Category: So you want to go to grad school

The Material Conditions of a Job Interview

Over at the Leiter Reports blog, there’s been an interesting conversation about where philosophy departments should interview job candidates. Let me sketch a bit of context for those not familiar with the meat market that is the Eastern meeting of the APA: this divisional meeting takes place each year between Christmas and New Year’s, which is about the only time that philosophers can afford hotel rooms in big cities. Pretty much anyone who is hoping for a job in the coming year will be vetted in a first round of interviews at this meeting. Departments will send a subset of their search committee to meet with 10-15 candidates, rather assembly-line-like.

Many of these interviews take place in a large exhibit hall filled with round tables, tenured faculty seated around them interviewing candidate after candidate in a kind of speed-dating format. These brief meetings at the professional interview are meant to be a way to narrow down the 2 or 3 candidates that departments will then bring to their campuses for a full interview and visit (teach a class, give a talk, meet the dean, etc., etc.).

Now, because of the cattle-call atmosphere of this exhibit hall context (not to mention the horrible din of multiple concurrent interviews happening in an acoustic nightmare of a basement hall), some departments elect to rent a hotel suite and host interviews in a quieter, less public setting. This all sounds good, until you think about one oddity: often this means interviewing candidates in a room with a double bed–sometimes even with faculty interviewers sitting on the bed.

Given that context, one prospective interviewee posed this question to Leiter:

Am I the only female who thinks it silly in 2010 to force departments to pay many hundreds of dollars (coming right out of our budget) to exclude a certain piece of furniture in the interview room? In the past, at least it sufficed to hide the b__ behind a screen (for which hotels charged quite a bit extra). To create what they call “made” suites this year, one must pay for two rooms, but one is guaranteed cot-free (nor does it suffice to drag the offensive item out each interview morning). Isn’t there already sufficient incentive to be 100% professional at interviews? Is being interviewed behind closed doors in a suite more acceptable than in a room containing a b__, as opposed to a couch, or a screened bed? does it really help to shroud beds, cots, or couches? (It’s a bit like shrouding females to insure no unwanted attention?)

Kick the bed to the side, sit on a chair!

This strikes me as almost a caricature of what a “philosopher” would suggest: “C’mon–we’re all just rational here. Why does it matter what’s in the room?” That might sound “reasonable” and mature and no-nonsense, but it also strikes me as incredibly naive and inattentive to the complexities of how we inhabit the world. Thankfully comments on the post, from philosophers, show a more holistic appreciation for our embodiment.

In fact, if you imagine the scene, and try to live into the strangeness of the scenario for just a moment, you’ll begin to appreciate how much the material environment conditions our perception. Indeed, one could spend all day using Merleau-Ponty to show just how we construe and constitute such a context: how the body sort of “knows” the bed in ways and on levels that are almost inarticulable, but nonetheless really significant and powerful. These ways of knowing are not often the subject of philosophical reflection, but that doesn’t mean that our perception is not equally shaped by them.

So You Want to Go to Grad School: Friends & Family

I should clarify one assumption: I assume that if you’re writing to me, then you probably have some investment in being a Christian scholar–that in some way your sense of a calling to this vocation is bound up with your faith. That creates all sorts of unique challenges and opportunities, and there are, of course, a host of questions about the nature of “Christian scholarship.” I’m not going to wade into those issues here.

Instead, I want to simply emphasize a very practical matter: If you are going to graduate school in order to pursue the vocation of a Christian scholar, there are some very simple but crucially important non-academic things you need to do.

First, you need to find a solid local congregation and commit to it. Resist the temptation to think you’re “too busy” for church. Or “too smart” for church. You’re not. And the sooner you learn that, the better. The academic life can easily become all-consuming, especially if it’s laden with a sense of Christian vocation. It can too easily swallow up everything in its path and become an idol. It’s way too easy to sequester yourself in a world that is, in many ways, weird and distorted. Your immersion in a local congregation will be its own sort of discipline: it will keep you tethered to the so-called “real world.” And don’t just be there as a cynical critic, looking down your nose at the ignoramuses around you. Despite all the knowledge you’re acquiring, there are plumbers and school teachers and stay-at-home moms in that congregation that have wisdom you’ll never have. Plus, if you’re called to be a Christian scholar, in some sense you are called to be a servant. The local congregation is where you learn how to do that.

