“Enjoy your time wandering around the stacks, perusing all the great books, selecting whatever strikes your fancy, and just soaking it all in.”
Someone encouraged me with these words recently, suggesting that a PhD experience should be something like that.
Wrong. It’s hard work. And it should be. Enjoyable, too. But hard work.
What exactly am I supposed to be doing as a PhD student?
I have all of two and a half weeks under my belt as a “reader” (sadly, that is the British nomenclature for doctoral student, which makes you feel about like a second grader in American terminology. “Oh, you’re finally a ‘reader.’ That’s so great! How is Amelia Bedelia? Enjoying Judy Blume?” Then again, maybe that’s how we should be made to feel!). The question that was always on my mind when I thought about PhD students prior to becoming one was, “What exactly do you do all day? Does it really take that long to write one long paper?”
Now that the tables are turned, I might try to answer that question. If nothing else, putting thoughts down on paper might help me answer the “meta-question” of, what should I be doing?
Weekly schedule, approximately
With the obvious caveats that (a) every student is different, (b) no one approach fits all, and (c) no week is the same, here is my typical approach to my “work” week. There are five main building blocks of my academic work.
- Research. I am still working out the kinks, but my research process includes the following components, all of which are highly fluid and “iterative” (read something, find another source, read that source, etc.).
- Reading primary sources. Primary sources are those which form the real core of what you’re studying, whether it be raw data collected in the lab or an original text or manuscript. In my case, the primary sources with which I will be dealing are (a) the OT and NT in their original languages and early translations like the Septuagint, (b) the Dead Sea Scrolls, and (c) Jewish writings such as the Targums and the Mishnah. Some classical Greco-Roman sources and early church writings (e.g., patristics) may come into play as well.
- Reading secondary sources. “Secondary” sources are writings about primary sources, by authors living anywhere beyond the era of the primary sources. For me, this will include scholarly articles, monographs (fancy term for lengthy, detailed treatment of a narrow topic), commentaries, and similar academic work done in the field I’m working within.
- Documenting sources and collecting notes. To organize all my sources and notes / analysis, I use a software package called Sente. As I read one source, I’ll find new sources to explore (in the footnotes and bibliography), which I log in Sente for future reading. As I work through something I’m reading, I take notes or quotes within Sente. Additionally, Sente has powerful tagging and filtering features that allow me to organize where each piece of research fits within my mental outline of what I’m writing.
- Repeat. Much of the day is spent reading, analyzing, documenting, and so forth.
- Writing. This process is intimately tied to the “research” workflow above, as pure research-for-the-sake-of-research is not the goal, at least long-term. The impetus is to get to writing early and often, and write write write. The Cambridge PhD is quite simple: 80,000 words, including footnotes but excluding bibliography and appendices. To achieve said goal, it takes probably twice that, since some gets scrapped and other parts get whittled down. In addition, I am working on several project in parallel, including articles and book reviews for journals and papers / presentations to give at various conferences or seminars.
- Skills development. To improve my abilities in conducting research and engaging in the field of New Testament, I am participating in a variety of skills development opportunities.
- Language acquisition. While seminary gets you up to speed on Hebrew and Greek, PhD work requires additional languages, depending on your area of specialization. In my case, I will be working on (at least) four languages while I am here, and in this order: modern German, biblical Aramaic, modern French, and Coptic. Why these four? Much NT scholarship (or any work done in humanities) outside the English-speaking world is concentrated in German-speaking countries or France. Most of the current publications are not translated to English, so to stay on top of the field, I have to be able to read the originals. Hence, I am currently in a weekly German class and will progress through the others in due course. Parts of the Bible are written in Aramaic, as are numerous types of Jewish literature. And Coptic is an important ancient language in which many NT manuscripts are written, such as the Gospel of Thomas (which will be one of my primary sources).
- NT seminars. I also participate in the bi-weekly Cambridge “senior” NT seminar and “graduate” seminar, both of which involve the presentation of works-in-process by either professional scholars (the “senior” version) or students like me (the “graduate” one), followed by Q&A. This venue allows you solicit feedback on your work and helps expose you to other areas of research that are not directly connected to your own studies.
- Conferences. Each year I will attend and / or participate (via delivering presentations) in a few different conferences, both in the US and in the UK.
- Other activities. Cambridge offers periodic lecture series, which are helpful for exposure to other scholars’ research. I also hope to continue preaching on a regular basis (roughly quarterly) and serving in the local church setting in whatever capacity I can.
- Professional development. The temptation can be to bury one’s head, write a dissertation, then emerge in 3 years to dust off one’s resume when the time comes to find a job. That’s not the ideal approach, of course, so a meaningful part of my week involves making connections within the church and the theological community both in the US and the UK. It seems a bit odd already to be thinking about the next step when I just got here, but it’s a vital part of building relationships in the church and the academy that will hopefully last a lifetime and, Lord willing, help identify opportunities for the future.
- Reading across the field of biblical studies. The potential drawback of the UK-style PhD program is that the “official” task is to write a fairly narrow dissertation on a single topic. No one is forcing you to read anything beyond the confines of your topic. However, the NT world is much broader, and any role in which I hope to serve in the future – as pastor and / or as teacher in an institutional setting – will require some level of competency across a host of topics. Hence, my nighttime hours are spent working through a schedule of reading I created up on a variety of topics, including the following: gospel criticism, the Synoptic problem, the New Perspective on Paul, canon, textual criticism, historical Jesus, gnosticism, dispensationalism, apocryphal gospels, pseudepigrapha, first century Judaism, Qumran / DSS, general epistles, Pauline epistles, hermeneutical theory, and even brushing up on Hebrew and Greek grammar. It’s enjoyable and valuable … but exhausting after an already-long day of reading and writing.
One of the great things about pursuing this kind of thing with a family in tow is how I have a visible and tangible reminder each day not only of why I’m doing this, but also how I should go about it. By this latter point, I mean that my family by definition helps me establish healthy boundaries.
While I’m biking home, I may be chewing over something I’m struggling with on the “work” front, and there’s nothing better than being greeted by all three of my girls and going to the playground or riding bikes together or hearing all about their adventures with mom during the day.
My wife and I can also encourage each other to spend time in private worship each day.
The world emphatically does not need another hardened, one-dimensional, faithless “Bible expert” whose heart and faith have ossified over time.