Quite a few of you are either current, former, or even future postgrad students (Th.M. or Ph.D.). For those of you who have been down at least part of that road, what do wish wish would have been included in a “postgrad survival guide” that someone just handed to you before you started your program?
I was looking back over the posts that I’ve written in the last year in my Tips for the Th.M. series, and I ran across quite a few others that revolved around the idea of how to succeed/survive in a postgrad program. So, I’ve started to wonder if it would be worth supplementing those with some other posts on the subject and eventually compiling a free resource on how to survive your ThM/PhD program.
I’d love to hear what you think. What would you add/delete? Would something like this be useful?
Here’s what I have based on what I’ve already written, grouped into a few logical categories.
Part 1: Introductory Issues
- Are you sure that you want a postgraduate program?
- Is academic Bible/theology a waste of time?
- Should pastors pursue postgraduate work?
- How to choose a postgraduate program.
- How do you apply to a postgraduate program?
Part 2: Surviving Your Classes
- How to succeed in a postgrad seminar
- How to read well
Part 3: Surviving the Research Process
- Why you should use journal articles
- How to use journal articles well
- The danger of over-research-itis
- Using Google Scholar in research
Part 4: Surviving the Writing Process
- Constructing strong arguments
- The importance of clear and concise writing
- Writing research proposals
- Understanding the research proposal process
- Finding good thesis/dissertation topics
- Picking a thesis/dissertation topic
- How to tackle something the size of a thesis/dissertation
- How to use quotations
- Common errors in research writing
- How to take criticism
Part 5: Surviving Your Oral Examination
- Answering concisely
- Saying “I don’t know”
- Summarizing your research
Part 6: Surviving after You Graduate
- Writing the perfect resume
- Advice on applying for a teaching position
- What to do when you don’t get a teaching position
Many thanks to Nick Norelli for pointing out that my dissertation is available online through the University of St. Andrews research database. You’d think I would have known that already, but I didn’t realize the database was open to the public. So, if you’re looking for something to fill your spare moments, feel free to check it out.
I am dealing with some emotional turmoil, however. I tried to access my dissertation a few minutes ago, but I was blocked by the seminary’s web filter because the material “is considered inappropriate”! I’m not sure what to make of that. It’s one thing to have a reviewer or professor tell you that your dissertation isn’t any good. But, when some mindless software starts taking potshots at your research, that’s pretty annoying. I bet it hasn’t even read my dissertation. Stupid software.
I did give my dissertation a pretty snappy title, though, so more people would want to read it:
Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies: An Exercise in Christological Anthropology and Its Significance for the Mind-Body Debate with Special Reference to Karl Barth’s ‘Church Dogmatics’ III.2
Seriously, who could possibly stay away from a book like that? In my family, we gather around the fire and read our favorite parts to each other while eating ice cream. You should try it.
This is just a reminder for those of you in our Th.M. program. If you intend to begin your thesis or work on a guided research project in the Fall, you should start working on your research proposal. Technically, you can submit the proposal as late as the second week of the semester, but I strongly recommend getting it in earlier. Your best-case-scenario is to submit your proposal to me by mid-August so that we have a couple of weeks to refine it before the semester starts. That allows you to hit the ground running in September and have the whole semester to work on your thesis or project. So, if you’re not already working on your proposal, get started soon.
I mentioned a while back that I was thinking about a series of posts on writing. But, why bother if someone else will do the job for you – and do it quite well. Peg Boyle Single has written the first two parts of a four-part series on writing. Here are the highlights so far.
In part 1 she debunks two prominent myths about writing:
- Myth 1: Writing can only occur in large blocks of time. The truth – you need to write small chunks regularly. Develop a writing schedule.
- Myth 2: Writing can wait until motivation washes over you. The truth – good writing requires discipline more than inspiration. (If you want to read more on this point, Stephen King’s On Writing is an excellent resource.)
Part 2 focuses on making two points:
- Anyone who wants to be really good at something has to engage in “deliberative practice” – i.e. doing something every day for extended periods of time. She connects this to writing by arguing (again) for the importance of a regular writing routine. And, she cites some research suggesting that such deliberative practice actually has measurable cognitive benefits.
- Good writers focus on global ideas rather than particular details. She argues (King is good on this point as well), that a good writer pays more attention to the overall shape of an argument and the ideas being expressed than on the particular words and sentences used to communicate those ideas. She suggests that this can be a good solution for all that latent perfectionism that drives us to spend way too much time trying to craft the perfect sentence.
I’ll pass along the next two once she’s written them.
One of the comments that I often hear from Th.M. students is that the prospect of writing something as large as a thesis is pretty intimidating. And, you’re right. If staring at a blank screen is scary when you’re writing a 15 page research paper, it’s much worse at the beginning of a 150 page thesis. So, what do you do? I’m thinking about blogging some other time on some tips for productive writing, so I’ll focus here on what I think are the three most important tips for facing something as big as a thesis.
- Don’t think of it as one huge project. Think of it instead as five smaller project that revolve around a common theme. You’ve written research papers before. Writing a thesis is basically the same process. Only, instead of writing five unrelated research papers, you’re writing five research papers that work together to accomplish a single goal. So, when you sit down to work, don’t stress about the whole project, just focus on the piece that you’re working on now.
