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About Graduate Studies: A Blast from the Past

Two days ago someone asked me about doing graduate studies.  He had a master’s degree and was wondering about whether to do a PhD.  I told him that if he could imagine doing something else with his life, he probably should do so.  Doing a PhD is just too painful.  It’s long (in my field it typically takes about 6-8 years *after* doing a Masters; lots of students take longer), it’s really hard, it’s really painful, and there’s no guarantee of a job when you ‘re finished.  If it’s your passion, and you can’t imagine doing anything else, you should do it (I told him).  But otherwise … not so much.

Looking back over old blog posts, I see that I talked about graduate studies almost exactly four years ago today.  Here is what I said then:


I teach one undergraduate and one graduate course a semester. Teaching undergraduates is a passion of mine. I love doing it. These are nineteen year olds who are inquisitive, interested, and interesting. I enjoy lecturing to a crowd like that, figuring out what can make complicated material intriguing and compelling, keeping them attentive, helping them understand such important topics Some of my colleagues find teaching undergraduates a real chore; others find it very difficult. I find it to be a pleasure and it comes naturally to me. So I’m very lucky about that.

What is really HARD, though I enjoy it intensely too, is teaching graduate students. The graduate student seminar is a very focused experience. A seminar usually last three hours (meeting once a week) and it involves an intense pouring over texts in the original ancient languages (Greek, for my classes), discussion of heavy-hitting scholarship, critique of students’ work, and so on.

But even though it’s hard, it is very rewarding.  And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that can substitute for….

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My “Preparation” to Teach in a Secular Research Institution
Background to a Different View of the Afterlife: The Maccabean Revolt



  1. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  April 23, 2017

    I have learned things from undergraduates about matters unrelated to what I am teaching when it comes up in discussion or interaction outside of class. I learn about matters related to the course if it intersects with students’ life experiences which I don’t share. This happens occasionally with international students in particular, and on matters related to the Middle East with student veterans who have seen things in Iraq and Afghanistan that I have not.

  2. epicurus
    epicurus  April 23, 2017

    Are Phd programs at evangelical protestant schools as rigourous as what you’ve just described? If they are, I’m mystified as to how some of their “scholars” seem to be so freewheeling with data and evidence. I suppose to answer my own question, it probably depends on which evangelical school.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2017

      Yes, different schools are different in their demands and expectations.

  3. epicurus
    epicurus  April 23, 2017

    I received an undergraduate degree in Philosophy many years ago and occasionally toy with going back sometime for a masters. But a Phd? No way. I had 3 friends who did and it was total hell for them, with only one actually getting to teach full time. The others wound up in unrelated fields and are still struggling today.

  4. Avatar
    ask21771  April 23, 2017

    How many disciples do you believe think they saw Jesus after his death

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2017

      Well, my guess is that it was at least Peter, Paul, and Mary.

  5. Avatar
    mjt  April 23, 2017

    You’ve mentioned that a lot of the undergrad students you teach come from conservative Christian backgrounds. In your graduate level courses, are any of your students conservative in their views of the bible? If so, does that present any difficulties?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2017

      Yes, sometimes. And yes, sometimes. It completely depends on the student and his/her willingness to engage in serious historical analysis.

  6. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  April 24, 2017

    I agree with your beginning point. I, too, tell young people that if they cannot imagine life without a doctorate, then go for it. Otherwise, don’t even consider it. Certainly, do not approach the doctorate as a good way to get a better job. It is not that. It is also not like their previous experience with school. It is much more like an apprenticeship with classwork. A doctorate is for learning to do research, and you must learn by actually doing research under the direction of an expert. As with any apprenticeship, you begin by doing scutwork in support of the expert’s research, and then you slowly learn the things that permit you to work closer and closer to the heart of the design issues. At the end, if you are successful, you are able to design your own research.

  7. Avatar
    Seeker1952  April 24, 2017

    That sounds like excellent advice but do you think that the rigors are really necessary and/or healthy? Couldn’t there be a better way of doing this that lets a person have a more well-rounded life–even if the resulting scholars are not quite so sharply honed?

    My daughter is in the 5th year of a 6 year residency in plastic surgery (at Wake Forest by the way). She works 72 hour weeks for very little money. Fortunately, she is not only very bright but also has a very healthy personality that cannot only cope with the demands but also keep things in perspective and enjoy life. And for her there will certainly be a big financial payoff. But I’m not sure she’d do it again. For example, I’m not sure she’d advise others to undertake becoming a plastic surgeon.

