It has come as a surprise to many that I finished my PhD in the timeframe allotted to me (36 months; my viva came at the end of the 34th month). It is true that many NT students finish later – 3.5-4 years is common and 5 years is not unheard of. How did I do it?
Well, I honestly believe that some topics require a bit less work than others. Part of my ‘success’ is having chosen a topic that dealt primarily with Paul (and not in comparison to the DSS, Stoics, Hauerwas, whatever…). This meant that I really only needed to master one set of information, though I admit my methodology (conceptual metaphor theory) required some intensive outside reading. So, that is part of it. My colleague John Goodrich chose a topic that required him to look up and translate a lot of ancient inscriptions. He spent much of his first year doing that. He has found some great things and he will make some very substantial contributions to knowledge. But, it is this kind of thing that I did not have to do. I am not saying one is better than the other – I just happened to choose a topic that could be dealt with in 36 months.
I don’t feel bad about it (‘should I have done more work on XYZ?’) – I am expected by the university to finish in that amount of time. So I did! It was also practical – England is expensive for Americans who are using up their savings and relying on the kindness of relatives who are paying American dollars. I wanted to be faithful to limiting the expenses.
Having said all of that, I think one can make steps towards finishing on time. Here is some advice for those just starting our or thinking about graduate work.
1. Set writing goals (words/chapters). Don’t just set goals for number of hours working on an issue. Make them very practical – 10,000 words by such-and-such a date. Set lots of small goals so you don’t overshoot or undershoot by too much. I have weekly goals and I have daily goals too! I spend a lot of time thinking about my schedule!
2. Take your time during your Phd seriously – you are there to complete this project. A have a friend who essentially finished his Phd in two years and it was published with SNTS. I asked him how he did it. He said, ‘when other students saw the sun out and decided to go “play,” I moved over to the windows in the library and kept at it.’ You may say – BORING. Yes, but efficient! Take note, though – I worked from 8AM-4PM – when I got home at 4.30PM I spent time with the family and made dinner. I never scheduled time in to study after 4.30 unless I was desperate (which was very rare). I also did not generally study on the weekends, but I did work a bit Sunday nights since I taught Greek the next morning.
3. Meet with your supervisor as often as possible. I actually did not do this, but I wish I had. I met with Stephen about once every six weeks (after my first year). The problem was that sometimes, on the basis of our discussions, my timeline would be bumped back as I would have to do some re-working. One time I turned in about 30,000 words having worked on a number of chapters without meeting with him over the summer. My two supervisors did not like what I had done with these chapters and I had to almost completely rewrite that portion of my thesis. That mistake (not meeting with my supervisor for most of the summer of 2008) pushed my timeline back about 3 months! So, meet regularly – not every week, but I say shoot for more than once a month.
4. Study with other students if you can tolerate it. When I studied at home by myself, I got lonely, bored, and I worked slow. Once in a while I was on a roll and I was productive. Most of time – not so much. When I started studying with others, it wasn’t competitive, but if they seemed to be intensely studying, I felt like doing it. When I heard that so-and-so had already written so many words or pages, it spurred me on. That intense, let’s-work-together kind of environment helped me. NB: I have heard, from very reliable sources, that many part-time students doing the PhD do not finish, largely for this reason – they are isolated and without colleagues to help move them forward in their work.
5. Write early and write often (some overlap here with #1). Some students take the attitude – I will ‘research’ for two years and then ‘write up’ my third year. That is ‘old school’ and the term ‘writing up’ is still used sometimes for the third year. I don’t like that one bit. Literary specialists say that the best way to become a better reader and writer is to do it – to write. I don’t like writing because I don’t think I am a good writer. The fact is, though, that the best way to become better is to practice. In your first six months, at least write some book reviews on books in your field. Do something! Don’t just ‘read, read, read’. ‘Read, write, read, write.’ Heck, start a blog!
6. Only do what is neccessary – Yes, generally people think that a thesis is 100,000 words. But that is the upper limit. You can write an 80,000 thesis at Durham. My own thesis came in at around 88,000 words without the appendix and bibliography (which do not count towards the final word count). And, I don’t feel like anything was really missing!
7. Don’t take on too many ‘other committments’. Opportunities may arise to teach a course or help on a committee – take it! You will need to show administrative and teaching abilities to get a job. But you don’t need to be teaching 4 courses a year and serve on every committee with an opening. 1-2 courses in your second and third year is enough (as a TA or whatever).
Once again, my experience is, I guess, abnormal. But with UK phds there is hardly any ‘average experience’ that is realistically common (except loneliness and stress!). Do your best to plan on finishing in 36 months, mainly because one of the criteria for passing is that you dealt with a topic that can reasonably be treated in three years! Don’t choose a 4-year or 5-year topic! Best of luck to all.