The British vs. the American PhD Process

The UK PhD: Structure and Pressures

larryhurtado | September 10, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Categories: Uncategorized | URL:

Several days ago I promised to engage questions about how it is that examiners of PhD theses in NT/Christian Origins can report the sort of incidents mentioned to me (which I hope are exceptional) where a student is obviously lacking in basic language tools.  Those considering PhD studies and fellow academics as well may find the following of interest.  Otherwise, you may find the following a bit tedious.

In part, the sort of incidents mentioned to me seem to me to arise from two major factors:  (1) the structure and nature of the UK PhD, and (2) pressures on the university sector in the UK, especially from government and government-appointed bodies.  I’ll elaborate.

The UK PhD has a different structure from the North American PhD.  In the latter, students typically can be admitted on the basis of a very good first degree, or in Theology/Religion often a very good MDiv.  Those admitted to PhD study first take a year or more of courses and extensive reading, which is designed to prepare them for the “comps” (written field exams).  My own experience is probably still representative.  I had a 6-hr written exam in NT/Christian Origins, and 3-hr exams in each of two other (for me “minor”) fields (which were post-biblical Judaism and 19th-20th century Christian thought).  These comps can be broad in the area from which (unseen) questions are drawn up.  E.g., when I asked my supervisor what to expect on the NT exam, he said I should acquaint myself with persons, texts, beliefs, political and religious developments in the Roman world ca. 200 BCE – 200 CE!  After these written comps, there followed a 2-hr oral exam by the whole Department of Religion on any/all the fields in the written comps.

And before students can sit the comps, they’ll have to show that they can read/translate the relevant languages, which often involves timed, written translation tests in each.

Then, after this, students are allowed to propose and commence their thesis research.

The UK PhD doesn’t typically involve coursework or exams, but solely researching and submitting a PhD thesis.  It’s referred to, thus, as a “research” degree, because there is no “taught” component.  Students arrive and are expected to start framing an researching a thesis project from their first weeks.  Moreover, sector-pressures (from research councils and the government-appointed research assessment exercises) make it necessary to get PhD students to submit optimally within 36 months, maximally within 48 months.

In considering admission to PhD work in NT/Christian Origins in Edinburgh, we’ve taken this to mean that students should be further along in preparation than in the American-type programme.  This means, e.g., that we often judge applicants with solely a MDiv to need further, masters-level work before commencing PhD studies.  To finish a good thesis within 36 months or even 48 months, there isn’t much time to acquire from scratch languages or to acquire a basic knowledge of the field.

So, in addition to excellent marks in relevant prior studies, and strong references, we require applicants to show aptitude and experience in doing research in the field, as shown in a masters dissertation or some major research essay.  We also emphasize that students should work up languages to adequate levels before they commence PhD work, and we require demonstration of reading abilities by the end of their first year of PhD study.

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