Transitioning To Doctoral Studies– Part 1

By Brian LePort

Brian LePort is a former Western Seminary student who is now working on a Ph.D. under the supervision of Drs. David Wenham and Craig A. Evans. Considering this, Transformed blog was interested in hearing from Brian about the transition from Th.M. to Ph.D.

Three years ago I graduated with my Th.M. from Western Seminary. I took one year off from school because I moved to a different state. Then I enrolled at the University of Bristol in their Religion and Theology Department, with Trinity College Bristol facilitating my research. I’ll say more about this in a subsequent post. In this post I’ve been asked to say a bit about my time as a Th.M. student. Specifically, I’ve been asked to talk a bit about the classes I’m glad I took, those I wish I could have taken, and what ever else I may do the same or differently could I go back in time. I hope that this quick thought-experiment is helpful for those who may be going down a similar path to my own.

First, I’m obviously glad to have taken classes that apply to my current research. One such example was a direct study I did with Dr. Breshears on Pauline Pneumatology. While it may not have direct application to my current research, it did help me get familiar with how early Christians talked about Spirit. As you’ll see in my next entry, that’s a central part of my current doctoral work.

Second, I’m also glad I took a couple of classes that didn’t have direct relevance. For example, I took one on the Eastern Church Fathers and one on philosophy for theology. While I’m more inclined toward New Testament studies, and the history of formative Christianity and Judaism, those two courses helped me develop my critical thinking skills while becoming self-aware of how I as a Christian think in light of how other Christians, from the patristic age to the present, have thought about important matters.

If I could go back, there are a couple of changes that I would make. First, I would try to take a theological German class. I did a directive study for theological French, but German has been more important, and it would have been nice to have more German fluency when I began my Ph.D.

Second—and this may be relevant only for those who are focusing upon biblical studies—I would have taken a class or two on subjects related to the “other Testament”. I did my Th.M. thesis on Romans, and my current work is focused on the Gospels, so I wish I would have taken classes that helped me better familiarize myself with the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. In many ways, the New Testament is commentary on the Old Testament through the lens of the Christ-Event. It sure helps to know as much about Israel’s story as possible for those interested in Jesus. The basic idea that I present in this point can be applied elsewhere. For example, if I were a Hebrew Bible student I’d make sure to give more time to the Septuagint. One may think that the best thing one can do is drill as deep as possible into the soil of their specific discipline, but this leaves us with dangerous blind spots. If someone studies the New Testament without knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, or other works of literature from the Second Temple Period, then one will have a deficient understanding of the New Testament itself. Likewise, one can’t understand the Hebrew Bible’s development and theology as well as they ought to unless they’ve observed how ancient commentators and translators understood it (i.e., those who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek). So, I’d advise to avoid becoming too myopic.

In gist, find the classes that will help you prepare for your Ph.D. research while doing your Th.M., but also make sure to take classes that will help you broaden your knowledge of the whole field into which you plan to enter. Additionally, take at least one class that stretches you as a critical thinker. This may include something with a philosophical or hermeneutical bent, such as a class that helps you think about your presuppositions and research methodology. I think this is the best way to use your Th.M. as a resource for the next stage of your studies.

 Brian Leport is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religion and Theology at Trinity College Bristol, University of Bristol. In 2009 he earned a MA (Biblical and Theological Studies) and in 2012 a Th.M. (emphasis in New Testament) from Western Seminary.

2 thoughts on “Transitioning To Doctoral Studies– Part 1

  1. I finished my Th.M. at Western in the spring and just began in a Ph.D. program a few weeks ago, and I would echo many of your comments. The biggest thing that I would change about my Ph.D. preparation would be to focus much more on learning German!

    1. While Western didn’t have anyone who could teach theological German, if I remember correctly, either Multnomah and/or George Fox did offer a class. It conflicted with my schedule, but I wish it hadn’t. So for Western Th.M. students who may be asking “how” they might get in a theological German class, I’d check the class sharing program with those two schools, assuming it remains active.

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