My Brain Dump of Advice for Current and Future PhD Students in Theology

I have just recently graduated with my PhD in New Testament (yay me!). I did the degree part-time. Everyone's situation is different, but I think there are a whole lot of principles that will apply to any PhD student in theology, whether you are doing a residential degree, distance degree, part-time, or full-time. So as you read this brain dump in no particular order, keep in mind that I'm writing it from the perspective of a Biblical Studies student.

  • Get your tool belt ready. A carpenter is only as good as his/her tools. I know you are not working with your hands like a carpenter, but you still need good tools. Here is what you need:

    • Tool 1 - Word Processor. You need to pick a word processor and learn how to use it well. You will save yourself a whole lot of time if up front you make the effort to learn how to use your word processor. If you're on a Mac, Mellel, Nisus, Word, or Pages are your choices. (I'm a Scrivener fan but haven't yet done enough with it to say whether it can handle a large academic project like a PhD). If you're on a PC, it is probably Word or Open Office only. The following items are some of the things you want to know how to do; Pg numbers, footnotes, section breaks, character and paragraph styles, cross references, and customizing your TOC generation.

    • Tool 2 - Reference Manager. If you don't utilize a Reference Manager from the're an idiot. It will be your main tool for keeping your sources organized, not to mention the fact that it will write your bibliography and footnotes for you. Check out my posts here and here on reference managers.

    • Tool 3 - Bible Software. I'd be terribly surprised if every theology student didn't already utilize Bible software. While Bible scholars tend to be the main users, theologians and church historians can benefit greatly as well. All the major apps (Accordance, Logos, Bibleworks) have primary literature and church history literature, as well as lots of secondary sources, with Logos having the largest secondary source library. If you don't yet know how to work with your Bible software, take the time to learn it well (my Logos tutorial course can really help Logos users).

    • Tool 4 - Note-taking app. Depending on your Reference Manager, you may have an app to take notes in already, but you may need something else. I used Devonthink Pro as my digital file cabinet, but there are others you can choose. Evernote, Onenote, CP Notebook, Yojimbo, are all good options.

  • Eliminate distractions. You'll be in front of your computer a lot, don't let it distract you. Check out my posts here and here and here on this topic.

  • Work on it daily. When I first started my PhD I read a book called How to Write a Dissertation in 15 minutes a day. That title was an overstatement, but it drove home a good point – try and work on your dissertation every day, even if only 15 minutes. Obviously you want to aim for more time, but if you have a day full with other things, give it at least 15 minutes to keep it fresh in your mind. It needs to keep percolating. If you don't do this, the problem is that when you finally get back into it, it takes you a long time, sometimes days, to finally get your head in the right space again. This shouldn't, theoretically, be as much of a problem for full-time students.

  • Start writing from the beginning. While it may have made sense to read all of your sources before putting pen to paper for a 10-page essay, this is a different beast. You need to start writing almost from the start. Sometimes the writing will just stay in your note-taker, sometimes not. But after you've read a few books and have a basic outline, start a new word processor file called "dissertation" and start writing in it from the start. The other reason this is important is because writing always begets more writing. You need to write a lot of words, and they need to be good and coherent. The more you'll write, the more you'll write.

  • Have a master outline. Another PhD book I read at the beginning gave me a great tip that I followed. Have a text file called Rolling Master Outline." This will be a constantly evolving and changing document. Have a heading for each chapter, and underneath it have a summary of the chapter (even if it hasn't been written it yet). Include in this document the expected word count for each chapter, and when you do a chapter, what the word count actually is, as well as a revised chapter summary. ALWAYS keep this up to date, it should change as you write because your chapters will change as you research and write. Finally, include this document whenever you send a chapter along to your advisor to read – they're busy people with a lot on their minds, and this will help remind them what you're doing and where you're heading

  • Find abstracts, reviews, and create your own summaries. There is so much information for you to process that you need helps to jog your memory. Rely on ATLAS to find book reviews, and use NT Abstracts, OT Abstracts, and Religious and Theological Abstracts (all of these are online databases) to find abstracts for journal articles and essays. If you can't find an abstract for something, then make sure you write one for the item — actually you should do this anyway when reading a full article/essay. And for your own purposes, don't be afraid to utilize other author's work too. For example, early on I I read a few published dissertations on subjects that were relevant to my own topic, and all of them had a lit review. I copied and pasted these summaries into my reference manager to create abstracts for items.

