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Thinking About Postgraduate Studies

When I began seminary, I thought I was one of the more unique students. I was Canadian, of Dutch heritage, and wanting to pursue and academic career instead of pastoral ministry. It turns out that I am the only Canadian, one of two people of Dutch heritage, but only one of a significant number of people wanting to pursue an academic career or postgraduate studies. Since I found out how many people are actually interested in doing doctoral work, I thought this would be the perfect venue to share some of the information I have received that will offer some pointers if you are interested in going that route.

These pointers will help you get a feel of what you might need to be thinking about if you want to do a doctorate, but I encourage you to talk with professors at your seminary to get their advice as well. Different fields of study might require different steps to be taken. With that, here are some things you need to think through.

Are you ready for this?

First, you need to be serious about this. The academic environment is very challenging and demanding, and if you are not willing to work very hard, this is not the path you should follow. At this point, you need to beworking hard to make sure your grades are excellent. You need to be sure that you are writing top-level research papers, and that you are beginning to work on getting your name out there and making contacts in the field you would like to work in.

Know what you want to know.

Second, you should have a field of study already. That is not something you can wait to figure out. You need to have that in place now, and you have to be reading and writing on that subject. Find any opportunity you can to be reading about it, and if you are given the opportunity in any of your classes to do a paper based on that subject, take it. Also, if your seminary has opportunities for doing independent or directed studies, take advantage of them as much as possible. This will give you the opportunity to learn what it is like to do independent research and will also give you the chance to write papers that could be used later on to help you gain admission to a Ph.D. program or even help your research further on down the line. You cannot do enough of this. If you have free time, take advantage of it. You will only be helping yourself.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

Third, learning your languages is key, and the earlier you can get started on this, the better. If you are planning on studying Old Testament, know your Hebrew. If you want to do New Testament, know Greek. If you’re like me, and are thinking about historical theology, Latin is going to be the language you need to learn. Also, most doctoral programs require a second reading language, and while there will be opportunities to learn French and German while you are working on your Ph.D., the sooner you can get started on it, the better. The best scholars are the ones who can work with primary sources in their original languages.

Get Connected

Fourth, find people with similar interests and talk with them. Discuss your ideas, discuss things you’ve read. Find people who are in doctoral programs right now and what they did to get where they are. Establish whatever links you can that might help you out. Explore your options. I also recently found a website which can help you connect with people who are of similar interests. Graduate Junction was started some time ago by some students from the UK with, I would presume, similar ambitions to what Ryan had in mind when he started this site–to connect with other people going down the same road and offer advice and other resources to fellow students. It is small at this point (if you search for students with an interest in the Reformation, you only get a couple of profiles), but is growing quickly. Also, become a member of different societies, such as ETS, SBL, or the 16th-Century Society. Their conferences are the places to make friends andestablish roots. They usually offergood student discounts for memberships.

Evaluate Your Current Studies

Fifth, determine whether or not your degree is sufficient for propelling you into doctoral work. One of the harsh realities is that most schools do not give much credit to seminary degrees. While they are Masters’ degrees, they are usually not very academic and almost never have a significant research portion to it. This is where the independent/directed studies are so crucial. If you do some outstanding work there, you might be able to transfer from seminary to a Ph.D. program. If not, you will likely need to be looking at getting a “credible” Masters’ degree from a big-name school like Duke or Princeton, for example. The good news here, though, is that a lot of the work you do can easily transfer over to your doctoral work.

Let The Hunt Begin

Sixth, start setting your sights on schools and/or supervisors you would like to work under. What school you look at will depend on how serious you are about pursuing a doctorate. If you want to be taken seriously, and have any opportunity at getting a position in such an oversaturated market as North America, you have a very select list of schools you must pick from. We’re talking Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, Notre Dame, Yale, Harvard, Toronto–the big names. For what it’s worth, here is a link to the top 100 humanities departments around the world in 2007. If you’re not as concerned about a position and want to do a doctorate more for interest’s sake, there are a lot more schools that you can comfortably include on your radar. But another positive factor for going to a bigger school is the funding that will be available to you.

I haven’t done a lot of research on distance learning, though I have heard some positive things about it. Some of the big UK schools offer that option, and it might be something worth considering if it is far too impractical for you to relocate somewhere for a number of years.

…Then What?

Seventh, consider where you want to teach. No matter what you do, obtaining a teaching position is not going to be a walk in the park, as I said, due to the oversaturation of the North American market. In addition , it is difficult for a confessing Christian to get a position in a public or state-run school. On the other hand, if you have a faith commitment and a degree from a top-level school, your opportunities for getting a position at a Christian college are much greater. With that, I also encourage you to think about theological education in a more international setting. Mission teams all over the world require theological educators as they seek to train lay leaders to lead churches. An academic calling is not just a job, it is ministry as well. Even if your gifts are not so desired in North America, know that they are coveted in many areasaround the world. Consider your options and how you can serve the Lord.

Take a Break if You Need it

Finally, do not be afraid to take a year off in between the end of your seminary studies and whatever your next step will be. If could be a very productive year for you if you need to get your proposals in order, do some reading and writing, fine-tune your language skills, and what not. Taking a breather is always helpful, as well.

Some More Help

This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of suggestions, and if you are looking for more information still, I encourage you to read a recent blog entry by John Stackhouse, professor at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. His article also offers an extensivelist of suggestions if you are considering the doctoral route. Also, if you have any other tips of advice or suggestions that you’ve received, please share them here! I may have left out some important things that should be considered. In any case, I hope this is helpful for those of you who are thinking about postgraduate studies.

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Written by jake-belder