April 2010

So this short post has now grown into 6, but hopefully some of you will find them helpful.

  • Formatting an argument.  I’m convinced now of a simple structure for abstracts, introductions, and proposals: context, problem, (hypo)thesis, and structure.  I preach this regularly in my classes and try to encourage others, particularly those writing proposals, to use this model.  Context: Give some detail about the big picture and about what people are saying about your issue.  Problem: What remains unresolved in contemporary discussions.  What question are you going to answer?  [Actually, clarifying and sharpening the question is,  I think, one of the most important parts of a project].  Thesis: what are you going to argue?  Obviously, you don’t always reveal this up front, but in abstracts, short essays, and proposals I often do.  Structure: Tell us how you are going to address the question.  The conclusion of many works just give these in reverse order.  It seems simple, even pedantic, but it clarifies things for readers, which is your primary goal.
  • Issues with writing multiple drafts.  Unlike shorter essays where you only make a couple of different drafts, each chapter will (and should) have multiple drafts.  Various naming schemes are out there, but I found the one that worked best for me was to just start at 0.1 and move up by .1 each time I made a substantive change.  E.g., Rom 8 0.1.docx, then Rom 8 0.2.docx, etc.  (If you do it by dates, you don’t necessarily want to update the file name for minor additions.)  Don’t ever label anything as ‘final’ until it literally is going out the door.  I’ve worked on projects with xxx final v2.3.docx, which is ridiculous.
  • Also, make regular backups of chapters and notes.  Computers break.  I kept all my thesis chapters and other works in a drafts folder.  Durham gives network space, and I found a computer program that copies the files from this folder to the network every day so that nothing was ever lost.  I also did periodic full back-ups to a portable hard drive.

In addition to my ramblings, I’ve secured word from my compatriot John Goodrich that he’ll also do a post (or more) on his thoughts about the PhD process since his project had some key differences from mine. Look for these over the next month or two.

It’s being announced today that NT Wright is moving to St Andrews University to become a research professor of New Testament.  He’s retiring as Bishop at the end of August, and there is a diocese news story here: Bishop of Durham to Leave Diocese.  I think a major fact that influenced his decision is the desire to have more time to write and research.  I know he quite enjoyed his time at CTI at Princeton, and he has struggled to find time to continue his big Paul book (provisionally titled Paul and the Faithfulness of God) since returning.  It’s targeted publication date is SBL 2011.  While a loss for Durham, this will be a great addition to an already strong program at St Andrews.  (See the University of St Andrews announcement here.)

I’m happy for +Tom, but this does mean that I’ll be looking for new employment.  (For those of you from low church backgrounds like me, the + is shorthand for Bishop and ++ is for Archbishop.)  My contract officially ran out August 31 anyway.  Also, a few weeks back I got word that I didn’t get that postdoc to translate Cyril’s Pauline commentaries.  I wasn’t surprised, they had 900+ applicants for about 45 positions.  We’re hoping to remain in Durham for another couple of years while Heather completes her 3 year commitment at our church as the children’s and youth outreach worker.  We’ll see what happens.  And if nothing in the academic world turns up, I’ve always got that accounting degree and 7 years of office experience that can help us pay the bills until I figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.  Now that I’m 35, I suppose I should do that at some point.  Maybe I’ll apply for the open bishop job. : )

Anyhow, I’m delighted to hear that +Tom will be able to write more and that other post-grads will get the opportunity to study with him.

A solid line-up as usual. The seminar meets in Seminar Room B, Abbey House, 4.15-5.45 pm each Monday:

26 April, Prof Francis Watson, “Noncanonical Gospels (4): P. Oxy. 654 (= GThomas 1-7)”

3 May, PG Presentations: Aaron Sherwood, “The Restoration of Humanity in Biblical and Early Jewish Traditions: A Preview”; Kristian Bendoraitis, “The Angel Angle in Matthew’s Narrative”

10 May Dr Tony Cummins, “Reading the Gospel of Mark in a Postsecular World”

17 May Durham/Sheffield/?Manchester event

24 May Dr Stephen Barton, “Joy among the Emotions in Early Christianity”

I’ve heard several good things about the Wheaton Theology Conference and my boss NT Wright, which I mentioned here.  I wasn’t able to make it over, but fortunately the audio and video of the sessions were recorded:  see here.

I got an email from a friend asking me about time management during my studies, so I’m adding an extra post.  He noted that I mention the big picture–the 40 hrs per week–but how do you actually balance your time between reading and writing?  If you follow Mike Bird’s schedule, they’ll be no problem.  But for the rest of us mortals, it is an issue.

Like all projects, there is a need to balance research and writing in the thesis.  This is an especially difficult problem, because I found that I would much rather read than write.  In fact, deadlines were often the only motivator I had to actually force myself to start typing.  However, as it is often the case, once I started typing things usually began to flow because I learned that I write to think.  For short papers in seminary, I was able to bang out 5-10 pages based on basic research and what I already thought about issues.  But for longer, more complex issues and arguments, I found that I write to think.  That is, my thoughts become much sharper when I have to string them together on the page to make the argument flow.  Thus, I write first to think and then edit to communicate.  Talking through issues with others was also necessary for clarifying ideas as well.  Local dialogue partners are invaluable.

