A Roadmap for Aspiring New Testament Scholars
Dr. Wayne Coppins
Department of Religion
University of Georgia
The impetus and support for this “Roadmap for Aspiring New Testament Scholars” comes from my participation in the CTL Lilly Teaching Fellows Program at the University of Georgia. If you have constructive comments on how to improve this roadmap, please email me your suggestions. (This roadmap was completed in August 2011 and lightly revised in October 2013, January 2014, and November 2016, and subsequently).
The purpose of this “roadmap” is to fill an instructional gap that I perceived at several stages of my academic journey, namely to provide practical guidance at each step of the process for those interested in becoming a New Testament scholar. Rather than aiming to replace personal conversations with me or other mentors, it is meant to provide a meaningful basis for such discussions.
While primarily intended for those who are considering an academic vocation in the field of New Testament Studies (or Early Christianity, Christian Origins, Ancient Mediterranean Religions, etc.), I hope this guidance will also be useful for those interested in becoming New Testament scholars in a less formal sense. The “roadmap” has several aims. Firstly, it seeks to make you more aware of your options. Secondly, it aims to help you make informed decisions along the way. Thirdly, it attempts to increase your chances of getting into a competitive graduate program and landing a job at the end of your studies.
At the outset I should emphasize that this guidance is not set forth as a magical formula or checklist. Moreover, I want to stress that there is no substitute for the most fundamental task, which is to become a “good scholar”, a continuing process that can take place in many different and sometimes unforeseen ways. At the same time, there are many things I wish I had known earlier, and I suspect that this attempt to highlight some of them may prove helpful to others. Here, however, both the limitations of my own perspective and the fact that the “map” of my own academic journey looks rather different from this “roadmap” should be kept in mind.
The big picture
In speaking of “the big picture”, there is both good news and bad news. The good news is that New Testament Studies is an incredibly vibrant and diverse field of study that will prove both challenging and rewarding to those who engage with it. Moreover, it is a field of study in which one can obtain a rich range of perspectives and skills that are also relevant for navigating other spheres of life. The bad news is that it is such an extraordinarily competitive field that many highly qualified candidates are unable to get into a PhD program, and many of those who do are unable to find a position in the field (see further here).
Consideration of this “big picture” may result in a number of informed responses. For some, it may mean moving away from this field of study in view of the grim job prospects. Or less drastically, it may mean making religion a double major, while not planning to pursue this path as an academic vocation. For others, however, it will mean setting out on this path with an increased awareness of its difficulty and with greater attention to one’s options at each step. This too, of course, may involve double (or triple) majoring with a view both to strengthening one’s credentials and keeping one’s options open.
Choosing a university for your first degree
Choosing a university for your first degree is no small step. While it would be an exaggeration to suggest that this decision already determines your future path, it can play a large role in opening or closing doors. Accordingly, you should consider which options and strengths you would like to prioritize. At least six issues should be considered here, namely (1) the academic reputation of a given institution, (2) short-term and long-term financial considerations, (3) the advantages of studying at a larger or smaller institution, (4) the reputation and character of your major at a given institution, (5) the presence or absence of related areas of study, and (6) the religious affiliation or non-affiliation of a given institution.
As a rule, most people will want to attend the most esteemed university that accepts them, and that they can afford. Sometimes, studying at an expensive university with a particularly strong academic reputation may increase your chances of obtaining a scholarship for your graduate work, and so it may well be preferable from the perspective of long-term financial considerations. This possibility, however, remains uncertain. Thus, there is also much to be said for prioritizing a university that is both academically solid and affordable, especially with a view to future costs for graduate study.
Whether you are inclined to study at a smaller or larger institution, it is important to find out about your major. Indeed, you might find that one university has a stronger reputation in general but another is more respected for your particular major. Then again, you might find that your major is highly esteemed but its character or focus does not quite fit your particular area of interest. If you are considering a major in religion (or religious studies etc.), you should look at the major requirements and at the range of courses that are offered as well as the teaching and research interests of the faculty member(s) in your specific area of interest (if you already have one), for example in New Testament Studies. Alongside your general inquiry into the reputation and character of your proposed major, it will perhaps be equally important to determine whether related areas of study are represented at a given institution, either within or outside of the department of religion. In particular, if you are interested in New Testament Studies, you will want to determine whether you would have the opportunity to learn the relevant ancient and modern languages, especially Ancient Greek, Hebrew and German. You may wish to look at other departments with a view to double (or triple) majoring.
In my judgment, it is also strategic to consider the religious affiliation or non-affiliation of the universities you are considering. This factor may influence the content of your education. Perhaps more importantly, however, it will likely influence others’ perception of your education. As a generalization, I think the stronger an institution is (perceived to be) connected with a given religious group or movement, the more it will tend to open some career doors, namely those within this group, and close other doors, namely those outside the group, whereas a university without a religious affiliation probably keeps your options most open. This does not mean your undergraduate university completely determines what can follow, but merely that it plays a role.
Choosing a double or triple major
While your choice of university is significant, what you make of your undergraduate studies is even more important. This period in your life presents you with a particularly rich opportunity to develop both as a person and as a young scholar.
Here, my first piece of advice is: Don’t feel that you need to rush through your first degree. This is a formative period in your life and you should make the most of it rather than merely seeking to move on to something else.
With this perspective in mind, I would also strongly encourage you to double (or triple) major. First, this will broaden your intellectual perspective, since each major will enrich your education in different ways. Second, this will strengthen your academic credentials, which will improve your chances of being accepted to graduate school and obtaining funding. Third, this will expand your options, so that you will have more opportunities if it does not prove possible or desirable to continue in New Testament Studies. This third reason should not just be viewed as a “safety net”. I also think that having other options can make it easier to continue along your chosen path. In short, when one feels that there are no other options but to continue along a set path, then this “trapped feeling” can make it much more difficult to do so, whereas knowing one has other options can free one up to pursue the path that one most desires with full awareness of its challenges and the possibility of “failure”.
Many different majors can complement a major in religion with a focus in New Testament Studies. A practical choice, I think, is Education. For example, at UGA you could complement your religion major with a B.S.ED in World Language Education, focusing on German or Latin. On the one hand, this degree would significantly increase your options if you do not continue in New Testament Studies. On the other hand, if you do continue, it will equip you with theoretical and practical perspectives that will serve you well in both your research and teaching. Another option is to focus more exclusively on one or several relevant research languages. For example, you could add a major (or minor) in Ancient Greek and/or German. Obtaining a high level of competency in Greek will greatly strengthen your resume, since this is the language of the New Testament and many of the most relevant ancient sources. Similarly, since German is arguably the leading research language alongside English, it would make an excellent major, especially if you have the opportunity to take courses or directed readings on the contribution of German scholars in the formative period of Biblical Studies. There are, of course, many other options for additional majors. History, for example, would be a good choice, especially if you were able to give special attention to issues of method and historiography. Other attractive options include Sociology, Cultural Anthropology, Women’s Studies, English, Linguistics, Communication Studies, and Philosophy, since New Testament scholars often draw on theoretical and methodological insights from each of these areas.
These are by no means all of the possible majors that could complement a focus on New Testament Studies. Since many researchers in the field enthusiastically welcome multidisciplinary study, insights from many other spheres could also be profitably drawn upon. In other words, my overriding purpose here is to underscore the value of adding a second or third major, which should be regarded not merely as a “safety net”, but also as a way of broadening your perspectives and strengthening your credentials.
If you are studying at the University of Georgia and wish to pursue graduate work in New Testament studies, then my recommendation would be to triple major in Religion, German, and Greek or double major in two of these and minor in the third.
