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

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  1. Preparing for PhD Studies? « Near Emmaus: Christ and Text - May 14, 2010

    [...] at the University of Durham, gives some advice for those transitioning from a Th.M to a UK Ph.D here. He reminds us of some older, but still very useful blog posts by Ben Blackwell and Nijay Gupta as [...]

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