Tag Archives: PhD Studies

The Grueling Crawl to the Finish

I’ve had a workable draft of my PhD thesis finished since this past summer.  All the basic ideas were in place.  I had to cut down some words, clean up some errors, and make some of the language more consistent.  But the essence of the argument was in place.

I found the process of formulating the argument to be an exciting, fun experience.  I was grappling with new ideas, thinking things through to their logical conclusion, and trying to draw connections between ideas.  That’s the fun part of working on original research.

The less fun part comes at the final stages of the PhD.  Since this summer, I have worked through my thesis over and over and over.  That’s probably not enough ‘overs’.  Each time I’m making things a little more precise, trying to remove every element that reflects fuzzy thinking.  Then I take what I have to my supervisor, and he points out a few more places where I can make things just a little bit better.

Realistically, all of these revisions are the difference between low def and hi def, DVD vs BLURAY.  The story is going to be the same, but hopefully everything is just a little more clear.  At least that’s what I hope.  Sometimes it feels like I have been buried in this work for so long that it has become impossible to tell how it would come across to someone picking it up for the first time.

I’m incredibly grateful for Dr Gathercole’s dedication and attentiveness to my work, and all of his feedback is definitely helping me take my work to a new level.  It’s sort of like working with a personal trainer.  He’s pushing me to a level of critical writing that I probably would not push myself.

At the same time, this work is not especially exhilarating.  It’s the grueling process of figuring out how to state each and every little idea in the clearest way possible.  For the first time in the course of my PhD, I just want this book to be over and done with.  I have other things I’d like to think about; there are new ideas I’d like to explore and develop.

When is a book ever really done?  You could work on revisions forever.    At some point, though, the revisions have to stop.

I think that the end of the PhD process is about refining your critical thinking and writing, on the one hand, and learning to make peace with the provisional nature of all human reflection, on the other.  I know that in 5 years there will be things about this thesis that I would definitely state differently.  Still, I’m going to be happy with what I produce whenever I submit this thesis in April, and it will stand as a record of this stage in my growth as a writer and theologian.  That has its own value, and I’ll leave it to someone else to carry on the discussion after me.

What am I doing here, anyway?

It just dawned on me that I haven’t given a work update in a long time.  Oops.  I know we haven’t mentioned it in ages, but the reason we moved to Cambridge was to work on a PhD.  So, I’ve been studying the New Testament, Monday to Friday, 8 to 5, for the past two years.  Here’s a little update on what I’ve been up to:

My research is focused on the death of Jesus in Luke and Acts,  and basically I am trying to demonstrate that the cross is central to Luke’s understanding of (1) what it means for Jesus to be the messiah, and (2) how it is that we experience salvation.  Hence, the title I’ve come up with for my thesis is “The Christ who Suffers, the Cross that Saves:  The Death of Jesus in Lukan Thought.”  I’m a sucker for alliteration.

If you haven’t read what other people say about Jesus’ death in Luke’s gospel, it might seem like my thesis is simply stating the obvious.  Of course Jesus’ death matters to Luke, just like it does for every other New Testament author.  But actually, not everybody who has looked at this topic sees it that way, really for a variety of reasons that I try to trace through modern biblical scholarship all the way back to German critical scholarship in the mid-1800’s.

In the past year, I’ve managed to finish writing a first draft of my thesis.  I spent most of the Fall, Winter, and Spring this year methodically working through the books of Luke and Acts, studying every passage which might allude to Jesus’ rejection, suffering, and/or death in some way.  As I went, I wrote up my thoughts about how it all fits together, and in the end I feel like I’ve got 80,000 words (about 200 pages) that more or less work as a sustained and reasonably plausible thesis about the place of Jesus’ death in Luke’s thought.  Actually, I had more like 88,000 words, and I’m having to cut it down.

My work isn’t comprehensive, and there are plenty of questions about my topic that I still have.  I’ve become pretty convinced of quite a few things and less convinced of plenty of others.  I came to abandon the main idea I had for an argument after my first year in the PhD, because as I studied the text I found that I had been asking questions that the text wasn’t addressing.  Once I let the text speak for itself, I realized that I had inherited an agenda and set of questions that really didn’t match up with the agenda of the biblical author.  The whole debate had been framed on the wrong questions.  Getting the questions right was really half the battle.  Once that happened for me, everything kind of fell into place.