  • Learn to Read. Guess what: not every item you find is worthy of a front to back read - in fact few things are. (I talk about this more in my book Surviving and Thriving in Seminary if you’re interested). Learn how to take 5 minutes and evaluate an item to determine if it is worth more time or worth a full front-to back read. When doing a dissertation, your time is precious.

  • Take good notes. In the same vein as finding or writing abstracts, taking notes and making highlights is another way to tame the mountain of info that you’ll be reading. There are plenty of items that I have cited, and read front to back during my dissertation writing, and looking at the title I can’t remember a whole lot about them now. But in 2-3 minutes, I read my abstract and skim my notes and highlights, and I’m back on top of things.

  • Utilize good translation tools. I’m not super-strong in German or French, but with the right time and tools I slowly work my way through import sources in German and French. While some may turn to Google Translate, there is something better called Google Translator toolkit that allows you to correct the translation a phrase at a time. If you’re a PC user another software translation app is Promt - I’ve heard good things. Bottom line, no matter how strong or weak you are in these other languages, your study dictates what you should read. It is inexcusable to ignore critical secondary sources because you're too lazy to do some translation work.

  • Harvest good resources. You’ll be on constant lookout for relevant resources. The standard place to go is ATLAS (see my screencast here), and you’ll also get into the habit of always checking everyone’s footnotes and bibliographies. For fellow Biblical Studies folks, you should also check out Index Theologicus, BILDI, and BiBIL.

  • Google Books is going to be very helpful. Again, check out my Google Books post. The number one way Google Books helped me was to quickly check books that I see in a footnote or bibliography. It was a quick and easy way to quickly evaluate a book to see if it is worthy of more attention or not.

  • Understand that your thesis will evolve. You’re advisor will help you to get crystal clear on your thesis – but don’t make the mistake of thinking that your thesis won’t or can’t change. It wasn’t until the very end, when writing my conclusion, that I was able to be crystal clear on my thesis and my contribution. A good way to keep working on this is to work on a 30 second elevator pitch, as well as a 3-5 minute summary of the whole thing. People will be asking all of the time what your dissertation is about - use this opportunity to refine your elevator pitch or summary.

  • Give yourself time before submissions. I wasn’t great at this, but there were a few chapters that I was able to finish up a week or so before I agreed to send it in. This gave me a few days away from the chapter so that I could look at it one more time with fresh(ish) eyes before submitting.

  • Present chapters to groups when you can. For full-time residential students, sharing a chapter in a seminar isn’t as hard to do, and is often mandatory. But those of us who are part-time or at a distance will have a little more difficulty. Still, take the time if you can to present a chapter at a seminar or conference. Get any feedback you can. We have a seminar classes for our MA, and I took that time to present chapters through the years.

  • Work on transitions, summaries, and conclusions. One of my difficulties in writing is being crystal clear about what I am saying. Often times I would assume too much. Don’t assume your readers are experts. For each major section of a chapter, make a good transition from the previous section. Most major sections should end with some sort of summary statement or section. Finally, every chapter conclusion needs to tell them in micro-form exactly what you’ve already told them in the chapter. For those interested, here is the layout of how I broke down my chapters. The first number corresponds to the chapter number (p.s. this breakdown is something I myself copied from a published thesis):

    • 1.1 Introduction

    • 1.2 Main section 1

      • 1.2.1 sub-section 1

        • sub-sub-section 1 (if necessary)

        • sub-sub-section 2 (if necessary)