Let me now reiterate the importance of languages. For the aspiring New Testament scholar, becoming competent in at least some of the ancient and modern research languages is a sine qua non – in other words, it is indispensable! This is not to say that one cannot do much good work without learning them, but merely that some questions can only be addressed well if one knows them. (Then again, I should quickly add that knowledge of the ancient languages often serves only to bring the key questions into sharper focus, rather than resolving them, as many wrongly assume. Moreover, I should add that knowledge of linguistics is perhaps equally important, so as not to misuse them. But I digress.) My aim here is to encourage you to begin learning one or several of the most relevant research languages in the course of your undergraduate studies.
The most important language for the New Testament scholar is arguably Greek. Accordingly, I would begin here. Indeed, if your university has a Classics Department, then there is much to be said for adding Ancient Greek as a second major. If you are a student at UGA, then you can either take the first two semesters of Greek in the UGA Classics Department during the Fall and Spring, or take the summer intensive course, bearing in mind that it is very intensive, i.e. you won’t be doing anything else that summer. Building on this foundation, you can then take further Greek courses through the Classics Department as well as the Koine Greek course, RELI (GREK) 4089/6089, offered through the Religion Department in the Fall semester of odd numbered years (i.e. Fall 2011, Fall 2013, etc.). This latter course will work through a text from the New Testament or the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament).
After Greek it is a tough call between German and Hebrew. Although most religion students don’t even consider learning German, it is arguably the most important modern research language for New Testament Studies, i.e., alongside English. In fact, if I had to choose between German and Hebrew, I would probably recommend that you begin with German, since you will already want to start interacting with German scholarship in your MA research. Indeed, you may even wish to add German as a minor or major. Then again, a very strong case can also be made for beginning with Hebrew, both because it is arguably even more important to be able to interact with the ancient sources, and because Hebrew is also a modern research language. The ideal situation would be for you to learn both during your undergraduate studies, preferably at a relatively high level. Indeed, you may wish to consider a study abroad program in Israel or Germany. In addition to programs facilitated by your German Department, you could, for example, study during the summer at a Goethe-Institut or at another venue such as the Sprachinstitut in Tübingen. And there are also many opportunities for language study in Israel.
Finally, if you have time and opportunity it would obviously be great if you could learn additional ancient research languages (e.g. Aramaic, Latin, Coptic, and Ethiopic) or modern research languages (e.g. French, Italian and Spanish).
If you are studying at the University of Georgia and wish to pursue graduate work in New Testament studies, then I recommend that you begin taking (accelerated) German classes at the very outset of your studies (and perhaps go to Germany over the first or second summer to study at the Sprachinstitut in Tübingen or at a Goethe Institute), so that you can apply for a year-long exchange program in Germany during your undergraduate studies at UGA. In particular, if you are considering the UGA exchange options, then I recommend that you consider studying at either the University of Heidelberg or the University of Zürich. For further information see the Germanic and Slavic Studies Website. See also my Resource Tab for Learning German. High achieving undergraduates at any institution may also wish to consider applying for The Summer Research Opportunities Program at the University of Notre Dame!
Let me now touch on some of the topics and areas that you may want to engage during your undergraduate studies. Here, you will want to strike a balance between reading primary and secondary sources. Fresh thinking usually takes place through interaction with primary sources. But secondary sources inform and reshape our thinking in such a way that this becomes possible. In addition to the following reading suggestions, I encourage you to consult the excellent collection of resources at Dr. Mark Goodacre’s website NT Gateway (cf. here).
For the aspiring New Testament scholar, my recommendation would be to begin by reading through the New Testament in very large chunks. After doing so, you may then wish to supplement this exercise by working through a “New Testament Introduction”. I cut my teeth on Raymond Brown’s magisterial Introduction to the New Testament, but students often find it rather hard going, and you may prefer to use another NT Intro (e.g., Carl Holladay, Luke Timothy Johnson, Pheme Perkins, Eugene Boring). After working through a “New Testament Introduction”, you may then want to work through a more synthetic work in the genre “Theology of the New Testament” (e.g., Udo Schnelle; cf. also Brevard Childs) and/or in the genre “History of Early Christian Religion” (e.g., Gerd Theissen, Heikki Räisänen). Finally, I also recommend reading through the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible/Septuagint in large chunks, preferably with reference to relevant secondary literature. For the Septuagint, you may wish to use NETS or King.
The relevant primary sources, of course, are by no means limited to the texts of the Old and New Testaments! Accordingly, I also encourage you to delve into a wider range of material. For pragmatic reasons, you may wish to begin with an anthology, such as Mark Harding’s Early Christian Life and Thought in Social Context: A Reader, which focuses both on Early Judaism and the wider Graeco-Roman world. With respect to secondary literature, I especially enjoyed George Nickelsburg’s Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah. Since you will also want to extend your studies beyond the time of the New Testament, I also recommend Christoph Markschies’s book Between Two Worlds. Finally, you might wish to incorporate aspects of Shawn Wilhite’s Strategic Approach to Reading Background Texts of the New Testament.
The aspiring New Testament scholar will also want to delve into specific fields of inquiry. This, I expect, will be facilitated by the courses offered at your university. Let me therefore remain content to make a few suggestions. First, rather than rushing headlong into the study of the historical Jesus, you may wish to begin with Graham Stanton’s book The Gospels and Jesus, which will introduce you to scholarship on both the gospels and the historical Jesus. Secondly, rather than plunging into the fray of hotly contested issues such as “justification” or “Paul and the law”, you may wish to begin with David Horrell’s book An Introduction to the Study of Paul, which provides an instructive survey of much of what is happening in Pauline studies. Thirdly, since all inquiry stands in some relation to what has preceded it, I encourage you to work through at least one work that deals with the history of New Testament scholarship, for example, John Riches’ A Century of New Testament Scholarship, which provides a rather advanced treatment of key movements and major figures, Robert Morgan’s Biblical Interpretation, which provides a broader survey, Vernon Robbins’s The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse, which engages both older and more recent scholarship in relation to Robbins’s own interpretative project, or William Baird’s multi-volume History of New Testament Research.
Finally, I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity to read more broadly in the field of religion. For example, at the University of Georgia, religion majors can take classes in a range of religious traditions, as well as courses focused on theory, thought and method. Such inquiry will broaden and deepen your intellectual horizons.
Researching, writing and speaking
While the previous section has focused on the practice of reading, you will also want to take steps to become more confident in the practices of research, writing, and speaking in the course of your undergraduate studies. To some extent, this will take place in the context of your coursework and wider reading. The practice of writing, for example, will hopefully accompany your reading in the form of notes, summaries, analyses, as well as in papers and written exams. (One writing tactic that I use is to develop abbreviations for important concepts and categories, which I then write in the margins of my books as a way of focusing my reading.) Similarly, the practice of speaking will hopefully be facilitated through the process of group/class discussions.
While the importance of these activities should not be minimized, I recommend that undergraduates wishing to pursue an academic vocation in New Testament Studies seek to develop more advanced speaking, research, and writing skills. Some of the capabilities you will want to develop over the course of your undergraduate studies are: 1) the ability to find and critically interact with academic scholarship in the form of books and articles, 2) the ability to formulate a thesis and argument in relation to a clearly defined field of inquiry, and 3) the ability to express your argument in the form of a written paper and oral presentation. I encourage you to look for opportunities to showcase these skills in contexts beyond the classroom. And you may want to consult a book on how to do research, e.g., The Craft of Research.
