Choosing a Doctoral Program

Note: I know this is off the normal topic for this site, but I wanted to get it into a post that can be linked to, as I think it’s very valuable. — HN

8:55 AM Few topics are more interesting to me than pedagogy. Yesterday, as you know, I interviewed a prospective doctoral student who is interested in possibly studying under my tutelage at SEBTS. One of the main matters we pondered together was the question of seminary versus university. I forgot to mention to him a book by Nijay K. Gupta called Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond. It’s reviewed here. The reviewer makes this interesting comment:

Chapter 1 (“Choosing a Doctoral Program”) deals with the very initial stages of pursuing a PhD degree. Here Gupta delineates six factors that he thinks students should consider before choosing a program (theological orientation, prestige/difficulty, money, time, location, and library), though to this list I would like to add another factor: cohort-size.

Now, I don’t mean to be a scrooge, but my take is slightly different. Let’s walk through these 6 factors one by one:

1) Theological orientation. I did not attend the University of Basel for my doctorate because of its theological orientation. I chose Basel because it was a truly “liberal” institution. That is, they were truly open-minded even to the point of gladly accepting conservative American evangelicals from non-descript seminaries (like Talbot) into their program, as long as these students could produce a quality piece of scholarship. This version of “liberalism” is, I’m afraid, sorely lacking in many North American universities, or at least it was when I was contemplating my doctorate in the late 1970s. Conservatives often found it difficult to enter these programs and, if they did, ended up having to write their dissertation on a “safe” topic. I found the atmosphere in Basel a refreshing departure from this attitude.

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2) Prestige/difficulty. In the 1980s, Basel was still one of THE places to study for a doctorate in theology because of its outstanding world-class faculty. As for difficulty? Studying there was challenging, not least because you were studying in German and because their foreign language standards were extremely high (one was simply expected to have a knowledge of, say, French, Latin, and Dutch). Choose a doctoral program that will stretch you both as a person and as a scholar. You will be better off for it.

3) Money. Becky and I were living in Southern California at the time where the cost of living was outrageous. And here we were about to live in a country whose cost of living was about four times higher and where neither us could work during our sojourn there. How were we able to cut it financially? Well, I like to put it this way: “The Lord miraculously provided.” And He did. Becky worked two jobs and I worked three prior to our departure for Basel in 1980. You say, “What was miraculous about that?” When you think about it, isn’t the ability to work just as much a miraculous provision of the Lord as if He had plunked down in our bank account several thousands of dollars? My point it this: If God wants you to study in Cambridge, don’t worry about the finances. He can and will provide. Trust Him.

4) Time. It took me three years to complete my doctoral studies at Basel, which was about average.

5) Location (location, location)! Yes, yes, yes! As I told my prospective student yesterday, “Studying abroad will give you two educations for the price of one.” In addition, if you can study in a foreign language (such as German or French), you will be forced out of your comfort zone big time. “Ich bin hierher gekommon, um Land und Leute besser kennenzulernen,” was my usual response when the Swiss asked me why I wanted to live in their country. And I meant it. Becky and I both thoroughly enjoyed becoming familiar with Switzerland and its people and customs. Try it. You might like it as much as we did.

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6) Library. Well, this was a no-brainer. The University Library in Basel boasted several million volumes. In addition, the Theologisches Seminar at Nadelberg 10 had its own theological library, unlimited access to which was provided to doctoral students. Moreover, if I didn’t find what I was looking for in Basel, it was a short train ride to Freiburg or Tübingen to use their outstanding libraries.

7) Here I’m going to add a seventh desideratum if I may: Mentor/major professor/Doctor Father. This is what made Basel a bit more attractive to me than Tübingen (where I had also been accepted). Bo Reicke was the doyen of New Testament studies in his day and, to me, embodied the perfect complement between humanitas and pietas.


I lived in his home the first month I was in Basel and was granted access to his personal library during the entire course of my studies under his tutelage. It never occurred to me to study anywhere else, so happy was I on the shores of the Rhine in this ancient city of refuge for unconventional thinkers like Erasmus and Calvin.

So … do consider a European doctorate. This goal has been successfully pursued by countless North Americans. One of my former Th.M. students is currently completing his Ph.D. in New Testament in Munich. Another one of my former doctoral students is currently working on a second doctorate (in Spanish) at the Complutensian University in Madrid.

It can be done!