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rock34

PhD or ThM or MA?

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Hi everyone,

 

I am trying to get admitted to a mainstream NT PhD program in the US (see list below), and I'd like to hear your thoughts on whether or not I should apply now or if I should obtain further degrees. I am finishing up an MDiv degree at a pretty conservative, evangelical seminary. From what I've heard, the reputation of my seminary is not very positive among the mainstream institutions to which I'm applying--although my seminary has a positive reputation in regards to its academic rigor and emphasis on original languages among conservative institutions (in fact, I think I could get directly into a conservative PhD program). Here are some of my credentials:

  • GPA=3.89
  • Undergraduate GPA= * I don't know, but it's not impressive *
  • GRE=V161; Q163; Writing5.0 (I'm assuming that my V GRE score is too low to be competitive as only an MDiv graduate, but that it would be sufficient if I were a ThM graduate)
  • Publications or conference presentations=none
  • I was the TA for a few different courses, including a couple of the original language courses
  • I am taking a PhD reading course on Judaism
  • Languages=Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew 
  • All of my recommenders promised a solid recommendation, but none of them has any connections to the school to which I am applying (no surprise)
  • Writing sample=this is in progress. It is based on a fairly controversial passage, and it will be well-researched as I interact with a wide spectrum of sources including Catholics, Methodists, Feminists, those focused on a more social-scientific approach, patristics, Judaism, etc. I'd be interacting very little with evangelical/conservative scholars.
  • My biggest concern--outside of my V GRE score--is the little research experience that I have. To compensate, I'm trying to make my writing sample laden with as much research as possible, but this might backfire and I might be inflicting unnecessary pressure on myself.

Should I seek a ThM or an MA degree before applying to these PhD programs? Also, will my undergraduate GPA be a significant factor? Lastly, will it make a significant difference if I learn a modern research language (e.g., German, French) before I apply? I checked the "Results Search" and some of my credentials appear to be comparable, but I can't tell to which degrees those GPAs are associated (e.g., ThM, MDiv).

 

List of schools to which I hope to apply:

  • Baylor
  • Duke 
  • Emory
  • McMaster (Divinity; I understand that this is a Canadian school, I'd be open to going here if it's not too conservative/evangelical--your feedback on how conservative this institution is would be appreciated)
  • Princeton (Seminary)
  • Toronto (Divinity; I understand that this is a Canadian school, but I'd be more than open to going here)
  • Yale
Edited by rock34

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I'm not as qualified to speak to your questions as well as other people on this forum would be, but your background sounds almost exactly like mine, with a few differences. And I was asking the same questions two years ago. I still haven't applied yet though! But I am planning to do so this year.

I would just make a few observations though.

1. I definitely think your GRE scores are enough to get your foot in the door, which is I think mostly what GRE scores are intended to do. Beyond that, don't sweat it.

2. From what I understand, the single most important part of the application process is demonstrating that you fit in with any particular department or faculty member - usually demonstrated through your statement of purpose. A person might have the most impressive application, but if they can't demonstrate how their interests align with the department or its faculty, then the application won't get them anywhere. Conversely, if you have some deficiencies in other areas in your application but you can strongly demonstrate that you are a good fit with the program, then I think some of those deficiencies can be overcome.

To that end, I would ask you how much you have researched the various faculty at the programs you are interested in. I'm finding that this is a very extensive part of the process, and I'm going the extra mile in researching and trying to formulate a statement of purpose that clearly demonstrates that I would be a perfect fit at the various programs to which I'll be applying. It's not a magic bullet, but it's huge.

I hope this helps!

Edited by newenglandshawn

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Your previous training may or may not be adequate depending on what you want to do in the PhD program. What sort of work are you interested in/plan on proposing within NT? Further, some programs have a big emphasis on philology, some on theory, and so on. To some your lack of classical Greek/Latin will be a red flag, for others it will not. The same goes with German and/or French (competitive applicants usually have one started before applying). I'm also not sure submitting a writing sample on something controversial, at least given your worries of being seen as too conservative, is the best idea. It works for plenty of people, but your comment that you are including positions from such a disparate number of areas may further indicate my hunch. You don't want to submit a paper that has positions represented from Methodists alongside "Judaism," unless your paper is about exactly that topic, that is, how Methodist and "Jewish" interpretations of X passage in the NT are significant because Y. Anyways, this is a difficult process and one you learn about by asking. Give us some more information on your proposed sample and area of interest. 

