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The UK PhD: Structure and Pressures

September 10, 2011

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.

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  1. Dear Mr. Hurtado. How are the PhD in the UK in terms of teaching? In Norway, where I live, you’ll get a 3-year scholarship to focus on your PhD thesis (without teaching). How’s that in the UK? If, then, you have to teach, do the scholarships go on for 5 years (like some places in the US)?

    • In the UK things vary from one subject to another. E.g., in the Sciences most PhD students are fully funded from grants, etc. In the Humanities, however, with far less available in grants and industry funding, the great majority are “self-funded”. In Divinity here, we have a scholarships fund, but our awards are typically only partial fees, though a small number get full fees and a living stipend.
      No teaching is required for our awards, but we do ask PhD students on scholarship to give ca. 3-5 hrs a week in teaching assistance or research assistance to academic staff.
      The average time to completion in a US PhD in the Humanities is ca. 7-8 yrs (but in the Sciences ca. 4 yrs). That’s partially because they get funding for 3-4 yrs, aren’t finished with the thesis, and then finishing it gets strung out. In the UK we’re under govt pressure to get students to submit within 48 months maximum.

  2. Tim Henderson permalink

    I think it’s true that the nature of the UK Ph.D. program is a big reason that some students “slip through the cracks” when it comes to being competent in the necessary languages. In contrast, I did my Ph.D. at Marquette University in the US, and all Christian Origins Ph.D. students at Marquette are required to pass exams in Greek, Hebrew, German, and French. No previous coursework is grounds for being exempt from this. No matter a student’s previous studies, (s)he must pass Marquette’s language exams, and do so before getting to the dissertation phase of the program. So it’s not really possible that someone could slip through the cracks with this arrangement.

    • Yes, this represents my own American PhD scheme too. It’s not so much that set translation tests are the only way to ensure language tools acquisition. There are various ways to do this. But it’s actually not entirely clear whether the UK sector as a whole embraces the aim, as will be clear from some of the (serious) discussants in the days since my initial blog.

  3. Dear Professor Hurtado,

    Thank you so much for this very helpful post! Just a quick question related to this: when would you say it is the best time for prospective PhD students to start contacting potential supervisors in the UK? I finished my MDiv in Brazil a few years ago, and hopefully will have got my Master’s in NT from Regent by December next year — with all the languages work sufficiently done. I’m planning to start doing some background research next Winter so that I can have a dissertation proposal by next Spring. How thoroughly clear should I be about my research topic before I start sending emails to professors in the UK?

    Warm regards,
    Bernardo Cho

    • In Edinburgh we urge full applications by end of January, if you wish to be considered for scholarships. That means being in preliminary contact with a suitable supervisor earlier than that.
      For the research proposal, we like to see evidence of effort to map out the topic, key works read, awareness of some of the issues, etc., It would be ideal if a clear and cogent question is proposed, but that’s rare. We work hard esp. in the first semester to achieve this.

  4. Graham Veale permalink

    Thank you Dr Hutardo

    This is why I suggested that Masters degrees could be made a prerecquisite for PhD students. (Perhaps an excpetion could be made for excellent graduates.) It would generate income for Universities, give PhD students the time to develop language skills and so forth.

    I also wonder if Undergraduate degrees aren’t less demanding – and considerably less interesting – since the move to modules in the 1990s.

    Graham Veale

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