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PhD Studies in the UK (and Edinburgh in particular)

September 18, 2014

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.

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  1. Very helpful article. My understanding is that the British model historically presupposed a first-class honours undergraduate degree and often an MA (not to mention an English public-school background which ensured that Latin and Greek were well in hand). The American system, based more on the German model, of course reflects a somewhat different social class context.

    I agree that the typical MDiv, being a professional rather than an academic degree, is not the best preparation for PhD work. I did two seminary degrees (an MAR and a research ThM) that provided a wonderful foundation for my PhD work in an American university context (Vanderbilt).

    Having known quite a few graduates of both British and American PhD programs, my sense is that those who do American PhDs are, on balance, better prepared out of the gate to teach the variety of courses that are often required in an American undergraduate college context (the typical entry-level position here in the USA). As far as scholarly productivity goes (publications, etc.) I don’t see much difference between quality graduates from the two models.

    • The British secondary educational systems (there are two, one in England & Wales, and another in Scotland, which also has a different structure to its undergraduate honours degree) are nowadays also more broadly based (esp. in Scotland). Indeed, the American 4-yr undergrad degree with its breadth derives originally from Scotland, just as the 3-yr seminary degree taken after an undergrad degree also derives from the Scottish pattern.
      True, because the American PhD requires a certain level of field-knowledge in fields additional to the specialism as part of the “comps”, graduates do have a certain basic ability to lecture at very elementary levels in those subjects additional to their own specialism. E.g., in my own PhD studies (in the USA) I took one of my comps on 19&20th century Christian thought, so I have a basic grasp of some of the major theological figures and currents of that period.
      So, yes, if you’re to be expected to lecture much wider than a given field (e.g., NT), then the American PhD format may prepare one better. But if you’re mainly teaching in your own field, there’s probably not much difference in principle.

    • The British secondary educational systems (there are two, one in England & Wales, and another in Scotland, which also has a different structure to its undergraduate honours degree) are nowadays also more broadly based (esp. in Scotland). Indeed, the American 4-yr undergrad degree with its breadth derives originally from Scotland, just as the 3-yr seminary degree taken after an undergrad degree also derives from the Scottish pattern.
      True, because the American PhD requires a certain level of field-knowledge in fields additional to the specialism as part of the “comps”, graduates do have a certain basic ability to lecture at very elementary levels in those subjects additional to their own specialism. E.g., in my own PhD studies (in the USA) I took one of my comps on 19&20th century Christian thought, so I have a basic grasp of some of the major theological figures and currents of that period.
      So, yes, if you’re to be expected to lecture much wider than a given field (e.g., NT), then the American PhD format may prepare one better. But if you’re mainly teaching in your own field, there’s probably not much difference in principle.

  2. Just to throw my own experience in for consideration re: MDiv qualifications, I recently finished my MDiv at a conservative seminary and applied for OT PhD programs largely in the UK. I was turned down at Edinburgh, but accepted at Aberdeen and Cambridge, the latter being my ultimate choice. I was also turned down at Notre Dame. I will say, however, that as one commenter mentioned and Dr Hurtado implied, I took my MDiv much further than the requirements on paper. It takes conscious premeditation!

    • Congratulations William on your acceptance! I too am a holder of an MDiv. I have been pursuing outside the scope of my degree for awhile now. I think, as a general rule, one should never limit themselves to the scope of their degree. Engaging with a wide array of scholarship related (or even not related) to your field helps in fostering cutting-edge research as new lines of inquiry flow from the intersection of this material. For example, if one looks to any classical department and examine the requirements for an MA in Philology, the reading list for the “comps” are usually listed. One can steadily read through this material and become more familiar. The same could be said for 2nd Temple Judaism, simply look at a class syllabi (many are available online) and steadily read through the bibliography provided. There are many ways to supplement an MDiv without going through the pain (and expense) of another degree. This biggest boost for experience is to volunteer to be an assistant to a professor at your university. Coupled with this, if there are any notable scholars at your school, ask to help out with their current research project. ANYTHING helps!
      Sorry I droned on for so long Dr. Hurtado, please feel free not to post this if it is too off topic.