Second, maintain friendships outside the academy. This is especially true if you are married (and perhaps have children). While I was in my PhD program, our family was part of a small group (with folks who were not academics) that met every Friday night for a shared meal and Bible study, with little kids running around our apartment and young parents frazzled and exhausted, but all in this together. This group was, without question, an absolute lifeline for us during what can be a very difficult time. We also had dear friends who lived nearby and we fostered rituals that prevented us from spiraling inward. All of this was rooting; it took me out of myself; it regularly and persistently inserted me in a world where “my work” really wasn’t all that important. And it was a godsend.

Third, if you are married, and especially if you have children, graduate education is going to be one of the single most powerful threats to your marriage. It tends to induce a degree of poverty, and economic issues are always sources of deep tension, especially in young marriages. Graduate education also has the possibility of becoming a mistress, a seductress (a mister? a seducer? if you’re woman). You are going to be immersed in a world that is largely foreign and closed to your spouse–and that world will want all of you. And you need to resist–not in the typical evangelical fashion of thinking you’ll just muster the willpower and wherewithal to say “no.” No, what you need are systems and structures and rhythms that won’t let that happen. That’s what the first two points are aimed at. To them I would add one more exhortation: attach yourself to an older couple in your congregation who can be mentors, who don’t operate with any myths about marriage, who know all the challenges of raising kids, and who are willing to listen. In a dream world, you might even find a Christian professor at your university who can model this, since they’ll be familiar with the unique challenges of the academic life. But in any case, look for some folks who are a generation ahead of you and can be a source of wisdom and encouragement.

You are not a scholar first. (I’m talking to my younger self here.) You are called first to be a friend, a disciple, a spouse, a parent. The sooner you can learn to “situate” and relativize your scholarly vocation, the sooner you’ll be able to receive it with gladness.

So You Want to Go to Grad School: Money

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: how are you going to pay for graduate school? Well, that’s easy: you’re not.


Here’s the baseline advice I tell my students: do not go into debt for graduate study. At least not a doctoral program in philosophy, theology, or literature. There might be a calculus in which taking on debt makes sense for a law degree, an MBA, etc. But in the fields we’re talking about, you should not be taking out loans to do a PhD.

In other words, if you do not get a “full ride” to a PhD program–that is, if you don’t get full tuition remission plus an assistantship (stipend)–then the Lord is telling you something. I really mean that. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh or callous. But if you’re trying to discern your future, and you’re admitted to a program but don’t receive funding (which probably only happens at lower tier schools anyway), that’s the Spirit speaking to you loudly and clearly. I’m not saying that will be easy news to receive. But take a breath, step back, and hear it for what it is.

Now, if you do get accepted to multiple places with funding (congratulations!), then the next thing you have to think about is cost of living, especially if you’re going to grad school with a family–which, by the way, is possible: Just for the record, we got married after my freshman year. (I’m not saying I recommend this–but we just celebrated our 20th anniversary last week.) We had our first child 2 years later while I was still an undergraduate. We had our second while I was doing my master’s degree. And we had two children while I was in my PhD program. It wasn’t easy, but it is possible.

Anyway, if you have the luxury of choosing between programs, you need to consider where you want to live, and how much it costs to live there (proximity to family support networks are also a legitimate concern when considering location). For example, imagine you get into Yale and Notre Dame; while the Eastern seaboard certainly has its attractions, a stipend goes a long way in South Bend, Indiana. Those are things to think about. Scholars are not immaterial minds: we, too, have bodies and need to consider material realities. While the academic life–especially grad school–requires a kind of vow of poverty, you can also make decisions to be the best possible steward of the resources provided.