 

best

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Apply. You never know what the applicant pool will look like, and where you came from has less to do with your admission than you might think. Students from conservative theological seminaries get into top programs every year, and some schools (like Yale, Baylor, Emory) are known for accepting evangelicals who want to do historically oriented work. What is relevant at even the most "secular" schools is not your theological background, but the quality of your work. They're gonna give you a fair shake, so do your best with the application and don't limit where you apply because you think they're going to judge your previous institution adversely. 

 

 

Regarding your writing sample - it is not a "research paper," where you are showing that you can read widely, but instead an opportunity to show that you are doing original research and moving the scholarly conversation forward. Interacting widely is important, but do not lose sight of the goal - making a contribution to the field, and creating new knowledge. 

 

The undergraduate GPA, however, is a factor at some schools. If you failed a course during your undergraduate, or otherwise underperformed, it can hurt your chances significantly. There is a lot of discussion about whether this should matter at institutions like Yale, for instance, and some professors disagree, but I can tell you one thing: it does. 

Edited by diazalon

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The program I know best is the Toronto School of Theology's. It is diverse and very rich (not financially but in terms of the faculty, offerings, and context). The PhD is being retooled and should be launched for new admissions this year. It will be a lot the same as the older program, but more streamlined with some new features and requirements (and some older requirements eliminated--fewer courses and comps, but now some required courses and tighter time limits). It is said that the admissions standards also will be tighter, since there will be fewer new admissions each year. 24 is the stated total number, inclusive of all six colleges (St Michael's, Trinity, Emmanuel, Wycliffe, Knox, and Regis) and all four departments (Bible, Theology, History, and Pastoral).

 

Is your seminary ATS accredited? This is key, and will determine whether your degree qualifies. Assuming it is, your MDiv gpa should meet the requirement for TST admissions (depending on who else applies). But your undergrad gpa will be considered as well, as you would expect. TST doesn't require GRE scores. However, it does require a thesis or a major research paper. Language requirements are fluid, but generally two languages are required for all students and more in the biblical field. I'd work on German as well as the Biblical languages if NT is your field of specialization. If you don't have it mastered at the time of admissions you'll have to learn it and it can be a pain to do while also undertaking your regular course work. You can't move on to comps until all language requirements are met and the new TST standards have comps in the 4th semester. 

 

Funding can be a challenge for US students. Because most TST students are Canadian, who pay far lower tuition, the aid given is also lower than most Americans would hope for. Canadian students also often receive generous state funded grants that aren't available to int'l students. However, the colleges are working to improve this and most have a few packages that are attractive. But unlike some programs and universities it won't be equal for all students, ie, some students will get "full funding" and others won't.

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Thank you all for your responses--each of them is very helpful!

 

Although I am concerned about how conservative my seminary is, I am more concerned that the only degree that I have is an MDiv. I presume that all of the other applicants have more advanced degrees, and that the applicants that do have only MDivs probably have exceptional credentials (e.g., higher GPA, near 99% GRE, publication(s), presentation(s) at SBL, stronger recommendations [or connections], etc.) that would make me look very ordinary. I looked briefly at various student bios at these types of institutions, and most of them seem to have a ThM. So I guess my main question is: is an MDiv enough to be a strong applicant for the top US NT PhD programs?

 

trinitymatthew - yes, it is ATS accredited. It is a legitimate institution, but its strong ideological conviction casts a shadow over scholarship, especially biblical studies.

 

diazalon - I think your distinction between writing sample and research paper is very helpful (but difficult for me to consistently apply!). I need to remind myself the scope of this sample, and how much I can cohesively fit within a ~20 page limit.