Let me suggest two ways you might do so. First, you may wish to attempt to present your work at an academic conference or elsewhere. If you are at UGA, you can take advantage of the opportunity to undertake and present research in connection with CURO (the Center for Undergraduate Research). Moreover, you may want to look into the possibility of writing an Honors Thesis. Looking beyond the university, there are academic conferences to which you could submit your work, for example, the regional, international, and national meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL; the Southeastern Regional Meeting is called SECSOR). In fact, if your paper is accepted, you can sometimes receive funding from CURO. Rather than merely submitting an abstract, students are often required to submit their entire paper, ca. 8-15 pages. While some conferences have a specific section for undergraduate students (e.g. the regional SBL conference), you can also submit an abstract or paper to other sections.
Secondly, you may also wish to submit your work for publication, either to a student journal or to a “regular” journal in the field. For example, if you join Theta Kappa Alpha, you could submit a paper to their journal. And at UGA you can submit to JURO. A list of “regular” journals can be found in the SBL Handbook of Style (see also here). Needless to say, it would strengthen your application to graduate school if you were able to present a paper at an academic conference or in an academic journal.
Preparing for grad school applications
Let me conclude this section by underlining two extremely important practical considerations, which look forward to your future studies.
The first involves the GRE, which is a standardized test required by most graduate programs. Many students who struggle to achieve a high score on this standardized test understandably object that it is unfair that this test plays such a large role in graduate admission. This may be true. But whether or not it is fair, the fact remains that the GRE does play an important role in graduate admission and funding. Hence, in addition to working hard to achieve a high GPA in your undergraduate studies, you would be wise to invest significant time and energy – perhaps over the course of your undergraduate studies – into preparing for the GRE. (More on this below.)
As a second consideration, I encourage you to establish a close, positive connection with faculty members who will write reference letters for you, since these will also play a large role in the graduate admission process. This might mean taking multiple classes with the same professor, asking a professor whether you can do an independent study with her/him, speaking about your program and future with a professor during her/his office hours, etc. For further guidance on applying for graduate programs, see below.
Taking a year out
Having worked hard for (much of) their undergraduate degree, many students feel worn out by the end of their last semester. Accordingly, the prospect of starting graduate study in the coming year is rather daunting. I suspect that there are many perspectives on how best to respond to this phenomenon. One approach is simply to press on despite this weariness. Another approach may be to press forward and apply for graduate programs with the rationale that it may prove possible to defer if one is accepted. I suspect that this is a sound strategy, though I am uncertain if it is always possible to defer admission. So it may lead one back to the first option. Yet another approach is to delay applying for graduate programs and take a year out.
Given the rigors of graduate study, I think it is not a bad idea to defer or take a year out after your undergraduate studies. At the same time, I think there is much to be said for making this year out both a period of rest and a period of preparation. One way to do so is to continue to read in your field during this year. You could, for example, take a broad approach and work through the Old and New Testaments with reference to a one volume commentary such as the Oxford Biblical Commentary. Or you could read more specifically in the area in which you hope to specialize, e.g., Mark, John, Paul, Revelation, Josephus, Dead Sea Scrolls, etc. Likewise, you would certainly want to improve – or at least maintain – your languages. At a minimum, you will want to read a few lines per day in each of your languages, since your painstaking efforts to learn them will otherwise soon be painfully lost! More actively, you may wish to work through the New Testament in Greek, perhaps with reference to both a reader’s edition (see here; cf. here) and a literal translation.
Or you may want to arrange for e.g. a three-month stay in Germany (for example at a Goethe-Institut or taking courses at the Sprachinstitut in Tübingen) and/or Israel, which could provide a needed change of pace and scenery, and improve your grasp of the languages you have worked so hard to learn. This, of course, could be expensive, and might need to be combined with some months of work first. Or you might choose to stay in the United States (or wherever your home country is). My point is simply to encourage you to think creatively about how you might make the most of your year out, should you choose not to press on directly to graduate school.
On a practical note, I also encourage you to ask your referees to write you a reference upon the completion of your degree, so that you are fresh in their mind when they write it. Otherwise, your reference may lack the desired specificity and crispness. The following year you can then send them an updated CV/Resume and letter outlining what you have done since graduation, so that they can update their reference when you are ready to apply for graduate programs.
Applying for Graduate Programs (Master’s and PhD)
It is a daunting task to offer guidance for applying for graduate programs, since it is so difficult to gain admission at present. In view of this situation, my aim here is to provide some concrete advice that may increase your chances of success. Other resources are available. Some of my students have recommended http://www.thegradcafe.com/.
Preparing for the GRE
Before turning to other matters, let me comment once again on the important role played by the GRE.
The GRE is a standardized test required by most graduate programs. Many students who struggle to achieve a high score on this test understandably complain that it is unfair that this test plays such a large role in graduate admission. This objection may be on target. But whether or not it is fair, the fact remains that the GRE does play an important role in graduate admission and funding. Hence I strongly recommend that you commit a significant amount of time and energy to preparing for the GRE. In other words: make vocabulary note cards, take practice tests, get a tutor if you need one, and prepare gradually rather than trying to cram at the last minute. Indeed, you may wish to do so gradually over the course of your studies.
For my part, I have found that a high GRE score usually does indicate a strong student, whereas a low score may not be reliable, i.e., I also know many excellent students with weaker scores. Hence, I value a high score, but try not to assign too much weight to a lower score. Since, however, graduate admission is so competitive, it is inevitable that at least some weight is assigned to the GRE, since it is one of the criteria that we have at our disposal in evaluating students.
I have begun with the GRE because it plays an important role in admission, because I know that many students find it difficult to motivate themselves to prepare for this exam, and because I am aware that the belief that it is unfair to assign such importance to it often functions to sideline their efforts. By making these points transparent, I hope to help you to take concrete steps to improve your score, without denying the validity of objecting to the role that the GRE plays.
Having sufficiently underlined the importance of the GRE, let me now reflect more broadly on applying for graduate programs.
Developing as a scholar
My most fundamental piece of advice is to work hard to become highly competent in your chosen field. Concretely, this means developing a broad and deep knowledge of the primary sources. Moreover, it involves reading widely across the discipline and becoming especially adept in a particular research area or areas. Likewise, it involves mastering at least some of the key research languages. Finally, it also requires interaction with the history of scholarship and with issues of method and interpretation. In the end, there is no substitute for becoming a “good scholar”.
Presenting yourself effectively
My second piece of advice, however, is that you should also work hard to effectively present yourself to the people and institutions involved. This can be done, of course, in many ways.
In the first place, it will be done in the context of your application. More specifically, it will be conveyed by a) your GRE score, b) your grades, c) your references, d) your personal statement, and e) your writing sample. As stressed above, the GRE plays an especially important role in the application process, and you should prepare accordingly. Your grades, in turn, also play a significant role, though perhaps not as much as the GRE or your references. In order to obtain a strong reference, you will want to perform well in your program (!), foster a close relationship with select teachers, and provide your referees with adequate materials for each application, e.g. your CV, a list of the most relevant courses you have taken, and your purpose statement. You should choose referees who will take the time to provide a strong presentation of your virtues as a young scholar. You may wish to do some further research to determine what your personal statement should look like for the various institutions to which you are applying. For my part, I think that the personal statement should express what you have done and where you are going, giving special attention to the research area in which you wish to work. Depending on the institution, you may wish to mention particular faculty members whose work you have engaged with. Your writing sample, in turn, should demonstrate to your readers that you are indeed ready to undertake graduate work in your chosen area of study.
