Monday, January 30, 2006

Advice for Ph.D candidates

As one who has recently finished a Ph.D and started teaching here at the words of wisdom I have for young cands (many of these ideas were passed on to me by my supervisors and now I blog them for the sake of posterity).

• In choosing your topic, pick a specific area (e.g. Gospel of John) and then take a unique approach (e.g. narrative criticism).
• Know the difference in genre between a thesis, a book and a journal article.
• Try to write a thesis that goes some way in convincing those who disagree with you (don’t preach to the choir or peddle your assumptions) - examiners can smell that a mile away!!!
• Remember that you are not trying to end the debate or put in the last word. Your thesis is merely one voice in a continuing conversation. Your aim is to sit down at an imaginary seminar table and interject one cogent comment (i.e. your thesis) in the on-going discussion.
• To begin with, try get a grip on the history of NT research read Stephen Neil and N. T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1981-1986 (Oxford: OUP, 1988) or William Baird, The History of New Testament Research (3 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress/Augsburg, 2002-2006). This will hopefully show you where you fit in, in the history of NT study. And for getting a good hold on first century Christianity see James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (2d ed.; London: SCM, 1990).
• Start learning German and, if possible, French too at the earliest possible moment. At doctorate level research writing this is compulsory (I still spend 15 mins a day working on my German).
• Become conversant with academic tools like TLG, Perseus, the ATLA database, various lexicons, library services, and key websites.
• Two of the best investments you will ever make are the program Nota Bene and Bible Works 6 - even if you have to harvest a kidney for them, try get hold of them. NB gives discounts to students.
• Focus on primary sources and know them like the back of your hand. Try wherever possible to work with them in their original languages.
• Be consistent in your bibliographic style (e.g. Chicago, Harvard) and abbreviations (SBLHB or DNTB). Pick one and stick to it. You don’t want to have to go through your thesis changing Mt. 10.1 to Matt 10:1 or ExpTim to ExpT.
• Write early and often - yes, you need to read yourself up, but sooner or later you've gotta start whacking that key board with coherent arguments.
• When you quote, cite or refute someone, make sure you correctly represent their views. Consider emailing scholars to make sure you have understood their position if need be (you might find a good examiner this way).
• Once you’ve finished a section make sure that you double-check your primary and secondary sources.
• When you write (or edit) a section ask yourself this question: how does this section strengthen, develop or further the central contention of my thesis? If not, get rid of it.
• Be disciplined! The only place where “success” comes before “work” is the dictionary. Don't end up as one of those unfinished PH.D's. Do what you have to do, before you do what you want to do. Say goodbye to the TV, the X-Box, your prized collection of Barbie Comics, and the Left-Behind series (in fact, bury the latter), and immerse yourself in the world of Jesus, Paul, Luke, Peter and John.
• On a more spiritual plane, don't forget that faith is more important than academic study and there are families that need you, churches that need servants, people who need prayer - so don't let your thesis became a mistress! People are more important than your exotic exegesis of John 1:1! Remember to read the Bible for your own edification rather than just using it academically.

Otherwise, I recommend the following reading:

Wayne C. booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research. 2d edition. 2003. Chapter 13-14.
Michel Desjardins, “Netting a Job in Religious Studies: Some Notes from the Field”. May 24, 2005.
Carl Trueman, “Interview with Professor Howard Marshall,” Themelios 26 (2002): 48-53.
Stanley E. Porter, "Is There a Secret to Supervising Doctoral Students?" .
SBL Forum


Alan S. Bandy said...

Very useful tips. Thanks!
What are the advantages of Nota Bene over MSWord? Before I consider selling one of my organs, it would be good to get some more info.

J. B. Hood said...

Desjardin's reflections can be found at I guess as a teacher I'm already horribly out of order by his reckoning, but I still should be able to get some profit out of his comments.

Thanks for the references and reflections, Mike--I'm sure that's going to pay dividends for readers and for your students. I was once told 1) to find a really experienced supervisor with loads of experience harnessing postgrads, or 2) to find someone who just finished a dissertation themselves, as the whole process would be fresh on their mind. I think your reflections speak of the value of the latter, although the former is of course important as well.

Anonymous said...

First, let me say I have enjoyed following your blog since reading your journal article on justification and incorporated righteousness in JETS. I did a google search on your name to see if you had written anything else and came across your blog and have been a stateside "bird watcher" (yes I even appreciate your humor ie "the bird has landed")ever since. Thanks for all the great posts.

Second, I am wrapping up an MDiv this spring with dreams of starting on a PHD in NT in the near future and especially appreciate the info on this last post and plan to pass it on to some friends. (By the way, I recently read your post where you mentioned DeSilva's NTI. I hadn't come across it previously, but looked it up and agree totally! Thanks again!).

Third, I agree about your observation regarding obtaining Bibleworks (though recently everyone tells me to go to the darkside and purchase a Mac and get Accordance). However, you mentioned version 6 and lately I have heard a ton of good things about version 7. I wasn't sure if you had heard about it, so I thought I'd mention it and include a link ( Thanks again for all the good stuff and keep it coming!

Nate Mihelis

Anonymous said...

One more thought: Some of the U.S. PhD programs I've looked at have reading lists for their program. Though expectations will obviously vary depending on one's concentration, there is a core list on NT stuff from which varying degrees of mastery will be expected for the exams.Is there anything like this on the UK side (or elsewhere for that matter) that you could recommend?