    Plus I don’t have any grandchildren–except for an Australian Shepherd.

    I guess if there are enough passionate people out there that can thrive on the demands, then they deserve the opportunity even if there might be others who have equal ability but want a more well-rounded life. And I imagine that almost everyone who makes it through the program and gets a decent teaching/research position would say that it was worth it and that they’re glad they did it. But I still think there must be a better way even though you’re right that having the passion is what justifies it and makes it work.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2017

      I don’t see a way around it if you want the most highly qualified people to be the professors.

  8. Avatar
    nazam44  April 25, 2017

    I began pursuing Biblical Studies late in life and, finally, decided to go ahead with MA studies. Previously, I had gained knowledge simply by reading books over the years. I’m now almost done with my MA, hoping to gain a distinction. The course has given me very broad knowledge, ranging from applying different methodological approaches to the Jewish Bible, reading about Second Temple Judaism and its literature, to NT studies (historical Jesus, the so called New Perspective on Paul, NT Canon, interpretation etc). Not being a language genius, I decided to focus on one language at a time – Greek. I’ll be taking a course on Hebrew shortly upon completing my MA (and will also be taking up courses on reading academic German and French).

    Though I’ve started out late, I’m still in my 30s and am very motivated to pursue a PhD. Here in the UK, it doesn’t take us 7 or 8 years to do so (as I’m sure you know).

    My question is, I’m very intent upon entering academia and working in this field. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices in order to go ahead with the MA. Yet throughout I’ve been hearing how it is virtually impossible to secure jobs in this field. That’s very demotivating. Is there really no light at the end of the tunnel?

    I also feel at times that there is perhaps hope only for those who can meet some of the ridiculously high demands: from the outset knowing 2 or 3 ancient languages, knowing german and french….

    For those of us who do want to work in this field and who love this subject, I hope you can provide some balancing comments!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2017

      Yes, I’m afraid the job market has remained very tight. But that means that the qualifications/demands are not going to slacken, at all. In my field it’s just the reality of things: if you want to be a NT scholar, you absolutely have to have Greek and probably Hebrew and/or Latin, Coptic, or Syriac, along with French and German. No way around it! Those who simply can’t do this kind of language work have lots of other academic options open to them. In some fields — e.g. the Religions of America, or Religion and Culture, etc. — there is a completely different set of expectations. But if you work with ancient texts, you have to be able to read the ancient languages!

  9. Avatar
    Crossdal  April 25, 2017

    I am finishing up the religions portion of my interdisciplinary undergrad degree and I have not intended on continuing formal religious studies. I left church before I began my schooling and I do not foresee a return to religious practices. My hope and plan is to pursue psychology in grad school and eventually work with trauma through research and clinical work, mostly clinical. Still, even as I prepare to set all of this behind me and move on, I feel a strong desire to continue researching religious history. My latest introductory investigation into Zoroastrianism is beyond interesting. I love the complications of trying to figure out who was there (religious and political groups) and all of their connections to one another. I feel the same need to unravel that knot that I feel whenever I come across a literal knot (It’s been a fun pastime of mine since I was very little). So my question is, how can someone who does not wish to study this for professional reason continue to study it. I guess I am just a bit sad about the prospect of giving this up, even as I am excited about beginning a path that will allow me to actually help hurting people in practical and meaningful ways. The only place I know of that would have allowed me to do both simultaneously was within the church, but they would have discouraged the research I am interested in. My disagreements with church doctrines are too great for me to ever be able to work with them again, and my first priority is to build a life where I am helping people. So, do you have any insight on how I can continue researching ancient religions in depth without pursuing it in grad school? (Sorry that was long)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2017

      Sure, it’s actually quite easy. Simply read massively in the field on your own. Thousands of fantastic books and articles out there, and the more you read the better you’ll know the scholarship. Maybe start by watching some of the Great Courses in areas you’re interested in, and use the bibliographies they provide to get you started. (Or read textbooks in the fields and use their bibliographies)

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 26, 2017

    It really does sound like a huge amount of work. I wonder how all of the students feel about students getting doctorates in the field in less rigorous programs.

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