The UK PhD: Structure and Pressures
Several days ago I promised to engage questions about how it is that examiners of PhD theses in NT/Christian Origins can report the sort of incidents mentioned to me (which I hope are exceptional) where a student is obviously lacking in basic language tools. Those considering PhD studies and fellow academics as well may find the following of interest. Otherwise, you may find the following a bit tedious.
In part, the sort of incidents mentioned to me seem to me to arise from two major factors: (1) the structure and nature of the UK PhD, and (2) pressures on the university sector in the UK, especially from government and government-appointed bodies. I’ll elaborate.
The UK PhD has a different structure from the North American PhD. In the latter, students typically can be admitted on the basis of a very good first degree, or in Theology/Religion often a very good MDiv. Those admitted to PhD study first take a year or more of courses and extensive reading, which is designed to prepare them for the “comps” (written field exams). My own experience is probably still representative. I had a 6-hr written exam in NT/Christian Origins, and 3-hr exams in each of two other (for me “minor”) fields (which were post-biblical Judaism and 19th-20th century Christian thought). These comps can be broad in the area from which (unseen) questions are drawn up. E.g., when I asked my supervisor what to expect on the NT exam, he said I should acquaint myself with persons, texts, beliefs, political and religious developments in the Roman world ca. 200 BCE – 200 CE! After these written comps, there followed a 2-hr oral exam by the whole Department of Religion on any/all the fields in the written comps.
And before students can sit the comps, they’ll have to show that they can read/translate the relevant languages, which often involves timed, written translation tests in each.
Then, after this, students are allowed to propose and commence their thesis research.
The UK PhD doesn’t typically involve coursework or exams, but solely researching and submitting a PhD thesis. It’s referred to, thus, as a “research” degree, because there is no “taught” component. Students arrive and are expected to start framing an researching a thesis project from their first weeks. Moreover, sector-pressures (from research councils and the government-appointed research assessment exercises) make it necessary to get PhD students to submit optimally within 36 months, maximally within 48 months.
In considering admission to PhD work in NT/Christian Origins in Edinburgh, we’ve taken this to mean that students should be further along in preparation than in the American-type programme. This means, e.g., that we often judge applicants with solely a MDiv to need further, masters-level work before commencing PhD studies. To finish a good thesis within 36 months or even 48 months, there isn’t much time to acquire from scratch languages or to acquire a basic knowledge of the field.
So, in addition to excellent marks in relevant prior studies, and strong references, we require applicants to show aptitude and experience in doing research in the field, as shown in a masters dissertation or some major research essay. We also emphasize that students should work up languages to adequate levels before they commence PhD work, and we require demonstration of reading abilities by the end of their first year of PhD study.
This is spelled out on our web page:
I’m not sure how widely and consistently a similar outlook and approach is embraced among UK universities admitting students to PhD work in NT/Christian Origins. It might be well for UK departments to set out their own approaches as fully. In any case, if a given department either doesn’t enforce such standards, or doesn’t think them appropriate, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find that those examined for the PhD in NT/Christian Origins may vary noticeably in their language abilities and other matters.
The other factor I mentioned is sector-pressures on UK universities to get PhD students through within the prescribed period, maximally 48 months. If a given department doesn’t achieve a high enough percentage of PhD submissions within this timeframe, this counts against the department in the research assessment rating, and this has serious financial consequences.
Also, successive UK governments have pressured UK universities to treat postgraduate students as an income stream (to compensate for inadequate government funding). So, there is a financial incentive (not to say, necessity!) to recruit and admit postgrad students. By contrast, in prestigious American programmes, the number of PhD students admitted is the number for whom the university can provide funding. That is, in these institutions PhD students aren’t a source of income but a programme expense. In these universities, typically, PhD students get full fees paid/waived and a modest living stipend, for three or perhaps four years.
So, e.g., a department maybe admit only one or two PhD students in a given year in individual areas such as NT/Christian Origins. Certainly, not many. So, the selection process is quite competitive and “narrow is the gate” to PhD admission.
I have to say that there is the danger in the UK that departments may be tempted to admit more than the excellent applicants, to meet budgets, targets, etc.
In Edinburgh, we have what is by UK standards an impressive pot of scholarship funding. But it is nowhere near adequate to provide full funding to all those we admit to PhD study. That is, most PhD students are “self-funding”, paying for their fees and living costs out of funds they have or obtain. This means, typically, that they are highly motivated and dedicated to their work.
We have PhD students from some 30 countries in the School of Divinity, working in various areas in the study of Theology/Religion. We welcome excellent students from anywhere. But there are pressures and it is up to each UK university department/programme to resist the temptation to lower standards for admission or for the PhD thesis.