I’ve still got plenty of work left to do.  I’ll hand my draft over to my primary supervisor, Dr Simon Gathercole, when he returns from his sabbatical in October.  Dr James Carleton Paget has been an incredibly attentive supervisor in Dr Gathercole’s absence, and I have learned a lot from him as we have discussed my work over the course of this past year.  Still, I’m looking forward to Dr Gathercole’s input, and I feel very blessed that I will have had two top flight NT scholars give me critical feedback on my whole thesis.

In my third year, I’m planning to work on a few articles that relate tangentially to my thesis but don’t really fit into my main argument.  I’m also going to be busy looking for a job, and I’m presenting some papers at different conferences.  I’ll also be doing some tutorial supervising here at the university, and of course our church work keeps me busy.

Thank you to all those who have supported me during my work at Cambridge.  It’s unbelievable that almost two years have passed since we moved here, and I know this third year will go by quickly.  We’re very grateful for the prayer and encouragement we have received from our friends and family back home.  Thanks!

Lonely summer days

Now that we’ve been back for a few weeks from our extended vacation in the US, we’ve settled back into our routines.  What that basically means is that Rachael goes off to work every day, and I go across the street to work in the Peterhouse library.

During the school year, the library follows a pretty predictable pattern of patronage.  Early in terms, ambitious students can be found hitting the books, trying to get a jumpstart on the work that lies ahead.  After a week or two, library usage gradually declines throughout the middle of the term.  Then, as the term draws to a close, there’s about one week when library attendance spikes, only to drop off completely by the last week of the term.  The next term comes, and the cycle repeats.  Then, during the third and final term of the academic year, all of a sudden the library is packed.  In the Cambridge system, everything for the student hinges upon their performance on the big exams and essays they submit during this third term.  So naturally the library is filled to the brim with students preparing for tests and piecing together papers.

When school is not in session, the library is still open, but it’s a ghost town.  I still go into work, because I don’t take classes and my work doesn’t really coincide with the school terms.  This summer, on most days in the library, there’s me, a librarian, a janitor, and one other student who always sits at the same table with his computer.  Occasionally a girl comes in for a few hours to work on a computer or read at a desk.  Maybe she works there?  I don’t know.  On most days, at some point someone from the college will bring in a few guests for a quick tour.  Aside from these few distractions, the library is basically my own cavernous workspace.  A couple weeks ago, the librarian gave me an electric fan since it was warm and there is no air-conditioning.  So, I sit at the same spot every day, my fan ready to run if I get overheated, and study in solitude with no noises or even motions around to distract me.

I think of the place as the biggest personal office I will ever have.  The room is light and airy.  The carpet is thick and soft.  The walls lined with shelves of books extend up to a ceiling that must be about 30 feet high.  Everything is polished, clean and in its place.  About 45 degrees to my right, there is a huge portrait of a benefactor of the library, and below the portrait is a bust of another benefactor.  90 degrees to my right, on the second floor, is another bust.  These still faces are the only ones I see many days, so I feel like I’ve gotten to know them well.

Some folks like to have people around whenever they’re working, but I find the solitude relaxing.  I had been renting a desk at Tyndale House, a biblical studies library on the other side of town.  But, this library is much closer.  Plus, the desk was expensive, and I wasn’t really making use of the resources enough to justify the extra cost.  On top of that, the Tyndale desk was in a dark and crowded room that was always either too hot or too cold.  My chair was uncomfortable, and there was more noise to distract me.  I really like the social interaction that you can get at Tyndale, but I find that I’m much more productive closer to home at my college library.

I’ve got another month and a half before school starts back up, then the students will pour back into the library, and I’ll have to start sharing my ‘office’ with other people.  In some ways it will be nice.  Right now, there are days when the first words I speak during the day come whenever Rachael gets home from work.  It will definitely be nice to have people around to interact with.  Still, even though it’s isolated, summer days in the library aren’t driving me crazy just yet, and there’s something about the tranquility of the place that I’ve really come to appreciate.

