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.

  • Charles Twombly

    Back in the seventies, I’d hoped to do a Ph.D. with Thomas Torrance in Edinburgh. Part of the attraction was the prospect of being in and out in three years. Two small children deflected our plans, and I delayed doctoral work until the eighties, this time at Emory. Big difference but one I am totally grateful for. Different strokes, etc., but the twelve seminars I took and the 25 hours of “prelim” exams (coupled with two language “reading exams”) were just what I needed. Working through problems week by week with great professors and great peers was transformative. Still admire the UK system (who couldn’t with all the great “products” we have) but realize I myself needed the US system. Thanks for this, Ben.

  • Jon Altman

    I haven’t personally done either, but my impression is that a North American Ph.D. can take as much as ten years from start to finish.

  • Charles Twombly

    Jon, mine took ten years; but that was largely because I was married, had two kids, and (after two years of course work) went back to a full-time job as a high school teacher. Some schools (eg Chicago) are notorious for hanging onto folks even longer. The good news: the very best schools these days typically give everyone admitted into a doctoral program a free ride (tuition waived plus a modest stipend) for around five years. Saves times, might save marriages too.

  • Revdrdre

    I did mine in the US and definitely relate to the time factor and all the testing — language comps, etc. A person ahead of me in a PhD program once observed, and I do not necessarily agree, that the US system, with all the classroom work, produces better teachers whereas the UK system, with the emphasis on research, produces better writers/researchers.

  • Jeremy

    10 years is a long time! At Asbury I’m working on a PHD in Inter-cultural studies at they suggest I be done in 4 years. I hope to be done in 5. It only takes people 4 years plus in the American system if they do not work on their dissertation at a fast pace

  • Charles Twombly

    Jeremy, I’m happy yours can be done in four or five years. The only “four yearer” I can recall at Emory in the eighties was Richard Hays, whose dissertation has blown many of us away since. In my case, I had an endless reading list to work through for my “prelims”: a list covering 1900 years of theological history! No quick way to do that. Other departments (eg Old Testament) were more inclined to shape their reading lists on the basis of the seminars their students had taken and the works read in those seminars. They could move through the process more quickly. Believe me: my ten years wasn’t dilly dallying; same with many others. The “American system” apparently varies from school to school and program to program. All the best in your work.

  • Jeremy

    Hey Charles, I guess I should say our program is set up to finish in 4 years, if you work at a regular pace. I can’t speak for other schools though. We have a reading list of about 70 books for our 2 comp exams and the professors shaped the reading in our classes (at times) to match up with the comp exams. I’m grateful for this! How many books on your reading list?

  • Charles Twombly

    Jeremy, can’t recall the number now but it took me years and years of early morning and late night reading. It was so daunting that one of my hist theol fellow students switched to the OT program since it was “easier”! She’s now a distinguished scholar at a Catholic college. (I had four comps/prelims [six hours each] and a one-hour oral on historiography.)