I had coffee with Loren Stuckenbruck the other day and part of our discussion was about comparisons between top US and UK programs, in light of his move this summer to take up teaching at Princeton Seminary in NT and Second Temple Judaism. (We will definitely miss him here!) He said he thought the top UK programs would compete well with top US programs. I told him that I can’t really speak to the issue because of my limited scope of knowledge. However, I can say that language preparation, both Modern and Ancient, seems to be better at US programs. He generally agreed but noted that most large programs in the US don’t do any Ethiopic teaching (though PTS will when he arrives), but he has had regular classes here at Durham for a while.
Besides languages, we talked about the strength of the UK seminar system (briefly, here). [This is in addition to participation in research modules.] These are subject based opportunities for invited scholars from the UK and around the world to present research (a la SBL) with time for group discussion afterwards. I generally thought all UK programs had as robust of seminars as Durham. For instance, we have weekly seminars for NT and for Patristics. The OT, Theology & Ethics, and Religion & Society seminars each meet fortnightly (i.e., every two weeks). The other seminars (e.g., Judaism in Late Antiquity, Ecclesiastical History, Catholic Theology, etc) meet on an ad hoc basis with 2-3 seminars per term. This provides a depth and breadth of research areas for students and faculty to interact.
Loren, however, corrected my opinion that this environment is representative of most UK programs. I don’t know how often seminars meet in other UK programs. But as an example Cambridge’s NT seminar only meets fortnightly, and faculty are [usually] the only ones who ask questions while research students [mainly] just observe [update: see David’s helpful clarifications in comments below]. At other institutions the whole Religion and Theology program meet in one seminar together (e.g., Nottingham). Obviously, this doesn’t allow much interaction with topics that one is even generally knowledgeable about.
Accordingly, the larger programs that have more research seminar diversity and frequency should have a stronger appeal to those worried about getting the stamp of ‘too narrow’ vs the broad preparation offered by the US system. One difference that Loren and I discussed is the need for official respondents from postgrads, which you often get in US seminars. Hopefully, this will be something Durham tries out in the future.
When it comes to choosing programs, the size often does influence what kinds of opportunities you’ll have. Larger programs tend to have more seminars and a larger availability of peers for your project. Durham has a healthy variety of subjects represented by the student body. With the healthy number of other NT students, I’ve always got somebody that I can bounce ideas off of or get help on something. Plus, spouses have a ready supply of friends. At the same time, at a smaller program you will probably get much more individual attention from your supervisor. I don’t think it would be a bad choice to go to a smaller program, but you should be aware of the strenghts and weaknesses of each choice.