These reflections supplement other helpful advice on PhD application processes, e.g. from http://seanmichaellucas.blogspot.com/2008/05/ministerial-students-calling-and-phd.html ; http://nijaygupta.wordpress.com/phd-advice/ (which has now spawned a useful book) ; and, more particularly for theology, http://stackblog.wordpress.com/thinking-about-a-phd/. Here I offer reflections that may be transferable to other contexts, but Wheaton's own program is especially in view.
A PhD is very hard. (1) That's partly due to dysfunctional academic contexts, but theology programs in both Christian and non-Christian settings are not immune to such problems. (2) Ultimately, PhD programs are properly hard because academic life is hard, so you should only receive the credentials if you can handle the reality. Being a teacher-scholar is full of profound delights but also heavy demands. Those demands are not just arbitrary or dysfunctional, and students often glimpse the delights of an intellectual calling while neglecting its demands. Joy comes when you find that God has called and gifted you for both, so the firs task in a PhD application process is ...
Discerning Whether to Apply
A PhD takes several years, requiring money in hand and/or debt. Make sure your family is supportive, with the stability and infrastructure to handle this. (a) Do not be naive about how much money you'll make with the degree. You'll probably start out making $50,000 per year if you're fortunate. Depending on the cost of living where you land, that doesn't leave a lot for paying off loans. (b) Do not be naive about how much money you'll have during the degree. Relatively few schools provide stipends for students in biblical and theological studies; by no means do all schools even provide free tuition. Often these schools lie in expensive metropolitan areas. Students who want to "start a family" at the same time face additional, not just financial, pressures. (This poses particular challenges for women, which unfortunately the academy still far too often accommodates only partially and grudgingly.) It is naive to think you'll live comfortably in a nice-sized house during or even after the degree.
A PhD takes other forms of perseverance, including the right blend of humility and confidence for weathering storms of competition while struggling with quantity and quality of work you've never faced before. Then, after the degree is in sight, you face the job market!
A PhD takes high academic aptitude, not just interest in studying more or the ability to get decent grades from your master's level professors. Grade inflation is a common reality that easily misleads you. Moreover, most master's level assignments--especially in seminaries--are structured very differently from doctoral level work. Thus many well-meaning applicants have no conception of what a PhD program means by "an original contribution to scholarship" (see below).
A PhD therefore takes distinguishing application features, such as strong GRE scores (for U.S. programs anyway). If your scores (especially verbal) are in the 90th+ percentile and your analytical writing score is 5.5 or 6.0, then you might be competitive for a top-tier program (e.g., Notre Dame; Princeton Seminary; Duke). If your scores are in the 80th-85th+ percentile and your analytical writing score is at least 5.0, then you might normally be competitive for a second-tier program (e.g., Marquette; Loyola; Wheaton; TEDS). If your scores are significantly below the 75th percentile and your analytical writing score is not at least 4.0 or 4.5, then you should not even bother applying. With less than ideal scores, you might be competitive for some second-tier programs depending on the rest of the applicant class in a given year. Even with ideal scores, such tests are only a threshold through which one passes to start a more competitive process; they are no guarantee of admission unless they are exceedingly high, and then only at certain places.
Moreover, a PhD requires "counting the cost" in general. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else besides a PhD, then probably go do that. The job market suggests that in most fields evangelicals in particular do not need more applicants; we need a few better-prepared ones. The church, meanwhile, quite likely needs more intelligent and intellectually-curious pastoral staff members. Let the one who has ears, hear.
Yet, having said that, you should still consider your particular gifts and opportunities. The depressed academic job market has led to fewer and fewer PhD applications in biblical and theological studies in the last couple of years. In general, well-prepared women, ethnic minority, and international graduates--and therefore applicants and students--remain desperately needed at institutions like Wheaton. Therefore it remains possible for really strong students of any background to gain admission and later job placement, while it is also possible for less-prepared "diversity" applicants to enter into conversation with us about how to gain the preparation that would make a subsequent application and PhD experience successful.
Finally, a bottom line is that you should ask your potential recommenders to be really honest with you rather than simply agreeing to write bland, secret reference letters. You need to give them the freedom to do this, because--speaking from experience--it is not easy to tell someone with a heart set on a PhD that they're probably not cut out for it. But you need someone to care for you enough to be as helpful as they can--and it is more helpful to have a little direct pain quickly than longer indirect pain later on. Furthermore, on a positive note, I had a seminary professor voluntarily tell me that I was not well cut out for pastoral ministry in certain respects, whereas "if you don't go into the academy, you're wasting your gifts." If a professor tells you that, then again let the one who has ears, hear.
Determining When/Where to Apply
Pursue multiple options, especially if you are applying to top-tier programs, which frequently face a range of considerations beyond test scores and references. Diversity concerns, balanced supervisor loads, upcoming sabbaticals, etc., affect admission decisions. So don't apply at just one or two places, unless you have your heart set on something in particular and you're willing to wait or settle for alternatives.
