Some advice for doctoral students from a wise scholar

During a dinner at the OT in NT seminar, I was able to pick the brain of Maurice Casey about his experience supervising students. He himself studied many years ago at Durham under C.K. Barrett and made a name for himself in Gospels studies (and he is now retired). I thought I might share his wisdom with you, for whatever its worth.

I asked him, ‘In your opinion, when you reflect on some of your favorite or “best” students, what gave them that quality?’

Though this was a broad question, he basically answered that the best students were ones that worked well independently and that the he (Maurice) learned more them than they did from him! He admits, though this is rare. And, you cannot really ascertain these qualities well from the applications. I replied, ‘So its just luck!’ And he agreed. He also commented that ESL students faced major challenges in trying both finish on time and to successfully defend their viva – and you can see what the obstacles might be. How can we, as doctoral students, learn from this? First, do the extra editing and proofreading work to take that burden off of your supervisor. Also, don’t be afraid to take creative risks with your ideas. I feel that many students try to do a ‘safe’ thesis by arguing something that may be relatively simple to argue, but makes a small contribution to scholarship. Besides, your supervisor is an excellent sounding board for these creative ideas and can tell you whether you are stretching your arguments too thin.

A second question I asked is really from the other end of the experience of a doctorate: Maurice, when you have been the examiner for theses and vivas, regarding those students who don’t pass – is there a particular logical fallicy or error that is often repeated? He thought for a bit on this one, but noted that few people really ‘fail’ (and are sent home with an MPhil instead of a PhD) and that they are really on a case-by-case basis. But, he did have some information that I found useful. He said that it wasn’t too long ago that students studying in the UK for a PhD did not have time constraints as today. You, more or less, could take as many years to finish your PhD as you needed – even taking ten years while working as a minister or in another profession. Now, funding for students is largely based on the assumption that students will finish in three years. In Maurice’s opinion, he has noticed that students have submitted at the end of their three years, but (due to funding pressures) their submission was premature. What can we do about this? First, if you are not in a PhD program yet, make sure you get your biblical languages solid before coming and try to learn as much German as possible before coming. Second, for those in their PhD programs, be very very strict in your study time aiming for 25-30 hours per week of just thesis research in your first year and at least 40 hours per week in your second and third year. Be careful in the summers not the see them as vacation time. Third, don’t take on too many responsibilities: tutoring, part-time job, helping a professor, etc… Fourth, set very firm deadlines for when you will complete chapter drafts. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I think some people plan their deadlines well, but don’t follow through. They miss their first one by a week. Then they miss another by a couple of weeks. Next thing you know, by the middle of the third year they are six months behind!

I have a friend who finished his PhD at St. Andrews in two years and I asked him how he did it. First, his Masters thesis was the seedling for his PhD, so that helped. But, he was very firm about his study time and told me, ‘On beautiful days in St. Andrews, some students would decide to go outside and have fun. I would study.’ Once again, it makes sense, but beautiful sunny days are hard to come by in Durham! In any case, you (and I) may want to set even weekly goals for our research. For instance, my hypothetical plan is to spend all of April working on Philo. Weeks 1-2 of April I plan on doing the research.  Weeks 3-4 the’write-up’, where I fill out my notes, organise them and write a draft of that section of my thesis.

I benefited greatly from this dinner with Maurice.  He is a wise scholar and a nice man.  I wish him the best in his retirement.  He told me that, in his retirement, he has considered moving back to Durham (where he studied both for his first degree and his doctorate, as well as having grown up in the general area)  We would be honoured to have him.

Annual Seminar on the Old in the New (a general summary and background)

These last three days I have attended the Seminar on the Use of the Old Testament in the New. This year, as in years past, it is a relatively small group of mostly expert scholars and a few students. I was blessed to have interacted with Lionel and Wendy Sproston North, Paul Ellingworth, Maurice Casey, Ruth Edwards and others, as well as the organisers: Maarten Menken and Steve Moyise. The total attendees were certainly less than twenty, but this made the seminar all the more fun. Next year the location is uncertain, as well as the dates. If you wish to attend next year, your best bet is to email Steve Moyise in December 2007 or January 2008. Though there are only about 7-8 papers read at the conference, this round two students presented. It is a good opportunity to present to a small group of very wise, but very gracious scholars.

I was able to gather small bits of information about the group’s origins. It began with A T Hanson and Max Wilcox some number of years ago and a student of Hanson’ s (Wendy Sproston North) was encouraged to attend and designated the ‘secretary’. Hanson and Wilcox passed the leadership on to Wendy and Lionel who planned the seminar for nearly twenty years until just recently. Steve and Maarten have taken over, though Wendy and Lionel still faithfully attend.

One thing I noticed was that the group is heavy on the side of older scholars. Part of the reason may be that this conference is not well advertised. I suspect that part of the reason is that many scholars are just not interested in the topic. But, I hope that in future years we will see younger scholars join this ‘guild’, so to speak, and keep the tradition alive.

Also, Steve and Maarten have been publishing a series of edited volumes on the use of particular books of the OT in the NT. So, there has been two volumes published so far – one on Isaiah in the NT, and one on the Psalms in the NT. This should not be surprising since these books are by and large the most commonly quoted and alluded to books in the NT. They have another book coming out shortly in this series on Deuteronomy. And in the works yet another volume on the Minor Prophets. I suspect (though I don’t have any confirmation) that we may see more volumes on Genesis and Exodus, or perhaps on Gen.-Exod.-Lev. together (though this is only a guess). The volumes currently available are really excellent with first rate scholarship. And, if I might say, they are not too technical and can benefit student, pastor, and scholar.