In addition to the formal application process, I strongly encourage you to make contact in other ways with the people and institutions involved. This can be done in many ways. In the first place, I encourage you to send a typed letter by mail (rather than an email) to select faculty with whom you hope to work. In this short letter you may introduce yourself and your research interests in relation to that of the faculty member, who may then choose to contact you via email. This letter should show that you have taken the time to interact with their work. Also, rather than choosing the most famous person at a given institution, you may wish to contact another faculty member whose interests cohere with yours.
In addition to writing a letter, you may also wish to arrange to meet with a faculty member at an academic conference and/or visit a select number of institutions that you are particularly interested in, bearing in mind that this is not always possible/permitted. Though a visit is expensive, it allows you to meet with several members of the faculty. Meeting someone in person is often the best way to give them a more complete impression of you as a person and as a scholar. Needless to say, you should be prepared to discuss your education and research interests.
Choosing a Master’s Program: MA-PhD, MA, MTS, MPhil, ThM, MDiv
There are many different types of Master’s programs in the field of religion and theology. Let me discuss here my sense of the perceived advantages of those that are offered most frequently: the joint Master-PhD program (MA-PhD), the Master of Arts (MA), the Master of Theological Studies (MTS), the Master of Philosophy (MPhil, offered in the UK), the Master of Theology (ThM), and the Master of Divinity (MDiv), bearing in mind that you may also encounter other categories.
If your ultimate goal is an academic vocation in the context of a secular university, then the preferred option is probably to gain admission to a joint MA-PhD program. Likewise, this may be the best option if your preferred goal is an academic vocation in the context of a seminary or Divinity School, though it could prove advantageous in this case to complete an MDiv program first. This is hard for me to judge. Irrespective of your ultimate career goal, the difficulty with the MA-PhD option is that it is not always possible to move directly from your undergraduate studies to a joint MA-PhD program. Accordingly, while it certainly makes sense to set your sights on this much-coveted goal, you should probably also consider other options.
MA and MTS
In my view, the differences between MA and MTS programs should neither be exaggerated nor minimized. On the whole, it seems to me that the MTS degree is closer to the MA than to the MDiv, since it is often understood as preparatory for doctoral study rather than being directed towards ecclesial (church) ministry. In fact, it often seems that the nomenclature is more a matter of institutional context than content. At the same time, since institutional contexts do have an influence on the content of a program, this difference may nevertheless be important. On the whole, it seems to me that the MTS designation is often used in the context of Divinity Schools (e.g. Duke, Emory, Harvard), whereas the MA designation is preferred in other contexts (e.g. Duke Religion Department, Virginia, Georgia, etc.).
In the end, I cannot judge whether an MA or an MTS would give you a better chance of being accepted into a PhD program. My inclination, however, is to think that the reputation of the institution that awarded the degree is more important than the type of Master’s that was awarded. In other words, your goal should probably be to get into a particularly good program rather than to obtain a certain type of degree. At the same time, due to its name and Divinity School context, I suspect the MTS degree may create more options within an ecclesial context. (Though bear in mind that if your goal is definitely to work in an ecclesial context, then the MDiv degree would be more valuable to you, as discussed below.) Conversely, I expect that some academic institutions would perhaps look more favorably on an MA degree.
MPhil and other UK Master’s Options
Since there is great variation in UK universities, it is difficult to obtain an accurate overview. What follows is my attempt to provide some initial guidance, which I hope is accurate. I recognize, of course, that it is not comprehensive.
In the UK it is often possible to obtain either a two-year Master’s degree, which may be exclusively research based or contain both research and teaching components, or a one-year Master’s degree, which can often be either a taught MA or an MA by thesis. The two-year Master’s degree, which is only 21 months in some cases, often has the title of MPhil, i.e. Master of Philosophy (e.g. Oxford; Edinburgh; Gloucesterschire; St. Andrews; Aberdeen), though other designations are sometimes used such as MLitt, i.e. Master of Letters (e.g. Durham). (Note that the MPhil in Cambridge refers instead to a 9-month Master’s program.) The one-year Master’s degree, which is 9 or 12 months, is given various names such as MA in Biblical Studies (e.g. Durham; Exeter; Manchester); MTh., i.e. Master of Theology (Edinburgh; Gloucesterschire; Aberdeen); MSt, i.e. Master of Studies in Theology (Oxford); or MLitt, i.e Master of Letters (St. Andrews; in contrast to Durham, where the MLitt is a two-year program). Notably, the 9-month Master’s program in Cambridge has the title of MPhil. Also, some UK programs have a combined MPhil-PhD (e.g. Exeter) or simply a PhD for which an MA is a prerequisite (e.g. Manchester). [I have not verified whether or not this nomenclature has changed for the institutions in question since I first put together this roadmap.]
Would it better to choose a one-year or a two-year Master’s program in the UK? On the one hand, a two-year Master’s in the UK might be more comparable to a US Master’s program, which is usually two years. This might be advantageous if you plan to apply for PhD programs in the US. On the other hand, it may also be possible to move directly from a one-year program to a PhD. Plus, a one-year program will be less expensive, will provide you with an opportunity for intensive study over the course of one year, and will give you the same (hopefully) positive contacts with faculty member who can later act as referees.
Here, I should also note that if you wish to pursue a PhD in the UK, it is sometimes possible to have the first year of your MPhil count towards your PhD, which is important since you usually only pay PhD fees for three years, even if it takes you longer to complete your dissertation. If you begin in an MPhil program and continue on to the PhD, then you should make sure to discuss this matter with your supervisor.
On a related note, it is sometimes possible to save money in a UK PhD program by spending the second year of your PhD at a Germany university, in which case you may be able to avoid paying the expensive fees of a UK university for that year.
As far as I can tell, the ThM degree appears to function as a second Master’s, and is typically a one-year program. This is/was the case, for example, at Princeton Theological Seminary, Duke Divinity School, The Candler School of Theology at Emory, and Harvard Divinity School. It typically follows an MDiv, and it is unclear to me if students with an MTS or an MA degree are necessarily eligible for this degree.
On the one hand, I have heard it suggested that this degree can strengthen one’s chances of being admitted to a PhD program. The logic as such seems sound. In addition to furthering one’s education, it puts one in contact with additional scholars who may improve or diversify the strength of one’s references, and it may give one an inside track to an institution’s PhD program. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that none of the universities mentioned above present this degree as a path to the PhD program. In fact, Harvard suggests the opposite, stating: “Applicants should be aware that admission to the master of theology program is not a step toward the doctoral program at Harvard or an indicator of future admission to the doctor of theology or doctor of philosophy program.” Hence, beginning a ThM program with the assumption that it will help you to get into a PhD program is a risk that may or may not pay off. Accordingly, a better approach may be to obtain a second MA in a related field, for example in Classics or another relevant area.
For those who are committed to a vocation in church ministry, the MDiv is probably the best choice. Likewise, it may be the best choice for those who are open to the possibility of an ecclesial vocation and yet also considering a vocation in academia, which is not to say that the two spheres are always distinct. Moreover, it may even be the best option for people with a religious commitment who wish to work outside both church and academia. The rationale for this claim is that there are many possible paths after the MDiv. Several graduates will presumably move directly into church ministry or pursue a related career path. Some will choose different careers. And some will continue on to a PhD, sometimes via a ThM. Some of these, in turn, will enter a church context after the completion of their PhD, whereas others will become faculty members in a Divinity School, seminary, or college/university. Then again, some will embark upon other career paths.
Since it is relevant for some of my students, let me now offer some reflections on how to choose an MDiv program, bearing in mind that I have not completed an MDiv program and have never taught in a Divinity School or seminary. Here, I think two sets of questions should be kept in mind.
