Since I was recently asked “Why Durham?”, I thought I’d give some of my thinking.  Here is a list of points in roughly the way they worked out in my journey/decision making process:

  • I’ve always enjoyed travelling and mixing with other cultures.  Schooling in the UK seemed to be an easy way to do that without the language barriers.  In fact when packing for England, I found an old journal from my Ouachita days that had a list of goals, and one of them was to do PhD work in Europe.  Since that was about 10 years ago, I had forgotten that I wrote that down, but you can see the thought has been rolling around in my head for a while.
  • After doing a four year ThM in Dallas, I was not that interested in doing more class work.  I got to the point at DTS that I’d rather read about something (for the sake of time and interest) and then discuss with someone any points that interest me.  So this meant either Wheaton or somewhere in the UK since a typical theology PhD is 2 years course work and 3 years dissertation work, while in the UK it’s just 3 years on the thesis. 
  • I’m a little drawn towards theology, but it seems that there are bit more biblical studies jobs out there than theology jobs, so I decided to go the biblical studies route with a theological slant (rather than linguistic, exegetical, or otherwise).  Plus I think it might be easier to move to theology from NT rather than the other way around, with languages, etc.  I kicked around doing something with the Spirit-anointing of Christ, but could never find a good unanswered question to write about.  Eventually, I narrowed down my thesis topic to union with Christ in Paul in light of the theology of theosis (union with God) in the Orthodox.  I stumbled on that through my masters thesis that was related to theosis, and later found that there is a resurgence of debate in Paul studies on the importance of union with Christ, so it was a natural fit.  
  • Accordingly, I had to find profs that would be good supervisors in that area, but I also had another strong criteria for a supervisor.  I don’t expect to become the world’s greatest biblical scholar, especially in the area of Pauline studies with so many great minds focused there, so I truly wanted someone that I could ”apprentice” under and that I could have a great relationship with.  That is, I wanted a great education academically, personally, and spiritually.  In the UK Simon and John came most highly recommended for those criteria.  So I applied to Wheaton (Doug Moo), University of Aberdeen (Simon Gathercole), University of Durham (John Barclay), and Fuller Seminary (Brown/Kärkkäinen).  (Fuller has coursework, but a really good friend lives there.)  [One note, if you are applying to PhD programs in the UK, there are differing opinions on how long your thesis proposal should be.  Based on a friends’ sample, I developed a 7000 word thesis proposal to attach to the application.  From others I’ve heard that a full page is adequate.  If you only do the 400 word summary in the application, they may just put you in the 1 yr MA program, and you’ll have to reapply for the PhD program after finishing that because it looks like you haven’t thought through it deeply enough.  So it behooves you to ask some questions about what the faculty at your school is expecting.]
  • My vocational goal is to work with (or at least influence) those outside the church and especially the evangelical world.  And this turned out to be one of the biggest deciding factors for me.  I made it to the interview stage at Wheaton, so I just made one big trip–Wheaton, Aberdeen, and Durham.  Wheaton is great (and free if you get chosen), and it is obviously a “confessional” school with a strong evangelical slant.  When at Aberdeen I had the opportunity to talk with one of their NT profs besides Simon, and he really helped me think clearly about the differences in education and opportunities of a confessional school/seminary vs. a university.  I really felt that with the goals I feel God has led me to that I would have to turn down Wheaton if accepted (even though it’s free) and go with one of the University programs I had applied to–both of which were in the UK.  Fortunately, Heather really understood this, though wanted me to weigh carefully turning down a full-ride if that turned up.  With this in mind, I got on a train to visit Durham.
  • When I arrived at Durham, I soon learned that I had just been awarded a Doctoral Fellowship from the school, which pays full tuition plus a sizable living stipend–a total package of ~£23,000/yr.  This was a great confirmation of the direction I really felt God was leading us.  Obviously, this was thedeciding factor since I had not gotten anything from Aberdeen.  I was also turned down by Wheaton, so the decision was easy.
  • Beyond the money Durham was also my top choice Aberdeen for a couple of reasons.  In addition to the NT faculty at Durham, there is also a strong Orthodox patristics department that will also be very helpful for my topic.  Also, there are fewer Americans here than in Aberdeen, so I figured it would give me an opportunity to rub shoulders with more natives (or others).  But I’d be happy to study with John or Simon.

One influence, as always, is how Durham will look on my CV. The Good University Guide ranked Durham’s theology program as 2nd in the UK behind Cambridge. While my knowledge is really only NT program strengths, I would say that’s a fair assessment. Durham did well in the 2001 RAE ranking and [and was ranked first in the UK in 2008].  For the non-UKers, the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) is a national ranking program that analyses each department. The major grading factor is the number and quality of publications by each faculty member.

Here are another couple of questions that I was asked: Have your expectations been met so far? What is the best/worst surprise about studying there?

