Blog Archives

Flotsam and jetsam (10/1)

Why it’s important to know what kind of supervision you’ll get in your doctoral program

Fortunately, I had a great supervisor in my doctoral program and really enjoyed every aspect of the experience. Talking with some other doctoral students, though, this comic isn’t too far off the mark. If you’re interested in doctoral programs, make sure you know what kind of track record your prospective supervisor has when it comes to actually supervising students.

Do I need a Master of Theology (Th.M.)?

One of the more common questions I run into as a Th.M. program director is, “Do I need a Th.M.?” That’s an understandable question. Before you spend that much time and money on a degree, you should be convinced that you really need one. And, I probably answered that question a dozen times this past summer. So, I thought I’d do my best to answer it here. Here’s my answer….No.

I realize that’s probably a surprising answer from someone who runs a Th.M. program, but the simple fact is that whether you are headed toward a doctoral program, local church ministry, or something else, I’m not aware of any Christian vocation that absolutely requires a Th.M. In virtually every sphere of life, the Th.M. is optional. So, do you need a Th.M.? Probably not. It used to be the case that many Ph.D. program required that M.Div. students get a Th.M. as an academic upgrade to their largely ministerial degree before beginning their doctoral work. That is generally not the case anymore.

But, if you don’t actually need a Th.M., why would you bother getting one? Ah, now that’s a different question. Whether you should proceed with a Th.M. is not so much a question of whether you need a Th.M., but whether you need a Th.M. The job that you’re headed toward may not require a Th.M., but there are a variety of situations in which a Th.M. can be of tremendous value anyway. Here are several reasons that you may want to pursue a Th.M. even though it’s not absolutely required.

  • Filling gaps in your training. Let’s face it, unless you are a truly unique individual, you probably did not have time to pursue everything that you needed to in your Master’s degree. There’s a good chance that you prepared really well in some areas and less well in others. Even if you intend to specialize in one area of biblical/theological studies, a Th.M. provides you the opportunity to develop some of your secondary interests and fill some gaps in your preparation. Some of our Th.M. students come in with only the basics in Greek, Hebrew, systematic theology, or church history. These students use the Th.M. to fill these holes in their training.
  • Broadening your training. Other students were able to lay a good foundation in all the biblical disciplines during their undergrad and graduate programs, but still feel the need for greater breadth in their preparation. I entered my Th.M. at least partially because I wasn’t ready yet for the kind of specialization that would be required in a doctoral program. Specifically, although I intended to focus my Ph.D. in systematic and historical theology, my Th.M. allowed me to spend considerable time on Hebrew and OT studies. These were areas that I did not develop adequately in my Master’s training, and I wanted a broad foundation that included significant time in all of these disciplines. Others are interested in using the Th.M. to prepare for local church ministry, seeing the Th.M. as an opportunity to broaden their biblical/theological training further than they were able in their Master’s programs.
  • Determining your specialization. One of the more common reasons for pursuing a Th.M. is that you want to continue on to a doctoral program, but you don’t yet know the specific specialization that you want to pursue. You may be interested in both systematic theology and church history, both NT and OT, or both the Gospels and the Pauline literature. Without a little more focus, it can become difficult (if not impossible) to select to right doctoral program for you. The Th.M. gives you a little more time to pursue various interests so that you can  make the right decision about what you want to focus on in your doctoral program. As a matter of fact, it was during my Th.M. that I was finally able to settle on systematic theology as the focus of my doctoral program rather than historical theology or NT studies. So, the Th.M. proved very helpful for me in this area.
  • Developing your specialization. Other students know what they want to specialize in during their Ph.D. program, but aren’t yet qualified to pursue that specialization at the doctoral level. If you fell in love with Greek during your Master’s program, but didn’t have enough electives to develop sufficiently in this discipline, the Th.M. allows you the time to lay a solid foundation for succeeding in your doctoral program.
  • Developing more teaching areas. Many schools are looking for people who can teach in more than one discipline. If you only have a specialization in Old Testament Law and its ancient near-eastern parallels, you may find it somewhat more challenging to find a teaching position than the person who is qualified to teach introductory classes in a couple of different disciplines. A Th.M. lets you develop some of those secondary teaching areas that can be very attractive to administrators.
  • Deepening your biblical/theological foundations for effective ministry. This is actually somewhat akin to “broadening your training,” but I wanted to make it more explicit that the Th.M. can be a great degree for ministry preparation. It’s not just a pre-Ph.D. degree. As Mark Stevens helpfully pointed out, the Th.M. can help add depth to your preaching/teaching ministry and give you a chance to develop (further) your understanding of pastoral theology. Around half of our Th.M. students use the degree to prepare for a doctoral program. The rest are in the program to deepen their preparation for effective ministry.
  • Setting you up for future success. All of these really add up to the same thing. Although the Th.M. is not absolutely required for anything, there are a variety of situations in which a Th.M. can be very helpful in setting you up for future success in your doctoral program or ministry setting.

