For those of us who did not do extensive research in our MDIVs or MAs (beyond exegesis papers), it is a terrifying experience to realize that you don’t even know where to begin (other than having a decent research topic). I found that a couple of things have helped:
(1) Read How to Get a PhD, by Phillips and Pugh. It describes the process of managing a PhD in the UK (with no preference to a particular discipline). They give you an idea of what to do, generally, and when. The thing to keep in mind is, the experience is going to vary greatly from one student-supervisor pair to another. One of your seminary/university mentors or older peers may have described their experience (‘Oh, it was a piece of cake! I love the UK style!’; ‘It was awful. There was no structure. It was just a means to an end!’), but yours could be the exact opposite. Keep an open mind. Also, don’t obsess over your topic before beginning the program – more times than not you won’t end up doing exactly what you wanted to or thought you would do.
(2) Read publishes dissertations in your field – especially those that were defended at schools where you might like to go. (This information often appears in the ‘acknowledgements’ section of the book at the beginning.) How do you find published dissertations? One thing to do is go to the websites of profs who teach at the schools you are looking at and track down their own published dissertations (it would be surprising if their dissertations weren’t published!). For NT studies, there are a number of publishers or monograph series’ that regularly put our doctoral dissertations. Here are some:
1. Mohr Siebeck’s Wissenshftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament Series (e.g. Roy Ciampa’s The Presence and Function of Scripture in Galatians 1 and 2 ).
2. Brill Academic Books (e.g. J Ross Wagner’s Heralds of Good News )
3. Sheffield Press’ Journal For the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series (e.g. Thomas Sappington’s Revelation and Redemption at Colossae )
4. Cambridge University Press’ Society For New Testament Studies Monograph Series (e.g. Steve Walton’s Leadership and Lifestyle: The Portrait of Paul in the Miletus Speech and 1 Thessalonians )
5. Society of Biblical Literature’s Academia Biblica Series (e.g. Stephen Finlan’s The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphor ).
Reading published dissertations allow you to (1) get an idea of structure; how to frame a dissertation; (2) Expertise – an idea of how knowledgeable you need to be in your area; (3) Previous Research – other people summarize the history of research for you and you can learn a lot from good literature reviews; (4) bibliographies – a good bibliography is like walking into Target for this first time – Wow! Lots of good stuff! (5) Supervisors – usually they will mention their supervisor – you may see the same name(s) come up for your topic of interest; (6) length – you should get a general idea of how long your writing will be in relationship to various dissertations that you read.
NOTE: It has been very helpful for me to find a dissertation that parallels mine in terms of scope and methodology. I have been using the published version as a basic structure for my own work – with a few tweaks to fit my topic and content. I, of course, will give credit to him for aiding in my methodological considerations and some parallels issues, but this strengthens my work – to use a methodology that has already ‘passed’. So, if you need that kind of structure, like me, it is worthwhile (at least in the first year of your PhD) to seek out good published dissertations and learn from those who wrote, defended and got it out there.
The ‘monograph’ series tends to allow the dissertation to remain more or less untouched except for errors and stylistic/cosmetic changes – this keeps it closer to what you will be doing. But keep in mind that unless the dissertation is published with Eerdmans, Baker, Hendrickson or the like, you’re looking at a cost of over $100 dollars – so see if your library has it. Buy 1 or 2 on amazon marketplace – its worth it if you can find a decent price. I know that when my PhD is over, I will probably sell a few monographs that I don’t think will resurface on my ‘to read’ list :).