 

sacklunch - my focus would be on NT exegesis with a more theological perspective, which is probably more in line with places like Duke/Emory/Princeton, than places like Yale/Harvard/Chicago. My primary historical background would be from 2nd temple Judaism to early Christianity, but I'm also interested in the history of interpretation throughout the development of the church. My main strengths are my language abilities. Although I haven't acquired too many different languages, I am very confident in my ability to acquire new languages quickly and to integrate them into my research; I've been very comfortable and effective with the (limited) experience that I've had exegeting with Hebrew and Greek. Methodology would be determined by the genre of the passage, and the particular question that needs to be addressed. So I've incorporated some historical-critical methods in my research when applicable, but I personally enjoy a more literary and narrative approach. I'm pretty flexible and very open to learning about as many different approaches as possible, which is why I am drawn to a non-conservative institution (in fact, I am passionate about anything even remotely related to NT). I know, my interests are pretty plain and traditional, making me feel like I need to stand out somehow even more.

 

Your comments on questioning the wisdom of my topic are things that I've been mulling over throughout the summer. I'd love to share w/you more via a PM conversation if you are available.

 

newenglandshawn - thank you for empathizing with me! I just lifted up a prayer for you--I hope God grants you success in all of your efforts. Quick question: why have you waited for 2 years? More specifically, what do you think you concretely gained during these 2 years that is making you a stronger applicant? In hindsight, do you think it would've been better to have completed an MA or ThM during these past 2 years? The reason for my questions is that I've been debating on whether I should wait a year to solidify my applications (I probably won't be able to apply this year because I am too busy with my classes and family), or if I should enroll in a ThM program which I hope would strengthen my CV. If you are not comfortable answering these questions, then I completely understand. 

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newenglandshawn - thank you for empathizing with me! I just lifted up a prayer for you--I hope God grants you success in all of your efforts. Quick question: why have you waited for 2 years? More specifically, what do you think you concretely gained during these 2 years that is making you a stronger applicant? In hindsight, do you think it would've been better to have completed an MA or ThM during these past 2 years? The reason for my questions is that I've been debating on whether I should wait a year to solidify my applications (I probably won't be able to apply this year because I am too busy with my classes and family), or if I should enroll in a ThM program which I hope would strengthen my CV. If you are not comfortable answering these questions, then I completely understand. 

 

No, I don't mind at all. The reason I have put off applying until this year is multifaceted and complicated. There is not a single reason. Chiefly, though, life's competing demands have been vying for my attention. I currently pastor, and I have three young kids - including one just born in March. So that's the biggest reason. Just figuring out the right timing. There was also a short while that I was unsure if this was the path I wanted to pursue. But time has been very helpful, because it has definitely confirmed that I really, really want to do this.

 

Then there's other practical stuff that I didn't feel ready about: studying for the GRE (which still could have gone better for me, and I will be taking it again), working on my Hebrew (I will be applying to HB/OT), and the biggie, as I said before, is really, really feeling like I have a strong grasp of the faculty at the schools to which I'll be applying. Time has been very helpful in that regard because I have discovered some really important things about the various faculty just recently that I think will be extremely helpful when I apply.

 

So that's the short story. Hopefully it will all pay off.

 

You asked about pursuing another degree in the meantime: that's just not possible for me right now. The closest program that offers any sort of respectable Master's degree (or any Masters at all, for that matter), is in Boston - four hours away from where I live. There is not a single program in my whole area that I could go to that would supplement my academic record. And I'm not about to uproot my family for a year or two to get a second Master's - especially if I don't get into a PhD after that. So I'm kind of between a rock and a hard place - which makes your prayers all the more helpful! So thank you. I will definitely lift you up in prayer as well.

 

As of now, I'm planning to apply this year and see what happens. If I don't get in (which I'm definitely bracing myself for), we will have to re-evaluate.

 

And who knows - maybe we'll find ourselves in the same program some day as well. I'm planning to also apply to Duke and Princeton Seminary (as well as Harvard and Boston University - with the jury still out on Baylor, Notre Dame, and Emory [though unlikely on those]).

 

By the way, you asked about McMaster Divinity: I have also looked into their program but from what I've been able to gather, they definitely seem to be pretty evangelical in their approach and reputation - as far as I can gather. That, to me, is not a terrible thing, because I would ultimately have no problem going to an evangelical school if I had to (although the finances would be the main issue). It all just depends on what your ultimate goal is for after doctoral studies. Generally speaking, if you are interested in teaching at an evangelical school, you can get by with an evangelical doctorate - although, of course, getting a doctorate from a top tier program would likely give you a leg up on those who don't. 

