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.