The first set of questions involves how you want your education to inform and challenge your beliefs: Where do you want to fit on the theological spectrum, bearing in mind that every institution will contain some spectrum of viewpoints? Would you prefer to be regarded as a somewhat “conservative” voice in a more “liberal” institution, or as a somewhat “liberal” voice in a more “conservative” institution? Or is it particularly important to you that you find a context that closely fits your present beliefs, i.e. where you would be regarded as “one of us”?
The second set of questions is more pragmatic: What is your ultimate career goal? What doors do you want this degree to open for you? Do you want to keep your options open or are you prepared to make a decision that places you upon a specific trajectory? Let me repeat my earlier thesis, namely that the stronger an institution is connected, or perceived to be connected, with a given religious group or movement, the more it will tend to open some doors, namely those within this group, and close other doors, namely those outside the group. In the case of an MDiv program, of course, every institution has some religious affiliation and theological profile. It remains the case, however, that some institutions will narrow your options to a greater extent than others. Or stated more positively, some institutions will more actively open certain doors while tending to close others. Concretely, this means that studying in a more “liberal” religious context will tend to close doors to more “conservative” contexts, whereas studying in more “conservative” contexts will tend to close doors to more “liberal” contexts. Accordingly, the MDiv program that you choose will have at least some influence on the options that are open to you in churches, various spheres within academia, and in wider society.
If your goal is an academic vocation and you are particularly concerned to keep open the possibility of teaching at a non-confessional university or college, then I recommend applying to an MDiv program at a leading university such as Emory, Duke, Chicago, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Vanderbilt, etc. If, however, you know that you want to teach in the context of a particular religious denomination or movement, then you may wish to choose an institution that is particularly well regarded within this context. Again, my point is not that your MDiv program completely determines what can follow, but merely that it does play a role.
Finding your feet
The Master’s program is in many ways an exercise in finding your feet. You have come to know enough to begin striking out on your own, and yet you also have countless blind spots. Hence, it can be both a time of glorious discovery and a time of awkward stumbling. This, I think, is always the case with research, but it is arguably even more applicable to this period of the journey. Corresponding to this phenomenon, there will inevitably be a certain amount of give and take with your supervisor as you begin pushing beyond – and sometimes against – them in your particular line of research while seeking to learn from them in the process.
What then should you learn in your Master’s program? Here too my first piece of advice would be to continue interacting with both primary and secondary sources. My second suggestion is that you continue to broaden your knowledge of the field as a whole, including questions of theory and method. At the same time, you should strive to become especially competent in a particular area (which you can then explore further in your PhD research if you go on to do a PhD). Finally, you will also need to work hard to obtain, maintain, and improve your knowledge of the relevant research languages.
Defining a research question
Some supervisors may already expect your MA research to make “an original contribution to scholarship”. Others may share my view that MA research should advance a well-argued thesis in relation to a clearly defined research area without necessarily constituting “an original contribution to scholarship”. Whatever is required, you need to identify a clearly defined research question or area of inquiry. Secondly, it may prove helpful to relate your particular question, text, or topic, to a second field of inquiry, in order to generate interesting questions and perspectives. For example, you might create a dialogue between multiple ancient texts, or you might relate your particular text to the history of reception, or you might incorporate insights from a particular methodology or neighboring discipline (e.g. sociology, gender studies, postcolonial studies, philosophy, etc).
You and your advisers can relate and contribute to the project in many ways. It may be that you propose the topic, which then develops further in dialogue with your adviser. Or your adviser may suggest a topic related to your interests, which you then develop independently in the course of your research. On the one hand, it is crucial that you remain open to constructive and critical input. On the other hand, it is equally important that you find your own voice in the course of your research.
As part of your research and writing process, you may find it helpful to work through some books on doing research, e.g., The Craft of Research, and writing a thesis, e.g., How to Write a Better Thesis and/or Helping Doctoral Students Write.
Presenting your work
Alongside your coursework, I strongly encourage you to attempt to present your work at an academic conference or elsewhere (e.g. institutional seminars; the regional, international, and national meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature; the British New Testament Conference; the European Association of Biblical Scholars; and the Canadian Society of Biblical Scholars). In fact, if your paper is accepted to a conference, then you can sometimes receive funding from your university. Students are often required to submit their entire paper, ca. 8-15 pages. While some conferences have a specific section for MA students, you can also submit an abstract or paper to other sections. Even if you do not present a paper, I encourage you to attend such conferences, so that you can meet with scholars in the field and explore options for doctoral study.
You should also consider submitting your work for publication, either to a student journal or to a “regular” journal in the field. For example, if you join Theta Kappa Alpha, you could submit a paper to their journal. A list of “regular” journals can be found in the SBL Handbook of Style (see also here). Needless to say, conference presentations and journal publications would strengthen your application to a doctoral program.
Choosing a doctoral program
Considering the strength of different programs
Due to the competitiveness of gaining admission to a doctoral program, most candidates will not have the luxury of choosing between doctoral programs. If you do, however, then you may be faced with the difficult decision of choosing between a “stronger” program with limited funding and a “weaker” program with greater funding. This is a very difficult decision, for the desire to avoid unnecessary debt makes the latter choice preferable, whereas the desire to maximize your chance of beating the odds and landing a job favors the former choice, bearing in mind that unfortunately neither choice guarantees that you will indeed land a job.
Here, I should also note that I am using the language of “stronger” and “weaker” to refer to both the (perceived) quality of the programs and the (perceived) weight of their reputation. This distinction, I think, is important, since not everyone involved in reading your later job application will be aware of the actual quality of various programs. Hence, “brand names” continue to play an important role. Even if University X has an extremely high quality program in your area that is recognized by everyone who is in the know, future employers may nevertheless regard University X as “weaker” than a school with a historically strong reputation (e.g., Harvard, Yale, Chicago, etc.).
In addition to considering the “strength” of various programs/institutions, you will also want to consider the “strength” and “fit” of various potential supervisors, since this relationship will play a large role in your doctoral studies and opportunities for employment. If forced to choose, however, I would probably prioritize the question of institution rather than the question of supervisor.
With reference to both of these considerations and with a view to increasing your chances of acceptance, I encourage you to visit the programs that you are most interested in and/or meet with potential supervisors at conferences, bearing in mind that many programs do not assign you a supervisor at the outset. (For further guidance, see my discussion of applying to graduate programs above.)
PhD programs abroad
For some, the choice/dilemma may be between studying in the USA or elsewhere. Here, there are a number of factors to consider.
1) Doctoral programs in the UK, Germany, and elsewhere, often focus primarily on the doctoral dissertation, and do not require the same amount of coursework as US PhD programs. Positively, this means that it is often possible to devote more time and energy to researching and writing the dissertation. Moreover, it is often possible to complete the doctoral degree more quickly. For example, most UK PhD programs nominally require only three years (though many students take longer before they complete their dissertation; I certainly did!). Negatively, it is arguably a disadvantage not to have the doctoral-level coursework characteristic of US programs. Moreover, even if one manages to master such material in another manner, this difference in structure may be perceived negatively by US employers.
2) US programs often fund all (or most) of the students who are accepted, whereas adequate funding is less common elsewhere. This situation, however, is not uniform. In particular, you may be able to secure competitive funding, or find that there are well-funded opportunities you had not considered, especially if you look beyond the UK, for example, in Germany, Denmark (e.g. Aarhus University) or Finland (e.g. the University of Helsinki), etc. If universities promise the opportunity of funding, you should be realistic and cautious about open-ended statements such as “you may be able to obtain an X Award or a Y Scholarship”, etc.
