Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway! Special Holiday Edition

Forget Black Friday! Who needs to wait in long lines for cheap stuff?

Forget cyber Monday! Who cares what deals you can buy online?

I know what my readers want. They want free books just for the asking!

So, in honor of the holidays I will be giving away a book each Friday until December 16th. That means that if you are a reader of this blog and either want a book for yourself or to put under the tree for someone special, you have three chances to win before Christmas (Xmas). And, I am going to tell you in advance which ones I am giving away in the order you can expect them.

December 16th - N.T. Wright - The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003).

So check back each week and put you name in the drawing and put a book under your tree (they are much to thick for stockings). Winners will be selected on the Sunday following the Friday the book is posted. As always, the winner has five days to claim their book once their name has been posted. All unclaimed books go back on the shelf.

In the mean time, here is the blurb for Witherington's book.

All too often, argues Ben Witherington, the theology of the New Testament has been divorced from its ethics, leaving as isolated abstractions what are fully integrated, dynamic elements within the New Testament itself. As Witherington stresses, "behavior affects and reinforces or undoes belief."

Having completed commentaries on all of the New Testament books, a remarkable feat in itself, Witherington now offers the first of a two-volume set on the theological and ethical thought world of the New Testament. The first volume looks at the individual witnesses, while the second examines the collective witness.

The New Testament, says Ben Witherington, is "like a smallish choir. All are singing the same cantata, but each has an individual voice and is singing its own parts and notes. If we fail to pay attention to all the voices in the choir, we do not get the entire effect. . . . If this first volume is about closely analyzing the sheet music left to us by which each musician's part is delineated, the second volume will attempt to re-create what it might have sounded like had they ever gotten together and performed their scores to produce a single masterful cantata."

What the New Testament authors have in mind, Witherington contends, is that all believers should be conformed in thought, word and deed to the image of Jesus Christ--the indelible image.

Leave your name below and good luck to you all.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thoughts on Applying for a PhD in Biblical and Theological Studies

Several times a year a student will make an appointment with me to discuss what it takes to earn a PhD degree. These are often students who enjoy learning and the academic setting and would like to continue on to the next level. I usually begin by asking them why they would like a PhD and why they believe they need one. After a few more preliminary questions I lay out for them what is involved in getting the degree. At some point in the conversation they begin to realize that this is not like earning a second, slightly more advanced masters degree. I then usually say something like “there is a reason they call it a terminal degree.” By the end of our 30 minute meeting many of those students leave my office wide-eyed at what it takes to earn a PhD and convinced it is not for them. This is a completely different degree with all kinds of new expectations and demands.

While I may sound like the fount of all wisdom to the students who visit my office, I remember being in the same situation. Not only did I not know what was required to earn a PhD, I had no idea what a PhD was. Honestly, I knew that professors were called “Dr” but I had never stopped to ask why (nor did I care). I entered my masters program with no intention of going beyond that degree. It was a miracle that I had made it that far in my academic pursuits and even wanted to go that far. School and I did not have a very positive experience. So when I entered a graduate program and began to meet people with PhDs I was introduced to a whole new aspect of the academic world.

Over time, however, I began to realize the need for a PhD, which in turn birthed the desire. I was fortunate to have some professors who not only encouraged me to move forward, but also provided some helpful guidance and contacted their own friends and mentors at the institutions where I was hoping to enroll. Long story short, I was accepted at the University of Durham and completed the PhD in 2002.

Ever since I have tried to provide my students with helpful advice as they seek to follow the same path. After eight years of teaching I have seen four of my students enter PhD programs and one a ThM. I am hoping and praying that they will all finish successfully. When I do find a student that I think will be successful and should apply to a program I provide some suggestions that might help them. Perhaps you will find them helpful if you are considering applying for a program.

Have a 5 to 10 year plan

Getting a PhD takes time. The average program in North America lasts five years (three years course work, two years writing). In the UK the program is slated as three years, but often takes four (or more). If you are in, say, the second year of a master’s program then you are at least two years away from entering a PhD program and at least five from finishing. That is at least seven years. And if you hope to find a job you will need to build in a one to two year buffer to find that job after completing the degree. Most people do not walk out of a program into a job. I started my master’s degree when I was 25 and started my first teaching job when as I was 35.

