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What It Takes to be a Graduate Student

I often get questions from people who have been in a career for a while who want to know if it is feasible for them to go back to school and get a PhD in my field of New Testament/Early Christianity.  In most cases it is not feasible at all, simply because it is way too complicated and involved — and takes way more time than one would think.  Here is what I said about what being a graduate student working toward a PhD involves, from my perspective as one who teaches these students.


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 graduate teaching to expand a scholars’ own horizons and competencies.  The students are mature men and women who are devoting their lives to scholarship who already know a lot and are hungry to devour more and more knowledge.   They are interested in things that I may or may not know a lot about already (usually not, as it turns out).  And so I’m forced to learn a lot.

Here are two recent examples. Today one of my students defended her dissertation.  It was about views of martyrdom in three Christian texts/authors of the second to third centuries, Clement of Alexandria (a proto-orthodox church father of the end of the second century), the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, and the Testimony of Truth (the latter two are “Gnostic” texts from Nag Hammadi).   The defense was before five of us professors on her committee; we grilled her for an hour and a half about it, then voted whether to pass her.  (We did.)

The second was a master’s student who needed to talk today about his MA thesis.   It is on the view of demons in the neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus as it relates to views of demons in other pagan texts and in Christian Platonists of the second and third Christian centuries.

Directing work like this can’t help but…

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  1. Avatar
    Steefen  April 28, 2018

    Have you or author authors written a book that has taken more time and effort than it takes to earn a graduate degree or a doctorate degree?

    For nonfiction authors that have written books that have taken as much if not more time and effort than earning a graduate or doctorate degree, there was just that much research and processing to be done, yes?

    “Life Work” books by people with PhDs are probably greater than their master thesis or PhD thesis because the person had so much to process in their professional life that their Life Work book was a bigger hurdle than the scholarly work that prepared them for their profession.

    Any of your works come to mind? Any works of great scholars in the field come to mind?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2018

      I have good friends who have been working on their second book (after their dissertation) for more than twenty years. And no, most non-fiction books written by non-experts are not works of scholarship, and so can’t really be compared to, say, a dissertation. Different genres of literature. In my field at least you almost *never* have a person without graduate training produce a scholarly book that is published by a reputable press.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  April 30, 2018

        Scholarship is excellent. Works that are not scholarship are also excellent.

        Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife
        by Eben Alexander published by Simon & Schuster

        Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century
        by Edward Kelly published by Roman & Littlefield Publishers

        Old Souls:Compelling Evidence from Children Who Remember Past Lives
        by Tom Schroder published in the Scientific Search for Proof of Past Lives series by Simon & Schuster

        The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
        by Carl Sagan published by Ballantine Books

        So, yes, there are different types of nonfiction books written by authors who put time, effort, discerning (agreed upon positions by their peers and superiors) into their work also. It is nice to know what scholars write about, say, Heaven, but there are writers with professional degrees (graduate and post-graduate degrees) who have been in the field afterwards who also have a claim on facts.

        There are scholarly facts that readers take on and there are facts from life outside that readers take on. There are reputable press that publish books by the latter, authors who contribute to the world of readers with facts from case studies of their profession.

  2. Avatar
    Thomasfperkins  April 28, 2018

    We read about documents being written in Coptic but I rarely see a description of what Coptic is. Here is a brief explanation that might be helpful to some.

  3. Avatar
    Tempo1936  April 28, 2018

    What percentage Of your graduate students are women. It seems from looking at your debates this seems to be a male dominated profession. If true does this is seem to be changing?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2018

      For a while there the majority of my grad students were women. But for some years now that has not been the case. We admitted one student into the program next year, a woman. I would say that in New Testament studies the field is still dominated by men; but the broader field of early Christian studies has a far greater percentage of women in it — though I don’t know the numbers.

  4. Avatar
    John  April 30, 2018

    “I’m not completely sure why I’m getting so much push back on this.”

