On 8/31/04 at 7:30 pm, the dean of BJ Seminary met with all the doctoral candidates and gave some instruction, encouragement, and advice. Obviously, this won’t be of interest to everyone, but I’ve tried to let all this counsel guide me and it may help anyone who’s in school. Re-reading it now, I see some areas where I wish I had listened better, but overall it was a great help. “Keep sound wisdom” like this, and “it will be life to your soul, and adornment to your neck. Then you will walk in your way securely and your foot will not stumble” (Prov. 3:21-23).
LEADERSHIP BY EXAMPLE
- Lead other students academically—don’t let them beat you when you take the same classes. More importantly, lead them in your spiritual walk.
A CULTURE OF DILIGENCE, HIGH ACHIEVEMENT, AND EFFICIENCY DURING COURSE WORK
- You will be a teacher of these disciplines. You have to go far beyond “good.”
- Maintain an A average.
- Pass language proficiency exams early in your program. The end of your second year of coursework is the absolute outside point for finishing your language requirements. The earlier the better.
- Give yourself a heavy course load each semester. The longer you extend your academic career the more you set yourself up for roadblocks and failure. Some providentially must elongate their academic career, but as a general rule this is the approach you want to take.
- Set priorities that assure timely completion. Don’t set extensive ministry commitments or take year-long hiatuses or multi-month summer mission trips.
MAKE INCREMENTAL PREPARATION FOR THE COMPREHENSIVE EXAMS
- Do your course work with a view toward the comprehensives.
- Gather the rest of the material needed for study in the final semester of your course work.
- Plan to invest 100–120 hours of study time before your comprehensives (the equivalent of a thoroughly prepared doctoral-level course).
- Set the dates for your exams for 45–60 days after the completion of your course work.
DISSERTATION RESEARCH AND WRITING
- Stay in town.
- This is your last academic project, not your magnum opus (think of ten thirty-page papers). This is still an academic exercise, and you need the input of your committee. You must recognize that you will have to take correction.
- Think intensely about possible topics early in your program; read widely within the framework of a few topics that interest you; talk to your professors.
- Have a specific topic by your final year.
- Plan to complete your writing and research in two years. Consistent productivity is your goal.
- Turabian will become your good friend.
- Register each semester for dissertation research, file your reports each quarter with the dean’s office, and reach the stated goals in the Guide to Doctoral Studies.
- If you have a due date for your dissertation at the end of January (Jan 15 is one of the two possible due dates), and you have just three chapters done, that’s not enough. Remember that over the Christmas break the faculty will be gone. You may not be allowed to proceed if that’s all you’ve done. Try setting a fall due date. Hankins would like to see a greater percentage of guys doing that.
- You have four semesters to register for the dissertation research class. The first time you register you must have your proposal and prospectus written. The second registration you’ll have 100 pages written. The third will bring you another 100 pages in. In the fourth semester you must wrap it all up. If you do not succeed at reaching those goals within those four semesters—and remember that you’re only required to earn three credits of dissertation research—you don’t receive credit the first time. If you haven’t caught up during the second period, you don’t get credit. If you do it the third time, you’re out of the program “We’re not going to persist in the endless delays in the writing of the dissertation.” Hankins cannot subject his faculty to that kind of deluge. Guys start feeling like they don’t want to get kicked out of the program—they don’t want that shame for the rest of their life. So they hustle up and turn in a big chunk of their dissertation at the end. The material is sub-par and takes an immense amount of time from faculty members to correct.
- Note that the Guide to Doctoral Studies is actually more specific and complete than Turabian. Note also that with the Turabian template the faculty has created, you’ve got to know how to use styles.
Advice for Doctoral Students from (Former) Doctoral Students
- Learn to say no. If something is going to delay your progress, especially in your dissertation, say no. Your dissertation is your job.
- You need large chunks of time to write. You can’t nickel and dime a dissertation.
- When the pressure is on, you can write as fast as you need to. He wrote half of his dissertation during Christmas.
- Consider early morning writing, especially if you have a family. Nobody is there to bother you or call you or stop you, and your wife doesn’t miss you because she’s still sleeping.
- Get in this mindset: The pressure is on now. Don’t wait for a friendly phone call from Dr. Hankins.
- Learn to say no.
- Pick a topic that you enjoy. If you don’t like your topic, it doesn’t matter whether you’re staying up late or getting up early. Be careful that your topic doesn’t generate too much interest, making you chase down rabbit trails that don’t fit your prospectus. (Miller did Liberation Theology and that stoked his interest in politics.)
- How do you decide what to leave out? Wrong question. Ask, “What has to be in?” Get every chapter down to one page and flesh out from there.
- Be ready for criticism. Don’t assume necessarily that all the criticism is wrong… Some of it might be right. At the same time, if you think you’ve been misunderstood grant your committee member that maybe you’re misunderstanding his comment. Just go meet face to face and talk about it. Eat lunch together.
- Figure out your bibliography forms early on so you don’t have to re-do a lot of work.
- Management: As long as you are not obsessed, time spent organizing is rarely wasted.
- Even if you spent six months doing no writing but intensely researching, if you write 2,000 words a week after that you can be done in another year.
- Hand wrote 2,000 words a week and then upped it to 4,000.