 

The main thing with McMaster - as with any evangelical school - is the funding. There is very little. And, with a family to take care of, I simply cannot afford pay for school or to take out more loans. 

 

But I will say this: McMaster is very persistent with their e-mails (I just got another one from them today). I will give them that!

Edited by newenglandshawn

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.....

 

Oops. I thought I hit "edit" on my last post but instead hit "quote." I then posted it without realizing it, and now there is no way to delete the post (that I know of). Strange.

Edited by newenglandshawn

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newenglandshawn - thank you for your response. Looks like you are right on--our backgrounds are almost identical. I'm sending you a PM in case if you want to continue the dialogue. 

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newenglandshawn - thank you for your response. Looks like you are right on--our backgrounds are almost identical. I'm sending you a PM in case if you want to continue the dialogue. 

 

Sounds good. I look forward to continued dialogue.

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If your seminary has more of an emphasis on biblical languages than the average program then you might not need a ThM or another M*. The MDiv at many divinity schools is jam packed full of requirements, which makes plenty of sense for the intended purpose of the degree. It is not uncommon for students to finish the MDiv and really have only taken a few advanced classes in their area of interest. Perhaps another concern with the MDiv is many students take courses with other students with no formal background, thus changing the level of requirements for the course and discourse level within; the ThM is often the time to show what you're made of (viz. doctoral courses, maybe a thesis, and so on). As you likely already know almost all ThM degrees are unfunded. You might consider as an alternative applying to some better funded M* degrees in related areas just to get some funding, even if you don't actually finish the degree (I have a friend who did an MDiv and an MTS after, another who has 2 MTS degrees, and so on). Either way, there's no reason to not apply to both M* and PhD programs. Good luck mate. 

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Lots of people enter PhD programs with just an MDiv. The decision to get a ThM or not is one you have to make based on how ready you think you are and how good your application currently is. For me, the ThM was an excellent way to get experience in doctoral seminars and gain the confidence to move on to a PhD. Not everyone needs that. As for going to a conservative school, my feeling is that most places won't penalize you if you demonstrate that you have left inerrancy and such behind. You can get a good basic education at a place like TEDS or Wheaton, so as long as you demonstrate you are ready to move on it probably won't matter. Some conservative seminaries have poor academic reputations which might be a problem. Places like Moody or any of the SBC seminaries can really hamper an application. If you went somewhere like that, getting a ThM from Duke, Candler, etc. can act as a palate cleanser of sorts. 

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From personal experience, I can confirm what others are saying regarding the sufficiency of a MDiv degree, even from an evangelical school.  I attended a very small evangelical divinity school where only a few students per year tend to pursue graduate studies.  However, in the last three years, we have had students placed in PhD programs at Duke, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Marquette, Baylor, Saint Louis, and Toronto.  None of those students earned more than a MDiv degree.  This is not to say they lacked preparation on things such as languages (which are crucial).  Our MDiv program required a minimum of two years of biblical Greek and two years of Hebrew and all of the more academically inclined students I know also elected to take Latin during their time at the school.  The point is, having a MDiv from an evangelical school is not an insurmountable obstacle to being accepted at a reputable school.  

 

That being said, I agree with Kuriakos that the decision on whether you should do more preparation is relative to many factors.  You have not mentioned what school you went to, but if you think that it has a negative reputation among the schools you're applying to or if you think none of your professors have personal connections with professors at these schools (a negative sign), then you may want to consider diversifying your credentials by attending a more well-known school.  Furthermore, MDiv programs vary wildly in their curricular structures, so it is almost impossible to say how sufficient your coursework has been.  Languages are incredibly important and, while a knowledge of biblical Greek and Hebrew are essential, you may want to consider adding classical Greek, Latin, Coptic, Aramaic, etc.--whatever seems most relevant to your area of research.  Modern research languages are certainly a plus, but I would place greater emphasis on ancient languages (especially if you want to do biblical studies).  At the end of the day, however,  one of the most crucial aspects of getting into a PhD program is, as newenglandshawn mentioned, your "fit" in the program.  Know the interests of the professors at various schools you're applying to; survey the most recent dissertation topics in the department to get an idea of what students there are interested in; talk to current students about the program and its emphases.  Doing this kind of research will help you to know whether you would be a good fit and enable you to make that case in your statement of intent.  Of course, there are other important factors that are totally beyond your control, such as inter-departmental politics, which professor(s) is in need of students, whether the department perceives a need for greater diversity among its graduate students, when certain professors might be taking sabbaticals, etc.  