  3. I think it is helpful to distinguish between the Canadian MDiv (which used to be a BD), and which often is given by means of a year of practical studies after a Bachelor’s in Religion, and the kind of MDiv offered by Princeton and other places in the US. At Pittsburgh Theological, students can do an MDiv with thesis, and some of our best students do this, in preparation for the PhD. I was surprised in coming here to learn that the MDiv was preferred to the MA as a preparation for the PhD, but that is because so many of the MAs offered here are very general. Strong students were expected to go directly from MDiv to PhD, if they desired, whereas those with less preparation were encouraged to use an STM as a stepping stone. We are at this point beginning three Master’s Tracks–the general MA (a terminal degree for those in various ministries not requiring the MDiv), the MATM (higher expectations, but a professional degree, perhaps like a baby DMin) and the MATS (even higher expectations, with a thesis component). Our ideal student for the latter would come with a strong Theology/Religion background, but given the reality of things, other Humanities students will be accepted, and may take longer to finish. We are hoping that the MATS will be the degree of choice for those who plan to go on to a PhD, but who want to study rigorously within the context of the faith, not simply in an academic setting. So the MA is lifted up from being simply the stepchild of the MDiv, a shorter degree without practical emphasis, and takes on three different purposes. Not all MAs or MDivs are created equal, it seems to me.

    • Edith: I agree that there are cases in which a given MDiv might be sufficiently focused (e.g., in NT) and rigorous and might include a research-dissertation component, and in such cases we might well consider it suitable for PhD entrance. But my basic point was that N.American PhD programmes don’t have to be so concerned, as they provide the “beefing up” of knowledge in the subject as the taught component of their PhD programmes. In the UK scheme, however (at least as we in Edinburgh have seen the matter), given the lack of a taught component, we consider it necessary for students to have a good knowledge of the subject (and requisite languages) as a pre-condition for admission, all the more so if the aim is to secure an excellent PhD thesis within 36-48 months, and be prepared for teaching and research thereafter.

  4. Yoon permalink

    My thesis came out to be 20,000 words, and it taught me the difficulty of writing a long and sustained research project. Would you be able to share the difference in rigor and any other aspects between a master’s thesis and a PhD thesis?

    • In addition to being a much larger project (e.g., in Edinburgh a 100,000 word limit), the crucial quality of a PhD thesis is that it should be judged to comprise a fresh contribution to knowledge and understanding of the subject, being itself publishable or at least containing a substantial body of material suitable for refereed publication.

  5. John Stackhouse permalink

    Larry, I’m surprised at your dismissal of the MDiv. Many MAs in NT (and other fields of religious studies) do not require a thesis, but are simply course-based–with perhaps some sort of exam or longer paper at the end. This strikes me as not materially different from the coursework for a good-quality MDiv (ours currently requires 90 credit hours, although I understand that some require 72 or less)–the only difference being that the MDiv requires coursework as well in pastoralia. So would you want to qualify this judgment a little more–either allowing that some MDivs are as good as some MAs, or by saying that some MAs give you no better training than an MDiv, so pick a research-focused MA–one that requires a thesis?

    • We don’t take the wooden approach you seem to presume from my posting, John. We look very carefully at what an applicant has studied. And, yes, some MA degrees are course-exam only, which can be a problem as well. For we find that those who have conducted a masters-level dissertation project are better prepared for the task of framing and executing a PhD thesis.
      The MDiv is, however, really a second undergraduate degree (and was called a BD until the late 60s when, under pressure from graduates who wanted to be able to list a masters level initial behind their name the degree name was changed, but no change in basic content or requirements). I.e., for many/most the MDiv is the first formal academic study of theology, religion, NT whatever. But a proper masters degree presumes a prior degree in the subject. So, we encourage MDiv students to take a true masters that builds on their MDiv work (variously called MTh, ThM, MA, etc.) in preparation for our PhD programmes.

      • Kevin permalink

        Not having had an MDiv, I find this discussion fascinating. Larry, it sounds like you didn’t take into consideration the breadth of various MDiv programs in your original post when you made somewhat of a broad-brush comment re. them (or at least, didn’t convey that as well as you did in your follow-up). I’m curious if the MDiv has changed much, in your estimation, since its inception in the 60s.
        On another note, the UK (does that include Scotland now?!) doesn’t seem to have the number of seminaries/Christian colleges that the US does (instead, having secular universities with colleges of divinity, classics, etc.) and I’m wondering if you see a general difference in the quality of candidates in terms of preparation for PhD work. Thank you in advance.

