I find myself frequently guiding want-to-be doctoral students through a series of questions to help them determine a) if they really “want to be” a doctoral student and b) if so, how to determine the right program. Many end up pursuing a different path after the conversation than before, so here is my attempt (as a doctoral program director and an earned PhD recipient) at guiding YOU through a decision process.
Step 1: Supply the Why
As Simon Sinek famously taught us in his Ted Talk (and subsequent book), we ought always to start with WHY? Why are you pursuing a doctoral degree? And let me help you: If your “why” for pursuing a doctoral degree is “because I’ve always wanted one”, DO NOT PROCEED! A doctoral degree will require far more motivation than “I want one” will provide. Even many ABDs (that’s doctoral lingo for “all but dissertation”, which conservative estimates put around 50%) have much more motivation than that.
A terminal degree journey requires a lot of time, money and energy. It requires sacrifice not only on your part, but also on the part of those around you (this is why so many doctoral dissertations are dedicated to spouses and children). If you’re going to pay the steep price required, you better be clear on your “why”.
Step 2: Plow to How
If you’ve gotten this far – you have a clear purpose for pursuing a doctoral degree – it’s time to determine what type of doctoral degree will help you accomplish that purpose. The most common terminal degree is the Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD. PhD degrees are sought in a variety of topics or disciplines but are recognized, generally, as the highest level of doctoral degree. These degrees are typically sought by people who have hopes of working in research, higher education, or other scholarly careers.
There are also a wide variety of practitioner degrees that are designed to develop skills in specific contexts. The Doctor of Ministry, or DMin, is a prime example. This degree is designed for people who are in ministry (“practitioners”) and are looking for further skill development for immediate use within their context. All terminal degrees require dissertation research, though the type of research varies depending on the goals of the program. Be sure to understand what type of research will culminate the program you are considering.
Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School offers three doctoral degrees: a PhD in Leadership, a PhD in Biblical Studies, and a Doctor of Ministry (with several concentration offerings).
Once you’ve found the type of degree that will adequately equip you (how) for your purpose (why), you need to consider whether or not you have the right credentials for that degree. Different schools and different programs may have different requirements for admission based on accreditation and program objectives. Some may require leveling work, additional masters-level work, or other particular pre-requisites.
LBC | Capital’s programs are designed for life-engaged learners. Blended learning models combine the convenience of digital learning and valuable face-to-face residential components to provide accessible and accelerated terminal degrees.
Step 3: Hitch to Which
Now that you’ve articulated why you want a doctoral degree and the type of degree that is right for you, it’s time to consider what type of focus you will have and at which school you will pursue it. Here are a few “big rocks” you may want to consider:
- Scope & Sequence: How long is the program? How many courses do I have to take at once? When are they offered? Does it go year-round or will I have breaks to rest between semesters?
- Financial Cost: The price-tag is easy to define. But there may be additional costs for travel to residencies, and costs related to research.
- Personal Cost: Consider how the program will impact family schedules, career aspirations and job responsibilities, social life and other personal goals.
- Delivery Method: How is the coursework delivered? Is work primarily online or in a classroom? Is work primarily asynchronous, allowing flexibility for students, or synchronous requiring a more rigid schedule? Will it require travel for residential components? How will they fit my work/personal calendar?
- Student Support Philosophy: Schools offering doctoral degrees vary in their support of students. Many are largely hands-off, expecting the student to figure it out. While all doctoral programs assume a high level of independence in their students, some provide more mentorship and direction for students throughout the program, particularly during the research phase. If you believe relationships with and support from faculty are important for your success, be sure to select a program that will provide it.
- Collaboration: Some doctoral programs are offered in a cohort format that provides a community of learners who journey together throughout the program. This can provide deep relationships that enhance the learning culture throughout and provide a sort of positive peer pressure for completing the program. This may be preferable to some, while a more individualized plan may be attractive to others.
Step 4: Begin All In
A terminal degree is not for everyone – the application process alone can feel like pursuing an entire degree. This is because adequate assessment of an applicant’s “mission fit-ness” for a program requires many elements. It will likely include an application fee to cover all the processing as well. Be sure you understand all that is required for the school/program you are interested in and plan adequate time to complete all necessary steps prior to application deadlines. Many programs are highly competitive, so give yourself plenty of time to show your best!