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Cambridge vs. Oxford New Testament/Ethics


JDD
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Hello friends,

As I begin to research possible paths for PhD studies in New Testament or Christian Ethics - the 3 year programs offered by Oxford and Cambridge grow more and more appealing. Before I go any further, I'd like to state the common drawbacks mentioned frequently on this forum:

  • UK Phd's are less respected and therefore less helpful in landing a tenure-track job at a large institution in the US
  • UK PhD's are shorter because they offer less support/oversight in the dissertation process and because they generally don't require candidates to teach or assist in teaching
  • Uk PhD's are predatory toward US students who can take out federal loans to finance their education, this also has the effect of "lowering the bar" in terms of competition to get accepted
  • UK PhD's are often within divinity schools that skew conservative, which could have adverse effects on one's dissertation

Please feel free to add to this list, as relevant. With that out of the way, I'd like to know which American students a UK PhD is right for. I am a moderate, pastoral minded student who would be equally happy in parish ministry as a small Christian college. Basically, I have no desire to seek out a tenure-track position at an elite university. Realistically, I'd teach part time at a small university and pastor a church full time in addition.

Does this make me an eligible candidate for PhD studies in a place like Cambridge or Oxford? Also - are there any major differences between these two programs that I should be aware of?

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If you go in aware of all of this, I think you're perfectly equipped and ready. The application process for either school is tedious and (jokingly) pretty much consists of writing a publishable paper.

My extremely limited interactions with Cambridge and Oxford grads has me believing that Cambridge alums are better off. I can't really speak job prospects since I haven't had extensive conversations in that realm but Cambridge alums always spoke highly of the program and social atmosphere that helped them survive. As a whole, they've just seemed happier.

That said, if you follow QS Rankings for 'Theology, Divinity, and Religious Studies,' which Harvard loves to cite from, then Oxford is considered the better of the two options, though barely. A potential third option would be Durham (they sometimes out rank Oxford and Cambridge, field dependent) but they're even more conservative than Oxford or Cambridge.

Anecdotal: I've noticed that Cambridge tends to interview more than Oxford. This tells me that they're aware that the application process does not provide the best glimpse of you as a candidate and want to see you in person (actually it's usually over Skype but you catch my drift!). They want to ask you questions during the interview and see not so much your answer but have you explain how you got there.

As far as differences, I've only visited both schools as a someone on vacation. I've never set foot inside a classroom or spent any extended time talking to faculty. From a purely name drop perspective, saying Oxford turns more heads than Cambridge, IMO.

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As pathos said, you are aware of the potential, or perhaps inevitable problems, so I suppose you can apply and see what happens. Your best bet is to find current US students/recent alums in both programs and ask them; beyond actual specifics, you will get closer to the reality than here. Either degree will get you high fives in a local cafe, but, as already said, neither has much hope of getting you a tenure track job at many (most?) research universities (including those well outside the R1) in North America.

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Your second point needs a modification. The programs are shorter not necessarily for the reasons you state but mostly because there is no coursework and no qualifying/comprehensive exams in these programs. You're just researching and writing the dissertation. The lack of coursework/exams is also one of the primary reasons it's difficult to get a tenure track job in the U.S. from a U.K. program. U.S. departments don't trust that U.K. programs produce thoroughly trained scholars who are prepared to teach a wide range of undergraduate and/or graduate courses. Courses/exams don't guarantee that, but they make it more likely. That's not to say there aren't great scholars with U.K. Ph.Ds--but they've had to prove themselves through publishing.

One more thing: The lack of oversight and support, arguably, makes the dissertation process actually a bit longer than it would be in a U.S. institution, where someone writing a dissertation in theology/philosophy of religion, usually takes ~18-24 months start to finish for the dissertation give or take 6 months. A diss requiring substantial archival research or field work could take a bit longer, but I think about 24 months is probably the average in religious studies.

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There are lots of good responses here already, but let me also add that the vulnerability of the job market extends pretty far beyond “large” or “top” research universities. The hiring climate in our field has shown no signs of recovery since 2008, and it isn’t poised to turn around anytime soon. Subsequently, more candidates from the most respected RS programs in the country are going after those small Christian liberal arts colleges because they might be the only options left.