The Typical Day of a NT PhD Student

Several months ago I said that I would write about what it’s like to be a PhD student in the UK.  I did a couple posts on the Cambridge system and classrooms in the UK, but I never really got around to describing anything more.  I basically said that I don’t get grades,  don’t have classes, only go to a seminar every other week, and only have one assignment for the next 3 years.  How do I pass the time?

How do I structure my days?  This was actually the biggest adjustment that I faced whenever I started my PhD studies.  Here’s why:  Time management is about prioritizing goals and objectives, and sometimes there can be a certain degree of tension between equally important goals. 

For instance, some goals are long term projects, and others can be accomplished relatively quickly.  Language development, for example, is a long term project that is important for NT studies.  You’ve got to know Greek well.  You probably need to be comfortable with Hebrew.  You’ve got to read German, and you can certainly use French.  Depending on your area of interest, you may also need one or more additional languages (Latin, Aramaic, Coptic).  Developing your language skills takes years.

On the other hand, another good goal for me as a PhD student is to meet frequently with my supervisor.  The more I get in to see my supervisor, the more he can help me write my thesis, which of course is the one assignment I absolutely have to complete while I’m here.  To meet with my supervisor, I need to write something for us to discuss.  This is a short term goal – something I can do in a matter of weeks.

So, here’s the dilemma:  Learning languages takes a lot of time, and so does researching and writing.  While developing my language skills will improve the quality of my work in the long run, it’s also the case that I can write and meet more frequently with my supervisor without spending much time on Greek, German, and Hebrew.  So, do I prioritize the short term writing assignments over the long term language development?  Obviously, the writing is more of an urgent goal, but it is no more important than the language development.  What’s the right balance between urgent and not so urgent but equally important objectives?  That was the big question for me.

It took me a few weeks at the beginning, but I’ve settled into a comfortable balance between short term assignments and long term goals.  I begin each day by reading the Greek New Testament (Luke-Acts is where I’m focusing).  Then, I do about 45 minutes to an hour of German work, translating a book I need to read.  Then, I jump into my research and writing.  If I have any classes, seminars, or workshops I’d like to attend, I sacrifice the research and writing time rather than the language development.  In the last hour of my work day, I break away from the research and spend about 20-30 minutes reviewing language  and scripture memory flashcards (right now I’m memorizing Galatians), and 20-30 minutes reading a bit from the Hebrew Old Testament (right now Deuteronomy).  This helps me wind down.  Sometimes I exercise at the end of the day, but my consistency in that has dropped off since we came back from our month long Christmas vacation.

On Fridays, I stop working a little bit earlier and do a weekly review.  I think back over what I’ve done and set new goals for the coming week.  This helps me to feel a sense of progress, and it helps me to make sure I’m staying on track with my work.  It’s also a good time to reflect on what I’ve been learning, how God is training me, those sorts of things.

As far as the setting of my work goes, sometimes I go across the street to a cozy library at my college.  It’s a very nice study space, but it doesn’t have many resources for my particular area of interest.  Other days I go to Tyndale House, a biblical studies library that has virtually every resource I could ever need.  I rent a desk there, but since it is far away from where I live, and since the workspace is somewhat uncomfortable, I only typically go over there when I intend to make use of the resources.  The other nice part about Tyndale is that it provides the opportunity for some social interaction.  Lately I’ve been working quite a bit from home, which is convenient.  The only downside with this for me is that by the end of the day I feel really cramped.

So, that’s a description of my daily routine throughout the week.  I try to treat my work like an actual job.  Of course, I don’t get paid, I don’t have a boss, and there’s no timeclock.  Still, I try to get up at the same time Rachael gets up for work, and I am always done with work whenever she comes home.  This way our nights and weekends are open.  I try to maintain pretty clear boundaries on my work-life.  Otherwise it could become the sort of thing that is always on my mind. 

Next time I write about school, I could write about a few different things.  Let’s do a poll.  If what you’d like me to write about isn’t listed, feel free to make suggestions: