Tag Archives: PhD

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.


Last Minute Dinner Plans

Last night we had dinner at our friends Candice and Collin’s house.  It was a simple night, but I loved it nonetheless.  On Friday a couple of us realized that we didn’t have plans for Saturday night, so we decided to hang out and do nothing together.  That is just the kind of thing that I love.  We didn’t have to get dressed up or cook anything fancy, it was just a night sitting around a table enjoying salad, chicken skewers, sweet tea, and good conversation.  These nights are what I will miss most once we go back to the states.

It isn’t that we won’t have simple dinners with friends, but there is a sense of unity here that is very unique.  We are all here because one person in each couple is studying for a PhD.  A good chunk of us are finishing up in the next 3-12 months and we are all starting to think about the next phase…going home.  We talk a lot about what we love here in Cambridge and England in general.  We love the fact that we don’t have Texas heat in the summertime, we love the community, and we all love online grocery shopping!  Most of us have been here for several years and we talk about how difficult it will be to leave our tight-knit group of friends.  We are all excited for the next stage of our lives (when our husbands actually get real jobs!), but we don’t want to rush out of this stage of life either.  We want to enjoy this time for all its worth.

Mostly the night involved laughing about the fact that there are very few job prospects and we may very well have to beg our families for jobs!  We will all be going home to different situations, some of us boxed up all our belongings and shoved them in our parents basements, others sold everything they had, and others brought all they owned with them.  We will go home and have to buy cars, renew driving licences, buy bottle openers and the everyday necessities.  We will be starting from scratch in a lot of ways, but it is exciting.

We don’t know what the future holds, but we will all look back fondly on these years.  The friendships we have made here will last a lifetime.  We have all shared something very special and unique here in Cambridge.  We are all so much a part of each others lives that it will be extremely sad when we all go our separate ways.  I don’t want to think about that yet though.  So today I am going to be thankful for last-minute dinner plans, laughter over a great meal, sharing clothes, and just sharing life.

British New Testament Conference 2012

Just got back from the annual British New Testament Conference.  Every year, a small army of Bible nerds descends upon a university campus somewhere in the UK, reading academic papers to each other and awkwardly mingling amidst book stalls and cafeteria meals.  This year the conference was at King’s College in London.  As a Bible geek myself, the conference is a good chance to exchange ideas, make new friends, and have some interesting conversations about the New Testament.

This year I presented a paper in the Acts seminar.  My essay was about the use of Scripture in the various references to Jesus’ death in Acts.  Thankfully, in the Acts seminar, we distribute the papers beforehand, so there’s no need to stand up in front of the group and read your essay.  Instead, the presenter makes a few introductory remarks, and then the bulk of the session is spent discussing the paper.

I feel like my presentation went okay.  Most of the feedback to the paper seemed positive, or at least not negative.  On the other hand, the feedback was also rather general and not really directly connected to what I actually stated in my paper.  This was different from many of the other papers in the seminar, so I left feeling a bit disappointed about the lack of engagement with my work.

Now that I’ve had a couple days to think about it, here’s what I think happened:  The study of Acts in the UK has been occupied primarily with historical and literary questions.  My work, on the other hand, addresses theological issues that are much more popular in German and American scholarship on the book of Acts.  As a result, I’m not sure that the seminar really knew what to do with my work.  Discussion felt somewhat forced, like discussing baseball with a bunch of cricket players, or talking about American football with people who only really watch soccer.

Reflecting on it now, I think going forward I will be more careful to seek the right dialogue partners for my work.  If I’m going to spend time preparing something for a conference, I want it to lead to a good discussion.  I’ve presented this same research to senior scholars at Cambridge, and it has prompted engaging conversation.  Lesson learned:  know your audience!

While I feel like my own paper could have gone better, the conference overall was a lot of fun.  The rest of the Acts seminar had papers and discussions much more engaging than my own, and I had fun meeting fellow PhD students and scholars from other institutions around the UK.  I also slept on the lumpiest bed I have ever tried to lay on.  It was like trying to go to sleep on a sack filled with slinkies.

All in all, it was a good conference, and I’m glad I went.  Still, it’s always nice to come home to Rachael and our nice soft bed!

