditate on these Scriptures every day. Even in failure, God does not see me as a failure. I am his son, with whom he is well pleased.
If the title of this post seemed abrasive, I didn’t mean it that way. I am genuinely thanking God. He has been faithful beyond what I could have ever expected. Throughout my year-long emotional rollercoaster, the process of interviewing for school, selling our house, buying a new house, and every other way imaginable, God has been faithful. I hope he’s patient with me, because I still have doubts and fears about the future. This was just the application process. I haven’t started my actual work yet. It will be the most challenging thing I have ever done.
But even if those doubts and fears prove to be true, the work gets hard, and life gets messy (it will), I will still always have the last year of my life to look back on, where God’s presence has never been more visible, and his faithfulness has never been more apparent. I have no reason to doubt that he will take care of me and my family, whatever comes next.
More to come.
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