- Establish a writing schedule and stick to it. Treat your thesis like you would any other class that you’re taking. You wouldn’t skip one of your Th.M. classes just because you didn’t feel like going to class that day (humor me here). So, don’t skip working on your thesis just because you don’t feel like it. Establish a writing schedule and treat those writing times just like you would class time. Don’t schedule other activities during those times, you’re busy.
- Write a little every day. Not everyone is going to agree with this one. Some people prefer blocking off large chunks of time and getting a lot of writing done then. I think a more effective approach is to establish a daily writing goal and make sure that you hit it every working day (say, five days a week). That makes your goals much more tangible, trackable, and attainable. For example, if you decided that you wanted to knock out a rough draft of your thesis in one semester, your goal would look something like this: 500 words a day, five days a week, for fifteen weeks. That would give you approximately 37,500 words at the end of the semester, right in the range for a Th.M. thesis. And, 500 words a day is a very attainable goal.
So, although a thesis is a large project that will consume a significant chunk of your life, it does not have to become that insurmountable obstacle many people make it out to be. I think that many of those students who get stuck at the thesis or dissertation stage are there because they neglected one of these three tips.
This series has ended up being much longer than I’d originally anticipated. So, I thought I would compile a list of all the posts in one place to make them a little easier to access. I’ll do this again once I’m all done (assuming I ever finish).
- Tips for the ThM – part 1 (journal articles)
- Tips for the ThM – part 2 (strong arguments)
- Tips for the ThM – part 3 (concise arguments)
- Tips for the ThM – part 4 (criticism)
- Tips for the ThM – part 5 (concise answers)
- Tips for the ThM – part 6 (I don’t know)
- Tips for the ThM – part 7 (summarizing research)
- Tips for the ThM – part 8 (writing proposals)
- Tips for the ThM – part 9 (the proposal process)
- Tips for the ThM – part 10 (picking a topic)
- Tips for the ThM – part 11 (finding a topic)
Probably nothing causes more angst at the beginning of your Th.M. program than realizing that you need to find a good topic for your thesis or Guided Research projects. Here are some suggestions for doing just that.
- Focus on your needs. This connects with my last tip, but it’s worth repeating. You’re starting point needs to be on what you need to accomplish with your project. Do you need to strengthen a skill, develop a specialization, address a weakness, etc? Then, do that. At the end of the day, you know that your thesis will at least have accomplished those purposes, and it will have set you up for the future. If other people also find your project interesting, bonus! But, don’t start by worrying about what they’ll find interesting.
- Make a list. Every class that you take and every book that you read is a possible source for a research project. Until you’ve landed on your topic, I strongly recommend starting a “thesis idea list.” Your goal in each class should be to come up with 2-3 ideas that come out of that class and could serve as the starting point for a research project. Do the same with the books and journal articles that you read in your area of interest. By the time you are halfway through your program, you’ll have generated a rather lengthy list that you can start weeding through. That’s much easier than trying to come up with an idea from scratch.
- Read journal articles. This also connects with one of my earlier tips, but from a different perspective. Journal articles are a great source for research ideas. Books tend to be too expansive. I often find that the ideas I get from books are good for writing more books, but are not specific enough for theses or research papers. The tighter focus of a journal article is more useful for this purpose.
- Talk to people. Find people who know your discipline and ask them what they think are a couple of unresolved issues, key debates, or important figures in that discipline. These can serve as the starting point for further exploration.
- Test your ideas. If you think you’ve landed on an idea that worth pursuing, test your assumptions by sharing the idea with other people. You’ll definitely need to come and talk with me about it, and I won’t be hesitant about telling you if I don’t think the idea is workable. But, what do I know? Make sure you talk with others as well. At the very least, I’d share your idea with one other professor, several Th.M. students, and if you’re ministerially minded, someone in your church. If you have a blog, post the idea there and see what kind of feedback you get. (Feel free to use this blog if you’d like.) That kind of feedback can be very helpful for determining whether a topic is too broad, or if there are debates/issues surrounding your topic you weren’t aware of.
There are lots of ways to generate ideas. At the beginning of their program, many Th.M. students feel like there is no way that they can come up with a good idea. The reality is that there are actually too many good ideas out there. The real challenge for most students is landing on one idea among many good possibilities.
I’m sure that all of you who are in the program have already heard me talk about how to pick a topic for your Th.M. thesis or Guided Research projects. Nonetheless, it can’t hurt to hear it again, and it would probably be helpful to have it in writing. These comments would also apply to choosing a topic for your Ph.D. dissertation, so hopefully they’ll help in the future for some of you as well.
Let me say first what picking a topic is not about. It is not about wowing the world with your brilliance, making some amazing new discovery that will reshape your discipline forevermore, or otherwise establishing your reputation as a world class scholar. It’s always possible that your research will lead to one of these (don’t count on it). But, that’s not where your focus should be when picking a topic. Indeed, picking your topic really shouldn’t be about other people at all. Once you’ve picked your topic, you will absolutely want to know how your research will impact other people. Academic research should not be a solipsistic journey into ivory tower irrelevance. But, you don’t start by thinking (i.e. worrying) about what other people think. Down that road lies research paralysis.