      • As indicated to previous commenters, we examine every application carefully, but, unless there are strong indications to the contrary, based on experience, we don’t typically find the MDiv adequate preparation for the UK PhD. I did take into consideration the varieties in MDiv programmes, and on the basis of examining oodles of applicantions and oodles of transcripts, we’ve taken the policy decision I indicated. Typically, the MDiv is the first degree in theology (typically applicants will have an undergraduate degree in some other subject), and so it really doesn’t get students as far as they need to get for PhD work.
        We tend to require a genuine masters degree in the subject, whether from UK or USA or elsewhere.

  6. Thank you Dr. Hurtado for your insights. For those like myself who have yet to embark on a Phd adventure the process of deciding where to go, how to prepare, and how to apply….well…it is scary to say the least. Your sage advice helps clarify the process.

  7. How broad can we cast out investigatory net? I’d be most interested in 1) Comparative Religion. And 2) cross-cultural comparisons; extending the controversial but interesting work of Pieter Craffert on Jesus as Galilean Shaman, for example. And then beyond that especially, 3) articles from Sociology on the function of religion.

    Here’s a link of one of Craffert’s recent articles in the JSHJ:

    This broader perspective to be sure, especially the perspective of the Sociology of Religion, is typically far, far more critical of traditional Christian perspectives however; far more critical than even the more critical and historical studies offered within most religious departments. As one might guess from say, the Marxist/sociological perspective on religion in general.

    • Wenthan: I simply don’t accept your (somewhat snide?) negative comments, asserting some intellectual superiority of “cultural studies” over the hard work put in by historians of Christian origins. Insights and questions from sociology, for example, have been taken up in study of Christian origins since the 1970s, likewise, proposals that Jesus could be seen as a “shaman” have been lodged since at least the 1980s. Do try to keep up before you criticize!

      • I guess the main difference I see between getting a PhD in a Sociology department proper, vs. Religion programs per se, is a 1) more “critical” or even negative view of religion, vs. 2) a somewhat more sympathetic view, or even pre-ministerial orientation. I’m thinking say of Manchester’s programs, and Rutledge Publications.

        It rather seems likely that the people who go on to a PhD in Religion program, are primarily people with SOME kind of significant prior faith-commitment. They tend to go into religion programs; this is far less true of someone entering a PhD program in Sociology. And I am worried that this prior faith-commitment compromises objectivity, even in later, more academic years.

        Essentially I worry that a prior “faith” commitment compromises scholarly objectivity. “Faith” means by larger dictionary definition, believing in things for which there is no proof; believing even over and against material and objective evidence. Even those scholars entering non-confessional institutions moreover, often seem to come from believing backgrounds; and even in their scholarly work they may remain sympathetic to that. With a sort of commitment to Christianity; and ignoring larger Hellenistic contexts, say.

        I am well aware that wide-ranging work on multi-cultural aspects to Christianity has been done; and some work from a sociological perspective. (And it continues to expand; I’m referencing Pieter’s current 2014 publication by the way; which is appealing to more multi-cultural perspectives). However, all that really seems to be the minority opinion by far, on blogs like your own. There still seems to be a tendency in many scholarly circles, even as recently as last week, to favor it would seem, a confessional commitment to or special interest in say a literal, physical resurrection. And so forth.

        I am told that the PhD program at Duke say, is strong in both 1) believing, pre-ministerial and 2) more scientific/critical approaches; either one. But my definite impression is that this is unusual.

        Personally I would urge anyone with an interest in a more purely, objectively sociological or disinterested concern for religion, to enter say a PhD program in Sociology or Anthropology.