Next time: Friends & family.

So You Want to Go to Grad School: Choosing Schools (2)

Last time I discussed choosing schools on the theological end of the spectrum. But the list would be different if we were talking about continental philosophy of religion, as opposed to philosophical theology. In that case, you’d want to work within a philosophy department so that your disciplinary formation was in the philosophical canon, and so that you’d emerge able to teach PHIL 101 rather than THEO 101. However, I should note a caution here: if you’re interested in something like “continental philosophy of religion,” that will have already put you outside of the pale of the dominant sensibility in North American philosophy (“analytic” philosophy). So that often means that programs which are hospitable to continental philosophy of religion are generally not going to be high-ranked programs according to the received criteria (i.e., The Leiter Report). Now, that’s not a huge issue if you’re hoping to teach at a smaller institution. But it does pose a bit of a challenge if you had aspirations of doing continental philosophy of religion in, say, Yale’s philosophy department. That ain’t gonna happen. But that’s also not the end of the world.

If you’re interested in pursuing continental philosophy of religion, I would advise you to consider two things: (1) Don’t specialize in philosophy of religion. My colleagues in analytic philosophy of religion counsel the same thing. In the guild’s parlance, you’d want philosophy of religion to be an AOC (area of competence) not an AOS (area of specialization). Even if it’s your real passion, you need to prove your mettle and master some other subdiscipline like French phenomenology or ethics or hermeneutics. (2) Do your doctoral work in a “pluralist” program that also emphasizes the history of philosophy. That is, don’t go to a program that has a continental axe to grind, constantly railing against analytic philosophy. This will only further sequester you from the mainstream in your discipline. Instead, look for programs that are hospitable to continental voices but also offer you an opportunity to receive training in the core of analytic philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics) and a solid foundation in the history of philosophy. And ideally it would also be a place that would give you training in pragmatism. I think the most exciting future of the discipline involves new, emerging conversations happening across old boundaries and divisions, between continental and analytic schools of thought. I think it’s especially important for Christian philosophers to be building such bridges, and that requires a generous, well-rounded program. (I discuss some more issues of formation in my article, “Continental Philosophy of Religion: Prescriptions for a Healthy Subdiscipline.”

With those concerns in mind, let me mention a few philosophy departments I’d recommend for consideration:

  • Notre Dame: While this is a bastion of analytic philosophy of religion, it’s also a place where you can receive solid training in continental sources along with excellent foundations in the history of philosophy, especially medieval thought. ND is also home to the Center for Philosophy of Religion under the energetic new leadership of Mike Rea.
  • Fordham University: Longtime home to Merold Westphal, one of the doyens of continental philosophy of religion, Fordham is another one of those “pluralist” departments I spoke of.
  • University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought: A fascinating program that could get you a job in a philosophy department (which would be harder to do with a degree from the div school). Plus, it’s Chicago: one of the great American cities.
  • Syracuse University: Syracuse’s Philosophy Department was home to William Alston, a giant in analytic philosophy of religion, but it has also historically been home to some folks working on Kant, Heidegger, French thought, and feminism. John Caputo has had a cross-appointment in Religion and Philosophy, though he will be retiring at the end of this year, so folks should watch for who will be appointed to replace him. But Syracuse is worth a look. But do note that I’m suggesting that if you want to do philosophy of religion, then you should consider the Syracuse Philosophy Department and lean out into resources in the Religion department as you’re able.
  • Southern Illinois University Carbondale: Here’s a little sleeper that I recommend to students if you’re open to a “marginal” program–which is fine if your goal is to teach at a smaller college. I think this is a very interesting department, with excellent resources in pragmatism and phenomenology (including Anthony Steinbock, who I think is one of the most interesting scholars in English-speaking phenomenology).
  • Philosophy Program, Baylor University: While this program is analytic at its heart, it’s also a generous, pluralist place that can make room for philosophy of religion “with a continental twist” (I know a student who just completed a dissertation on Jean-Luc Marion). You will also find a pretty stellar cadre of scholars who are intentionally Christian. There are also solid resources in the Religion department at Baylor. This is a great place to consider especially if you feel your vocation is to a smaller, Christian liberal arts college.