Year One Lesson #1 – Process over Product

It’s hard to believe, but we’ve now been in Cambridge for almost a year.  In honor of this momentous occasion, I think I’ll do a series of posts on lessons learned since moving here.  Some lessons have been personal, some have been professional.  This has been a period of major change for us, so there’s a lot that we’ve learned in the past year.

Lesson number 1  – in the grand scheme of things, the process is often more important than the product.  Rachael and I have been trying to learn how to cook recently.  We’ve been doing a lot of new recipes.  I’ve been focusing especially on some chinese dishes and some pasta sauces.  Sometimes things turn out good.  Other times they don’t.  What I’ve noticed, though, is that I learn something new every time I make something from scratch.  Even when the finished product doesn’t turn out well, I am able to figure out what went wrong since I know the whole process that went into making the dish.  Looking at the big picture, I don’t mind if one meal isn’t too good, as long as I can take something from it to make a better meal next time.

That really applies to a lot more than just cooking.  ‘Process over product’ has been my mantra during this first year of my PhD.  Here at Cambridge, there’s only one real requirement for a PhD student:  Produce an 80,000 word book by the end of your time here.  That’s the product, and it’s hard not to allow that one end goal to become all-consuming.  You can become so focused on production that all of your decisions about how you manage your time are dictated by the need to be productive.  Decisions end up getting made based on questions like:  Will this help me get to my word count?  Or, will this look good on my resume?

When I started working on my thesis, I discovered that there was a tension between cranking out as much as possible versus developing skills and acquiring foundational knowledge that won’t necessary contribute directly to my word count.  Ultimately, I’m here not just to write a book or a few journal articles but also to pick up tools that will be useful for a lifetime.  So, I’ve tried to focus on the process, especially early in my PhD, and I guess I’m just hoping that in the long run it will result in a better product.  Maybe that’s a mistake – it might make for a stressful third year!  Still, I feel comfortable about where I’m at, and I have tried to make decisions about how I manage my time based upon questions like:  How much will I learn?  Will I gain any new skills doing this?  Will this actually be helpful to somebody?  I’ve always been very results-oriented as a worker, so I see this as a healthy balancing for me.

I’ve tried not to spend too much time worrying about long-term stuff.  For those of you who have known me for a long time, you’ll know that that’s a big change.  I’ve been learning to live in the present moment, to focus on what I can do today, and to leave the end result to God.  This is a lesson that I’ve been learning for the last several years of my life, but the process of working on this PhD has really driven the point home.  In the solitude and monotony of writing a thesis, I’ve been confronted with my own vanity, my impatience, my desire for control, and my inability to see the end from the beginning.  ‘Process over product’ will definitely be one of the big lessons I take from this first year in Cambridge.

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.

Classrooms at Cambridge

A while back I wrote about the big picture of what it’s like to be a PhD student in the UK.  Now, I thought I’d describe a few different pieces of that educational experience in some more detail.  First up:  Taking classes.

While I’m not technically required to take any classes as part of my degree, my department offers a bunch of classes that are either relevant to my research project or simply interesting to me.  It probably wouldn’t be a good idea for me to fill my schedule with courses at the expense of my thesis project, but at the same time I think it’s great to have so many resources to choose from.  Taking classes can help me (1) develop my skills as a researcher and writer, (2) fill in any gaps in my knowledge of things I really ought to know by now, (3) meet other students and faculty members, and (4) find resources and fresh ideas that otherwise I might miss if I were just working in solitude on my thesis.  Some PhD students choose not to attend many classes so that they can focus on their own research, but I’m more of the mindset that you only get to do a PhD once, so you might as well take advantage of all that the school has to offer.

So, I’m taking a couple of courses this term:  a course in theological German, since my German reading is way too slow, and a course called Judaism and Hellenism, which thus far has focused in various ways upon the nature of Judaism around the time of the New Testament.  The German class has been relatively similar to how a language class might operate in the US, with a couple significant exceptions.  For one thing, there is no syllabus.  Sometimes the instructor tells us what we’ll be discussing in class the next week, and sometimes we just arrive to class without much of an idea of what’s going to happen.  Also, the class has no assigned textbooks or required readings, yet the homework assignments require you to look things up for yourself and find your own resources.  Coming from the American system, where courses are typically outlined from beginning to end and texts and readings are assigned at the start of the semester, this German class seems way more independent that any class I took back in the US.  I’ve actually enjoyed the lack of assigned readings for this particular class, because it feels to me like it cuts out a lot of busy work.  I don’t have to read something I already know; I can just concentrate on the areas I need to improve. 