      • Wentham: I have to say in candour corresponding to your own that you simply don’t know what you’re talking about. A PhD programme in sociology or anthropology will not draw upon or equip with the expertise necessary for research in the ancient Roman/Jewish setting. Sociologists rarely have any Greek, Latin, or even knowledge of the ancient Roman setting. Anthropology typically works in contemporary societies, as is the case with the Social Sciences by definition.
        And your notion of what is typically required in PhD programmes in NT/Christian origins in a modern research university is breathtaking in its ignorance and misinformed contempt. Offensive really!
        I must also say that, surely, whatever one’s “faith” commitment (and to take an anti-faith stance or atheistic or agnostic stance is also a “faith stance”) PhD programmes in the field will require the development of genuine critical acumen.
        Oh, and one final thing: You’ve obviously misunderstood the whole point of my posting and the ensuing discussion on Paul’s view of resurrection. It wasn’t about what I or anyone else might think about the matter, not about anyone’s “faith stance,” but purely a historical question about what Paul was saying in 1 Corinthians 15. I would advise you to check your own ignorance and prejudices very carefully. They lead you to write . . . really, very silly things.

    • Yoon permalink

      Wentham: While your post goes off topic and violates the commenting rule of the blog, I’m glad the post provided the avenue for Dr. Hurtado to mention that everyone has a faith commitment. This notion of objectivity of modernity is coming to a close. Works by people like Foucault and Heidegger, no Christians themselves, provide justification for this view. For example, in Being and Time, Heidegger argues that we as beings-in-the-world cannot be presuppositionless (or faithless) because of the always already present attunement and understanding of the world. We could say that this modern notion of objectivity is the faith commitment of Cartesian rationalism, which, I would say, undermines rather than strengthen sociology and anthropology. As a minority, I would even say that the supposedly universal objective criteron in sociology and anthropology as dictated by modern, white, Anglo-American/Europeans is oppressive to the differing philosophies and methods of many people groups.

  8. I was one of those American MDiv graduates who thought I could jump into a British PhD. Although a few places offered me direct entry into the 3-year research PhD, Edinburgh and Durham instead offered a one-year MA first. I ultimately chose Durham because of their unique (as far as I’m aware) program called the ‘PhD with Integrated Studies’. It is effectively a hybrid degree in which an extra year is tacked onto the front, making the total come to 4 years. The first years involved modules (classes) and the equivalent of an MA thesis is required at the end of the year. Only then, and contingent upon one’s marks (grades), does the candidate progress to the ‘research’ phase.

    Speaking from personal experience, the MDiv is not adequate preparation for beginning a British PhD. This is true not just academically, but also culturally. For anybody thinking they have the chops to jump right in and ‘swim with the sharks’ holding their summa cum laude MDiv degree in hand, make sure you do your homework and be very honest with yourself. It will save much pain and disappointment down the road. And who wouldn’t want to spend an extra year in beautiful England or Scotland?

  9. Yoon permalink

    This was an accurate and nuanced article. I’ve always been attracted to the UK model, but I had trepidations due to the “hit the ground running” mentality, and I was afraid that I hadn’t received a good research education as preparation. It wasn’t until I found a rigorous program and especially writing my master’s thesis that I became confident that I may be able to undertake my UK PhD, which I will start in May.

  10. Hon Wai Lai permalink

    Which carries more weight when a PhD holder seeks an academic position – the prestige of the supervisor or the examiner?
    Is the importance of acquiring a 2nd European language for doing research unique to biblical studies? The UK university entry prospectus for research in sociology, anthropology, psychology and philosophy of religion (all these can be grouped under the broad category of “Religious Studies”) rarely specify need for 2nd European language, and the research programmes do not seem to provide training in European languages. Similarly for research in Islamic studies or Buddhist studies.

    • For a newly-minted PhD graduate, the things that likely count are the reputation/standing of the institution (esp. in the subject), the reputation/standing of the supervisor, also the readiness of the supervisor to provide references and take an interest in the student getting a post. The external examiner can sometimes play a role too in securing publication of the thesis (if she/he wishes to do so). Also, in the UK now it’s now difficult to get an entrance-level university academic post unless you’ve got publication(s), at least a journal article or two, preferably your thesis published or accepted for publication. In the US, however, there is a more “mixed economy” of institutions, not all of which will have this particular requirement.
      As for languages, the requirement will vary with the subject. In biblical studies (and some other Humanities fields), important scholarship (masses of it) is in German and a lesser but often significant amount in French. Moreover, some journals publish in all three languages, and scholars in the field are simply expected to be able to make use of this scholarship.

