Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond

Written by Nijay K. Gupta Reviewed By Cory M. Marsh

The main thrust of Prepare, Succeed, Advance is neatly captured in its subtitle: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond. The volume is designed to “demystify” the process of earning a PhD, whose origin Nijay Gupta conceived “fifteen years ago when I first began to think seriously about pursuing a doctoral degree” (p. 1). Gupta currently serves as professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary and is the author of several NT commentaries and other books, such as A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Studies: Understanding Key Debates (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020). Desiring to give direction to ambitious doctorate seekers, this book is a virtual manifesto of Gupta’s own trial-and-errors in traversing the PhD journey. Because the author’s doctorate is in New Testament (from the University of Durham), the book is geared specifically toward those seeking a research doctorate in fields related to biblical studies yet without being restricted to the NT. Relevant counsel is offered throughout the volume to any student entering the field of Bible and theology, such as choosing the right doctoral program (e.g., American or European), a topic to research that can morph into a thesis and sustain a successful defense and merit publication, even engaging the academic world through conference presentations and job networking.

The book is deftly structured around three broad concepts encompassing the PhD path: prepare, succeed, advance. The “Prepare” section (pp. 9–56) aims at graduate Bible students who have their eyes fixed on gaining a terminal degree but may be overwhelmed by the prospect. Personal and practical advice permeate the section as the author discusses “six big factors” one must consider in choosing a doctoral program: theological orientation, the prestige and difficulty of entrance into certain institutions, financial obligations to mediate (e.g., stipends, grants, or personal savings), the time it takes to actually complete a PhD (four to seven years), the locations of potential schools, and, the most neglected factor by far, an institution’s library. Regarding the latter, the aspiring student who has a broad sense of their dissertation topic would do well to consider the differences between library holdings in research universities and seminaries, and plan accordingly. Further chapters include Gupta’s “tiered ranking” of British and American institutions, developments in online options, as well as the “nuts-and-bolts” of applying to PhD programs such as examination scores, preparatory course work, and collating application materials.

The second section, “Succeed” (pp. 59–99), targets the doctoral student who has been accepted by an institution for study. Personal anecdotes relaying the author’s experience of getting accepted to Durham initiate the section, followed by counsel on what is generally expected of a doctoral student. Language requirements, critical thinking skills, and a solid incoming knowledge base help ensure “that he or she is well-read and up-to-date on the key ideas, debates, problems, and contributions in their field” (p. 61). Current PhD students anxious about the dissertation process will be helped by the section’s guides on surviving doctoral exams (pp. 69–89) and succeeding in the actual writing and defense of a dissertation (pp. 90–99).

The book’s final section, “Advance” (pp. 103–66), surveys what life looks like for the freshly minted PhD: “Getting an academic job and becoming a professional” (p. 103). In other words, a PhD from a respected school carries only so much weight. In today’s competitive world, the newly hooded doctor should seek to bolster his or her CV with legitimate publications, some form of teaching experience, broadened research and teaching interests, conference presentations, and, if possible, administrative experience. The section unfolds with sage advice on how to submit articles to academic journals (accompanied by another “tiered ranking” of respected journals) as well as crafting presentations for academic conferences (e.g., SBL, ETS, and IBR in the US; BNTS, SOTS, and Tyndale Fellowship in the UK). The section closes with advice on gaining teaching experience, as well as “job hunting,” followed by how to publish one’s dissertation and subsequent works. A final addendum included in the updated edition is Gupta’s exposé on the unfortunate marginalization that occurs in some corners of biblical scholarship with wisdom offered on how to build “a more healthy, diverse, and inclusive Academy” (p. 154).

There is much to commend in the second edition of Prepare, Succeed, Advance, beginning with material absent from its predecessor in 2011. By enlisting the help of current doctoral students offering their insights on GRE and doctoral exam requirements, the volume keeps abreast of recent changes in the academy. Further updates ensuring the book’s relevance are developments in distance learning options, pedagogical advice drawn from the author’s own teaching methods, and, as mentioned, a reflective essay addressing discrimination and unfair bias in biblical studies departments (with encouragement on advancing a more inclusive guild)—all of which aptly justify the volume as a “new” edition.

Moreover, that the book is aimed at students pursuing a PhD in Biblical Studies makes it unique among a sea of “doctoral journey” books focused on professional and applied doctorates or those outside of biblical scholarship. Gupta’s advice on academic publishing and presenting at theological conferences, in addition to the importance of a good research library and his “best practices” in biblical research (e.g., pp. 87–88), are pure gold for serious students who feel called to biblical scholarship. Indeed, Christian institutions using outdated guidebooks not relevant to research degrees in Bible and theology would do well to add Gupta’s volume to their assigned doctoral seminars. Finally, the volume’s organized structure—Prepare, Succeed, Advance—makes the work accessible for readers in different stages of the PhD journey, from those just beginning with curiosity to those entering the academic world of publications, presentations, and vocational teaching. Gupta’s advice on writing for journals and chairing conference sessions truly owns the “beyond” aspect of the book’s subtitle.

Compared to its strengths, the book’s weaknesses are relatively minor. One may be the almost exclusive attention given to critical and ecumenical sources for the reader to explore throughout the volume. By their underrepresentation, a reader can get the impression that conservative voices are considered irrelevant or subpar for doctoral study. Furthermore, research universities, specifically British ones, take the pride of place over American evangelical seminaries in Gupta’s (implicit) estimation, as more attention is devoted to their rankings and offerings. In fairness, Gupta discloses that his own PhD entry consisted of applying only to top-tier research universities along with a personal desire not to be prejudged by his confessional interests (see p. 25 n. 11). Thus, it is out of his own experience that he writes the book, not presuming on other possible avenues. Nevertheless, the imbalance is felt. A final limitation is that the volume is essentially addressed to the PhD scholar (not the pastor). Ministers seeking a program to advance their exegetical and research methods for church ministry should be aware they are not the targeted audience; rather, those prone to a life fully immersed in Christian scholarship are.

Despite these minor critiques, Gupta’s second edition of Prepare, Succeed, and Advance is overwhelmingly helpful. It is an exceptionally well-organized, well-written, and accessible volume that is sure to benefit the ambitious Bible student whose sights are set on the PhD with the intention of serving Christ in the academy.

Cory M. Marsh

Cory M. Marsh
Southern California Seminary
El Cajon, California, USA

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