“The List” – Shopping for PhD’s

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Well, it was always a notion.  Certainly, it was mostly even always a possibility.  However, my wife and I have officially committed to it.  We have made a plan, discussed places we can stomach living, and have a feasible plan for income, etc.  So, I went to work shopping for PhD programs.  I will offer for discussion and encouragement “the list.”  More importantly, I offer the methods by which I chose these programs, and hopefully the community here will be able to commiserate with, encourage, and perhaps even begin work on the process together.  So, without further ado in no particular order, “the list”:

University of Toronto – Wycliffe College

University of Notre Dame

University of Chicago

Princeton University

Yale University

Baylor University

Marquette University

Each of these programs fit into the criteria I ultimately worked out with my wife (and it may still change).  /1/ Field of Study:  What do I want to study?  Does the university have faculty currently doing research in that field?  For me, I hope to study philosophical theology (I have been thinking specifically of our theology of time, or of the philosophical necessities of Eucharistic theology)/2/ Placement: At what rate does the university place its PhD students in full-time (tenured?) teaching positions?  The lowest on the list has an 85% placement rate for its graduates.  /3/ Financial Aid: How much of tuition and expenses are covered by Fellowships and Teaching Assistant/Associate positions?  Each of the universities on my list offer between 83% and 100% tuition reimbursement, and an added stipend for teaching undergraduates (which is important for me, since I want to teach).

So, What are your criteria?  Have any of you delved into the application process?  Upcoming posts will cover my experiences with applications, GRE test prep., etc.



  1. Great for you Shawn!

    You’ll find that I know jack crap about searching for a PhD. I am still quite unsure what exactly to do for my PhD. I’m much more confident about my two MA’s.

    But I would highly recommend you read this series of blog posts by a PhD student in Historical Theology. http://penniman.blogspot.com/2009/09/how-to-get-accepted-to-theologyreligion.html

    He also has some recommendations on good schools which are largely a critique of Rusty Reno’s, shall we say less-than-objective list? http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2006/08/reno-best-schools-for-theology

    A couple things I do know. At Toronto you will under the general supervision of Ephraim Radner and that is gold. The school has several skilled exegetes and theologians, and just as importantly, it is firmly within the Anglican Tradition. I’m not quite as certain how it would work out with philosophical theology, not least as pertaining to Transubstantiation (you’ll get there 🙂 )

    Marquette would mean you would be much closer to me and Reed! You’d also be within a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary, a bastian of solid Anglo-catholicism. When I visited I found it not nearly as “fundamentalist” as many have accused. The students are far more this way than the professors who were just great. Plus they have a huge Patristic library (all in the original languages of course!). There is also near by the Episcopal monastic order “Julian of Norwich.”

    Marquette also has D. Stephan Long, a Methodist who is sympathetic to Radical Orthodox ways of interpreting philosophy and theology. Check out some of his books etc…

    Also, being a Roman Catholic school, they’d be all about philosophy and Eucharist. On top of it all, I’ve heard from good authorities that Marquette is in the midst of building a spectacular staff of professors and I think you could take good advantage of a young and bustling department.

    One critique I do know of Marquette is that they often don’t financially support people they will accept.

    I don’t know enough about the other schools than sort of general “moods” as the school. Princeton is “Reformed” but has some fantastic Barthinians http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/; Chicago is sort of “liberal protestant” generally but very academic and not at all “anti-faith;” Notre Dame is fantastic from all I’ve heard but also hard to get into.

    That’s really all I “know” so I hope it is helpful.


  2. @ Tony,

    You know, It would be a lie for me to say that I don’t fantasize a little about making it into Notre Dame, but I feel like (as you have also expressed) that the others are all strong programs as well. What I really want to be doing is teaching, even while working on the degree – so, Toronto is exciting for a lot of reasons, but it is at the bottom of my wife’s list because of having to move to Canada :0). The more I look at Marquette, the more I like it. Really, though, I would be stoked to make into any one of them, which is why they are all on the list.


    Thank you so much for visiting the site and contributing. Everyone of the resources I find on the web turns out to be a valuable service, so, thank you!


  3. All of these look great, but one criteria you didn’t list, but one that at least one commenter mentioned, is the mentor. Now, I did a PhD at Fuller, which doesn’t or at least didn’t have the clout that the ones listed offer, but I had a wonderfully committed mentor (I just co-edited a festschrift for him). As you look at these programs have a heart-to-heart with the possible mentor. Make sure she or he will devote time to you and your work. Too often the big named folks simply don’t have time for you — unless you prove useful as a research assistant.


  4. Bob,

    You offer sage advice – thank you. I will offer, though, that I am not star-struck and chasing after a big name to mentor me (in fact, I have read that those theological super-stars often make horrible mentors, ironic). It really is important that I get to teach. In all honesty, at first glance, my transcripts are weak. I struggled through Bible College, because I was “that student” that had to question everything. I have way too many conservative evangelical schools on my CV to be immediately attractive to some of the schools on my list. However, teaching is a must; it is what I am created to do. So, if one of these programs makes me the best teacher I can be, then that is what I am going to strive after. The man who instilled a passion to teach in me (the prof. that took me under his wing in college) earned his PhD from Fuller. You may also be interested to hear that I was accepted into the MDiv program at Fuller, but never matriculated.

    Fuller may still make it onto my list again. Pasadena is just such an expensive place to raise a family, and universities don’t seem to give evangelical seminarians the same attention they give their own.


  5. AD, Yes, I still check you out — you’re on my blog role. And this topic did pique my interest.

    Shawn, you are right about Pasadena — and it doesn’t offer the best financial aid — you need a spouse to pay the bills.

    Part of the question concerns where you want to teach and where. A place like Fuller is great if you want to teach at a Christian college, but . . . (well I am a pastor after all).