- Don’t overrun your committee’s advice. If you act too quickly, you can get so much done and just be dumping material on them. Then if they discover a major flaw, it may be systemic through a number of chapters and you may have a lot of revising to do.
On 1/18/05 at 7:04 pm we all met again and picked up where we left off.
- Don’t neglect to connect coursework and make an overall understanding of a topic.
- Don’t put minimal effort into projects. As much as lies in you, try to exhaust each topic.
- Look for potential vacuums in some subject area to allow a potential dissertation topic.
- Force yourself to think up questions for class discussion. The more you bring into class the more you will get.
- Don’t fail to gather material as you go through the program. Take the study guide for your major and put together the final product you’ll study for the comps.
- During vacation times or weekends you should take out your study sheet and see what you can add.
- For language proficiency, get it done ASAP.
- Look at what others have gathered for the comps.
- Ask other NTI guys if anything surprised them in the comps.
- Don’t neglect to consult with professors about the comps.
- Schedule your comps to give yourself a deadline and a goal.
- Schedule your orals later in the day if possible to leave the morning for final cramming.
- Don’t lose momentum after comps. Take it right into the initial research for your dissertation.
- Don’t spin your wheels on a questionable topic.
- Don’t spend too much time researching without forming an outline for writing.
- Avoid taking on a ministry or a job that will deter your progress.
- Recognize that you are where you are doing what you’re doing by divine initiative. That ought not be a source of pride, and woe to us if it is. 1 Tim 1—Paul was where he was because the grace of God was lavished upon him.
- Move as quickly as you can through your course work. Take as much summer school as possible.
- Focus your papers along the way on your dissertation topic if possible.
- Matt took one month off 40 hours a week and went down to the Greenville Library (where he didn’t know anyone) and chose one subject per day to study through.
- Learn to file effectively now.
- Choose a topic you think you’ll enjoy. Hoskinson chose assurance of salvation.
- Write full time if you can for as long as you can.
- Pray for or thank God for a supportive spouse. Having his wife to encourage him to go to the library has been a huge help.
- Don’t take on a job that you can’t leave at the office.
- Do your theology in second person. Don’t write about God but for God. Communicate to God during the entire process.
- Keep a journal if possible.
- Keep a to-do list so you don’t have to derail your train in order to do whatever you think of.
- Keep a record of journal articles for your bib.
- You may need more than the recommended 120 hours for comp study.
- For the written tests use a computer if possible.
- For oral exams, keep focused. Your questioners are out for your blood.
- For your dissertation, don’t feel discouraged if you don’t have it all figured out.
- Keep the development of YOUR THESIS in front of you. Don’t get sidetracked by something that may or may not even end up in a footnote. You don’t want to spend time studying a passage and then realize that you don’t remember why you’re studying it.
- Have confidence and humility going into your defense.
- Remember that your dissertation is not your magnum opus, your definitive life’s work.
- The dissertation process was definitely worth the pain for Troy.
- At every stage in the process—courses, comps, dissertation—you should feel as if you are in the heart of the program.
- For comprehensives, Dr. Bell’s rule of thumb is to think of your comps as a 3-hour course.
- As for choosing a dissertation topic:
- A dissertation topic should be directed toward the major area of the student’s study. Think in relationship to the majority of courses you’ve had and what you’ve been into. E.g., no archaeology.
- It should pertain to something the faculty are experts on. Having said that, you ought to be more of an expert on your topic than those on your committee.
- It should involve legitimate research. Preferably, the candidate should assemble an original collection of objective data. E.g., don’t go for something like “People in our churches ought to learn to give more willingly.” This is not a topic for research.
- There are some projects that involve time-consuming work but really very little research. E.g., investigating how the LXX translates every waw in the OT. Some topics might even work for a book, but not for a dissertation.
- The topic should possess a degree of originality. It may seem that in the area of biblical studies, original studies are impossible. But three things make this possible:
- The availability of new material to which past generations of biblical scholars did not have access.
- The existence of new problems, especially for theology matters. E.g., open theism, NPP.
- There are new emphases or interests in biblical studies. E.g., we’ve had interest in the past in literary study of the Bible.
- The dissertation should meet some need, contributing to the writer’s future ministry.
- 1 Foresight – comps and dissertation ought to be the compass in navigating your coursework. Your agenda should be set with the comps as the structure, not the coursework. Find the shortest, fastest, and straightest road to completion. You avoid greater temptations and distractions that way.
- 2 Timing – Plan out your deadlines for the comps (one mo. max after the coursework is done, or even during the last semester of your coursework). You need to set deadlines for chapter completion for your dissertation. Set page limits for each chapter and for the total.
- 3 Right expectations – For faculty availability, have a high expectation during dissertation writing time. Don’t feel as if meeting or e-mailing your committee members is an imposition on them. However, during Christmas break, don’t expect faculty to take their vacation time to look through your dissertation chapters. And unless a faculty member is on the summer school faculty, he’s under no obligation to evaluate your work. So be highly productive during the fall and the spring.
- It is not the faculty’s obligation to edit for style or grammar, or to teach you to write. That should be learned prior to your dissertation writing.
- Do timely, systematic work. We are constitutionally opposed to “core dumping.” Do not be twiddling your thumbs and then suddenly get urgent right before your deadline.