I’m no doubt forgetting some, but there’s a little sample to get you started.

Let me close with two other considerations about where to study:

First, British programs: obviously there are some very interesting places to study philosophical theology/continental philosophy of religion in the UK (Nottingham, Cambridge, University of Manchester, etc.). Just two concerns to keep in mind: (1) These programs are incredibly expensive and often don’t have the funding support of North American programs [I’ll talk about money in the next post]; (2) the nature of British postgraduate education encourages narrow and deep research, but doesn’t always provide broad, disciplinary familiarity with the canon. So while UK PhDs can teach incredible upper-level seminars in their speciality, they’re not always equipped to teach 101. They also don’t tend to provide as many opportunities to teach while in graduate school, and thus UK doctoral students aren’t developing a classroom repertoire. I think that becomes a handicap when interviewing at American colleges and universities.

Second, remember Canadian universities: you might consider some of the excellent resources north of the border, particularly at the University of Toronto (and the sprawling Toronto School of Theology), as well as McGill University in Montreal (for either continental philosophy or theology), McMaster University (continental philosophy), or the University of Guelph (for continental philosophy).

Next time: A Supplement on Choosing Schools in Philosophical Theology, then Money.

Choosing Schools (Philosophical Theology): Supplement

Several folks provided some helpful, extensive responses to my post on schools to consider for graduate study in philosophical theology. I thought I would post them here as a bit of a supplement (though please note: I’m not about to get into the Brian-Leiter-ranking business, and as I noted in the post, I’m not even attempting to be comprehensive):

From Sean Larsen, Duke:
You might want to mention the difference between PhD and ThD programs at Duke. The ThD program is housed in the divinity school. I think they admit 9 or 10 a year. The funding was last around 13,500 for 4 years. The PhD program is housed in the Graduate School. There is one admit a year for Theology and Ethics. All those currently active in the PhD program have gone to top tier master’s programs (Yale, Chicago, Duke). The PhD program gives 5 years of funding (20,000 a year + health insurance) and often, if GRE scores are high enough to put them in the top 10% of PhD admits for the university, there’s additional money. When I was applying, Duke and Yale relied most heavily on GRE scores of all the schools you listed. The ThD is currently attracting very high quality people and has room for a wide variety of intellectual projects. Some are approximating more traditional degrees (NT, OT, Theology, American Christianity, though technically there are no specified disciplinary boundaries), others more practical disciplines (Church Leadership, Evangelism, Missions), and some variations on more traditional topics (there is a theology and the arts group that works with Jeremy Begbie). The main formal difference between the programs besides the housing of the degree and the funding is that PhD students have an external minor requirement for exams and they have four comprehensive exams. ThD students, though they can and sometimes do have exam committee members from outside the divinity school, needn’t, and they have three comprehensive exams. So far, the ThD students are being placed well (Baylor for Missions, Belmont for spirituality, and Fuller for NT).

Also, Duke and UNC function as a single institution in many ways. One can take up to half one’s classes at the other school. This helps Duke because UNC has one of the best Phil. Depts around. UNC just hired Bob and Marilyn Adams, and I know that Marilyn is open to working with Duke theology students and fills an important gap in late medieval philosophy and theology that is open at Duke.