      • 1.2.2 sub-section 2

      • 1.2.3 sub-section 3 (and 4 and 5, as necessary)

      • 1.2.4 Summary and Relevance for Thesis (this section summarizes all of 1.2 and forces you to summarize the section and draw it back to the thesis and how it contributes)

    • 1.3 Main section 2

      • same as above

    • 1.4 Main section 3 (and 4 and 5, as necessary)

      • same as above

    • 1.5 Conclusion

  • If at all possible, say no to as much as you can so you can say yes to your dissertation. I was awful at this, truth be told. My reality was saying yes to too many things, allowing myself to get side-tracked on other items of interest, and then having to burn the midnight oil as deadlines drew near. This was my biggest overall failure during my PhD - I got too side-tracked on too many other projects. I enjoyed the projects, and some couldn't be avoided, but if I would have said no, I probably could have finished 6 months to 1 year earlier than I did. And instead of going down rabbit trails, keep a list of things you want to read more about AFTER you're done.

  • Work hard. A PhD is more about hard work and perseverance than it is about brains. Work hard and success will follow.

  • It is good to have a reader (or advisor) that isn’t an "expert" in your area. What I mean is if you are doing a dissertation on Paul, have someone who works more in the Gospels as a reader/advisor if you can. While it may seem natural to think that having an advisor that is an expert in your specific area is what you need, the truth is that a reader or advisor that isn’t an expert in your subject can be really helpful, as they can often help you more on the issue of clarity in your argument. If your readers/advisors are both experts in your area, find someone else (another student or prior teacher) to read your chapters as well.

  • Be ready to read the Bible in your Oral defense. If your doing a biblical studies dissertation, you have of course been working in the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. In working so much with your passages, it can sometimes happen that you don’t actually keep up the practice of sight-reading. Keep it up, because you’ll likely be doing it in your oral defense.

  • Be ready for the big questions in your Oral defense. You of course need to be ready for any question that may come to you. So as your defense comes near, read through your dissertation a lot. Take notes or use sticky notes on a hard copy that you bring with you. But also be ready for the big questions: what lead you to the topic? what do you feel is your original contribution? What areas of study have opened up? Summarize your thesis?

  • Back up your stuff! Sign up for Dropbox to save your files if you don’t have cloud-syncing in your apps. Don’t lose info!

  • Get Primary Languages on your Transcript. We're always having students at ADC who want to go on to a PhD, and here is what I suggest they aim for. Aim for 4 full years of your primary language (Greek for NT, Hebrew for OT) and 2 full years for the other. If you can get Aramaic, German, and French on there, all the better. Bottom line, the more primary language credits you have on your transcript, the stronger an application you will have.

  • School Chosen. Advisor. STRENGTH OF YOUR WORK. Yes, having a degree from a good school that has a solid name is great. And having a well-known advisor is great too. But that is only going to get you so far. In the end, it is the strength of your work and your determination as a scholar that will determine your success. Keep this in mind as you search for a school or search for a scholar to study with. A good-named school is great, as is a big-named advisor. But in the end, it really still is up to you and still comes down to the quality of your work. There are plenty of ABD (all but degree) doctoral students as well as students who didn't find any work in their field afterwards who went to top-notch schools and had top-notch advisors.

  • Block out big chunks of time. Again, this shouldn't theoretically be as hard for full-time PhD students, but for us part-timers, you need to not only work on your dissertation a bit every day (as suggested above) but intentionally block out big chunks of time (think 2-weeks minimum) when you are eating, sleeping, and working on your dissertation.

  • Don't Overplay your hand in your dissertation. There is a natural tendency when studying a subject to think that it is more significant than it actually is. Students do this a lot too. But It is safer to be modest than to over-reach. Frankly, I did exactly this thing in my dissertation. I chose a particular phrase to describe my findings that over-played my hand, and it is something that I was called out on in my oral defense and something which I need to correct.

Do you have any more suggestions or questions? Let me know in the comments?


photo credit: m00by via photopin cc
Posted by Danny Zacharias.