Nate M

Celucien joseph said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Celucien joseph said...

You're saving current and prospective Ph.D. students from a lot of headaches.

Thanks for your advice.

Michael F. Bird said...

Nate, mate (that rhymes), in UK and Australian degrees there usually is no course work - just thesis writing. Bruce Chilton, apparently, couldn't believe it when he got to the UK and his supervisor said, "What's your topic? ... Good. There's the library. Come see me when you've got a problem".

Michael F. Bird said...

Alan, on NB, the benefits are multiple. Say you write an article for CBQ and they reject it and you want to send it to JSNT instead. Completely different bibliography format, but with a press of a button, preston, all your footnotes have changed to the new style. There is also a good bibliographica data base for storing stuff and making lists and heaps of fun stuff. Check out the NB website, they even have a 100 trial package which gives you a good sneak peak at what the program can do. I know some guys who swear by it. All of my colleagues use it and love it. I'm slowly getting into it.

Ben Myers said...

Great advice, Mike. You only forgot one thing: find a good supervisor!

Anonymous said...

stimulating and insightful as always, I very much appreciate your blog. I am heading towards PhD studies, and sometimes the thought scares me (and excites me at the same time).

Ben Myers mentioned finding a supervisor- how do you choose?

You mention Nota Bene and the ability to change formats, any bibliographic software can do that (although NB does other great stuff too).

I was surprised to see that you're a PC guy when Scot McKnight is a mac-man (he was your supervisor, right?). I really feel sorry for biblical scholars on PC, you don't have Accordance!! (Nate M- I'm afraid you have been walking around with a veil over your face- there is a reason why iBook's are white and IBM laptops are black- and we need to be children of light). In regards to Accordance vs. BW a Seinfeld quote will suffice: "your rubbing to sticks together and I'm walking around with a zippo".

Danny Zacharias

Anonymous said...

Another Question:

What are the advantages/disadvantages of doing a PhD in the US over the UK? Vice Versa? I've asked this on deinde before but never get any comments- perhaps some are afraid of downgrading other schools/systems.

And how do you choose, what should your criteria be (and in what order)? school, supervisor, personal interest, etc.

Danny Zacharias (again)

Anonymous said...

In the US you will most likely have comprehensive exams. Such exams, though they can/will be very difficult, can be of great benefit to you in providing a broader knowledge of your field. In the UK system in which the only thing you work on is your thesis, then your education in the program is limited to your topic.

Anonymous said...

Ok,in light of all that has gone before, this may sound like a foolish question, but just to clarify my naive american mind - For a UK (and Aussie) PhD program, you apply, are accepted (Lord willing), identify a topic/problem, research, write and defend a dissertation and nothing more? No classes, no entrance or exit exams or anything else? I don't mean to be redundant, nor am I foolish enough to think it is "easy" by any stretch of the imagination. I just have a hard time thinking outside the US model "box."

Nate M

Anonymous said...

One more question and I PROMISE I'll let the issue rest. Any suggestions on financing a PhD? The costs are exorbitant, as I'm sure you well know. Assuming you're not independently wealthy (and I'm not)do you go for a lone, wait a few years and save?


Michael F. Bird said...


1. On UK/Aussie Ph.D programs, you're correct. No course work, no entrance exams, it's you, your thesis and a supervisor. There will be a process of application that may include evidence of research writing (M.Th thesis or journal articles etc.), an interview, and the application would go for a committee. There is a viva at the end where you orally defend your work.

2. On financing a PH.D, that's a tough one. I know the University I went to had scholarships for foreign students; doing a Ph.D part-time may be cheaper but hard to balance work/study. Best bet is to find out what any given Uni has in the range of scholarships/busaries. There is the Bill Gates scholarships to Oxbridge I think.

Anonymous said...

Logistically would a person from the US complete a PhD from the UK without relocating there?

Michael F. Bird said...

Dear Anon (assuming it's Nate), it depends on what the residency requirements are. For instance, Cambridge has a 3 yr residency requirement. At HTC we have a 6 mnth residencey requirement which means you can do the other 2.5 yrs from the US. It depends on the institution. Where I'm at we have a number of US guys doing Ph.D's with us (e.g. JB Hood) who are in the states.

Anonymous said...

Not me, I promised no more least on this post :-) Good question and answer though!


Anonymous said...

You mentioned to say goodbye to t.v., xbox, and other trite stuff. I rarely (and I mean rarely) watch t.v. I have no problem saying goodbye to the xbox because I have never even seen one! However, do I need to say goodbye to family and ministry if attempting a PhD? I have 2 daughters and one on the way? Obviously, I would not say goodbye, but do you have any advice along these lines? Do you recommend stepping down from ministry positions during the program? Thanks,
Mike Osborne

Christopher Shell said...

my recommended sequence:

(a) make comprehensive bibliography;

then (b) photocopy whatever you don't (or choose not to) possess in book form at a newsagent that does 3p a copy (don't laugh! - I found one);

then (c) put photocopies into topic-labelled folders in date order, each item being stapled and labelled with author and date as per bibliography;

then (d) develop a provisional structure with subsections;

then (e) annotate books and photocopies into this skeleton, in date order for each subheading;

then (f) make this into a text.

(g) is of course to keep the whole process ongoing as other bibliography items will progresively be discovered and photocopied.

then (c)