From Keith DeRose, Yale:

The main thing I’d point out about YDS is that they don’t have a PhD program; just MA: they offer MDiv, mostly for those going on to do “churchy” work, and for the more academically inclined (& so more relevant to your post), Master of Arts in Religion (MAR). MAR students are mostly looking to move on to PhD programs. They can pick from a number of concentrations, listed on this page, which also has other info about the program: I mostly encounter those in either “Philosophical Theology & Philosophy of Religion” or “Ethics”. Many of the students I work with go on to PhD programs in philosophy, though YDS students (the ones I don’t work with as much) go on to other programs, like in theology or religious studies. In philosophy (more than many other areas, I understand), the norm seems to be for students just having earned their undergrad degree to go straight into PhD programs. But some aren’t ready — perhaps because they weren’t philosophy majors, or didn’t have enough philosophy classes, or, in many cases that end up at the YDS program, because they went to a smallish Christian college that (unlike Calvin!) didn’t have a very big, or very with-it philosophy program. Many of these use students use terminal MA programs as stepping stones to get into good PhD programs. Mostly those prospective philosophers from Christian colleges are interested in the program at YDS, and usually end up in the Philosophy of Religion or the Ethics concentration. In fact, I don’t think the YDS program makes sense for those looking to go on philosophy PhD programs unless they do have a substantial interest in theology, because, although they may end up taking about half of their courses with us (the Yale Phil. dept.), half of their courses will also be non-phil., taken at YDS. Many (though certainly not all) the YDS students in my seminars are looking to go on mainly in analytic philosophy, but I think these programs also work well for those with more of a “continental twist,” as you put it. But, again, this is all MA program stuff, mainly preparation to go to PhD programs.

Those looking for PhD programs at Yale in philosophical theology want to apply to the Yale Graduate School, in either philosophy [ ] or religious studies [
]. These programs are pretty tough to get into, but, on the upside, give very good financial support to those who do get in. (Like most Masters programs, I don’t think the programs at YDS given nearly as good financial aid). Here’s what’s on the phil. page [ ], describing the financial support at the Yale Graduate School programs:

Financial Aid: Students are normally given at least five years of full support — tuition, plus stipend, plus health care — in the form of non-teaching fellowships for the first two years and the fifth (or sixth) year, and teaching fellowships for the third and fourth year. For 2008-09, the stipend is $25,500 for both teaching and non-teaching fellowships. In the past five years, the stipends have increased every year for both incoming and current students. This great mix of teaching and non-teaching fellowships allows students to get the teaching experience they need to prepare them for teaching careers, while also providing for much time where the student is not teaching, and so can devote herself more completely to her own research.

From Andy Rowell, Duke:

I’m a fourth year Th.D. student and I heartily agree Duke is a great place to study. I would just mention that the Th.D. program (in its 5th year) technically in the Duke Divinity School, is accepting about 9 people each year in the Christian disciplines and the Ph.D. program, technically in the Graduate Program in Religion, is accepting about 9 people each year with about 4 in Christian disciplines. Students should consider both. (See for example the attached lists of new students for the last couple of years). The programs are functionally equivalent programs–studying with the same people, in the same courses, with the same standards. People do philosophy and theology equally in the two programs.

I have given more details about the two programs as well as my best advice about the application process along with similar warnings about the perils of doctoral work that you mentioned in your first post (So You Want to Go to Grad School: Think Backwards) in a post that is perhaps slightly dated now (March 6, 2009) but still useful: Advice about Duke Th.D. and Ph.D programs in theology

Here at Duke we hear people talking about the programs you mention as well as Baylor, Princeton Theological Seminary, Emory and Notre Dame as other places worth considering–depends on the discipline.

Next: on Money.

So You Want to Go to Grad School: Choosing Schools (1)

OK, you’ve considered the sort of “rendition” of the scholarly life that appeals to you, and you’ve narrowed down the discipline in which you’re going to be “apprenticed.” The next step is to get more concrete and think about where you’re going to apply. I am very hesitant to get into specifics here, but since the point is to save me from writing 75 emails over the next few months, let me wade into this a little further.

First, while some of my students (and perhaps readers) acquire a taste for literature, I really have no expertise to recommend specific programs in that area. So I have to punt on that score. I’m sure there are resources out there to help. For what it’s worth, two of my favorite former students have studied English and literature at Northwestern and Yale and both seemed to have been very happy there.

