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writing things down…

PhD: UK, USA or hybrid?

Mark Goodacre has an excellent post comparing British and American PhD programs. Those contemplating PhDs should read it. Having completed my degree just about a year ago at an institution that is American with a strong British influence, I thought some reflections on the PhD program in Fuller’s School of Theology could add a third perspective to the comparison. [NB: I will be referring to some of Mark’s comments. My post will make better sense if you read his first.]

Fuller is a hybrid of the typical British and American systems. The first thing Mark notes about the two programs is the difference in course work. At Fuller we have course work but it is not as broad as what one might get another American program. Students enter with a declared major and minor. In the first stage, the student, in addition to meeting language requirements, takes five seminars, one of which is a methods seminar. This is typically a two-year stage. Three seminars per year is the maximum one can take. So, in this way the courses are fewer but more intensive and focused on the major (usually 3-4 of the 5 seminars) and minor (1-2 seminars) disciplines. The stage ends with four comprehensive examinations (3 in the major and 1 in the minor). Students with dissertation ideas already in mind can sometimes craft papers for the various seminars that will turn into dissertation chapters. This might keep them from publishing anything prior to publication of the thesis. Fuller has a pretty good record of publications by its graduates though. My dissertation should be out this year from T&T Clark.

The second stage requires the student to take 4 more seminars or directed readings. Most students take the latter. This stage is the dissertation research and writing stage. The first order of business is getting a dissertation proposal approved. Mark notes the presence of a “committee” in the American system and the primacy of the supervisor in the British system. Fuller is a combination. The adviser, in consultation with a secondary reader/adviser (kind of like the other internal examiner in the British system), approves the proposal. The adviser is also the one with whom the student will be working most closely. Sometimes the second reader does not enter the picture until examination of the dissertation. So in this way Fuller is very British: a primary adviser and an internal examiner. It is also British in that they recruit an external reader from outside the Fuller faculty to examine the dissertation.

Mark also notes the time and money differences. Fuller is more American time-wise and British money-wise. That is, it takes anywhere from 4 to 8 years to complete the degree like an American program. But, because it has very little money to give (it is a young institution without the endowments of the more prestigious schools), it can be costly like the British programs for Americans (and some Brits too!).

I’m not sure how the Fuller system positions it in the American landscape. Its graduates, by virtue of having a degree from an “evangelical” seminary, are up against long odds at any rate. Still, I was and am very impressed with the program at Fuller. I would put our graduates up against graduates of any other institution, American, British or otherwise. Many of them, myself included, have had to juggle a full workload in addition to the PhD work because of the lack of funds and the high cost of living in southern California. This is not an advert for Fuller graduates, however. I am more interested in the comparison of PhD programs. What do you think is the best structure for a PhD program? Why? I’d like to hear about other programs that are neither typically British or American. What are biblical/theological doctoral programs like in other countries?

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3 Comments»

  B-W wrote @

Is that list of professors on Fuller’s website up to date? There are several professors that I have good reason to KNOW teach PhD students that aren’t listed there in any capacity….

  Dane Ortlund wrote @

Wheaton started up a phd program 7 years ago and brought in Doug Moo from TEDS and Greg Beale from Gordon-Conwell, making for a very strong NT dept, though the other disciplines are weaker. They too are a hybrid between Brit and Amer, with about 30% of the coursework of an Amer Uni and students finishing in 3-4 yrs. It is fully funded w/ a small stipend for anyone who gets in. The focus is on intertestamental work and interdisciplinary diss.’s (i.e. having an eye to historical and syst theology even if doing an OT or NT diss).

  Bob Cornwall wrote @

I was just starting the PhD program as it transitioned from a more distinctly British systen to a more American system. In the old days if you positioned your program correctly when you finished your nine seminars you had your dissertation largely completed.

I was fortunate to have my revised dissertation published by a small university press — Delaware — but getting a job was more difficult. Generally those who get jobs easily with a Fuller degree already have a job when they come. I don’t regret my decision as I studied with Jim Bradley who is one of the most gracious and generous persons you could ever know. I’ve had success in publishing, but job wise it’s difficult and I’ve ended up pastoring.


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