Prioritize your potential supervisor(s) since, while a school's reputation is important, you are going to apprentice yourself to one or more key people for several years. At minimum they need to be willing to supervise someone with your theological commitments and intellectual interests. At maximum they should be people you would be delighted to imitate in teaching and scholarship ... and even life. Ideally the person's reputation would make their reference letters useful in the network within which you want a job. Moreover, visit and/or ask current students how approachable and available they are. Is this a person who would make you wait six months for feedback on a dissertation chapter? who would refuse to read your work or meet with you during a sabbatical? Etc. These are real-world and even typical scenarios.
Contact one or more potential supervisors at each school, once you have matched a set of schools to your interests and aptitude. They can steer you in helpful directions for the application process. You might also learn how approachable and available they are.
Expect no magic formula for knowing when to apply. Some students need a year or two off, to recharge batteries and avoid burnout, or to experience vocational ministry, etc. Other students know where they're going, find school energizing, and get enough breaks already, so they should proceed full steam ahead. Do not be naive about how much study and further preparation you'll achieve in a year or two off; academic accountability structures exist partly because of how ineffective we are on our own. Unless you simply have to improve or gain languages or test scores, for example, and can realistically expect to accomplish that work by yourself, then assume that years off are years academically lost. Do not be naive enough to believe that most successful applicants ever feel academically ready. You can always look around and find someone else smarter or better prepared, because we tend to focus these comparisons on others' strengths and our own weaknesses.
Developing an Application
Beyond what has emerged above regarding GRE scores etc., get good references--people who know you well and whom others know well, with at least one in your particular field, if at all possible. Get as many languages in place as strongly as possible. Build some preliminary contact(s) at the various schools, and learn the nuances of what particular programs ask for in their applications. PRAY! But there are still more crucial elements ...
Writing sample. Pay attention to guidelines a school provides, for instance regarding length. Not all schools throw out samples that are too long, but some probably do and others are tempted! Professors on admissions committees have enough grading to do already; they aren't interested in reading tons of papers. They skim the samples of students whose test scores, etc., interest them. They look at intros and conclusions to see if you can set forth a clear thesis and plausible, cogent arguments. They look briefly at the middle to see if you cite a range of good sources. and if you cite enough to be scholarly but not so much that you parrot others and demonstrate no creative thought of your own. If you provide a document that adheres to no style/format guide, and/or is replete with spelling and grammar errors, expect your application to go no farther. Ideally your writing sample bears some significant relation to the proposed subject of your doctoral research. (Many theology applicants send Wheaton writing samples of biblical exegesis. To be sure, this is an essential theological skill. But it is not the whole of the enterprise, and it is difficult on that basis alone to discern whether a student has aptitude for the tasks of historical or especially systematic theology.)
Application essays. It is possible to cut and paste considerable amounts of text between various applications, but again do not neglect the nuances of particular programs. Application essays are your chance to "spin" yourself--honestly. If you have one or more perceived deficiencies, these essays offer a chance to interpret them for the committee. For instance, if you got a C in first-semester Greek, was this due to bad language aptitude? or instead to family trauma, acclimation to seminary, too many credit hours, etc.?
Dissertation subject. For certain programs--especially in the U.K. and at Wheaton, with its attempt at a hybrid U.S./U.K. model--your proposed research agenda is very important. You don't want to have a dissertation proposal so entirely worked out that the school/supervisor would have no room for input. Yet you don't want to convey that you have no idea what you're doing. Some schools/supervisors use this as a weeding-out mechanism; one famous British New Testament scholar told me that whether or not an applicant could find a good thesis topic on their own was a crucial test for deserving admission. Others are more willing--indeed, prefer--to have the process be somewhat dialogical, especially in the year of application. The applicant states a fairly broad area of interest and the professor gives a hint or two about how to focus it; then the applicant writes again with a more focused version, with the professor giving a "right-track" or "wrong-track" response before the final application, etc.
Wheaton probably fits this latter model more than the former: We do want to hear from applicants at least once in advance. But some initial emails indicate that applicants are so unfamiliar with the concept of writing a dissertation that I basically cross them off my mental list of prospects. Others are so hopelessly broad (e.g., "I want to do something on theological hermeneutics") that a professor can't imagine a reasonable process for getting the applicant from broader A to narrower B. A better initial email is one step more focused (e.g., "I want to engage dogmatically a key biblical-theological theme about readers of Scripture) and may even propose a couple of options (e.g., "I want to work on a theology of an intellectual virtue or vice, such as humility or curiosity" or "I want to work on a contemporary dispute in Jonathan Edwards studies, such as his doctrine of justification or whether he had a dispositional ontology"). In an even more ideal world, you have an angle on how to go about this (e.g., my key theme for readers of Scripture involves royal priesthood; or, my key angle on intellectual humility involves Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine re the Incarnation; or, my key contribution on this Edwards dispute involves doing new work on his sermons--those are all real examples from dissertations I've supervised).