Second, most students who write me tend to be interested in what we might call philosophical theology with a continental twist. That’s one of those between-the-cracks areas, so you will have had to decide whether you want to range into the philosophical from a theology program or whether you’d prefer to lean out into the theological from a philosophy program. Again, you need to make this decision based on the sort of 101 course you could imagine yourself teaching. For what it’s worth, I did the latter: my PhD is in philosophy, but I was in a program that allowed me to take a few graduate courses in the theology department and also permitted me to have a theologian on my dissertation committee. But that meant my “canonical” training was in philosophy, and that my teaching assistantship immersed me in teaching PHIL 101, as it were. I have no illusions that I could teach THEO 101.

So if you ask me about specific schools, I can cautiously offer a few suggestions since we’re remaining at quite a “generic” level here. Nothing I say here pretends to be exhaustive or even comprehensive; and I’ll no doubt want to come back and add/revise after I get a few angry emails. But, all that said, if you’re interested in something in the ballpark of “philosophical theology,” I tend to point students to the following programs. (In my next post, I’ll discuss programs in “continental philosophy of religion.”)

  • Duke Divinity School: It’s notoriously difficult to get into the PhD program here, but I tend to think that, right now, Duke is the most interesting place for theology in the English-speaking world. Despite what some might think, it is not “Hauerwas Divinity School.” There is much more diversity there than most expect. I point students here because of people like Paul Griffiths, Reinhard Huetter, Norman Wirzba, Jeremy Begbie, and many others. This is top-tier.
  • Religious Studies at the University of Virginia: The Religious Studies Department at UVa is a unique animal. Despite being housed at Thomas Jefferson’s university, the department refuses a simplistic “secularist” approach to religious studies in favor of a “pluralist” approach that brings together what you might describe as a “confessional” cadre of scholars from various religious traditions. This department is packed with brilliant scholars: Jamie Ferreira, Peter Ochs, James Davison Hunter, Jennifer Geddes, Charles Matthewes, Kevin Hart, Paul Jones, Charles Marsh–and Nicholas Wolterstorff is there as a scholar in residence. Jeez.
  • Theology at Marquette University: I hope my friends there won’t think this a slight, but I sort of think of Marquette as “Duke North,” but with the added bonus of a philosophy department in the neighborhood with excellent resources in phenomenology. A real up-and-comer that, at least for a few more years, is probably accessible to smart applicants who lack a pedigree.
  • Religion Department at Princeton University: While not a place you’d do “theology,” the department is also not allergic to theology. Home to something of the “pragmatist” school in philosophy of religion, and home to some of our most important voices: Jeffrey Stout, Cornel West, Leora Batnitzky, and Eric Gregory. And you’ve got Princeton Seminary across the street, as it were, if you have a hankering to talk to Barthians. Relations between the Religion Department and the Seminary have improved over the past several years so there is more and more cross-pollination there.
  • The University of Chicago Divinity School: Once a bastion of American liberal theology, it’s not quite as predictable as it used to be and is home to both some important senior scholars (like Jean-Luc Marion and Jean Bethke Elshtain) as well as some up-and-comers. Also a unique emphasis on religion and literature.
  • Yale Divinity School: While this is a place for more analytically-inclined philosophical theology (along with Philosophy at Notre Dame), it remains one of the best programs of this sort, with John Hare, Denys Turner, Jennifer Herdt, and others–as well as excellent resources in the Philosophy Department at the university (Keith DeRose and others).

For the sake of time, I’m going to stop there. I fear I’ve neglected many, but this provides you with a start. (And perhaps I’ll hone and revise this in the future.)

But also keep in mind what I said in my first post: The schools and programs I’ve noted above are the cream of the crop. They are incredibly difficult to get into, but a PhD from these places will open quite a few doors. However, if you don’t have aspirations of teaching at an upper tier college or university, then you don’t need to jump through hoops this high. That is, if you feel called to teach at a small Christian college or a small seminary, or a Bible college, or even a community college or local state university, then earning a PhD from places like Fordham University or Loyola University in Chicago are an adequate path. Or you could earn a PhD from a place like Calvin Theological Seminary or Fuller Theological Seminary.

