Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Distance PhD Programs: Advantages and Disadvantages

A friend over at the Wheaton PhD student blog, For Christ and His Kingdom, suggested I post on this topic. I want to note that this post is by one who is just beginning his PhD from distance in Ohio through Trinity College, Bristol (my advisor is Professor John Nolland). That being said, it will be largely from the perspective of one who has simply gone through the application process, but has not yet progressed through much of the program besides initial supervisory conversations.  I did do a pretty thorough job researching both American and UK PhD programs, but this is not substitute for the actual experience.  Thus, I will be leaning on my compadres from this blog and elsewhere to fill the gaps.  The existence of such programs is relatively unknown, thus I think it is a worthwhile topic to discuss and advertise as a legit post-graduate option.

A bit about my needs and what I was looking for, because PhD programs are not one-size-fits-all.

I have a wife and kids, so this limits some things when cost, mobility, and transition is considered.  Finally, once I realized that being called to teach (or pastor, depending on where the Lord takes our family after this season) was not going to land me in the 'top 2%' wage-earners, I realized I need to be very concerned to keep debt down; i.e., don't take loans out for everything(!), or anything, if possible.  Finally, I am one who works well in an independent environment of study and report back to be mentored and guided.  This means that the relationship between me and my adviser, and the expertise and mentorship she/he would provide was much more important to me than school name (though school name - hate to say it, since you do have to 'play the game' a bit - does matter to a certain extent, of course accreditation too).  All that being said, by realizing these things about myself I was able to start understanding what schools I would most benefit from and should apply to.  Again, this is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor.

So Advantages and Disadvantages of the type of program I am in now:


1) Flexible!
    In many ways these programs are flexible for a schedule that needs this aspect.  First, there is no class-work in UK programs (!), which means it is dissertation only. Personally speaking, I count this as a HUGE plus, because I learn best in a seeking, synthesizing, and discussion environment; and I have already engaged in 8 yrs of course-work by this point of my career.  But no class work means it is all on your shoulders to know what you need to know.  If your Greek, Hebrew, German, Syriac, etc. is weak, there is no one to hold your hand to get it done.  If you need to know about Second Temple Judaism, you have to in essence assemble your own class on the subject so that you will be able to discuss the topic with understanding.  If you were in the UK for your PhD work, classes would be free. It is hard finding classes on languages free in the states. Some local Jewish temples do offer Modern Hebrew classes for free, which is a language that is very close to its classical ancestor. So check around! Second, their admission is rolling; normally with two enrollment periods a year which has its advantages (also, I did not run into app fees in the UK! - a nice perk). Third, there is no need to move over-seas.  This is worth giving a bit of explanation.  No its not a mail-ordered PhD, with less prestige (be careful, some can be).  Since UK programs function very much like, "Hi, nice to meet you!  There's the library."  What I can do at Ohio around many great libraries, with skype, email, phone, and semi-annual visits, makes this type of arrangement about as good as being in the UK (i.e., no loss of prestige); besides actually not actually being on location, i.e., having to stay in Ohio and not drink at a real pub!  Flexibility is the big advantage.

2) Cost Effective:

   One will notice that cost will be in both categories as an advantage and as a disadvantage.  The cost advantage is that living costs are much cheaper in the US than in the UK.  Secondly, if you are not one of the lucky ones to get full scholarship and stipend by an American program each year, depending on the UK program, three years of tuition can often beat a 5-6 year American program.  A cautious third point would be that many American schools that give stipends frown on working a job outside of your research, some not even allowing it (so you better make sure your stipend can provide what you need), but in a distance UK program in your own country you can work, if need be (note the challenges working while researching can cause to the execution of good research and writing, and the ultimate completion of your project - which is, after-all, the ultimate goal!).

3) Accessible Resources and Advising:
   Neither access of resources nor advising (this, of course, depends on the adviser, and this is upon my limited experience to this point) is cheated by this type of research.  It is true that a hot-dog always tastes better at the game, per se, but if moving to Europe is not a likely option for you to get your research done, and done well, the UK distance programs appear to give full access to all they have. Many programs have librarians will bend over backwards to get you what is needed to do your work well, and such technology as Skype allows for continued and frequent supervising when not in the the country.  So a student working via distance program has an excellent opportunity to have the same access as one studying on site.