 

If you intend on adjunct teaching while receiving most of your income from parish ministry, then Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, etc will probably be fine for landing an adjunct gig, especially if you have strong ties to a denomination or institution. The school that is “better” will be the one that is suited to your research interests. Look through the faculty at each school and see who’s done something on your proposed topic. If you have a topic in mind (e.g., stoicism in Paul, text criticism, Matthew and the DSS, etc), folks can probably give more specific suggestions.

 

Regarding which is more or less conservative, I know little about Cambridge and only know Durham from friends who’ve attended (there’s also a blog from American NT PhD students at Durham, if you do some googling). Oxford is a cool town but the faculty’s interest in, for example, Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles should demonstrate the sizable gap between these schools and good US programs. And I can’t emphasize enough that any quality US program will *pay* you to be there, while the reverse is true in Britain.

 

FWIW, I’ve heard—but don’t know for certain—that Oxford and Cambridge are increasingly admitting US applicants into one-year MPhil degrees, the successful completion of which gives the faculty the option to admit a student into the PhD/DPhil.

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If your goal is to enter the pastorate, why do you want to go into these programs, given the enormous cost they will entail? Don't get me wrong, I am in favor of pastor's having as much education as possible, but the intense research nature of PhD programs is not always easily transferable to a local ministry context. If you are not yet serving in a pastoral role, this will become even more difficult. 

If you are going to have to take out loans to pay for three years of study and living in the UK, will you be able to pay them off of a ministry salary (in addition to whatever student loans you may currently have)? 

If your only role you want to have in the academy is an adjunct at a small Christian college, then, depending on the school, your role as a pastor in the community may be of more benefit to you than the name Cambridge or Oxford on your CV. Moreover, some schools are developing more academically minded D.Min. degrees designed to better integrate higher levels of scholarship into local ministry (I'm thinking of Northern's D.Min. in New Testament Context led by Scot McKnight). These would allow study and full-time pastoral responsibilities to coincide. I do not want to presume your context, but this is an option in some circles to lead to adjuncting while retaining a full-time ministry position. 

That being said, you seem aware of the downsides and the cost of UK programs. However, as you claim a pastoral focus, I would urge a cautious consideration of three years of an intense study in a non-MDiv setting as related to your overall goals. 

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Thanks for the input, all!

@dmueller0711

Very insightful questions, I appreciate you taking the time to respond. Concerning cost of attendance, I wouldn't be willing to take out loans of any type for any PhD program, UK or US. To your point, it simply doesn't make sense to attend an inferior program when superior programs are free. This means that I'd either depend on scholarships, denominational support, or my wife's income. Still, this is a very important point of consideration.

In terms of D.Min vs. PhD - I am certainly open to the D.Min, however, as you implied there aren't many academically rigorous D.Min's out there that would put me in consideration for even adjunct positions. My impression is that only homiletics/pastoral-care/formation faculty are qualified with D.Mins and that isn't even true of all schools. Moreover, those aren't the fields I hope to go into. 

I believe I was unclear about my academic career goals before. My hope is to go into a small Christian university setting for the purpose of supplementing my income as a pastor. I don't really care about being published or taking on research, nor do I have any illusions of getting a tenure-track position. Adjunct is fine, so long as the pay is adequate. I just really love to teach and interact with students.

Because one cannot assume they will be successful even with a top tier US PhD, it feels a bit futile trying to compete with the most competitive applicants in the world for admission to a program that may or may not be of genuine benefit to my career. If I decide not to apply to UK schools, I'll probably focus much of my effort on schools (derogatorily referred to as second tier) like Baylor, SMU, TCU etc. considering I'd like to move back to my home state for school if it makes no difference to those hiring - seeing as how "if you're not first [tier] you're last"

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It's good that you're addressing these issues now. If you are not willing to pay and your interests are pastoral leaning, then I honestly don't think you have a chance at any of the top UK schools (for a doctorate). I could very well be wrong here, so please someone correct me if you think differently. But, perhaps more to the point, none of the UK programs you have mentioned are meant to prepare you for your primary interest (pastoral work) and actually will not help you much if at all for your secondary interest (teaching). There is plenty of good, funded programs in the US that suit your two interests, but they are not PhDs, but rather DMins, ThDs, and the like. For better or worse, the latter are less often offered at tier 1 schools (and if they are, those degrees can often require very different things of their students), so you may be left applying to those outside.