3) In choosing you will want to consider the question of whether or not you will have the opportunity to gain teaching experience. As a rule, it is probably easier to obtain more teaching experience in a US program, though opportunities are also available elsewhere.
4) Completing your PhD abroad obviously provides you with the opportunity to expand your horizons and allows you to experience another educational environment. Moreover, it gives you an inside view of another tradition of scholarship.
5) There may be less (implicit) pressure to conform to the views or interpretative tradition of one’s supervisor in some non-US programs. The fact that one’s doctoral supervisor does not examine one’s dissertation in the UK is also relevant to this issue.
6) An advantage of US programs is that they often have a stronger network within the US, which may prove helpful in applying for jobs in the US. Similarly, skepticism toward the unknown may sometimes be disadvantageous for candidates from non-US programs. On the other hand, your application may sometimes seem more interesting if you have attended a well-known or prestigious university abroad.
Since my PhD is from the University of Cambridge in the UK, I obviously approach this question from a specific standpoint. On the one hand, I am fully convinced that there are considerable advantages to completing your MA and/or PhD abroad (see esp. # 4 and #5). On the other hand, considerations of coursework (#1), funding (#2), teaching experience (#3), and networking (#6) may favor US programs for many candidates.
Doctoral studies in the humanities can be highly rewarding and exciting, but also very challenging, long and lonely. As someone who greatly struggled to complete his doctoral dissertation, I have sympathy for anyone else who hits rough spots during their doctoral studies. I hesitate to provide guidance in this area, since each doctoral student’s journey is slightly different. A few suggestions, however, may prove helpful to others embarking on this path.
Becoming more familiar with the field
Most importantly, I encourage you to form meaningful relationships with your peers and teachers/supervisors during your PhD. This action will not alter the fact that you may often feel isolated and alone in researching and writing your PhD, since this task requires you to define a problem and grapple with it with some degree of autonomy. But it will provide you with a sense of solidarity and will advance your thinking in relation to both your own work and the field more generally.
Secondly, alongside writing your PhD dissertation, I encourage you to continue reading widely in your field and beyond. In addition to giving you a broader framework in which to situate your particular area of research, this practice will invigorate your thinking more generally and prepare you for what is to come. This is especially important if your PhD program does not include coursework.
Thirdly, look for opportunities to present your work. I did not do much of this during my doctoral studies, but in retrospect I see that it has many advantages. If you are able, I encourage you to present your work at seminars or conferences (e.g. institutional seminars; regional/national/international meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature; British New Testament Conference; European Association of Biblical Scholars; Canadian Society of Biblical Scholars), or at least to attend such conferences, since establishing relationships with other scholars in your field can be helpful at this point in your career. Likewise, it would be wise to look for opportunities for publication, such as reviewing books (e.g. for the online Review of Biblical Literature and elsewhere) and submitting your own work in the form of journal articles (as long as this does not violate your university’s guidelines for what you are allowed to publish prior to completing your dissertation). In addition to providing valuable feedback alongside that of your supervisor, such activities will obviously strengthen your CV.
Keeping things in perspective
Fourthly, if you are able – I was not very successful in this regard – then it is important to set limits on the extent to which the PhD determines your existence. The candidates who are most successful are often those who work effectively when they are working and create space for other matters when they are not.
Fifthly, if you are truly floundering, it may prove helpful to acknowledge that “failure” is an option, i.e. that you could choose to stop doing the PhD and this would be ok. In my case, it was constructive when one of my supervisors (the late Prof. Graham Stanton) said that if things continued as they were it would be possible, if I wished, to take me off the university register, with the option of abandoning the PhD project or re-registering in the future. In short, by creating space for “failure”, he helped me to find a way to press on, with the realization that it really would have been ok if I had not done so.
Dealing with phases of feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed
As a final point, let me pass on (my digest of) some helpful advice that Martin Hengel gave to me when I was writing my PhD:
1) Sit down and write your dissertation;
2) Make a selection of the most important works from the secondary literature, and give priority to the full range of relevant primary sources;
3) The real art of a scholar resides in the ability to improve what s/he has written.
In putting the first point first – “Sit down and write your dissertation!” – I understood Hengel to be conveying to me that I needed to get on with the work rather than endlessly worrying that I was not ready or it was not yet perfect. This was constructive as an answer to my perfectionist tendencies, which tend to result in paralysis.
For me, the second point proved especially helpful: “Make a selection of the most important works from the secondary literature, and give priority to the full range of relevant primary sources.” First, this freed me up to begin developing my thinking in relation to a selection from the massive secondary literature, rather than feeling that I should first read everything out there. This was constructive insofar as the process of reading and reading and reading and reading had the effect of making me feel overwhelmed, whereas beginning to develop my thinking in relation to a selection of sources proved more manageable. (Plus, had I adopted it at the outset, this strategy might have saved me from spending a whole year reading – and photocopying! – everything about one topic, only to realize later that I did not want to continue working on that research question.) Secondly, it reinforced my conviction that fresh thinking often takes place through interaction with the primary texts, though I would also want to stress as a corrective that it is often the secondary literature that helps us to inform and reshape our thinking in such a way that we can interact competently with the primary sources.
Hengel’s third observation – “The real art of a scholar resides in the ability to improve what s/he has written” – likewise served to constructively disable my perfectionist tendencies by driving home the point that researching and writing a PhD is a multi-stage process. In other words, it freed me up to allow myself to produce flawed work, with the understanding that I would indeed have the opportunity to improve what I had written, and that I might be better able to do so if I allowed my argument to develop further before attempting to go back over it. Similarly, I can remember Graham Stanton once looking over my draft work and then saying something like, “Well, this is not what we want, but let’s press on and we can return to it”; his point being that now was not yet the time for revision, and that I should be free to move on.
As part of your research and writing process, you may find it helpful to work through some books on doing research, e.g., The Craft of Research, and writing a thesis, e.g., How to Write a Better Thesis and/or Helping Doctoral Students Write.
Possible career options
In commenting on vocational paths, my purpose is not to provide a detailed sketch of these vocations but merely to point out that there are many possible career options for a religion major who is interested in New Testament Studies.
Teaching in a college or university
In general I expect that it will be necessary to have completed a PhD (or ThD) in order to obtain a permanent position teaching in the context of a college or university.
For some programs/institutions it may be a disadvantage if a candidate possesses an MDiv (or MTS or ThD) degree, though I suspect that this would only rarely be the case if the candidate had obtained their degree from a leading Divinity School such as Emory, Duke, Harvard, Yale, etc. Nevertheless, depending on the programs/institutions in question, candidates who have completed an MA-PhD or an MA + PhD may be at a slight advantage in applying for these positions. As mentioned earlier, however, I think that the strength of the institution(s) you have attended is probably a more important consideration than the type of degree you have.
Teaching in a seminary or Divinity School
Teaching in a seminary or Divinity School is one career option for those who have completed a PhD in theology or religious studies, bearing in mind that some institutions have confessional requirements that would rule them out for some candidates.
In general I expect that it will be necessary to have completed a PhD in order to obtain a permanent position teaching in the context of a seminary or Divinity School, though there may be some exceptions to this point. I suspect that possessing an MDiv (or MTS) degree may be an advantage in applying for such posts, though this is presumably not always the case. In other words, though I have no data to support the assertion, I think that it may be wise for candidates whose ultimate aim is to teach in a seminary or Divinity School to complete an MDiv (or MTS) before continuing on to a PhD. Likewise, it may help them if they have been ordained and have pastoral experience.
More generally, I assume that candidates whose education and research reflects the profile of a given institution will have a greater chance of obtaining a position there. Accordingly, candidates interviewing for such positions should make sure they are thoroughly conversant with the institution’s profile and history.