Those are a few advantages...


1)  Camaraderie:
   When doing a distance program, the academic community provided by being on location can be seriously lacking.  If one is to stay in the conversation, as it were, make needed professional connection,  and find encouraging camaraderie, one needs to be proactive in finding others who are seeking advanced degrees in broader areas of theology and exegesis with whom to converse.  Attending professional conferences, regionally and nationally (SBL, ETS, AAR, etc.) might become a must instead of simply an option.  For some this disadvantage may not be a big deal, but worth considering.

2) Cost:

   Cost can be a disadvantage, as well.  First, flying ain't cheap.  Count that as a cost as you seek to fly each year to the UK (also, room and board when you're there, and transportation via bus or train all add up).  Second, many American programs are at least simi-funded, but you will be hard-pressed to find any funding in the UK if you are American, or not-British (I think...).  Finally, UK programs can be expensive.  Bristol is exceptional for its lower-cost, but many others can run from $17-22 thousand per year (this is ball-park and is always changing with the economy situations and with the GBP to dollar ratio, which is better for American's currently: 1.6 to a dollar - normally more like 2:1).  

3) Having a topic together:
  For UK programs, you need to demonstrate that you have a topic in mind and that you have done some reading on the topic already.  To some like me, this is an advantage, but to many their topic of research for a dissertation is not very formed in their mind - some don't even know what they want to study.  An American program allows you to form this at about your second year (Wheaton is an exception).  Most UK programs, distance or not, need a full 500-1000 word proposal to apply, some to even require it at first inquiry (many dissertation topics alter as the evidence is presented through research, but a proposal still needs to be present and cogent).  Something to consider.  The key is: Have a good question to pose that is backed with some evidence of prior work.  Please check out this blog post by Larry Hutado.  I found it helpful even after I had been admitted to Trinity College.
Do not let this deter you.  I thought it was helpful to my calling to know what I actually wanted to study.  It answered for me why I was actually studying for a PhD.

4) Prejudices matter at some places:
   'State U' is more marketable in many colleges and universities in America than UK/Continent schools. So, if you are doing this to 'get a job,' and not for a larger purpose of Kingdom work (which is a calling that can be sought in both American and UK schools - "don't hear what I am not saying"), 'State U' is probably a first option to consider (again, study hard for your GRE!).  Seminaries are a wild-card in this 'State U'/UK debate.  The seminary I went to was heavily UK leaning in its faculty, but that is not every seminary.  Others might not be this way.  Some thoughts here by Dr. John Stackhouse on the prospects of even going to a lesser-known to an unknown State U.

These are only a few things I have thought about as I have spent the past 2.5 years finding the right place for my research topic, my family, and the development of my future ministry.  Much of this compares UK v. US programs, and this should indicate, at least in part, that UK programs rarely change in spite of the distance of research.

I hope that others chime in.  I do not have it all figured out.

Hope this helps.

Other Practically Aimed PhD Posts:


  1. I have also been working out where to do my PhD studies and was accepted to several schools that do distance PhDs (Regent University in VA and AGTS in MO). I've applied to Wheaton (which is not a distance program) and Bangor University-Wales, UK. I've finally determined I will be going with the program at Bangor. All three of the other PhD programs require considerable coursework prior to the dissertation (though Wheaton requires coursework and you begin dissertation work immediately). The UK school only requires a dissertation (as you noted). After speaking with a number of professor friends of mine, I determined I likely do not really need more courses (I've got 102 credits of Grad studies at this point)...and am teaching two courses this year for a nearby seminary and university. I also wrote a 120 page thesis for my M.Div.Honours (which is a strictly pre-PhD track). I appreciate the opportunity to jump right into the writing/researching of my dissertation (which I've already been working on now for a couple of years...at least the researching, mapping out, etc.). Thanks for sharing your thoughts Aaron.

  2. Yes, and your thoughts and accomplishments are appreciated as well. Blessings in your studies, brother.

  3. I just finished MA Theology at Notre Dame. Now, I'm considering a distance PhD from Trinity college for similar reasons as yours. Are you doing part-time or full-time PhD work at Trinity? What's your cost per year when you taken travel, etc into account? Lastly, I noticed Trinity doesn't really have any faculty with expertise in patristic theology... I guess its not a good place to try to study that there?

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