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