Careers in a church context
Some people who major in religion may end up pursuing a vocation in an ecclesial context. This career path is usually restricted primarily to those who have a certain religious commitment or at least a sympathetic relation to the ecclesial context. Students who major in religion and who are interested in pursuing a church-related vocation will often continue on and complete an MDiv degree, and some will also complete a PhD. (As noted earlier, an MDiv degree can of course also lead to other career paths.) Some vocational options within an ecclesial context would also be open to those who have completed degrees such as an MTS or a BA or MA in religion, as well as for people who have not completed any of these degrees.
To avoid confusion, I should stress that my purpose here is not to advocate a certain way of thinking in relation to this sphere, but merely to indicate that a vocation in an ecclesial context is one of the various career options related to the religion major and subsequent degrees involving religion.
Other career options
By including a category entitled “other career options” I wish to stress that many career paths are open to religion majors. They are by no means restricted to a vocation in a church context or to teaching in a confessional or non-confessional setting. Alongside this emphasis, however, I also wish to point out that because many people do not have a clear idea of what a religion major entails, it is important that students with a religion major work hard to showcase their many transferable skills, i.e. you will need to show how you are well-equipped for a given career option.
For some people, the difficulty in doing so makes it desirable to add another qualification. In this way, your transferable skills function indirectly, i.e. what you have learned in the religion major (and in further graduate study) gives you the resources to excel in your completion of another qualification – such as education, public administration, nursing, counseling, law school, etc. – which then opens up another career path. For others, however, it is preferable to find other ways of making your skills transparent to a given employer, so that it does not prove necessary to obtain another qualification.
Here, my point is not to offer concrete advice about choosing or finding other career paths that are desirable (for this task, I encourage you to contact the career center at your university). Instead, my purpose is to reiterate that religion is a field of study in which one can obtain a rich range of perspectives and skills that are also relevant for navigating other spheres of life, while acknowledging that it can prove challenging to make this fact transparent to others, with the result that one may need to explore various strategies for doing so.
Applying for academic positions
In my opinion, applying for academic positions (or PhD programs) is a bit of a lottery. This is not to say that you have no influence over what happens, but merely to acknowledge that there are many variables that you cannot control.
Much, of course, will already be determined by decisions you have made earlier, such as your education, your supervisor, your relationships with other scholars in the field, your presentations and publications, etc.
If you are lucky, your PhD supervisor will be an advocate for you – as Markus Bockmuehl and Graham Stanton were for me – in the process of submitting your thesis for publication in revised form, in writing strong references, and perhaps through their network of connections. At the same time, it is perhaps equally likely that another person in your network facilitates an opportunity.
The job application
In writing your application, make sure to show in your cover letter that you have insight into the particular institution that you are applying to, and convey clearly that you are particularly excited about this position, paying attention to the details of the job posting. Also, your CV/Resume should be crisp and error free, permitting a quick overview of why you are a strong candidate. In addition to providing a strong statement of your research, you may wish to include evidence of teaching excellence, e.g. numerical data and excerpts from student evaluations.
In the process of choosing where to apply, you may wish to cast your net broadly or to focus on select opportunities that seem especially promising. In my view, some combination of the two may be the best way forward. Due to the problematic ratio of supply and demand, it would be unwise to consider any job to be not good enough or “beneath” you (though you may consider some jobs inappropriate due to institutional profile, e.g. if there are confessional requirements that you do not fit). When I was applying for jobs, I was given the advice to apply only for those positions that either presented a good fit with my research profile, or that I had some personal connection to through my network. This is good advice, which you may choose to follow (making sure that your referees know that these positions merit special attention). Or you may do as I did, which is to simply apply for each and every job that you think you have a chance of obtaining.
In the end, perhaps the most you can hope for is that your academic credentials and personal relationships will allow you to beat the odds and manage to obtain an interview. If you do, then there are some things you can do to prepare (see below).
The job interview
If you are lucky enough to get an interview, then my first piece of advice is that you set aside time to prepare with all due diligence. Let me elaborate on some of the ways you can do this.
The most obvious tip is that you should spend a significant amount of time researching the faculty members whom you will be meeting. This involves more than just looking at the departmental website, though this is a good start. You will also want to look at some of their publications, especially – though not exclusively – the publications of the faculty members closest to your area. Then, when you have the opportunity to meet with them, you can contribute to the conversation by also asking them about their work, and perhaps discussing areas of shared interest. In addition to helping to foster a personal connection, the fact that you have taken the time to gather this information conveys clearly that YOU WANT THIS JOB.
My second tip is admittedly more risky. My suggestion is that you determine which courses you would be asked to teach at the institution in question and prepare syllabi for these courses. This is risky, of course, because you may never have the opportunity to present the syllabi, which should not simply be thrust upon those interviewing you in a tactless manner. If, however, they ask about how you would teach certain material or courses, then it would be appropriate for you to distribute the syllabi you have made as part of your answer to how you would teach a given course or topic. Moreover, it would provide you with something concrete to refer to as you explain how and where you would address certain matters. It should not, however, overshadow your verbal performance, i.e. the committee needs to hear that you can talk about how you will teach, with the syllabi functioning as an aid in this process. Again, the fact that you have taken the time to assemble this material conveys clearly that YOU WANT THIS JOB.
Thirdly, in presenting your teaching and research interests you want to convey both that you can do the many things that the department may ask of you and that you have a particular area of expertise. In seeking to convey such breadth and depth, you do not need to pretend that you are equally capable in all areas. On the contrary, it is sometimes appropriate – and wise – to acknowledge that you have not worked extensively in a given area, while conveying that you appreciate its value and would welcome the opportunity to develop your thinking in relation to it.
My final point, which is probably the most important one, differs in kind from the previous three. It is based on the fact that those interviewing you are not merely hiring a scholar, they are hiring a colleague. They want to know not only whether you have what it takes (they believe you do, otherwise you would not have been invited to an interview), but also whether they want you to be part of the next departmental meeting and whether they want to be eating lunch with you for the next twenty years. Given this fact, it is important to remember that you are always “on”, from breakfast to dinner. This also means that the knowledge investment mentioned in the first two points must be balanced with an impression that you are a likable person with a good demeanor. Accordingly, you should mentally prepare yourself for something like – or at least something that looks like – normal interaction with normal people, while keeping in mind that you are always “on”. As an aid to striking the right balance, it is desirable if you can be confident without appearing arrogant and can convey that you want this job without appearing desperate.
In sum, you want your interviewers to think: this person is a very good scholar and teacher; they can do this job; I like them.
Early career navigation (with special reference to the university context)
There is much to navigate in the early phase of your career: publication pressure, teaching preparation, relating to your colleagues, finding and developing your niche in the field, adjusting to the change from PhD program to faculty member, moving to a new city, etc.
“Spoken” and “unspoken” expectations
A major consideration, of course, will involve doing what it takes to keep your position (or in some cases what it takes to find a better or more permanent one). My overriding suggestion here is that you give due weight to both “spoken” and “unspoken” considerations. To some extent, of course, the nature of such considerations will be determined by one’s institution. Accordingly, the first task is to sound out these expectations, keeping both “spoken” and “unspoken” factors in view.
For the University of Georgia, for example, the most clearly “spoken” expectation is that its faculty members make appropriate achievements in the area of research, and each department has developed specific unit criteria for the expected quality and quantity of research. Though research is the first priority, the “spoken” character of teaching expectations is also made clear in one’s workload assignment. In my case, for example, I am budgeted 50% for research and 50% for instruction. Moreover, university documents make clear that high quality teaching is expected. This particular example may not be directly applicable to other institutions, but I think that the basic point is transferable, namely that “spoken” expectations need to be prioritized.