  11. I might add, that there is nothing wrong with the British system. The problem arises when Americans try to take a short-cut by going straight to a thesis without a proper grounding in academics. An M.Div. is not an academic degree. It is really and truly what it used to be, a Bachelors in Divinity, that is, a first degree in religious subjects. I have read some theses by Americans with M.Div’s and they are often quite lacking in academic rigor. I am glad to hear that Edinburgh has better standards for admitting Americans.

    • Education is what you make of it. An MDiv degree can be good, if one goes the extra mile. Read, read, read, research, try to publish something. Get some research experience by helping out a notable scholar. An MDiv can be adequate, but only because the student works hard, beyond the scope of the degree.

      • Well, yes, per what you say, the MDiv needs supplementation typically. That was basically my point.

  12. Thanks Prof. for such information. In the Nigerian universities we operate the British system but some of the seminaries prefer the American system. I am happy that young academics are getting acquainted with some of these realities. To facilitate, are there British links for grants particularly for PhD students who researching so they can go outside the box in Nigeria for exposure and research and to meet with academics like you in the Uk? I am studying my PhD at the University of Jos, Nigeria concentrating in New Testament textual criticism (working on an unpublished ancient Coptic papyrus). Thanks.

    • If you go to the web sites of UK universities (and/or the department in question), you’ll typically find information scholarships. For example, information on scholarships available in the School of Divinity (Edinburgh) can be found here.

  13. Kevin permalink

    I understand Wheaton College (near Chicago) has also tried to implement a sort of “hybrid” PhD program, where there are courses and comps in the first two years while the final year is dedicated to the dissertation. From what I understand, however, it’s very rare when someone actually completes the work within three years.

    • I don’t know about the Wheaton programme. But I’d say that it’s unrealistic to think that one could conceive, research, and write a publishable-quality PhD thesis in one year. It typically requires ca. 3 yrs (a very few times a bit less, many times closer to 4 yrs).

      • Mike Kibbe permalink

        The Wheaton Program is a hybrid in that it requires a workable dissertation proposal prior to admission, but does include some coursework along the way within the doctoral program. No one at Wheaton has written a dissertation in one year; they begin work on it in their first semester, and on average take 3.5 years to complete it. They do coursework and dissertation simultaneously for 2 years, and then after that take however long is needed to complete the dissertation.

  14. In Australia we have somewhat of a middle ground, although this of course varies between fields, where a demonstration of research capability, usually a Bachelor Honours or add-on Masters level thesis, can be completed after a three or four year degree in the subject area. For example my original research field was in Psychology where I did a three year B.Psych, followed by an Honours year (mixed coursework and research component) and then I normally would have entered into the PhD program (mine was somewhat more complex).
    Or for example a common track is Bachelors > M.Div w significant research component > PhD entry.

    How do you see these correlating to the traditional British system?

    • The “traditional British system” has changed and is varied. Undergraduate/honours degrees follow different patterns in England and Scotland. English hons degrees are 3 yrs, whereas Scottish hons degrees are 4 yrs. But, also, the Hons degree often today isn’t as specialized (at least in a good many universities) as it one was. So, at least in Edinburgh (Divinity) we find it best to require students to have a proper masters (with dissertation) in the field (e.g., NT), or to enroll initially for our own masters and then proceed to PhD.

      • James Hamilton Charlesworth permalink

        Larry. Your comments are judicious, accurate, and helpful. Having studied in the USA, Scotland, Israel, Germany and elsewhere I agree that the USA and Great Britain offer first-class PhD programs. The requirements seem to be a well trained, talented, and energetic student with a passion for learning who can benefit from an engaging professor. I shall share your personal reflections with my students here in Princeton. J Hamilton Charlesworth

      • Are the English and Scottish (I guess after Thursday it is all still British) Honours degrees based on a minor-dissertation?
        Most of the Australian Hons years are in the realm of 20,000-25,000 word theses on a singular topic. Similar in length to some MA theses i have seen from colleges based on the US model.

      • Yes, UK Hons degrees (England or Scotland) typically require a final-year dissertation. Ours = 10,000 words on a specific topic/question.

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