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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive American versus British Ph.D. Programs: Three Doctoral Students Reflect on Their DecisionsChris Keith
Charles J. Otte III

"Are American or British Ph.D. programs better?" This is an important question that numerous graduate students ask every year as they prepare to apply for doctoral studies. However, like so many issues surrounding the decision to pursue doctoral work, there is likely no direct answer to be had. Unfortunately, this lack of a clear answer often leads students and advisors alike to perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes by narrowing the decision to one aspect of it. Instead of offering a myopic view, in what follows three current doctoral students will explain their respective decisions and reflect on those decisions now that their studies are underway. One contributor chose to do a British Ph.D.; another chose to do an American Ph.D.; and a third chose to do the coursework of an American Ph.D. but then transfer to a British program for his research.

Given the autobiographical nature of this essay, its limitations should perhaps be acknowledged upfront. First, other options for doctoral work (e.g., Canadian or European programs), will not be discussed. Second, the important issue of seminary versus "secular" Ph.D. programs will not receive the attention it likely deserves. Third, admission and financial aid clearly play a large role in any particular student's available options and decision. However, the contributors will not dwell upon these factors here in order to make this essay as broadly applicable as possible. The specific concern is not the choice of a particular institution but rather a particular style of doctoral program.

Despite these three obvious limitations, the contributors hope that this essay will help both students who are in the process of applying for doctoral work and the faculty members supervising them in their decisions.

Why I Chose a British Ph.D. Program
In considering doctoral work, I applied only to British programs, and did so for a number of reasons. First, I applied to programs based primarily upon a particular scholar with whom I was interested in working and secondarily upon a particular program in which I was interested in working. The scholars with whom I most wanted to work were all employed by British universities. Second, and equally important with the first reason, my wife and I wanted the experience of living in a foreign country/culture. Neither of us had been outside the USA for more than a brief period, our parents were in good health, we had no children and thus little true responsibility, and therefore, at the end of the day, no good excuse not to go abroad. Third, having an undergraduate degree in biblical studies and having completed a Master of Divinity (including having written a Master's thesis), I preferred to start independent research immediately rather than go through more coursework. I consulted with some professors on campus who agreed that this would be the best option for me. Thus, in the Fall of 2005, my wife and I packed our bags and moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where I commenced a Ph.D. in New Testament and Christian Origins.

On the eve of my final year of doctoral work at the University of Edinburgh, I can say with no hesitation that I have never regretted my decision to study in a British Ph.D. program, and certainly not my specific decision to come to the University of Edinburgh. I must stress, however, that my satisfaction with Edinburgh is a direct reflection of the fact that I (and my wife) approached this process as a holistic decision. That is, while the academic environment is stimulating and fruitful and my supervisors are excellent, equally important is the opportunity to go, for example, to Rome for a short vacation, to London for a couple nights, or to the Scottish Highlands for the weekend. Doing the Ph.D. is clearly the most important aspect of anyone's doctoral experience, but it is not the only aspect of it, and I would encourage those in the decision-making process to think not just about the academic issues but also about what type of life you want for you and/or your family while in the program.

The lack of formal coursework has been a tremendous advantage for me in particular, as has the freedom to work at my own pace with occasional meetings with my supervisor(s). This fosters a professional environment, where the faculty treats the student more like an independent researcher than a student per se (which often results in students having the confidence and ability to publish journal articles while still technically students). Worth noting, however, is that this less-supervised study environment seems to be a disadvantage for other students. Some students work best when left alone; other students work best with external pressure that a classroom setting can provide. When asked, I have often compared the British Ph.D. to being thrown in the deep end of the pool — you sink or you swim, but it is up to you.

My one lament about the British program is the lack of formal training in modern research languages (e.g., German or French). Students are expected to prove competence in these languages in their thesis, but no official structure exists for language acquisition. Also, in practice, it seems, different schools adopt different strategies on how they enforce demonstration of that competence. What the British system lacks in formal structure, however, it makes up for in research training, and this has been the most advantageous option for me.

