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On Applying for a PhD in NT/Christian Origins in the UK

August 16, 2012

It’s that time of year again, when those aiming for PhD work in the next academic year (2013) start thinking about places to explore, and start making preliminary inquiries.  We strongly encourage that here in New College (Edinburgh), and welcome opportunities to advise potential applicants, even if it means that we find ourselves writing a lot of the same sort of advice and information repeatedly.  Because the UK PhD structure is different from the North American model (and different also from models in other European countries), it’s important for applicants to understand things and to prepare themselves adequately.  I blogged about this last year, and I’ll simply point interested readers to that posting. 

The additional matter I’ll mention here has to do with what is expected of a PhD thesis and the demands of identifying a research-focus that will lead to a successful thesis in the field of NT/Christian Origins.  The essential criterion is that the thesis must be judged by examiners to comprise a genuine contribution to knowledge/understanding of the subject, something “publishable” (i.e., worth the attention of other scholars working on the subject).  That is, whereas a decent masters thesis need only demonstrate competent engagement with a subject and scholarship on it, the PhD thesis should constitute some new/further advance in thinking about the subject.

In any field such as NT/Christian Origins in which the evidence-base is finite and not readily expandable (in contrast to experimental sciences where one can devise means of generating new experimental data), it can be a problem to identify a good research question that hasn’t already been asked and answered satisfactorily.  And in my view all good research is question-driven.  So, becoming a good researcher involves learning to devise good questions suitable to the evidence-base.   I distinguish between a “topic” (e.g., the Gospel of Mark) and a research question  (e.g., what do you want to ask about the Gospel of Mark?).  Until you have a cogent and clearly-delineated question that is appropriate to the evidence-base, you don’t have the start of a thesis.

But, as I say, given the considerable body of scholars over many decades who have delved into the NT and other early Christian evidence, the challenge is to frame a question that either hasn’t been asked (at least not in a given way or of a given piece of evidence) or deserves re-asking (e.g., because previous answers now seem dubious or worth re-examining).  We require applicants to do advance reading before applying, and to propose a potential research-focus as part of the application.  But we don’t necessarily expect that all the delineation of the question will be done then, and so we typically spend a lot of effort with first-year PhD students helping them to arrive at a clear, viable and worthwhile question that can form the research-focus of the thesis.  We like applicants to indicate what they’ve read on their proposed research-focus, and what ideas or questions occur to them, why they find the proposed research interesting and worth pursuing.  This need not require more than a few pages at most.

One suggestion is that prospective PhD students look for data that haven’t so frequently been studied, or haven’t been studied recently, or haven’t been researched in the same depth as some other data.  That may well mean exploring beyond the limits of one’s previous courses of study, and perhaps beyond the “biggie” texts such as the Gospels or Paul, perhaps beyond the rather finite limits of the NT canon.  It may mean exploring some approach or focus that is new to the applicant.  I pointed to one such area of potential value in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (2006), urging the relevance of the physical and visual features of early Christian manuscripts for wider historical questions about Christian origins.   To cite another such body of  comparatively less well explored evidence, there are the numerous extra-canonical texts of early Christianity. 

One concluding personal note.  As Emeritus Professor, I’m allowed to give primary PhD supervision only on approval by the College of Humanities and Social Science of the University, when a case is made for why my supervision is needed.  I am more often involved as “second supervisor” (all PhD students here have two, typically a primary and a secondary), and so can offer input as requested.  But my colleagues here, particuarly Dr. Helen Bond, Dr. Paul Foster, and Dr. Matt Novenson, comprise an impressive body of scholarly expertise.  Also, they’re damned fine people, dedicated to their subject and their students, and with an impressive collective record of supervising successful PhD students.

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  1. Nick Tavani, MD, PhD permalink

    I can’t tell you how many times I have cited the “Bibles Before 1000” exhibit which came to our Washington DC area Sackler Gallery a few years back. I sent my Open Bible Class members at Manassas Assembly of God, Va to the website as we covered “How We Got the Bible” this year. It is a rich treasure trove. Among all your accomplishments, certainly initiating this project was a great one! Once again, thanks for introducing me, as a college student at NU, to the wealth of NT scholarship.

    • Thanks, Nick. Yes, I was very pleased to have initiated with the Freer/Sackler people the idea of a centenary project on the Freer biblical manuscripts. The exhibit was handled expertly by Michelle Brown. My own role (after selling the Freer-Sackler people on the idea of an exhibit, and a scholarly project on the MSS) lay in organizing a team of scholars to study the MSS afresh, and then to edit the volume:
      Hurtado, Larry W., ed. The Freer Biblical Manuscripts: Fresh Studies of an American Treasure Trove. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006.

  2. Jesse Stone permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, this post is extremely helpful. I have been wrestling with the possibility of applying to PhD programs in the UK. It is comforting to know that the thesis topic does not have to be “nailed down” by matriculation. Could you explain the things PhD students might find themselves doing each semester at Edinburgh (i.e. any symposiums, colloquiums, meetings with their supervisor)? Also, what kinds of research facilities are made available to the students at Edinburgh? Thanks.

    • Dear Jesse,
      We’ve put some information on our operation on the School of Divinity web site, which you may find helpful:
      There is a weekly (in term) biblical studies research seminar, at which academic staff & visitors present papers for discussion, and at which PhD students present something of their thesis work when it’s far enough along. In addition, PhD students in NT/Christian origins have taken to organizing their own reading group, in which they identify and read together key works. Students are free to take in any other research seminars in other areas as well. We have reservable study spaces for PhD students, and library holdings are excellent, with some 250K volumes in the New College library in religion/theology, plus the wider holdings of the main University library, and then the National Library of Scotland (which comprises some 5million vols.). In the first semester of PhD work, students will typically meet with supervisors every couple of weeks or so, as we focus on delineating a viable thesis focus. Once lined out thereafter, PhD students are expected to meet with supervisors at least twice per semester. Finally, New College affords the double benefit of the atmosphere of a small college (ca. 300 undergrads and ca. 100 postgrad students) combined with the advantages of being part of a great and diverse university, and in the midst of one of the most attractive cities of Europe.

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