So how does that affect the actual writing?  I didn’t figure this out until after struggling to write my first full chapter (on Irenaeus).  This was the most difficult experience in the PhD for me.  I hadn’t settled in a study space, so I wasn’t putting in regular hours and so was scattered in my approach.  But importantly I also let the secondary research absorb too much time before I started writing and therefore was severely crunched for time when the deadline came close.  Here are a few ideas/habits that I did or wish I did:

  • Read and do your research on your primary texts first, and then write the draft of your chapter. That is, don’t engage with secondary material until after you get your ideas on paper.  This more than anything else will make your whole project easier and less stressful:
  1. You let your understanding of the text drive your discussion.  In a thesis you are required to detail all ancillary debates about issues.  If you do the secondary research first, your argument might get lost in these debates.  (I think this happened some in my Romans chapter.)
  2. This allows you figure out the parts of the text that need more thought, and thus it will help you better choose which secondary material to look at.
  3. This forces you to get the majority of your core writing done early.  You will thus have more time to edit and craft the flow than if you left the majority of the writing to the end.
  4. There are always unlimited amounts of secondary literature to read.  If you spend all your time reading, you won’t have time to craft your argument and your writing.  Clearly, there are issues that you will only learn about from secondary material, but let that come after writing the full piece based on the primary text.

If you do anything do that, but these are some other key aspects of getting things done:

  • Set out a timeline/schedule of your project, and give it to others to keep you accountable.  I had a chapter timeline, but each chapter ran at least a month longer than I planned.  I found that Barclay didn’t push me on timing and, in that way, allowed this to be my own project.  That is, I had to learn to set and meet deadlines.  Borrowing a practice I learned from Nijay, in my last few months I started setting weekly goals because I found it much more measurable and motivating than a huge ‘finish a chapter’ 3 months from now.
  • Schedule supervision meetings sooner than later.  These ended up being my hard deadlines for getting things done.  I often waited to schedule it once I was close to finishing, but this just let the timing for the chapter/section grow beyond its allotted time.
  • Plan to finish a week before the supervising meeting/deadline.  You’ll probably go over a day or two anyway, and you need to have time to proof read before submitting because you don’t want to waste supervision time with minor issues like spelling and grammar.

Those are some bigger picture aspects, here are some day-to-day practices:

  • Set aside the last (or the first) 30 minutes of every day to write 500 words.  If you did this you would have 90,000 words written in 180 working days (less than one year).  If you aren’t writing on your thesis, definitely write abstracts of what you read that day–thesis of the work, strengths, weaknesses, etc.  This 500 words could easily be a blog post.  Thus, you could get double benefit–summary/response to a work and some name recognition in the blogosphere.
  • Another aspect of daily time management relates to studying in community.  My time was greatly, immeasurably even, enhanced by my studying in the 37 N. Bailey office.  I had great discussions that sharpened my thinking, often by challenging my approach.  However, coffee breaks often went from 15 min to 45, or lunch from 1 hr to 1.5 hrs.  It takes discipline to walk away from fun conversations, but you can easily lose 1-2 hrs per day from too much chatting.  In my last 6 months I move to a different office, at first because of boiler work being done in 37, but I later stayed in my new digs because I needed the solitude that it offered to finish.  It’s a difficult balance, but most seem to do fine with it.  For those without kids they can make up reading at home, but for me 95% of my work was only during office hours, so I had to guard that time.

Daily time management and procrastination can be difficult problems for large projects with only generally defined deadlines.  Hopefully some of these ideas will be of help.

For those of you looking to help fund/offset costs of studying at Durham, there is an opportunity for single (maybe married?) students to get housing and meals covered by being a Resident Tutor (kind of like a mix between being an RA and dorm parent mixed together in US terms). Each college has these, so if you are not with St John’s then check with your own college for similar opportunities.

St. John’s College, University of Durham seeks to appoint Two Resident Tutors beginning September/October 2010

We are looking for applicants who:

  • are academics, or graduates, in any discipline
  • will be pastorally responsible for a group of 25 undergraduates, and involved, in a wider sense, in the well being of all living in College.
  • will help to foster the College’s lively inter-disciplinary intellectual life
  • will share in the life and worship of this vibrant Christian community

Resident Tutors live and eat in College, and are provided with an allowance per student and a stipend.

Application form and further particulars are available from the Senior Tutor’s Secretary, St John’s College, 3 South Bailey, Durham, DH1 3RJ (Tel: 0191 334 3881). Email: Johns.secretary@durham.ac.uk. Applications should be received by 5.00pm on Wednesday 5th May. Interviews are planned to take place on the 6th and 7th May 2010.


  • I never finished drafts of my chapters in time to have someone proof them before I turned them into Barclay for our supervision sessions.  That isn’t something I’d recommend.  At the same time, it also takes a committed friend to read things in a rush like that.  However, I highly recommend having someone read the whole thing at the end.   Kevin Hill did this for me, and he helped polish the work to make it much cleaner. I’m returning the favour when he submits.
  • The thesis is never perfected, but eventually you have to turn it in and be done with it.   Francis Watson passed on to me what Andrew Louth told him while doing his PhD: ‘Theses, like all monographs, are never finished; they are just abandoned’.  Similarly, this is another point of view I heard: This is just a driver’s license.  Get your license and move on!


  • The best advice I had to prepare for the viva, other than rereading your thesis, was to read through the works of my two examiners, especially book reviews they’ve done because you can see how they assess various arguments.
  • Other things I did was to bullet point answers to these questions: can you summarise your thesis, what are your main contributions, why did you choose this methodology?

In case you are interested these are the 6 primary questions that are posed to examiners at Durham:

  1. Has the candidate shown that he or she is able to conduct original investigations?
  2. Has the candidate shown that he or she is able to test his or her own ideas and those of others?
  3. Has the candidate shown that he or she understands how the special theme is related to a wider field of knowledge?
  4. Does the thesis contain an original contribution to knowledge?  (The thesis should include matter worthy of publication though it need not be submitted in a form suitable for publication)
  5. Is the style of the thesis satisfactory?
  6. Is the presentation and general arrangement of the thesis satisfactory?

Next Page »