    If philosophical theology is your thing, you may find a state school that has a good program, and a philosopher who is Christian. As for eucharistic theology — you might look at a Catholic university beyond Marquette and Notre Dame.

    Though in the final analysis — the mentor is the key!


  6. Bob,

    I really appreciate your insight. Philosophical Theology is something that holds my interest (like, I could write 50k words about it, holds my interest), but I wouldn’t say that it has to be PT or bust. In fact, I’m trying to stay flexible enough to appreciate that my dissertation topic may change completely once I get to work. In this regard, Tony (once again) proves to be astute in mentioning Radical Orthodoxy.

    Milbank describes Radical Orthodoxy in comparison to Barthian theology being “ploddingly exegetical” (something that makes me cringe) as “mingling exegesis, cultural reflection and philosophy in a complex but coherently executed collage.”

    At heart, I am a theologian that loves the way philosophy intersects with knowing God, and not a philosopher that loves the way that theology intersects with metaphysics. It seems like a ridiculous distinction to make, but one that seems apparent when you look at the difference between programs in “Philosophy of Religion” and “Philosophical Theology.” As such, I may end up making research proposals to some of these schools from a philosophical theology angle and some from a radical orthodoxy angle.

    Who knows, the topic may even change. How fun would a theology of video games be?! (that was only slightly tongue in cheek – and kind of serious, really, it would be fun)


  7. Shawn, not knowing where you’re living, I’d suggest adding a couple of places to the list — Calvin Seminary is a seminary PhD and on the conservative side but has had strong philosophical components and the University of Iowa’s religion department. It used to be a very strong program, not sure now.


  8. Shawn,

    A member of my church, St. Barnaabs, Glen Ellyn is getting his PhD in philosophy at UofC. And while I do not agree with her all the time, Katherine Tanner teaches thelogy there and she is no light weight. I have a friend who recently received his PhD in theology from ND. I know Steve Long who is at Marquette. If it would help to be put in touch with any of these, I’d be happy to play go-between.

    As Tony mentioned, Radner is at Wyclife which makes it attractive. But Miroslav Volf is at Yale and he is very good. As is Ellen Charry at Princeton.

    Of course, if you end up at UofC, we’d be happy to welcome you to St. Barnabas.


  9. @ Joey,

    Indeed, but I didn’t want to infiltrate James’ “toward a theology of…” turf.

    @ Bob,

    If I am being completely honest with myself, I know these schools are all long-shots. However, I know most universities will not turn down an outstanding student even if they lack the pedigree. So, my plan is /1/ to kill the GRE and make the best showing possible for this round of applications, and /2/ to be realistic about the possibility that there will need to be a second round of applications – in which case, your suggestions are duly noted and much appreciated.

    @ Matt,

    I really appreciate your gracious offer, and I will contact you by private e-mail sometime in the future to discuss your recommendations further. I am most touched, though, at your invitation to St. Barnabus – you can be guaranteed that upon touching Chicago soil my family will be visiting (my wife and I will be the couple in the back with the rowdy boys). Really, though, I am honored and touched that you would include us.


  10. Shawn,

    Best of luck to you! I recently completed my PhD in an unrelated topic (Cell Biology). I throughly enjoyed my experience. I must admit I don’t know much about PhDs outside of the so-called ‘hard’ sciences, but there are some pitfalls that people easily fall into and can get trapped.

    You must always keep your eye on the prize. Choose a mentor who has a good report with students in general and has had previous successful graduate students, or comes from a good track record. Make sure you have compatible personalities and that expectations are clear up front. Remember, your goal should be to COMPLETE your PhD, not please your mentor. Choosing the right mentor from the start can make all the difference.

    I was fortunate to have a good mentor who always kept my interests in mind. Some of my colleagues were not so lucky and were basically used as cannon fodder to advance their advisor’s research agenda. These things happen and its a sad consequence. I’m not trying to scare you, but to inform you. I give all incoming grad students this advice.

    I wish you the best of luck! I really enjoyed my PhD and have a great relationship with my advisor. It has been a successful six year journey.


  11. Jud,

    Thanks for posting! I appreciate the advice. I have had several people make similar observations, and as a consequence I have begun to search out individual faculty members at each of these universities that are doing the kind of work that interests me. At some point, I’ll make contacting them a part of applying to the program at their respective universities.



    1. Shawn,

      I know this is an old thread but since you are looking at Chicago I would also recommend you look into doing a PhD under Mark A McIntosh at Loyola who is a “rising” star in theology and an Episcopalian priest. He is especially knowledgeable of “Mystical Theology” and the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

      “Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Theology”
      “Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology”
      “Christology from Within: Spirituality and the Incarnation in Hans Urs von Balthasar”
      “Discernment and Truth: The Spirituality and Theology of Knowledge”
      “Mysteries of Faith (The New Church’s Teaching Series, V. 8)”


  12. Tony,

    “Old,” I suppose, is relative. I’m quite blessed that people keep contributing to the conversation. I’ll definately check it out. Thanks, Bro!


  13. Shawn,

    It appears that if you wanted to study with Fr. Mark MacIntosh (the guy who knows mystical theology) you’d have to go to Durhum University. It is a spectacular program but none of the PhD’s you mentioned looked at the UK so I’m not sure how helpful this new information is. Just know that he’s no longer (as far as I can tell) at Lyola in Chicago.


  14. Tony,

    Your watchfulness is much appreciated. The Lord has been grinding away at some hard spots in my heart about PhD work lately. Namely, my diocese is going to want some input on priestly formation (the nerve, right?), and it appears that I may be shipping off to a seminary for a year or two in the near future in order to satisfy those needs – then I’ll be able to focus exclusively on PhD programs (This doesn’t really change the time frame I was using before, just my approach to the situation)


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