PhD Studies in the UK (and Edinburgh in particular)
It’s again the time of year when those considering possible PhD work start thinking about applying. The structure of the PhD programmes in the UK and in North America (to pick the two areas with which I’m most familiar) are different, and so I offer some explanation of things in this post. I’ve posted before on related matters here. But I’ll underscore some things in this posting to help potential applicants understand things better.,
The first thing to note is that the North American PhD combines both a course/taught component and a thesis/dissertation component, whereas the British PhD is more purely a “research” degree, which is awarded solely on the basis of a thesis exhibiting high standards of scholarship and judged either publishable or at least incorporating publishable material. In North American PhD programmes, thus, students can be admitted on the basis of a strong undergraduate degree, and/or, in the case of Religion/Theology often on the basis of a MDiv degree (from a theological seminary). In these programmes, the coursework done as part of the PhD is intended to provide the student with further and necessary resources for working up a good general knowledge of the field (e.g., NT). This field-knowledge is then assessed by examinations (variously referred to as “comprehensive exams” or “comps”, or “qualifying exams”) taken after a year or more of coursework.
Then one is permitted to propose a thesis project and carry it out. The thesis is typically examined by the members of the department of the university in which one is studying, typically with an examiner also from another department of that university.
The overall purpose is to prepare a student for teaching/lecturing in a field (at least at undergraduate level) and for conducting “original” research. The PhD is sometimes informally referred to as the “union card” for posts in higher education institutions.
In the Humanities, when I last checked a few decades ago (and I doubt that it’s changed much), the average time to completion of the American PhD was ca. 7 years. (In the Sciences it was closer to 3-4 years.) This is often because of the need to acquire languages in the Humanities, and also because the nature of the research in Humanities often requires much more time (whereas in the Sciences one often is simply taking on some facet of a larger research project of one’s supervisor).
In the UK, however, one is typically now expected to commence formulating a thesis project from the outset, and optimally complete and submit the thesis within 36 to 48 months. The British PhD is referred to as a “research” degree, i.e., designed primarily to develop in the student the capacity to conduct high-quality research.
In the School of Divinity in Edinburgh, therefore, we typically require applicants to have both a good first/undergraduate degree and a proper masters degree in the proposed field of PhD studies. That is, we expect applicants to have developed already a general knowledge of the subject-area/field prior to commencing PhD work. (We don’t, therefore, usually find the MDiv adequate preparation, and strongly urge prospective applicants to do a proper masters degree instead or in addition.) I can’t vouch for what other British universities do, but I can say this is our policy. (In my previous posting I referred to the pressures on British universities that might pose temptations to admit students who don’t have all the necessary prerequisites. We’ve chosen, however, to resist that temptation.)
In the British model, the examination of the PhD thesis requires a senior-level scholar from another university. The PhD supervisor is not an examiner. This means that the thesis should be of sufficient quality to obtain approval by those who have not been involved in guiding the student/thesis. It’s an important way to assure a high level of quality.
I’ve mentioned languages and some further comments are in order. In the North American structure, you have the time to work up languages while doing the PhD. In NT you’ll likely be expected to have some Greek at the outset, but you won’t be expected to read German or French (necessary for consulting scholarly publications), and can acquire a basic reading ability while doing the coursework. In our view (Edinburgh), the languages necessary for research in the field should really be tackled prior to starting PhD work. So, e.g., in NT, we expect applicants to have good Greek, some Hebrew, and some basic reading ability in German and also French, as well as a good grounding in the field.
Which structure is better? Well, in my view it depends on the applicant. If you want to commence PhD work right after basic degree(s), and acquire languages en passant, then the North American structure is for you. If, however, you’ve done further studies already (e.g., a masters degree in the subject), if you’ve worked up the necessary languages, and have a reasonably clear idea of the topic that you’d like to research, then the British PhD is a good option.
Some (typically, I find, some Americans with little experience of living or studying outside the USA) may look down on the British PhD in comparison to the North American PhD. I think that’s simplistic (and I say that as a North American myself who took his PhD in the USA). I’ll simply note the following facts.
Just consider the publications in the field, the journal articles and scholarly monographs, and the ideas and contributions that shape and comprise the field. You’ll find strong representation among those with British PhDs as well as those with PhDs from North America (and elsewhere). Universities in Britain, North America and elsewhere appoint people to academic posts with PhDs from Britain or elsewhere. There are, to be sure, weaker as well as stronger examples of PhD graduates and PhD programmes, both in the UK and in North America. But it would be ignorant to classify the British or the North American PhD model as inherently inferior.