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I enjoyed reading the stimulating reflections of students on the respective merits of American and British university PhD programs, and want to share a couple of additional nuances impacting my choice of a British university thirty-five years ago. Building on an American Bachelors degree in theology, followed by a Master of Divinity degree, both of which were quite strong in ancient languages, I felt that the combined seven years of coursework required for those two degrees were suffient, and that I was ready for research.

One undergraduate year abroad, in Britain, also opened my eyes early to the nature of university study there, which I experienced as somewhat more demanding in assumed background knowledge in comparison to my American undergraduate study. Another eventual advantage for me occurred during that year abroad — I acquired a future spouse who had grown up on the continent of Europe. Communication with her and her family and friends gave my modern European language acquisition a boost. Without those crucial background headstarts, a British PhD program, with its typically less-structured formal means of testing language and other research suitability, would have been daunting.

There was a subtle but important difference, thirty-five years ago, between English and Scottish university theology faculties. Because of Scotland's long cultural ties with parts of Europe, and its somewhat strained relationship with England during part of its history, Scottish theologians tended to engage with, and respond to, European theological developments more quickly than some of their English counterparts. At least they believed they did, and my observations supported their view.

It impacted us PhD students at the University of St Andrews quite directly, because we were expected to keep up with our supervisors' ongoing dialectical engagement with their French, German or Scandinavian counterparts, including their publications!

We PhD students were required to attend one postgraduate seminar each term, which met for a couple of hours weekly, and in which we were expected to lead in a presentation/discussion at least once during the 10-week term. While there were no examinations, the pressure to appear informed and competent meant that we burned some midnight oil mastering the subject of our seminar each term. Some seminars dealt with an ancient text; others focused on one or more recent monographs, which were likely to be in German or French! Once, my supervisor handed me a monograph in Italian for my seminar presentation! It has been rewarding, during the decades since, to read in commentaries, monographs and journal articles by our lecturers and fellos students, comments which first emerged in our sometimes-vigorous debates around the battered seminar room tables!

When asked for advice on choosing a university for PhD study, I always stress that the key to PhD success is in the choice, first, of supervisor, then secondly the choice of topic. Choice of university comes third in importance. A suprevisor whose publications intersect one's field of interest, and with whose published views one feels some affinity, remains the key to PhD success. If the suprevisor happens to be based in a university located in a congenial part of the world, as mine was, it is icing on the cake.

There is valuable byproduct of PhD research not yet mentioned by earlier correspondents. Upon arrival at university, one will join a small flock of fellow PhD students, and it is among this group of typically semi-impoverished fellow researchers that one is privileged to work and develop strong and lasting friendships.

Steven Thompson, Avondale College, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia

Citation: Steven Thompson, " Thoughts on Choosing a PhD Program," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2007]. Online:


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