Markus Vinzent's Blog

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Applying for a PhD in Early Christianity/Patristics/Medieval Theology/Economics of Religion in the UK


Around this time of year people who are aiming for PhD work in the next academic year start thinking about places to explore, and start making preliminary inquiries. Thanks to colleagues like Larry Hurtado who have blogged on their sites, and in following (and partly plagiarising - not a good example for PhD work!) them, I'd like to give a few hints and tips how best to go about it. Of course, I am always looking for great Postgraduate students and the future of academic in the few fields where I am working in myself: Early Christianity, Patristics, Medieval Theology and Economics of Religion.
King's College London, and the Department of Theology and Religious Studies (for which I act as Postgraduate Admissions Tutor) strongly encourages high profiled applications, and I welcome opportunities to advise potential applicants. To avoid writing a lot of the same sort of advice and information repeatedly, simply read the following lines. Because the UK PhD structure is different from the North American model (and different also from models in other European countries), it is important for applicants to understand things and to prepare themselves adequately. 

What, then, are the specifics of a UK PhD?

The UK PhD has a different structure from both the North American and the European (or at least the German) PhD. In the latter, students typically can be admitted on the basis of a very good first degree in their Undergraduate Studies, or in Theology/Religion often a very good MDiv. In Germany, students have to have a clear project. In the US, 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), whereas in Germany people register for a PhD and then, have to find their ways more or less on their own - guided by their supervisor, of course, through a mixture of supervisions and graduate seminars. As in the US, students are expected not solely to attend to their narrow topic, but to read broadly so to cover the subject area in its entirety, as this will be checked in the viva (in Germany), or in the first year comps in the US.
Before students can sit the comps or are even admitted to doctoral studies in Germany, they’ll have to show that they can read/translate the relevant languages, which often involves timed, written translation tests in each.
The UK PhD has a different start - I find that most students first have to be guided by me towards a narrower topic within the broader research area. In addition, this search will only define which ancient or modern language the students have to learn (as most do not come with the appropriate language knowledge). From experience, it takes the first good 3 months minimum to get to know what precise subject area and question a student is going to tackle. Which leaves us with another 9 month to come up with a first chapter which is going to be assessed in an upgrade procedure from MPhil to PhD - the entrance to finishing the project within, normally, a total of 36 months (with another 12 months almost fee and supervision free for writing up). Having said this - a number of my students have been able to submit early and saved the fees for the third year.

In considering admission to PhD work in my fields at King's, it is necessary that students should not be further along in preparation than in the American-type or German programme, but that they are open minded, and very hard working. Quite often, as a rule, King's requires students to do a taught Masters degree first, because of the pressure that students otherwise submit themselves to.
So, in addition to excellent marks in relevant prior studies, and strong references, King's requires 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 it is extremely helpful if students have worked up languages (Latin, Greek, French, German) 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.

The additional matter I’ll mention here has to do with what is expected of a PhD thesis and the demands of identifying a research-focus that will lead to a successful thesis. The essential criterion is that the thesis must be judged by examiners to comprise a genuine contribution to knowledge/understanding of the subject, something “publishable” (i.e., worth the attention of other scholars working on the subject). That is, whereas a decent masters thesis need only demonstrate competent engagement with a subject and scholarship on it, the PhD thesis should constitute some new/further advance in thinking about the subject.
In any field such as my own, in which the evidence-base is almost infinite, it can be a problem to identify a good research question which can be answered in the given space of time.  All good research should be critical and creative, finding not only new answers, but rather new questions to drive further research. Most often, however, an applicant comes with a research area, not with a particularly new question, one of the reasons, why the first exercise (also to see whether you are prepared to adapt and learn) consists in delineating a way towards an innovative angle.
I do require applicants to do advance reading before applying, and to propose a potential research-focus as part of the application. But I don’t necessarily expect that all the delineation of the question will be done then. We like applicants to indicate what they’ve read on their proposed research-focus, and what ideas or questions occur to them, why they find the proposed research interesting and worth pursuing. This need not require more than a few pages at most.
One suggestion is that prospective PhD students look for data that haven’t so frequently been studied, or haven’t been studied recently, or haven’t been researched in the same depth as some other data. That may well mean exploring beyond the limits of one’s previous courses of study, and perhaps beyond the “biggie” texts such as the big names in the subject areas. In addition, it is helpful, if students have checked out my list of publications (to be found here on the blog), in order to see, how I work and which kinds of questions have driven my past research. My most recent monographs are Christ's Resurrection in Early Chrsitianity and the Making of the New Testament (2011), The Art of Detachment (2011) and recently Eckhart's On the Lord's Prayer (2012). The project in the making are a monograph (together with Allen Brent) on Early Christian Iconography, another on Marcion and the Dating of the Gospels, a multi-volume commentary on Marcion's Gospel and a translation with commentary of Eckhart's Parisian Questions.
Let me also add a personal note. My list of Postgraduate Students here at King's is rather long - and, once I take on a PhD student, I feel responsible not only for her or him getting the degree and the title, but also for caring for the future career. Such responsibilities cannot be multiplied without limits, hence my plea that, if I cannot take somebody on, but direct the applicant to one of my fine colleagues, it is not that I am not willing to engage with the person or the work, but that either the applicant's interest lies closer in the research field of one of my colleagues in or outside the Department, or that I have to balance new commitments with what I have taken on already.
So how to start an application: simply do your preparatory work and send me an email with your proposal. The better the field (not the precise question) is prepared, the easier we will come together.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your comment, which is a great helpful to prepare the next academic step.