Take the Kaplan GRE class

If you are applying to programs in the USA (Canada?) you will need to take the GRE exam. I am not convinced that this is always the best policy since taking this type of exam is not necessarily an indicator of success, but that is the way things are. In order to prepare for this exam students will buy preparation books that help them to learn vocabulary, brush up on their math, and sharpen their analytical skills. This is what I did and my scores were satisfactory (my math skill was my lowest, which is why my wife has the business degree). But over the last few years I have had several students take the Kaplan GRE preparation course. This is not a way to cheat. The GRE is a particular kind of test, one you will most likely never see again. The Kaplan course helps you learn how to take the exam so that your score correctly reflects your knowledge of the subjects rather than your inability to figure out how the exam is written. At least two of my students have taken the GRE using the preparation book they bought off Amazon and then took the exam a second time after taking the Kaplan course. In both cases their scores increased dramatically. The course will cost about $1200. I know that is a lot for a student, but consider it an investment. A good score will not only help increase your chances of getting into a program, it could also help to earn you a scholarship.

Learn the Languages

Most PhD programs, especially in biblical and theological studies, require that you know a number of ancient and modern languages. Make sure that you learn your Hebrew and Greek in your masters program. Take advance level courses and, if possible, sign up for courses and directed studies that require you to use and advance your languages skills. And if possible learn at least German. Here at Ashland we offer two terms in Theological German. The course won’t have you ordering schnitzel and a beer at your favorite German restaurant, but it will help you to read Bultmann and others. If you can learn French do that as well. But I would also recommend learning a language like Spanish. The population of Spanish speakers (at least in North America) is growing and knowing another modern language will only help you, especially when you are looking for a job. I learned German before I entered my PhD program. The advantage of having some ability in the language before beginning the program is that it will reduce the pressure on you once you are enrolled. It will be one less thing you have to learn.

Be careful where you go, remember you want to get a job someday

Students usually already have an idea of where they want to enroll for a PhD. Since I work at a seminary the students often are thinking about other seminaries or denominationally affiliated institutions. That is fine if you only ever want to work in schools associated with that particular denomination. But if you are hoping to increase your employability beyond your own denomination then I recommend going to a university where denominational ties are either weaker or non-existent. Remember, there will be a lot of PhDs applying for about 50 jobs a year and you want to attract the attention of as many of them as possible. On the flipside, not going to a program sponsored by or associated with a denomination can also hurt your employability. Many schools require that their professors be a member of denomination “X” if they want to teach there. Consequently, a PhD from the denomination’s school is more attractive to them. So know what kind of institution you hope to teach at and plan accordingly.

Who you work with can be just as important as where you go

Simply saying that got your degree from the PhD program at Ivory Tower University does not mean that you will get a job. Sometimes it matters who you work with in that program. Don’t simply choose a school based on its name. Who is teaching there? What are their areas of research and publication? How can this person help you to advance in your own academic career? Once you have isolated a dozen or so potential mentors write them a short email, introduce yourself, and explain you research interests and your hopes for the future. Ask them about the program at their institution and whether or not it is the place for you. Keep the email to no more than a paragraph or two. Long emails from strangers are not always the kind of things professors like to find in their inbox. Some of the people you write will answer within a few days to a few weeks (they are busy). Some will never answer you. Take that as a hint. Remember you need to work with this person for several years and you want to finish. So, when possible, try to find a person who will at least respond to you and perhaps would be a good mentor

Apply to a number of schools

Finally, once you have taken your GRE exam, learned your languages and located some potential mentors, you need to make application. Do not apply to only two or three schools. The competition is fierce for these programs; some only take ten or less new students a year. I suggest that if you are serious about getting the degree that you apply to as many schools as possible. I once had a student apply to twenty different schools. A bit excessive, perhaps, but in the end he had both acceptance and rejection letters, which means that he had the opportunity to choose from the acceptance letters where he wanted to go. True, the application fees can add up. But, if you apply to two schools and don’t get in you are not only out the application fee, you are stuck at your current degree level and your career has stalled. On the other hand, if you apply to ten schools and get accepted by two or three you are then in the position to choose and can move ahead in your career. Yes the process was more expensive, but in the end your investment got you where you want to be.