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@sacklunch

Thanks for the input - but my concern is that the D.Min programs that would prepare me for the pastorate aren’t sufficient credentials to land even an adjunct position at a small Christian school. Am I wrong? Should I not try to have my cake and eat it too?

From the advice here, I’m left to believe that - regardless of my professional aspirations - the best option is to attend the most academically competitive program in admitted to. At the very least, this would leave open the possibility for work at a university, and my church would probably make do either way.

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5 minutes ago, JDD said:

@sacklunch

Thanks for the input - but my concern is that the D.Min programs that would prepare me for the pastorate aren’t sufficient credentials to land even an adjunct position at a small Christian school. Am I wrong? Should I not try to have my cake and eat it too?

From the advice here, I’m left to believe that - regardless of my professional aspirations - the best option is to attend the most academically competitive program in admitted to. At the very least, this would leave open the possibility for work at a university, and my church would probably make do either way.

Getting an academic job, PhD or DMin, is going to be hard and likely require multiple rejections (really they just never respond to your application). That said, most schools and particularly small, rural ones, don't put as much weight into scrutinizing potential adjunct faculty. Warm body? Check. Masters degree in something directly relevant to the course? Check. Not a complete asshole to where students complain a lot? Check. I'm being a bit silly but it's somewhat true. You're doing the work that they do but a lot cheaper and it frees them up to do research and/or teach seminars on things they prefer. As long as you're a passionate and knowledgeable teacher, it's really only your bank account that suffers.

You might need to land a job at the local community college, volunteer teaching at a community center, etc to have some kind of experience but it's absolutely doable! Landing jobs at CCs and small colleges is far more about who you know - getting that Dean/Department Chair to directly pull your app and skip over everyone else is key. It's a shit game but adjunct positions don't play by the same rules as a tenure-track position.

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@xypathos

This is very very helpful - thank you. I believe I have brought a ministry question to an academic board, and that is my own fault.

I hope I haven’t belittled those gunning for tenure-track academic positions. It is a noble task, but it isn’t for me and so I don’t feel as though my schooling should be indentical to theirs.

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2 hours ago, JDD said:

@xypathos

I hope I haven’t belittled those gunning for tenure-track academic positions. It is a noble task, but it isn’t for me and so I don’t feel as though my schooling should be indentical to theirs.

Oh no worries! I'm a priest that had some questions I didn't feel were sufficiently answered so I went back to work on a PhD. I fully intend to go back to being a priest when this is over with. I intend to try and grab an adjunct position at the local SLAC or CC but if not, I'll live - I didn't do this for a job.

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One option between a D.Min and a Ph.D in theology would be a Ph.D in practical theology. I know someone currently working as a full time pastor who is also pursuing a Ph.D in practical theology at one of the Scottish unis (Aberdeen or Edinburgh). He's only had to visit campus a few times during the couple years he's been working on it. The problem with a D.Min is that it's a professional degree, not a research degree. Yes, D.Mins do some kind of research project for their dissertation, but the focus is on ministry as a practice; therefore, they tend not to be very theoretical. A Ph.D in practical theology is the more academically rigorous version of the D.Min in a lot of respects, e.g. engaging difficult theologians (Barth, etc.) in their work, whereas a D.Min might engage Eugene Peterson or Rick Warren or some such person. (No disrespect to either.)

D.Mins do get college level teaching jobs--but they're mostly at small bible colleges and conservative Christian SLACs where the person usually did their undergraduate degree. It's just a completely different world from the rest of academia. There's very little chance that more well-respected institutions would hire a D.Min even as an adjunct, let alone in a tenure track position.

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The above comments are spot on. You are overestimating the credentials of the average adjunct. Having a doctorate period will qualify you for such work at many small colleges, especially CC. As for your cake-eating-it-too: tier 1 PhD and pastoral/adjunct prep. No, honestly, I don't think that's realistic--but see marX's rec. above for other options.

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