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I am currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh. My undergraduate and graduate work, however, was completed at a relatively small and conservative school, Cincinnati Christian University. I labored at Cincinnati under the conviction that since my school was unknown to many of the institutions I wanted to apply to for doctoral work, I had to work extra hard in order to prove myself and overcome that unknown quantity attached to my degrees. Perhaps that conviction was only partially based on reality—some scholars I dialogued with informed me that their department did not care where the applicant had previously studied. I remained skeptical, however, after two incidents. First, an administrator at the University of Notre Dame admitted to me that some members of an admission committee would not consider an applicant, regardless of other qualifications, if they viewed the applicant's current institution with suspicion. Second, a friend of mine who had also studied at Cincinnati Christian and then continued on to do doctoral work at a Scottish university told me that after a year of study, in which he had proven himself capable, a member of the academic staff there admitted to him that when his application had initially arrived the admission committee laughed at it—only when one of the committee members recognized his reference as a former colleague did they consider it seriously. In light of such realities, what should a graduate student do when he or she wants to pursue doctoral work, but must also face the fact that their present school may hinder their pursuit? I write this brief essay as an autobiographical account of helpful advice I received in my application process to others who may find themselves in a similar situation.

Start the Application Process Early
The single best piece of advice that I received came from Dr. James A. Smith, a professor at Cincinnati Christian University. He told me, "Informally begin the application process two years before you want to show up on campus." His point was that, if you are from a small school, you cannot afford to take the chance that a program may judge you solely on your institution—i.e., you cannot afford to be just a piece of paper alongside many others. Thus, I needed to view my application process as starting long before I actually mailed the application packet. When I contacted the scholar I most wanted to study with, this advice was confirmed. He told me he was always encouraged when people contacted him this early because it meant they were already planning ahead and taking their route to doctoral work seriously. I was able to meet with this scholar because of the next piece of advice.

Go to SBL Meetings and Participate as a Student Member
Every academic cross-section in biblical studies has its own reasons for attending these conferences apart from the book discounts. Seasoned scholars are there to display their recent work, see old friends, and generally glad-hand everyone. PhD students are there to prove themselves and grovel for jobs. The smallest percentage of participants is graduate students, and they are, or should be, there for different reasons from both of the first two groups, especially if from a small or unknown institution. To keep a proper perspective, a graduate student should enter the meeting assuming that many of the conversations in the sessions will be over his or her head. This perspective is appropriate for two reasons. First, it keeps the student from becoming annoyed and frustrated at their possible inability to keep up. Second, the real point is not to realize how far one is from participating in the discussion, but how far one has to go. That is, for graduate students from small or unknown schools, there needs to be a steady gravitation toward realizing that, if he or she desires to do doctoral work, this is the proper peer group against which to measure progress. Beyond this, it affords students the opportunities to meet face to face with scholars they are interested in studying under—this is an opportunity students from small or unknown schools cannot afford to miss. I was encouraged to attend the SBL Annual meeting for just these reasons, and found that the multiple benefits of going to SBL Meetings far outweigh the registration and membership costs.

Contact Scholars
If you get the opportunity to attend an SBL meeting, you will realize that there are two types of established scholars (at least this was my experience), those who are interested in talking to and helping students and those who are interested in talking to and helping themselves. This is the same for other forms of communication as well. As a graduate student, I resolved that the worst that could happen if I emailed someone I was interested in studying with, was that they would not return the email, and in that case I had had as much communication with them as before I had emailed and so not lost anything with the attempt. Most schools' websites encourage prospective PhD students to contact their faculty, however, and graduate students should take advantage of this opportunity. Tell the scholar who you are, what you are interested in working on, and why you are interested in working with him or her. Also, make sure to ask what steps he or she would recommend you take in order to best prepare yourself for doctoral work at that school. Keep in mind, also, that you are probably not the only student they hear from, so don't be upset if there's not an immediate reply. If a school is serious about recruitment, and they can tell you're serious about coming there, you'll hear back.

Identify Resources on Your Current Campus Who Can Help You Achieve Your Goal
Though it was a small school, one strong point of my undergraduate and graduate institution, CCU, was that, since there were fewer people who wanted to go the specific route that I did, I was competing with fewer fellow students for one-on-one time with professors. Every campus should have at least one professor who is experienced with doctoral level work. Seek these individuals out, and ask if they could help you achieve your goal. At the beginning of my graduate work, I expressed to Dr. Tom Thatcher, my advisor, that I wanted to be prepared for PhD work when I left CCU. He was then able to assess my papers and MA thesis in a manner that helped me attain that goal. Beware, however, that if you really want professors to help you, part of that is asking them to identify your biggest weaknesses so you can improve upon them or perhaps even asking if the academic route is the right one for you. If you are from a small or unknown school, take advantage of the things that your school can offer that bigger schools cannot—without being annoying, work consistently to capitalize on the personal attention that may be available.

Do Well on the GRE
The degree of importance attached to your GRE score depends on where you want to pursue doctoral work. American programs require it, while most British and Canadian schools either encourage it or are indifferent. Some British schools now require GRE scores for American applicants, though. If a level playing field exists for PhD applicants, the GRE is it. Though it would be inappropriate to put either too much or too little significance on a GRE score on a personal level, admission committees can place a significant amount of weight upon it. A mediocre GRE score is not the end of the world, and certainly does not in itself display an inability to undertake doctoral work. However, a high score can open many doors, not only for admission but also for scholarships and stipends. A good GRE score is a key for students from small or unknown institutions who want to prove their ability to compete with applicants from better known institutions.

Motivate Yourself
Some schools may judge you poorly based on your current institution; some schools may not. The fact of the matter is, however, that the situation is out of your control. The only thing within your control is to be ready to prove yourself if given the chance. That you may be sold short can (or should) be a powerful motivational factor, encouraging you simply to work harder and be ready when an opportunity does come. As I have steadily progressed through various academic levels, I have been surprised to realize how little success has to do with intellect and how much it has to do with work ethic (not to suggest that brains has nothing to do with it!). In this respect, being from a small or unknown school presents the student with a rare advantage over students from better known schools. Without the support of an institutional framework or the cash value of an institution's reputation, you are forced to rely solely upon yourself. This is important when applying to programs as well: Students from small or unknown schools will have a much better chance of admission to departments that look at the individual's work and accomplishments rather than their current campus address.

Students from small or unknown graduate schools face unique obstacles in accomplishing their goals of doctoral work. There are both advantages and disadvantages for these students, but it will be the rare case where the school alone can be blamed for a student's lack of success. Perhaps the most important thing for a student in this situation is a realistic mindset, being fully aware of the situation in which one finds him or herself. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and the primary goal of individual students from small or unknown schools should not be to prove the stereotype wrong but to prove that they are an exception worthy of a PhD program's attention.

Chris Keith, University of Edinburgh

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Citation: Chris Keith, " Applying for Doctoral Work When You're from a Small School," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2006]. Online:


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