There is much more that I could say. And then of course there is the other whole topic of actually completing the PhD program successfully once you are enrolled. But if you are getting ready to or thinking about applying, then the above should help. I would be interested to read any other advice that others may have for those interested in getting a PhD. Leave a comment below.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Journey to Christmas

Brian Leport alerted me to this video series on Facebook. It is called the Journey to Christmas a series hosted by Craig Evans that will air this Saturday evening at 7:00pm in Canada on CTS.

According to the the web site this is a four part (four hour) series in which Evans and others takes a group of five people to Israel and learn about the Christmas story. Here is the the trailer.

If you are unable to watch the show (I am not sure if or when might air in the USA) there are a number of clips available that are taken from the series. Simply go to the click the "experts" tab and then below each "expert" a related video will appear. Topics covered include synagogues, Herod the Great, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, to name a few.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Inking the Deal: How to be a successful academic publisher

A Ph.D. is an odd animal. It is the degree required by most institutions if you want to teach. So you get the degree to teach at a school, but often the requirement to keep that job is that you become a regularly published author. Few Ph.D. programs prepare you for either of these tasks. For instance, I am unfamiliar with a Ph.D. program that offers seminars on effective teaching methods. Instead, seminars are research focused to help you write that all important dissertation so you can get the degree and then get the job. The result? God help the poor students who sit in a class being “taught” by a newly minted PhD who has little to no teaching experience. These professors have been taught how to research knowledge, not how to communicate it. Luckily a number of books exist to help the new professor and there has been an effort in the guild to help the new professor communicate their knowledge in an effective way.

But the PhD program also does not teach you how to develop a publishing lifestyle. Often the candidate feels like she or he is groping about in the dark, bumping up against objects, seeking to publish that first article, hopefully before he or she completes the PhD program because that may help you land that first teaching job (see the above paragraph). Often the PhD candidate or new professor will publish an article or maybe even their dissertation, but does not really have a feel for how publishing happens. Usually they are relieved that they did it, even if they are not exactly sure how.

My own success in publishing is more a result of my stumbling along and learning as I go rather than from applying words of wisdom from a mentor. I have been publishing for eight years now and think I have got the hang of how to do it. But it would have been nice to have someone showing me the way.

Recently I was recommended a book that does exactly that. Stanley E. Porter’s Inking the Deal: A Guide for Successful Academic Publishing (Baylor: 2010) should be read by everyone who wants and needs to publish in an academic field. Porter’s book is a treasure trove for the newly minted and PhD candidate alike. And he covers many of the things that I have had to learn (sometimes the hard way) on my own. Porter covers every aspect of academic publishing from the very basic to the more advanced. In 11 chapters he covers such topics as:

  • Types of Publication
  • Basic Principles of a Publishable Manuscript
  • Always Writing for Publication
  • Selecting a Publisher
  • How to construct a proposal
  • Handling Rejection
  • Handling Acceptance
  • Living a Publishing Lifestyle

The main thing that I took away from this book was the need to live a publishing lifestyle. Porter stresses that publishing happens all year, not just during a sabbatical. He provides hints for finding what to publish and where. Probably one of his best tips is to set goals. Don’t just stumble around thinking that you will publish. Set for yourself reasonable, but challenging goals that you will meet over the course of a few years. Porter recommends the five and one approach (pp.154-57). Basically, you should aim to publish a book every five years and one article or book chapter a year. This is a modest, doable goal. And it is one that I have been doing. I always try to have at least one publication a year.

So if you are working in the academic field and want/need to publish I recommend this book. It is well written and informative. Porter will guide you on the path that you need to take.

Monday, November 28, 2011

NT Wright: Simply Jesus

NT Wright has a new book. This one is titled Simply Jesus: A New vision of Who He Was, What He Did and Why He Matters (Harper One, 2011). Although I didn't attend SBL this year, I was able to have a friend pick me up a copy. The price wasn't any cheaper at SBL than Amazon, but at least I didn't have to pay for shipping.

In this book Wright claims that we are wrong about Jesus. He is going after the idea that Jesus was either (only) a social reformer or that he died so that we could go to heaven. The biggest problem with our view of Jesus, Wright argues, is that we have seriously misunderstood the kingdom of God and focused most of our focus on getting to heaven.

I started the book this weekend and hope to blog on it in the next few weeks. In the mean time, here is a pair of videos in which Wright is interviewed about the book. There is about a 30 second overlap of the first clip in the second clip, so hang on.