(BTW, many evangelical students become interested in biblical theology and/or narrative approaches. As a result they propose to throw out more traditional systematic theology or "dogmatic" approaches and to develop a "whole-Bible" redemptive-historical synthesis on a subject. This is almost never possible within the narrow scope of a dissertation. It also usually reflects a lack of understanding and appreciation of systematic theology as an academic discipline, of what counts as a contribution to scholarship therein.)
The first step is recognizing the acceptable scope of a reading area for beginning dissertation work. Such a reading area is not simply a subject of interest--say, the arts--but includes a more particular manner of approaching the subject: say, Wolterstorff's theory of art; the arts and evangelism; the Bible and music; the arts as rhetoric; etc.
(Other students send in writing samples and/or proposals that contain long bibliographies indicating they read extensively within such an area. But these students provide only description--a survey of literary territory. Often they think that such a description--of, say, a biblical narrative approach to the arts--would be tremendously helpful to the church. And it might, but it may already have been done in the academy. Sometimes master's theses don't go much farther than this either; their argument consists in providing the state of scholarship on a given question.)
A dissertation, however, must press on to a second step: a research question that either no one has asked before, or else no one has answered satisfactorily, or about which people currently disagree, or about which people have not talked in a while. (In this regard see helpful guides such as Booth/Colomb/Williams's The Craft of Research. An especially useful resource is Graff/Birkenstein's "They Say/I Say"--run, don't walk, to get it if you struggle in this area!)
You cannot read everything relevant to an area before framing a research question, let alone writing a dissertation. Yet you must do significant reconnaissance: What may help the move from a reading area to a research question is to understand the disciplinary structure of academic organization. Reading areas may overlap with several academic disciplines or subdisciplines. An original contribution to scholarship answers a research question about a reading area from a particular methodological perspective and for a particular disciplinary audience, even if still others might be interested. Thus, if you propose to "describe" or "analyze" Wolterstorff's theory of art in some new fashion, your project is a "historical" one; if you propose to "build on" or "apply" Wolterstorff's theory of art in some new fashion, your project is a more "systematic" or "philosophical" one. Of course these are fuzzy boundaries, as indicated by the way a task like "evaluate" falls in the middle, but boundaries they are--at least in the academy.
Accordingly, your thesis proposal needs to be clear about the primary method(s) by which you can answer the research question in a distinctively new way. At a broad level, to describe/analyze Wolterstorff's theory of art is of interest in the field of "historical theology." However, it might also be of interest within a larger project of "systematic theology," if for example you need a theory of art as action to form part of your approach to the role of the arts in evangelism. The crucial issue is what methods will be convincing to what audiences at what parts of your thesis.
In systematic theology the descriptive/analytic work that some might call "history of doctrine" can be a major methodological component of a project. But usually you will need to press on, developing implications of the new historical understanding. Let's say you establish what Wolterstorff says: So what? Is he right? And on what basis? What new insight does he provide relative to others' approaches or in this new area of conversation?
The upshot of all this is that you cannot simply send in a dissertation reading area; yet, probably, you are not able to prepare a fully developed research question. In between, however, manifest that you have done enough reading and reconnaissance to know who some major players are and what issue you want to tackle. A research question will emerge more fully formed once you discern the primary method(s) by which you contribute to the discipline of systematic theology. At the application stage, you should minimally work to indicate that what you're proposing has not yet been done or needs to be done anew or at the very least contains areas for further exploration in which to find such a proposed focus. So, for instance, if there were several analyses of Wolterstorff's theory of art, but few or no instances of its application to the arts in evangelism, is this a more specific project worth a dissertation, or only a journal article? If the latter, can you find a way of expanding the material--via other authors, a fuller defense of the theory dealing with Scripture and/or recent responses to Wolterstorff, implications for concrete practices, or perhaps expansion from evangelism to a broader motif such as mission or the church's cultural engagement?
If all this seems very fuzzy, then go to the library and obtain (via interlibrary loan if necessary) dissertations to examine--ideally from the school(s) and supervisor(s) in question. Read renowned books in your field, especially for their structure and methodological setup--notably, books that began life as dissertations. Accept the fact that most of your master's level papers--and maybe even a thesis--did not demand the kind of work a dissertation does. Sit still with scratch paper--and think creatively at random moments--about your own approach to material before or alongside dealing mostly descriptively with what others give you. Dissertations don't leave analytical exposition behind, but gain size and scope via argumentative summaries and transitions that stitch more descriptive elements together with (we hope) your fundamental creative insight. This insight may seem quite modest relative to the time and paper devoted to the project. Yet even the dissertation legwork involved in proving what is fairly predictable or obvious may constitute a creative contribution, because these contributions are not made simply to a subject area but to the state of scholarship on a given subject area. That is why, if you don't already understand how the theological academy works, to do so is your first step in crafting a dissertation proposal.