The starting point for choosing a good research topic is you – i.e. your needs and interests. I’d suggest that a really good research topic will accomplish one or more of the following.
- Strengthen an area of weakness. We all have areas in which our prior training was not sufficient for what we want to do next. It could be a methodology, a background issue, a key debate, or some other issue. Spend some time reflecting on what you are preparing to do and how well prepared you are to do it. If you see some areas that you really need to address, a research project is the perfect time to do it. If it’s an area of critical weakness, then you definitely want to do something in the project that will help. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you focus your thesis in that area, only that you construct in such a way as to provide opportunities for development. For example, if you’re working in systematic theology and you’re weak in philosophy, make sure you deal with some philosophical issues in your thesis. That will sharpen your skills in an area of weakness, even while you chase a topic that accomplishes other purposes as well.
- Strengthen an area of strength. You research is the perfect time to develop an area of specialization. So, again, spend some time reflecting on your preparation and the areas in which you are currently strongest. Which of those would you really like to work into a specialization? Which could you see yourself pursuing on into the future? Which do you want to be identified with moving forward?
- Chase an area of interest. This one is pretty obvious, but also very important. Research takes a lot of time and discipline, don’t make it harder by picking a topic that you don’t find personally interesting. Even if it’s a great topic, you’ll hate it. And, you might not ever finish. Ask yourself what question you are trying to answer with your project, if you don’t find the question personally compelling, ask a differing question.
- Set yourself up for the future. What are you doing next? If you’re preparing for a PhD program, then you definitely want your thesis to set you up for success. Ideally, your thesis will lay the groundwork for what you do in your doctoral program, so make sure it helps you thoroughly explore its area of focus and the necessary methodologies. If you’re already in or headed toward ministry, spend some time thinking about the shape of that ministry and the kinds of issues involved. What questions/issues are most pressing? Where does your biblical/theological framework need more work to ground effective ministry? What everyday practices do you need to reflect more deeply on to make sure that they are theologically, rather than pragmatically, driven?
I could summarize all of this simply: pursue your research with the end in mind. The best way to pick a topic is by not starting with the topic. Start with your needs and interests. You’re going to spend a tremendous amount of time on this project. So, what would you like to accomplish personally in the process? Once you’ve answered that question, you’re in position to begin evaluating research ideas. I’ll comment in the next post on how to generate good research ideas.
The research phase of your Th.M. begins with your research proposal. Since many of you will be writing research proposals later in life as well, I’d like to start by offering some thoughts on writing good proposals in general. In a later post, I’ll make some comments on the specific proposal process for our Th.M. program.
First, a good proposal should accomplish at least four things.
- It should identify a clear and strong thesis statement. Your thesis statement will probably change as you begin actually researching and writing, but you need a clear thesis statement at the beginning because that will guide everything else.
- It should lay out a clear argument. I strongly encourage writing full sentence outlines at this point. The top-level of the outline shows how each major section (or chapter) of the project relates to the thesis statement. Use full sentences so that it is very clear how the logic of the argument flows from one section/chapter to the other. And, I would drill down 2-3 additional levels in your outline (depending on whether this is for a thesis or paper) to show how you will develop each section/chapter. When you’re done, another person should be able to read through your outline and see exactly how you think the entire argument will go. It’s very unlikely that your outline will survive intact through the researching/writing process. But, you still want a clear outline at the beginning so that you know how everything relates. (More on this in a second.)
- It should indicate why the research is important. If you can’t explain in your proposal why your research matters, don’t bother doing the research. At the very least it means that you’re not invested and you won’t really get what you need out of the project. And, you’ll never get a supervisor to sign off on a project if you can’t explain why it needs to be done.
- It should identify all the key works that you’ll need to engage. I’m not as convinced as some that a proposal needs to be a nearly exhaustive list of resources on your subject. I think it’s more important that you’ve clearly identified all the works that you must engage for this project to work. That will help you see whether the project is feasible. Here you want to demonstrate both that there is enough material for you to perform adequate research and that there’s not so much material you couldn’t possibly cover it all.
Second, you need to realize that a good proposal makes your life easier. Trust me. A good proposal takes a long time to put together, but it saves you time in the long run. With a good proposal in hand, you know exactly how to approach your topic. You won’t waste as much time (wasting some time is unavoidable) chasing issues only to discover that they’re not necessary for your argument. You can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid making revisions to your project, but a good proposal will result in fewer revisions at the end. And, you won’t find yourself halfway through a project only to realize that you’re not actually sure what your thesis is.
Think of it like this. I built some bookcases for our family room a while back. It takes quite a bit of time to think through what you’re going to do, what pieces you need, what size they should be, and how you’ll assemble them. It’s much more satisfying just to jump right in and start cutting boards. And, I’ve done it that way before. It’s depressing how much time, energy, and money you can waste by not having a clear plan at the beginning.
You’ll spend far more time working on your research project than I did on building the bookcases. Make sure you’ve developed a good plan before you get started.