  • Expectations: So far things have been great.  The weather here has been much warmer than I ever expected.  (I saw that we’re missing snow at Wheaton as I write this!)  John is even more personable than I heard.  He was very helpful with developing my thesis topic even a year ago when I was just thinking about applying, and now he and his family have welcomed us more warmly than I had expected. 
  • Surprises: (+) We ended up getting a better house than I expected–even better than the condo we had in Dallas, with a great back garden for the boys.  (+/-) There ended up being more Americans here this year ~60% of the PhD students, but they all seem to be good people.  (+/-) We’ve found local believers (and others) very hospitable and friendly, even more than people in the South (USA).  The church services leave a bit to be desired, but the nice people make up for it.  (-) I had heard the libraries here weren’t that great, but outside of Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh most theological libraries are very scant, relatively.  My fellowship has an annual research allowance that will help make up for this, so I’m not completely out of luck.  (+) Overall, settling in here has gone much easier than we expected.  We’ve hit a few snags and still have a few things to iron out, but we’re very happy here.  The kids have also transitioned very smoothly–no more troubles than if we moved to another place in the US.
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11 Responses to “So Why Durham?”

  1. Ferdie Mulder Says:

    Hi there,

    I am investigating the possibility of doing a PhD at Durham.
    What was your grades for your Bachelor and MTh in the States?
    What kind of research proposal would you recommend? (I wish to stydy in New Testament)

    Thank you
    Ferdie

  2. Ben Says:

    On the thesis proposal, I’ve heard different sorts of things. Mine was quite long, but since I hadn’t done work in the area before, I think it was helpful for me to show that I had some knowledge. It obviously didn’t hurt. If it is in an area that you have some expertise, I’ve heard (but don’t hold me to it) that a page or 2 would be adequate. Since your supervisor has the most say in your acceptance, I would ask him/her what their opinion about it is because I know it varies at different schools. On the grades, I had 3.8+ for both on a 4.0 scale. Hope that helps. Let me know if you’d like more info.

  3. Matthew Bell Says:

    Hi Ben,

    I was finishing up my application to U. Durham today when I was blessed to stumble on your website. I’ve also been exploring deification and theological interpretation of Christian Scripture. Question: have you worked at all with Walter Moberly and/or Carol Harrison?

    Pax Christi,
    Matt

  4. Ben Says:

    Matt, I’ve only chatted with Moberly a couple of times, but other students talk very highly of him. I haven’t met Harrison at all, but I know someone working with her. If you are interested, I can pass your contact info along for more specifics.

    Ben

  5. Matt Bell Says:

    I’m already in email contact with profs Moberly and Harrison, however. Thanks for the offer, though! One other question: the college system there is quite different from anything I’ve seen before. Do you recommend Ustinov?

    Blessings on your dissertation research and studies.

    Matt

  6. Matt Bell Says:

    Thanks for the pointer to the college pages.

    A quick question on financial aid: You say above that once you arrived at Durham you found out about receiving the fellowship. How did you apply for it, and how soon after your acceptance did you find out? The reason I ask, is I was just accepted into the program and am now trying to figure out how to finance it! 🙂

    Thanks,
    Matt

  7. Ben Says:

    I think you are supposed to put on the application to the school that you are interested in the fellowship in the random comments box. I don’t remember doing that myself, but I had asked Barclay about it before I ever applied so they knew my interest. So, it was about a month after the end of the deadline when I heard. However, now they’ve moved the fellowship deadline back to mid-February instead of late January. The ORS deadline is earlier than the fellowship, but if you’ve already been accepted, you should have met that one, too. I have no idea when they tell one about that.

  8. Geordie Ziegler Says:

    Hi Ben,
    I’m doing an MTh at Aberdeen looking at Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy on union with Christ (read theosis). I plan to expand this into a PhD next year and am looking around to see where best to do it. If someone is coming at it from the theology department side, who would you recommend there? How would Andrew Louth be in that field?
    Thanks,
    Geordie

  9. Ben Says:

    Prof Louth would be excellent on anything related to Orthodoxy. Everyone I’ve talked to that is working with him really enjoys him. The only issue that may impact your study is that he is retiring in 2010, so that would give you 2 years. I believe they plan to hire his replacement soon (I’m almost certain that Dr. Igor Dorfmann-Lazarev is leaving after the 2007-2008 year, as well), so that may help influence your decision when the new person comes on. I can’t think off the top of my head who would be more on the systematics side as a supervisor. I would still encourage you to ask Prof Louth about supervision, since sometimes emeritus profs will finish out a final year student since there is not as much supervision during that stage.


  10. […] Durham topped the list of universities for Theology and Religion over perennials like Oxbridge, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen in two ways: 1) it has the highest average score and 2) it has the highest percentage of 4-ranked research activities.  I may be biased, but I’d say I’m not surprised that Durham is at (or near) the top.  However, you’ll notice quite a few universities bunched near the top, so Durham’s lead doesn’t put them in a class of their own.   Though, this is just one more reason to go with Durham. […]

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