    It’s because you said this – ““Sometimes I get charged – as do other of my colleagues – of having a kind of “elitist” attitude toward scholarship, thinking that only people with PhD’s are qualified to talk about religious topics authoritatively. ” – and then suggested that discussions with people who do not meet this criteria are fruitless as you did when you answered Matt Dillahunty’s question.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2018

      I either misspoke or you misunderstood me. I’ve never said that.

      • Avatar
        John  May 1, 2018

        The first quote was from your blog above and the second was transcribed from your debate with Price. Someone also put the link up to that, in this thread.

  5. Avatar
    Apocryphile  April 30, 2018

    Amazing! The only danger of devoting your entire waking life to one small sliver of historical research would be (I would think) a commensurate dearth of knowledge of even the basics of other fields of study. If one is a scholar of some aspect of Early Christianity, but has no idea what the collapse of the wave function is, or has no understanding of and/or appreciation for relativistic time dilation (needed to make our cell phones function accurately), I’m not sure the trade-off in knowledge is worth the price(?) The physicists who devote their lives to these matters are very often not just interested in the nuts and bolts of the technology, but in deep and profound philosophical questions that go back at least as far as Plato and can be detected in early Christian Neoplatonic theology and cosmogony.

    The more knowledge one has of not just their specific field of study, but of other, seemingly diverse subjects, the more one can see the often surprising and subtle connections between them. Admittedly, it’s tough to be a polymath these days and still be able to call yourself an expert in any subject, but the hidden price to be paid for our modern professional specializations is the very real danger of missing the forest for the trees.

  6. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 1, 2018

    I’m also surprised at the amount of pushback over the issue of formal study as a prerequisite to certain levels of expertise. Reading your blog for nearly two years now has helped me appreciate how little I understand of the New Testament and how little I’ll ever understand. Like I used to tell my students who insisted they could be anything they wanted, if only they tried hard enough: I never could have played for the NBA, no matter how much I wanted it or how hard I worked because I’m 5’8, have only one good eye, and chronic asthma and arthritis.
    A good example, I think, of someone whose reputation exceeded his expertise was Eric Hoffer, “the Longshoreman Philosopher.” I recently picked up The True Believer and quickly found that, minus some worthy insights which come from lived experience and a sharp intellect, most of his assertions were based on commonsense conclusions from a wide range of reading.
    I’m sure I have offended someone, but reading books does not a scholar make.

  7. Avatar
    JesusbenAnanias  May 7, 2018

    I am currently considering applying to theology schools as well as some local MA in hist programs. I am mostly self-taught in religion. I have debated at Moody Bible Institute and at my undergrad institution. I have submitted papers to JBL and JHC. I have two papers under review at any given time. One of them is currently being considered for an anthology. I am self-taught in Sanskrit, Gujarati, and am teaching myself Koine. I have read almost all of your books, listened to all of your debates and your videos on the Church Fathers. I have been following both you and Dr.Price for six years now and consider myself more than a match for any divinity student. Do you think that we really need graduate schools in the age of Google? I’ve debated people with MAs in Biblical Studies who still think Matthew came before Mark. My paper on the historical Jesus has received more exposure than all of the tenured faculty in the history department at my undergrad institution. I was in the top 1% on Academia for a month. I think that we are denying a lot of potential scholars from breaking out into the mainstream due to society’s expectations. What are your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      Yes, I definitely think we need graduate programs in the age of Google — far more than ever.

  8. Avatar
    AfterGeometry  May 7, 2018

    From what you can tell, is the supply and demand for graduate students at any sort of equilibrium in fields like Early Christianity/New Testament Studies…? Is there enough work/research yet to be done to keep everybody busy? Or do you see a glut …too many graduate students in these fields and not enough professorships to ensure everyone a job? Curious, because I could go get a Masters…but just so many options with intriguing degree programs has left me boggled. I love this field, but if you said “Look, we have enough grad students to keep scholarship alive for decades…” I could consider other areas….thanks so much

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      There is plenty of research work to be done. The problem is that there aren’t enough colleges and universities to hire the number of PhDs that can be produced.

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