So, as I often tell students, the Th.M. is the one degree program that no one actually needs. (That’s why they don’t let me work on marketing material.) But, the Th.M. can be very valuable for a lot of people in quite a few different circumstances. Whether you fit in any of those categories is something that you need to work out.

Should pastors get PhDs

Earlier today I posted a link to a video of John Piper discussing whether pastors should get PhDs. That video has begun to make its way around the blogosphere and has prompted a really thoughtful response (both appreciative and critical) from Dane Ortlund. Nick Norelli has also weighed in with a brief comment in favor of Piper’s overall take on the subject. I’d encourage you to watch the video, and then I’d like to hear what you think. I’d also be interested to know if you think that his arguments extend to Th.M. programs as well.

Recent posts on preparing for PhD studies

There have been a few posts and discussions lately about advice on preparing for Ph.D. studies. We’ve already noted Allen Yeh’s advice on pursuing doctoral programs, and my comments. And, of course, just today Ben Johnson gave us his thoughts on what it’s like to transition from a Th.M. to a Ph.D. in the UK.  And, he noted a couple of other helpful posts by Ben Blackwell and Nijay Gupta.

Near Emmaus has posted a couple of other good sources of advice on this subject that I thought might interest you:

  • Daniel Kirk argues for the M.DIV as the best pre-Ph.D degree for seminarians here.
  • Kevin Chen, who has recently completed his Ph.D, describes several things he would have done different/things of which current seminarians need to be aware before doing a Ph.D here.

What’s it like to go from a ThM to a PhD in the UK?

(Ben Johnson is a former Th.M. student who is now studying with Walter Moberly at the University of Durham. I asked him to offer some perspective on what that transition was like. If there are others out there who have made similar transitions (particularly to US programs), we’d love to hear from you as well. And, I’m sure Ben would be happy to interact with us in the comments if you have any questions for him.)

Marc recently asked me to comment on the transition from a ThM to a PhD and what it’s like to do a UK PhD. Since the only PhD experience that I have is in the UK system I thought I would combine both of these into a single post. This is basically an extended reflection on my journey from Western’s ThM program to the PhD program here at the University of Durham. Hopefully, some will find it useful.

The ThM program helps prepare you for a UK PhD in two different ways. Taking advantage of these two aspects is, in my opinion, key. First, the ThM program allows you to take more classes in addition to whatever graduate studies you have already undertaken. The UK PhD is research based so there is not a lot of class time. Most UK PhD programs allow PhD students to audit Masters and Bachelors level classes if they want, but the pressures of the thesis mean that you will not be sitting in on many classes in your PhD. At most you will probably audit one or two classes a year. This means that taking advantage of the coursework provided by the ThM is extremely helpful. One thing I did in my ThM was to audit several classes that I did not need for my degree but I wanted to have some introduction to. Obviously this wouldn’t work for language classes but it works very well for others, and it allows you to digest some of the material of the class without feeling the pressure to do everything. It may not be worth it for everyone, but it was for me. I felt that it was important to feel that I had an abundance of coursework before I started the PhD.

Second, the ThM gives you a great beginning experience with research. Whether you opt for the option with two research projects or the thesis (I did the thesis) you get a taste for what awaits in a research PhD. The UK PhD is solely research based so the only technical requirement is the completion of an 80,000-100,000 word thesis that is an original contribution to knowledge. Therefore, some experience with research is essential in PhD work. Furthermore, I have found that self direction and motivation are crucial to success in a UK PhD program. While you have an advisor (and some are more hands on than others) you are essentially responsible for taking the initiative and “getting on with it” as my advisor says. For this, doing the research that a ThM thesis requires is an excellent preparation (I assume that the two research projects option would be helpful as well but to a lesser degree). Some people take advantage of writing a ThM thesis that will build into their PhD thesis. I have academic A.D.D. so by the time I finished my thesis at Western I was ready for another topic.