The Judaism and Hellenism class follows a similar structure.  No assigned texts that everybody is reading and discussing.  No weekly homework or quizzes for students who are taking the class for a grade.  Very little discussion of administrative details.  The instructors walk in, lecture, and walk out.  The lectures themselves focus heavily on primary source materials (a.k.a. things that were produced by the objects of investigation) and very specific contemporary academic discussions.  This class meets twice a week and is team-taught by two instructors, and I’ve learned a ton in it.

One last point about classes at Cambridge:  The classroom atmosphere is different from the US, in that it doesn’t really feel like you could just raise your hand and ask a question in the middle of a lecture.  The instructors ask for feedback or questions when they want it, but otherwise the student is relatively passive during the lecture.  From my vantage point, students in America are more active in the classroom but more passive outside of class.  Their assignments and projects are usually defined for them, and American instructors spend considerable amounts of class time discussing the parameters of their assignments.  Cambridge students, on the other hand, are more passive in the classroom but more self-starting outside of class, because the structure of courses requires a far higher degree of independent work.  Each system has its strengths and weaknesses.  I think I would have been a bit overwhelmed by the independence as an undergraduate, but now as a grad student I’m finding that it’s perfect for me.

Being a PhD Student

If you’ve been reading our last several blog entries, you might have forgotten that I (Ben) am actually a student at the university here.  It’s true.   Somewhere in the midst of all of our social engagements and recreational activities I really do have to attend to certain academic obligations.  So, I thought I’d explain a little bit about what I’ve been up to – how the system works, what it’s like to be a student at Cambridge…Those sorts of things. 

As a PhD student at a British institution, I essentially have one main assignment for the next three years:  To conduct a detailed investigation into a particular question or problem within my academic discipline, New Testament studies, and out of that investigation to produce a substantial written work (80,000 words) that contributes in some meaningful way to the scholarly discourse on my topic.  In other words, I have to write a book.  In America, we call this project a dissertation.  Here in the UK, it’s called a thesis.

Aside from the thesis project, I can do or not do pretty much whatever I like as a student.  I am not obligated to attend any classes or pass any exams.  Now, I can take any course or workshop at Cambridge University (no additional charge for that), and I am encouraged to attend what’s called the ‘Senior Seminar’ in New Testament.  This seminar meets every other week on Tuesday afternoons.  Here’s what happens there:  A scholar reads a paper.  Then, the people in the room who understood the paper (often a significant subset of the room’s total population) discuss it with each other, asking questions and giving feedback to the scholar.  Then, we all drink tea and eat cookies!  Aside from that seminar, we graduate NT students hold our own get-together every other week as well, and then there are occasional departmental parties, lectures, and events.  As you can see, it’s all very flexible, and it can be very independent.  Just to give you a feel for the scale of things, my guess is that there are probably about 15 New Testament graduate students right now at Cambridge. 

To help guide me through the process of writing my thesis, I have a supervisor (a scholar named Simon Gathercole).  Dr Gathercole meets with me regularly, discusses ideas for my project, helps improve my writing, gives me guidance about classes to take, and essentially directs me through the PhD program.  British PhD programs revolve around the student-supervisor relationship.  Each supervisor and every student has his/her own way of doing things, so every student’s experience ends up being fairly unique.  So far I have liked working with Dr Gathercole.  He’s very kind.  His feedback is perceptive and helpful, and he seems to take a genuine interest in me as a person.

Finally, at Cambridge many of the NT grad students rent desks at a place called Tyndale House, which is a biblical studies library.  That’s where I go to study most days of the week.  There are daily tea breaks at 11 and 4 at Tyndale, which provides a nice time for a little social interaction. 

That’s the big picture of what it’s like to study as a PhD student at Cambridge.  It can feel somewhat solitary in certain respects in comparison to the American system, but at the same time you can isolate yourself as much or as little as you like.  At least that’s been my experience so far.  I’m learning a ton.  I’m really enjoying the whole atmosphere, and I’m amazed by how many resources are at my finger tips as a student here.