Chris Keith, University of Edinburgh

Why I Chose an American Ph.D. Program
I just completed my first year in a Ph.D. program in Northwest Semitic Philology at the University of Chicago; if all goes as planned, this will become a joint program with the Linguistics department. Very early in my college career I became entranced by the siren song of doctoral education. Because most of my early influences had done their doctoral studies abroad in places like Sheffield, Aberdeen, and Israel, I naturally began to dream of studying abroad for my Ph.D. (during Seminary I even visited a couple of schools overseas). The decision, therefore, to matriculate in an American Ph.D. program was all the more surprising. However, I made the decision deliberately for reasons that will become clear.

Those who were kind enough to advise me in the process of applying for and selecting a Ph.D. program repeated a single refrain: location does not matter. By this, they meant that I should not be concerned with where a school was or with what its ostensible reputation was, but rather with the scholars and the program itself. They encouraged me to focus on finding a program that fit and a scholar I would like to emulate. This advice proved prescient in my case because it allowed me to go beyond my own desire to study overseas and find a graduate program that fit me best, a program that I absolutely love.

The key factor for me in finding a Ph.D. program was the ability of a program to help me bridge the gap between my own level of preparedness and the body of material that I needed to master. This was critical because it allowed me to hold in abeyance other considerations until I had the academic and professional component resolved. This required a lot of honesty and a lot of foresight, but I truly believe this is essential to successful graduate work. I made up my mind about the broad shape of my academic goals and asked professors where and with whom I might be able to achieve those goals.

I knew that I wanted to combine Semitic Philology and Modern Linguistics in a thorough and rigorous manner. I had a strong background in biblical studies and history and a reasonable amount of preparedness in Semitics, but no formal background in linguistics in my undergraduate or Seminary studies. As I looked at programs, they had to be able to accommodate this reality. While British programs were very willing to let me pursue interdisciplinary work, they could not provide the coursework necessary to lay a strong foundation in linguistic theory. This foundation was something they expected to be in place before arriving. Semitic philology requires the mastery of a large number of languages, and linguistics requires a strong theoretical base before significant research can be undertaken. British programs expect the student to be prepared to enter into the research stage immediately. I was not. I had several languages left to learn (though I already had research German prepared) and all of my linguistic theory to master. I felt that this was more than could reasonably be accomplished in three years. My Seminary work, while related to my ultimate academic goals, did not directly prepare me for my primary academic focus at the Ph.D. level. This need for further coursework weighed heavily against British programs. (My inability to speak or read Israeli Hebrew made it unrealistic to consider Israeli programs.)

By contrast, American programs require three or four years of coursework during which time the student masters the relevant languages, histories, and, in the case of Semitic Philology, archaeological frameworks necessary for research. This structure appealed to me because it shifted pressure to acquiring the requisite skills of my field before trying to work toward the dissertation. Moreover, I work much better under external deadlines and with external pressures to study and achieve than I do with internal pressures. Because of this, the regular deadlines of American programs appealed to me.

One further consideration in my decision was the aesthetics of the Ph.D. experience. My wife and I both love to travel, and we have both spent considerable time overseas. For this reason, the prospect of studying in places such as Edinburgh, Cambridge, or Tübingen appealed to our aesthetic sensibilities and engendered excitement rather than anxiety. After all, contrary to conventional wisdom, there is more to life as a student than studying. However, academic matters ultimately outweighed this consideration. Nevertheless, Chicago compensates for the missed overseas experience with its cosmopolitan vibe and the University's neo-gothic flair. Ultimately, I think the key to enjoying the Ph.D. experience is tuning into the life and culture of the city/region where the school happens to be located, regardless of the continent.

Charles J. Otte III, University of Chicago

Why I Chose To Start in an American Ph.D. Program and Finish in a British One
The final possibility considered in this article is that of completing the doctoral coursework of an American Ph.D. program and then writing a thesis in a British Ph.D. program, which is in fact the route that I have chosen. After completing the coursework for the doctoral program in Hermeneutics and Biblical Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, I am now writing my thesis at the University of Edinburgh in New Testament and Christian Origins. Regardless of whether this option strikes you as a wonderful opportunity to glean the best of both academic worlds or an awkward, and likely uncomfortable, attempt to straddle not merely a fence but an entire ocean, the challenges and benefits of this option are worth considering.

First, it is readily apparent that there are a few drawbacks to this approach. It must be admitted that this option requires the most paperwork as I endured not one, but two rounds of applications to doctoral programs. In addition, it requires multiple relocations as my family and I moved within the U.S. to begin a Ph.D. and then headed overseas to finish. Finally, at this point I do not plan to write two doctoral theses; since I completed only part of an American program, I will ultimately receive a degree only from the University of Edinburgh (though it should be noted that one could be ABD [all but dissertation] from the American institution if comprehensive exams are taken before coming overseas). These issues alone may be enough to dissuade some from this option; nevertheless, there are certain situations in which the path I have trodden is not only worth considering, but actually may be advantageous.

Without a doubt, my own doctoral work experience has allowed me to have both a broader exposure to my field through doctoral coursework in the U.S. and a more extensive research experience by writing my thesis in the U.K. This amalgam of different contexts for Ph.D. work may prove particularly attractive to students who may wish, for whatever reason, to pursue coursework beyond the Masters level in a theological or seminary context, but may desire to write their thesis in a research university or secular context. As this was the case for me, I am able to draw not only from the benefits of academic work in multiple doctoral contexts, but also from academic work in multiple approaches to religious studies. However, even if a shift of approaches from a theological to a secular context is not of interest for you, I would still consider the ability to develop a more extensive knowledge of a field through a specific curriculum of Ph.D. coursework and then move into an extended and focused time of research in Britain as potentially quite attractive in preparing for future research work and the classroom.

In addition, enrolling in and completing Ph.D. coursework in the American context, as opposed to a shorter program of study such as a Th.M., allowed faculty members to evaluate my work on the doctoral level, which proved beneficial for the requisite recommendations as I applied to British universities. Although gaining admission to top-ranked doctoral programs will always be challenging, I am quite confident that the narrowing and focusing of my research interests in doctoral coursework (of tremendous value in developing my thesis proposal) and the recommendations of faculty evaluating my work on a Ph.D. level contributed to my having multiple offers of admission in the U.K. This situation afforded me, and my family, the luxury of being able to mull over all relevant considerations in evaluating which offer of admission to accept.

As is so often the case, whether a "split context" model of Ph.D. work is attractive to you is largely dependent upon your own interests as a student and the future direction you envision for your academic work. For those who, like me, are interested in drawing on the strengths of multiple approaches to doctoral work, an international academic experience, and the possibility of integrating doctoral coursework with extensive research experience in future work or classroom instruction, it may very well be worth considering the attempt to take advantage of the experience and knowledge gained through completing both U.S.- based coursework and a Britain-based thesis.

Dieter T. Roth, University of Edinburgh

So, are American or British Ph.D. programs better? The short answer is a deliberately ambiguous "Yes." Each of the contributors to this essay made his respective decision for different reasons. Hopefully, however, a common denominator has emerged in the course of their individual reflections. Some students will benefit more from an American program; others will benefit more from a British program. The most important criteria in making a decision between the two are knowing what type of student you are, what type of preparation you have had for doctoral research, and what type of overall doctoral experience you (and your family) desire. The contributors hope that their experiences will be beneficial as you make your decision regarding which program will suit you best.

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Citation: Dieter T. Roth , Charles J. Otte III , Chris Keith, " American versus British Ph.D. Programs: Three Doctoral Students Reflect on Their Decisions," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2007]. Online:


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