 

 I hope this helps.  Best of luck in your applications!

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Just a note on this: I have been e-mailing with Richard Hays at Duke (Dean), and he said that for both OT and NT, they only accept about 1 in 50 students per year. Because of the economic situation that has effected every seminary/divinity school/university, the program has become even more competitive. I'll just quote directly what he told me:

 

"In recent years Duke has experienced the same financial constraints that have affected many graduate programs in the humanities.  Consequently, our admissions situation, which has always been highly competitive, has become even more so. In recent years we have admitted fewer than five percent of the applicants in the field of New Testament.  In terms of specific numbers, that has normally meant one admitted applicant out of more than fifty applying to the program each year.  Nearly all applicants are highly qualified.  Our faculty finds this a frustrating state of affairs, but for now this is the reality with which we must deal. 

 

Successful applicants nearly always have GRE scores above 700 in both verbal and quantitative categories (with the verbal score the more important of the two).  Of course, letters of reference and the cogency of the applicant’s personal statement are also important factors in the admissions process.  In recent years, some applicants have sought to strengthen their credentials by doing an additional master's degree in a major university program before applying (Yale, Duke, Emory, Chicago, Oxford, Cambridge, etc.).  A few students who have pursued this line have gained admission.  But I want to emphasize that there can be no guarantees, and students are always well advised to apply to a number of programs in order to maximize their chances for admission." 

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Just a note on this: I have been e-mailing with Richard Hays at Duke (Dean), and he said that for both OT and NT, they only accept about 1 in 50 students per year. Because of the economic situation that has effected every seminary/divinity school/university, the program has become even more competitive. I'll just quote directly what he told me:

 

"In recent years Duke has experienced the same financial constraints that have affected many graduate programs in the humanities.  Consequently, our admissions situation, which has always been highly competitive, has become even more so. In recent years we have admitted fewer than five percent of the applicants in the field of New Testament.  In terms of specific numbers, that has normally meant one admitted applicant out of more than fifty applying to the program each year.  Nearly all applicants are highly qualified.  Our faculty finds this a frustrating state of affairs, but for now this is the reality with which we must deal. 

 

Successful applicants nearly always have GRE scores above 700 in both verbal and quantitative categories (with the verbal score the more important of the two).  Of course, letters of reference and the cogency of the applicant’s personal statement are also important factors in the admissions process.  In recent years, some applicants have sought to strengthen their credentials by doing an additional master's degree in a major university program before applying (Yale, Duke, Emory, Chicago, Oxford, Cambridge, etc.).  A few students who have pursued this line have gained admission.  But I want to emphasize that there can be no guarantees, and students are always well advised to apply to a number of programs in order to maximize their chances for admission." 

 

Thanks for this, Ryan. Two questions: is he speaking of the PhD or the ThD? Also, I didn't see him say anything about the OT there. But is the 50 you/he spoke of meaning 50 each for OT and NT (which would be 100 total), or a combined 50 between OT and NT? I would have a hard time believing it would be the former, as they get about 160 applications a year (for the PhD) - which would thus leave only 60 other applicants for all other fields.

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That's for the PhD in the Graduate Program in Religion. The ThD, while also very competitive, is slightly less so. Last year Duke's 'overall' acceptance rate in the PhD was somewhere around 4.5%. This is more or less the same at the big names in the field. 

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Yeah, sacklunch is right, he was speaking of the PhD in the GPR. He didn't speak to the competitiveness of the ThD, but yeah it seems to be slightly less competitive, one reason being that when one applies to the ThD, one's not applying right away to a specific field. 

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Last year Duke's 'overall' acceptance rate in the PhD was somewhere around 4.5%.