To discern “where you can get to from here,” you need to consider the placement record of the PhD program you’re considering. Where have their graduates been hired? Are those the kinds of places you’d like to end up? How many of their graduates have been hired? That will give you a sense of the extent to which the school really works on behalf of students to get them placed. The best programs will provide this information. (If they don’t, you should be suspicious.) Get a list of their graduates, find where they are now, and email a few of them. Ask them about their experiences. People are usually very happy to reply, especially if they appreciated their experience there.

Next time: Choosing schools (2): continental philosophy of religion.

So You Want to Go to Grad School: Choosing a Discipline

The students who write me for advice about going to grad school often have a unique challenge: they’ve already been infected with the “interdisciplinary” bug. My own work tends to range across disciplinary boundaries: from philosophy to theology to literature to social science. Those students who have a wide-ranging curiosity, and aren’t easily content to simply burrow deep into one discipline or subdiscipline, often ask about “interdisciplinary” graduate programs. Indeed, many of my favorite students have struggles deciding whether to apply to doctoral programs in philosophy, theology, or literature.

But here’s another “I-hate-to-break-it-to-you” reality: disciplines remain the gatekeepers of the academic world. While there’s all sorts of interesting inter-, multi-, and cross-disciplinary work now happening in the academy, you earn the right to do that work by first proving your mettle within the rigors of a discipline. Training in a discipline is a discipline–an apprenticeship and a formation, an inculcation into a community of scholarship (this is actually described quite well in Kuhn’s Structures of Scientific Revolutions). It is within a discipline that you learn to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Even if ultimately your interests spill over the boundaries of a discipline, you need to take a sort of vow of chastity and restrain yourself from such experimentation in order to earn your stripes within a discipline. While there are a few “interdisciplinary” programs, it’s too easy to emerge from them without this sort of discplined rigor–which is why it also tends to be difficult for graduates of such programs to find jobs. They fall between the cracks.

This is because of the other reason that disciplines remain academic gatekeepers: teaching. At the end of the day, you’re going to be hired into a department. (There are a very few exceptions to this rule, but they’re so few and far between that you should ignore them.) You’re going to make your home in a disciplinary corner of the college or university, even if they might grant you license to roam from there a bit. While you might be permitted, even encouraged, to cross disciplinary boundaries in your research and writing, your “day job,” so to speak, is going to be teaching. And the courses you teach are usually going to have a prefix: PHIL 200, THEO 101, ENGL 338, REL 100, etc.

So as you’re contemplating which disciplinary portal you should pass through, ask yourself this question: Which 101 course would I be most happy teaching? While you’re probably going to be dreaming about all the cool advanced seminars you’ll be able to teach with majors, you need to keep in mind that your bread-and-butter is going to be teaching the introductory course in your discipline, the so-called “101” class. While you might find it hard to determine whether you’re a philosopher, a theologian, or a literary critic, you do need to decide which introductory class you’d like to spend a lifetime teaching. Is it THEO 101 or PHIL 101 or ENGL 101? Those are very different sorts of courses. You’ve probably taken all of them. So ask yourself: which of those do I really want to teach? The answer will tell you which sort of graduate programs you should apply to.

Next time: Choosing schools (1): philosophical theology.

So You Want to Go to Grad School: Think Backwards

It seems like every week I get emails from undergraduates who’ve acquired a taste for academic exploration, or who sense a call to such a vocation, and thus ask for advice about going to graduate school. It occurred to me that I could save myself from writing the same email over and over if I wrote a post or two that summarized some of my thoughts on the matter. So over the next few days I’ll try to distill some wisdom into a few posts that might be helpful to those considering this path–though there are always unique aspects of each person’s story that will complicate the rather generic wisdom I offer here.

