Earning a PhD Degree from a UK University without Leaving the United States
R. Alan Streett (PhD, University of Wales)
©Richard Alan Streett
Senior Research Professor of Biblical Exegesis
Are you interested in working on a PhD in theology or biblical studies from a UK university without moving to Great Britain? The openings are limited and you need to know the options and the application process. Earning a postgraduate degree (as it is called in the UK) is rigorous and usually takes approximately 4‒6 years part-time. These are not “seminary” PhDs, but “university” degrees that prepare you for a career as an academic.
I. Schools That Welcome American Students
Here are eight universities in the UK that work with American students. One may be a match for you.
1. Nazarene Theological College validated by University of Manchester
2. Cliff College validated by University of Manchester
3. Spurgeon’s College validated by the University of Manchester
4. St Johns Nottingham validated by University of Chester
5. Wales Evangelical School of Theology validated by the University of Chester
6. Highland Theological College validated by University of Aberdeen
7. London School of Theology validated by University of Middlesex
8. Trinity College validated by the University of Bristol
II. The Validation System
You work with the first school mentioned, but receive your degree from the latter school. This is known as the validation system in the UK. So your initial step is to get on the first school's website. Second, go to the "postgraduate" link. Read about the PhD application process, etc. Third, contact via email the professor in your desired field. Fourth, tell him/her of your research interests. It is best to be specific. Unlike American dissertations that are often topic-driven, most UK dissertations are "thesis-driven." That means you state a proposition or thesis and then seek to prove it. For example, my thesis was: “The Lord’s Supper during the first century CE was an anti-imperial practice.” Fifth, ask the professor if s/he would be interested in supervising such a project. Sixth, make formal application to the validating school and the degree awarding university. Seventh, realize that if accepted, you will likely be classified as an “MPhil/PhD” student. You will be reclassified as PhD student after one year if your academic progress is deemed worthy. The school year in the UK usually begins in October.
III. Bypassing the Validation Process
Recently, a few UK schools have begun working directly with American postgraduate students, thus bypassing the validation process. They include the Universities of Durham, Wales, Edinburgh, Exeter, Gloucestershire, and Birmingham. The University of Aberdeen offers both options. You can work through Highland Theological College or work directly with Aberdeen itself.
There two advantages of working directly with a university. First, by eliminating the middleman, you can cut the cost of your education. Second, you are more likely to work under the supervision of a world class scholar.
IV. Choosing the Right School
Are you interested in earning your degree from a top tier theology department or are you more concerned with having a good relationship with your supervisor? The answer to this question may guide your choice of a school.
1. Each department in a UK university is ranked according to its academic excellence. Rank is based on the quality of research (books, peer reviewed articles, etc.) being produced by each faculty, which is evaluated by scholarly panels using objective standards. The latest ranking—the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)—can be found on the internet. In 2014, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) will replace RAE.
2. Since you will be working with the same supervisor for a half dozen years, it is important to find one with whom you can work. This means finding a supervisor who 1) likes Americans, 2) is available to answer your questions, 3) has patience working with someone unfamiliar with the British system, 4) is as concerned with your success as much as s/he is with their own publication schedule, 5) is an encourager, 6) recommends resources, 7) reads your chapters and offers a critical evaluation, and 8) guides you through each step of the PhD process.
V. Research is the Name of the Game
These are not online education degrees, but research degrees. You receive the same degree as those who reside on campus. You work with the same supervisors, write the same quality thesis (dissertation), and orally defend your thesis (a process known as a viva voca). But instead of being on campus, you meet regularly with your supervisor through Skype, email, etc. Some schools require you to visit campus once a year or once every two years, but others do not. Many meetings between students and supervisors take place at the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference, which convenes in a different American city each year.
Be forewarned, a UK research degree is not for the faint of heart. As one Oxford scholar said, “American PhD programs are a mile wide and an inch deep. UK programs are an inch wide and a mile deep.” This means American PhD graduates are more generalists and UK PhD graduates are more specialists. American PhD programs are more structured and require a student to take classes in a variety of subjects (usually 48 credits hours), plus write a dissertation. UK PhD programs require a student to spend the equivalent amount of time conducting narrowly focused research toward the thesis. There are no classroom requirements, even for full-time students who live on campus.
VI. The Financial Costs
Typically, UK programs do not offer financial assistance to Americans. So expect to pay the full tuition, which can run as high as 6,000 British pounds per year. Additional costs might include travelling expenses to SBL cities and/or to Great Britain: airfare, lodging, meals, and land transportation, etc.
VII. The Thesis
You should only submit your thesis after your supervisor believes your research is PhD worthy. The degree-granting university will then select two scholars to critically read your thesis and examine you on its content. One will be an internal reader from the university. The other will be an external reader from another UK university. One will likely be an expert in your area of research and both will be scholars in your particular discipline (NT, theology, church history, etc.). A date will be set and you will meet for the viva voca, which will involve a 2-3 hour period of intense questioning to determine if you can defend your thesis and elaborate on your research. At the end of the viva voca, you will step outside the room while the examiners discuss the thesis and your responses. You will be called back into the room and given the verdict. Your thesis will be assigned one of the following grades: 1) Pass “as is” without need for revisions or further clarifications; 2) Pass with minor revisions which must be completed and submitted within three months; 3) Pass with significant revisions, which must be completed and submitted within one year; 4) Major rewrite, which must be completed and submitted within two years along with taking another viva voca; 5) Not acceptable or the possible award of MPhil instead of PhD. Your goal is to receive one of the first three evaluations.
VIII. Is a UK PhD Program for You?
Over the past few years, I have recommended four American students for UK PhD programs who were accepted and matriculated into the programs. However, only one earned a degree. The others dropped out. All were smart enough to complete the program, but they lacked either self-confidence and/or self-discipline, or else, faced time constraints. So, count the cost before you apply.
If you are a self-starter, inquisitive, thick skinned, academically able to do original research, have a history of meeting deadlines, work well with a supervisor, and do not get discouraged easily, you may be the ideal candidate.
An American or UK PhD program—which is best for you? That depends on your goals, aptitude, interest, personality, work schedule, finances, etc. The Lord will guide you in your selection of the right doctoral program.
If you have any further questions, feel free to write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.