 

I'm curious about the discrepancy between this number (and what Dr. Hays reported - even though it was specific to Biblical Studies), and what the admissions page itself says. According to this page, the Graduate Program in Religion received 169 applications last year, and offered admission to 12 persons (a 7% acceptance rate). This is still, obviously, quite low - but still about 50% higher than a 4.5% acceptance rate!

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. . . one reason being that when one applies to the ThD, one's not applying right away to a specific field. 

 

I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the application process for the ThD program - but this is not necessarily the impression I have gotten. Could you explain what you mean when you say that one is not "applying right away to a specific field"? From what I've been told by admissions, a person is definitely applying to one of four major categories - Biblical Studies, Historical Studies, Ministerial Studies, or Theological Studies.

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I'm curious about the discrepancy between this number (and what Dr. Hays reported - even though it was specific to Biblical Studies), and what the admissions page itself says. According to this page, the Graduate Program in Religion received 169 applications last year, and offered admission to 12 persons (a 7% acceptance rate). This is still, obviously, quite low - but still about 50% higher than a 4.5% acceptance rate!

 

Good call. I'm not sure where I saw the 4.5% acceptance. It was from a page associated with Duke. Perhaps it was, as you rightly point out, related specifically to NT (which along with EC has historically been the most competitive track). 

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I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the application process for the ThD program - but this is not necessarily the impression I have gotten. Could you explain what you mean when you say that one is not "applying right away to a specific field"? From what I've been told by admissions, a person is definitely applying to one of four major categories - Biblical Studies, Historical Studies, Ministerial Studies, or Theological Studies.

 

What I was trying to say is that with the GPR you are applying to one specific subfield (like NT), and what I got from Hays is that you're primarily competing against the other folks applying to your specific subfield, not against the whole applicant pool. The ThD (as I understand it), however, is interdisciplinary in focus, so you aren't competing for only one spot with folks in your sub-discipline, but you're competing for one of several spots in the ThD program as a whole. That's my understanding as to why it might be less competitive.

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From personal experience, I can confirm what others are saying regarding the sufficiency of a MDiv degree, even from an evangelical school.  I attended a very small evangelical divinity school where only a few students per year tend to pursue graduate studies.  However, in the last three years, we have had students placed in PhD programs at Duke, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Marquette, Baylor, Saint Louis, and Toronto.  None of those students earned more than a MDiv degree.  This is not to say they lacked preparation on things such as languages (which are crucial).  Our MDiv program required a minimum of two years of biblical Greek and two years of Hebrew and all of the more academically inclined students I know also elected to take Latin during their time at the school.  The point is, having a MDiv from an evangelical school is not an insurmountable obstacle to being accepted at a reputable school.  

 

That being said, I agree with Kuriakos that the decision on whether you should do more preparation is relative to many factors.  You have not mentioned what school you went to, but if you think that it has a negative reputation among the schools you're applying to or if you think none of your professors have personal connections with professors at these schools (a negative sign), then you may want to consider diversifying your credentials by attending a more well-known school.  Furthermore, MDiv programs vary wildly in their curricular structures, so it is almost impossible to say how sufficient your coursework has been.  Languages are incredibly important and, while a knowledge of biblical Greek and Hebrew are essential, you may want to consider adding classical Greek, Latin, Coptic, Aramaic, etc.--whatever seems most relevant to your area of research.  Modern research languages are certainly a plus, but I would place greater emphasis on ancient languages (especially if you want to do biblical studies).  At the end of the day, however,  one of the most crucial aspects of getting into a PhD program is, as newenglandshawn mentioned, your "fit" in the program.  Know the interests of the professors at various schools you're applying to; survey the most recent dissertation topics in the department to get an idea of what students there are interested in; talk to current students about the program and its emphases.  Doing this kind of research will help you to know whether you would be a good fit and enable you to make that case in your statement of intent.  Of course, there are other important factors that are totally beyond your control, such as inter-departmental politics, which professor(s) is in need of students, whether the department perceives a need for greater diversity among its graduate students, when certain professors might be taking sabbaticals, etc.  

 

 I hope this helps.  Best of luck in your applications!

 

Tollelege, your response is helpful. If you're not too busy, I sent you a PM and I'd love to hear some more of your thoughts.

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