Examples of “unspoken” criteria might be investing in good relationships with one’s colleagues, volunteering to sit on departmental committees, spending quite a bit of time talking to and advising students, writing references for students, etc. It is wise to invest considerable time and energy into the “unspoken” criteria too. Even though they might not make important contributions to your CV or your promotion portfolio, they will still have an indirect effect on your career path because they will shape your colleagues’ perceptions of you. Also, they will help you to maintain good relationships with students and colleagues, which will make your job both more enjoyable and easier.
With this perspective in mind, let me note down a few reflections on how I have approached research, teaching, and collegiality in the early phase of my career.
First, I think it is both pragmatic and worthwhile to attempt to present, publish, and develop material that you have worked on in the course of your graduate studies. This could, of course, take many forms. In my case, it meant publishing a revised version of my doctoral dissertation as a book (The Interpretation of Freedom in the Letters of Paul, Mohr Siebeck, 2009), developing further a particularly interesting line of thought from the dissertation in the form of a conference presentation and journal article (“Paul’s Juxtaposition of Freedom and Positive Servitude in 1 Corinthians 9:19 and Its Reception by Martin Luther and Gerhard Ebeling”, Lutherjahrbuch, 2011), and reworking a previous examination of a key New Testament text in the form of a journal article (“Doing Justice to the Two Perspectives of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11”, Neotestamentica, 2010).
Secondly, I also think it is helpful to begin work in new areas and/or approach familiar areas with a new methodology, since many of us require a fresh task and set of questions that can revitalize our scholarship after grappling with a single topic at such length in the PhD. For me, this meant focusing on the gospels of Mark and John in my teaching, and presenting multiple conference papers that related social-scientific perspectives to the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 8-10, one of which has appeared as an article (“To Eat or Not to Eat Meat”, Biblical Theology Bulletin, 2011).
Thirdly, I recommend thinking outside the box about how you can find your niche and sharpen your profile as a scholar, in addition to presenting papers and publishing books and articles. In my case, I have built further on my interaction with German scholarship in my PhD research. This has involved translating German essays (e.g. essays by and about Martin Hengel), reviewing works by German New Testament scholars for the Review of Biblical Literature (e.g. Jochen Flebbe, Gerd Theissen, and Ernst Käsemann), and most importantly initiating a new academic book series that publishes leading German works on Early Christianity in English, namely Baylor—Mohr Siebeck Studies in Early Christianity, which I now c0-edit with Dr. Simon Gathercole of the University of Cambridge. With all these activities I have attempted to carve out a role for myself as a “bridge-builder” between the German and Anglophone traditions of scholarship in New Testament and Christian Origins. This role is both interesting for me personally and, I think, rewarding for the field of New Testament Studies, since the Anglophone and German traditions are frequently separated by the language barrier.
My first tip is something I picked up from Prof. Eugene Gallagher at a Wabash workshop (see below). It is the need to “adopt and adapt”, i.e. you will find it helpful to adopt good teaching insights from others, but you will also need to adapt them to your context and your sense of what works for you. With this caveat, let me comment briefly on my own approach.
One of the aims of the humanities is to help students develop the skills needed for critical thinking; these are skills that they should be able to take with them beyond the classroom and make use of for the rest of their lives. I aim to foster these skills mainly in two ways: through student discussion in the classroom, and through student writing. Both of these activities create a space for students to question, think, and formulate views that are informed and nuanced.
There are, of course, several ways to foster student discussion in the classroom, but one way that has worked well for me is to begin each lecture with 5-10 minutes of small group discussion based on questions given in advance in the course packet, related to the assigned readings. I then move into open discussion where I call on various students and develop the material in relation to their insights and questions. In order for this approach to work, it helps if I learn all the students’ names during the first week, and constructively build upon their comments rather than making them look bad in front of their peers (which is not to say there is no room for pointing out problems in their responses). I have found that it also fosters greater discussion when I assign students to set small groups for the duration of the semester, since this tends to facilitate a sense of group identity. Plus, you can use such groups for peer review of written assignments.
Student writing can be an important part of developing critical thinking skills. To militate against student procrastination and to create space for more in-depth thinking over a longer time period, I have sometimes used a multi-staged process for student writing assignments that runs through the semester. The details vary from course to course, but the stages might for example be: a) list of potential topics, b) proposed title, initial bibliography, and statement of progress, c) 250-300 word abstract, d) draft paper, and e) final paper. You can either give grades for each of these assignments, which is effective but time consuming, or simply deduct 5 points from the final paper grade if a given stage-assignment is not turned in. Also, I recommend commenting on the draft paper instead of on the final paper, which ensures that the students read and incorporate your suggestions, and only giving a grade on the final paper. One book that I found helpful on student writing is Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj’s The Elements of Teaching Writing (2004).
Given the importance of teaching, it is worthwhile to take steps to strengthen and document the quality of your teaching. I have made use of opportunities both inside and outside my institution to do so. For example, we are fortunate at the University of Georgia to have the Center for Teaching and Learning, CTL (see here), which supports many excellent programs that facilitate effective teaching. As mentioned at the outset, this “roadmap” represents my project for the CTL Lilly Teaching Fellows Program. I have also benefited from participating in the CTL Writing Fellows Program, which has helped me to strengthen the student writing component of my classes. If you are not at UGA, then I hope you will be able to find comparable programs offered at your university.
There are many opportunities provided by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. I have especially benefited from the Wabash Center Teaching and Learning Workshop for Pre-Tenure Religion Faculty at Colleges and Universities. I also had a “teaching tactic” published in the Wabash journal, in which I very briefly outline some aspects of student discussion in my classes (“Using Small Groups, Prepared Questions, and Key Terms”, Teaching Theology and Religion, 2011). The WabashCenter also regularly organizes teaching workshops prior to the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the AmericanAcademy of Religion (AAR). I profited from a one-day workshop on “Teaching College Introductory Religion Courses” in 2008.
One final tip: Buy some grading software! (I use Easy Grade Pro.)
Collegiality can take different forms. I do not relate to all of my departmental and university colleagues in the same way; with some I have lunch or meet up socially, with others, I talk when we pass each other in the corridors, and there are some that I see quite seldom. In every case, the key is not to force the relationship to be something it is not, but merely to help it to be a good version of whatever form it takes.
One way of contributing to the goal of relating well to your colleagues is to allow yourself to appreciate what your colleagues do. This may involve taking an active interest in their scholarship, especially if their work overlaps with your own. But it may also be limited to the insights that you gain from personal conversations with them. Here, the point is that you remain open to learning from them and gaining a better idea of what they contribute to the department and university. Conversely, it is essential that you avoid the all-too-common inclination to think or signal that what you do is important whereas what others do is not, since this both undermines the intellectual integrity of your department and university, and negatively impacts your relationship to your colleagues.
It is my hope that this document will prove helpful to various people at various stages of the process of becoming a New Testament scholar. On the one hand, I have not sought to minimize the challenging and uncertain character of this vocational path, because I think it is desirable that those who aspire to become New Testament scholars have some sense of what they are getting into. Indeed, with a view to my own experience, I have tried to point out the intensity of work and personal stress that will likely accompany many stages of the process. On the other hand, I hope that I have also conveyed that this vocation is stimulating and intellectually rewarding, and can lead to many enjoyable moments as you dive into ancient texts or grapple with new ways of thinking. The vocation has much to offer, both for those who end up teaching in the sphere of academia and for those who make use of the transferable skills they have obtained in other spheres of life.