Those are the two most obvious ways that the ThM program helps you to transition into a UK PhD. One thing that you must think about in transitioning from the ThM to the PhD that the ThM program doesn’t necessarily help you with is research languages. Since the PhD is original and fairly exhaustive research that means that all those sources in German or French that you didn’t cite in your ThM thesis, you have to cite and interact with in your PhD thesis. For me, learning German and French is essential. The languages won’t be the same for everyone, but if you’re in the area of theology or biblical studies it’s a good bet that you will need to learn German. That doesn’t mean that you need to be fluent but you need to be able to get through a journal article or find what you need in a book with the aid of a grammar and a dictionary. I didn’t really do any research language work before I began and I really wish I would have.

Another thing that a ThM, especially a ThM from Western, helps with in the transition to a UK PhD is a good grounding in and balance between academic rigor and Christian faith. If you are heading to do a PhD in the UK the chances are you will be working in a technically secular environment and there are no promises that your advisor(s) will share your religious beliefs. For myself, I am lucky enough to have a committed Christian as my primary supervisor but my secondary supervisor is an atheist. This means that you will be stepping into an academic environment that expects you to be there for the academics and not for Christian faith per se. I look back on my time at Western and my conversations with professors and fellow students and it reminds me why I am over here doing a PhD. We are not doing this purely for the academics but to better equip ourselves to serve the church. For me, the academic rigor and research orientation of the UK PhD were the best option for me, but it helps to have the grounding in faith based coursework that I had from Western. The kind of Christian academic environment that you find in doing a ThM at Western Seminary is not to be taken for granted. For me, it was a crucial part of my preparation to transition to my place now in a UK PhD program. I hope it will serve you as it has served me. And if you’re thinking about pursuing a PhD, good luck, so far I have found it quite challenging but also quite rewarding.

Finally, in taking the steps towards a UK PhD you cannot do better than to check out these two blogs that are excellent resources. One is by a friend of mine, Ben Blackwell, who just finished his PhD here at Durham. The other is another Durham alumn, and a soon to be professor at SPU, Nijay Gupta. They have a wealth of information and advice for those who are looking to do PhD studies on this side of the pond. Their blogs helped me out a lot.

As they say here, Cheers!

Ben Johnson

Western Alum ’09

Advice for applying to doctoral progams

For those of you interested in pursuing a doctoral degree eventually, Allen Yeh has offered some Advice for Applying for Grad School. I’d encourage you to take a look at it, but I would like to offer an alternate perspective on a couple of things.

First, I’d preface everything that Allen says by arguing that who you know is even more important than where you went to school. (I’ll be blogging on this again soon.) The name of your school is helpful if you’re having to cold sell yourself to a school. But, if you’ve networked effectively, your best job opportunities will come through the grapevine, where the name of your school is not as much of an issue. That doesn’t mean you can ignore this consideration, but it does mean you should pay attention to your networking opportunities now.

Second, much of what Allen says applies more to those who want to keep the possibility of teaching at a state school on the table. Let me be honest with you. If you are doing MA/MDiv/ThM work at a private Christian school, you are probably not going to be hired at a state school no matter where you do your doctoral work. There are a few exceptions to this, but that’s generally true. And, be honest with yourself, if you are the kind of person who is attracted to studying at a private Christian school, do you really want to teach at a state school? Do you want to operate in a context where your evangelical convictions will routinely be marginalized, your objectivity challenged, and your research plans questioned? If you are an evangelical, why not simply embrace that fact and teach at a school where you will be free to present and pursue your evangelical research? That doesn’t mean I think we should abandon the state schools. There are many evangelicals who are gifted and called to just that kind of environment. The question is, are you one of them? If not, don’t arrange your doctoral plans around the idea of keeping something on the table that maybe shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Third, Allen talks quite a bit about the academic superiority of the American Ph.D. over the British Ph.D. And basically he’s right. But, what he doesn’t take into account is the kind of work that a person may have done before their doctoral program. If you already have multiple degrees in your field, I would not hesitate for a second to encourage you toward a British program. You’ve probably had enough time already to get prepared in your field and you’re ready to work independently for a while. And, as Allen mentions, a British Ph.D. is not going to set you back at all with American seminaries. But, if you have not yet done enough coursework in your other programs, by all means go the American route.

Finally, his point about which subfield to specialize in is well worth considering. The statistics on applicants-per-position in New Testament and Systematic Theology are not good; Old Testament is not far behind. If those are your passions and you want to pursue those fields despite the odds, go for it. But, if you are open to pursuing a subfield of practical theology, that might set you up better for the future.