So you want to go to grad school… You’ve caught the bug. Your imagination has been captured. You feel like you finally know why you’re here on planet earth. Reading Aristotle or Derrida or Barth makes your heart sing. You’ve been blessed with a professor or two who’ve modeled the “life of the mind” for you and it’s captivated you as the very embodiment of the good life. You feel called to teach. You’re in the groove when thinking through difficult issues and then trying to articulate a constructive way forward. You love to write. You’re at home in the library. You were made for this. You were born to be a professor. And so you’ve reached the logical endpoint: you want to apply to graduate school.

Well, let me offer a few words of advice.

First: don’t.

Second: Seriously. Don’t even think about it.

OK, fine. You seem very persistent. Maybe you’re the exception to the rule. When the time comes to find a job–the sort of tenured “leisure” you see your professors enjoying–don’t blame me if they no longer exist. When you’ve spent 6-8 years honing your skills, mastering the canon, grinding out a dissertation, schlepping to umpteen different adjunct posts, playing the game on the conference circuit–when the reality begins to sink in that you might not be able to have what you glimpsed when you were a junior, I won’t exactly say “I told you so,” but I hope you might not be entirely surprised.

But then again, maybe you’re one of the few who can emerge from this whole process and land where you hope. So with all of those qualifiers in place, let’s think about how to approach the prospect of graduate school.

First, you need to think backwards. That is, in order to discern the path to take to your vocation of being a professor and scholar, you need to spend some time dreaming your future in order to try to picture where you want to land. There are many ways and places to carry out the vocation of a professor and scholar. And the path to each is different. Depending on where you want to end up, there are different hoops to jump through, different trajectories to follow. So in order to determine where to apply next year, you need to try to imagine where you want to be in 10 or 15 years. So: Where do you think you could be happy? What do you want?

Do you want to be an academic superstar, teaching at Harvard or Yale or at least Notre Dame? Do you want to be at the very pinnacle of your discipline? The go-to guy or gal that NPR calls for comment? Do you want to become moderately wealthy?

Well, then let’s be clear: In some cases, you simply can’t get there from here. If you’re at a Bible college right now, or a little Christian college, or probably even just a local state university, I hate to break it to you, but that route’s pretty much blocked for you. I know: it might not be fair. You might be brilliant. You might be smarter than some of those grad students who are going to get into Princeton and Stanford. It might be that you were the first person in your entire family to ever go to college. It might be that you just couldn’t imagine these possibilities because of the little rural high school you attended–such a trajectory just wasn’t in your imagination. Indeed, where you went to kindergarten was probably already loading the deck against you. Whatever the reasons, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but–contrary to the myth of the so-called “American dream”–you can’t get to the Ivy League from there.

If you are at a place where that sort of path remains open to you: Congratulations! But I’m afraid I can’t help you. That’s not my world.

But: maybe that’s not what you wanted anyway. Maybe you don’t want to play the elite game. Maybe you can imagine yourself being happy as a teacher and scholar in all sorts of different settings. Perhaps you’d be quite happy teaching at a small Christian college that primarily emphasizes teaching and engagement with students. Maybe you don’t care about publishing and research that much–you’re just really jazzed by teaching, by being the kind of professor that got you thinking about this anyway. Maybe you’d be quite happy spending a lifetime at the local campus of your state university–at a place like Penn State Altoona or the University of Wisconsin Plattville. Perhaps you simply dream of returning to teach at your denomination’s seminary, or the Bible college from which you’ve graduated. Indeed, maybe you could be pretty psyched teaching at the community college where you were first awakened to intellectual pursuits.

OK, then now we’re getting somewhere. Because the paths to those sorts of jobs don’t have to run through Berkeley or Cornell or Columbia. You can get there from here by pursuing graduate study at places like Loyola or DePaul or Boston College. You might be able to earn a doctorate at a solid seminary or divinity school and still achieve your goal. We can start talking about specifics later.

But right now you just need to take a few days, even a few weeks, and think backwards: what sort of life can you envision yourself living? In what sort of context can you imagine yourself being happy? If you can do some discernment about that, then we can work backwards to determine where you should go.

Next time: Choosing a discipline.