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Cynthia Long Westfall

I had an outstanding experience as a doctoral student. In all honesty, however, my experience was more accidental than planned. I stumbled blindly into a situation that combined the right degree of flexibility, challenge, and opportunity. Tales of doctoral woe abound, and things can (and do) go wrong. But they can also go right. What went right and why?

When I decided to pursue a doctorate, I had completed a Masters of Divinity degree. It seemed natural to apply to the same European university that my seminary professors had attended, particularly since faculty there had done significant research in my subject area. However, when my thesis was completed, my supervisor called me into his office and said, "Given what you've written, you need to go to London and work with Stan Porter." He matched my methodology and interest in linguistics with the appropriate supervisor, even though my subject area was different from Porter's. I had a fortuitous combination of a supervisor who was qualified, experienced, and interested combined with one who was particularly able to challenge and stretch my thinking as I further developed my methodology.

I pursued a research degree part-time, which provided so much flexibility that I was able to "commute" between Denver and London for several years. I traveled to London three times a year and spent a month at a time. I organized my trips so that they corresponded with conferences when possible and planned to present papers to our research cluster at the same rate as students who were in residence. It seemed that during the month spans, I was able to meet with my supervisor as much as students who were in residence, form relationships within the department, significantly broaden my understanding of fields and topics in biblical studies, and make significant progress on my research. In other words, during that time I was fully vested and focused on my doctoral work. Since then, others have made arrangements with other doctoral programs that require less time at the institution. I would have seized the opportunity to travel less, but I would not have had the same results of absorbing the academic climate.

By pursuing a research degree instead of an American course-based program of study, I chose to be a specialist rather than a generalist who takes a variety of doctoral courses and is assured of a more general foundation of competency in biblical studies. This is a serious consideration for those who are planning to teach at the university or graduate level for three reasons. From the standpoint of finding a position, a research doctoral student may be at an initial disadvantage, since most entry-level positions are looking for generalists. From the standpoint of teaching general courses, specialists will have work harder to develop their personal study programs and resources in order to design courses. Taking advantage of opportunities to teach while studying can be very helpful. I have also audited courses to glean ideas on how to approach a given course. From the standpoint of graduate-level positions in institutions that have doctoral programs, those who have earned research degrees will most likely be required to teach courses at the doctoral level without having experienced such courses as a student.

A research degree can have the advantage of enabling the student to make significant contributions to scholarship sooner rather than later. By specializing in one's field, a motivated doctoral student can enter into the academic dialogue at a sophisticated level. A research degree probably offers greater opportunities to publish, and this is also crucial, since graduate institutions are particularly looking for established records in publication and ongoing research plans.

Besides research supervision, Porter offered a variety of opportunities that were geared to train students for participation in scholarship and the academic community. We were given opportunities to teach, to present at conferences papers that were subsequently published, and to periodically present papers at a monthly research cluster where fellow students and scholars would critique our work. The research cluster simulated a doctoral defense, so that after several of these "trials by fire," we could approach our doctoral defense with some equanimity. It surprised me that more doctoral students did not take greater advantage of what was offered.

One thing has become clear in retrospect. I understand now that when I chose my supervisor, I also chose my future professional network. My doctoral supervisor is part of an extended circle of scholarship that I had an opportunity to join. The professional network that you develop in your doctoral program can be the basis of the academic environment that is your milieu even after you complete your doctorate. It has meant ongoing contacts and friendships with stimulating colleagues and continued opportunities to be involved in SBL sessions and projects, including continuing publication opportunities. I have observed similar patterns with others who have worked with different supervisors, and I am convinced that this is one of the greatest benefits of the doctoral experience.

What went right? It is clear that Porter was successful in developing a specific plan that accomplished each of his five goals as a doctoral supervisor. On the other hand, as a doctoral student, I was quick both to recognize how he was helping me accomplish my initial goals and to buy into his larger vision. All this is not to say that things did not go wrong or that it was easy to persevere in this course of action with a husband and three children in Denver. However, this strategy proved to be effective to the degree that that I was willing to appropriate and appreciate it.

Cynthia Long Westfall teaches at Denver Seminary and co-chairs the SBL Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics Section.

Citation: Cynthia L. Westfall, " One Doctoral Student's Experience: What Went Right?," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2004]. Online:


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