For those who are Master’s level students in biblical studies let me recommend Anthony Le Donne’s recent blog post titled “Should I Try to Publish as a Master’s Student?” There is a lot of wisdom packed into this short, easy-to-read response to a question Le Donne received via email. Furthermore, Chris Keith has some very insightful things to say in the comments.
I have personal reasons for encouraging people to read this post. When I finished my Th.M. over a year ago I felt great about having completed something as large as a graduate thesis. I did well during my oral exam. In fact, I was told that it was best in recent memory and I received highest honors, something that had not been awarded to a Th.M. graduate in a few years. That was 2012. It is 2013 and I hate my thesis. In general, the core argument is fine, but it wasn’t ground breaking at all. I can’t stand even reading it now. As Le Donne said, “It is very rare that something you wrote when you were at the master’s level will be something that you’re proud of your whole life. If I could punch my MA thesis-writing self in the face… I probably wouldn’t – because I’m a pacifist – but I might flash a very aggressive peace sign and then write him a strongly worded facsimile.” Le Donne’s post doesn’t discourage people from publishing as a Master’s student, but it does provide necessary caution.
Chris Keith’s comments are sage advice as well. He wrote this in one of them:
One of the things you learn once you do start publishing a little is that you, in fact, know hardly anything. You knew even less when you were a Masters student, you’re just not aware of the profound depths of your ignorance.
I learned this the hard way. I had heard of a publisher who had taken a few people’s MA/Th.M. theses. I sent them the forms applying for publication. My proposal was accepted, but I knew that my thesis work on Romans 8:18-25 was not enough content to fill a book so what I aimed to do was expound some of the work I had done to support my argument where I surveyed sections of Romans that I thought contained echoes of Genesis. That is what I wanted to make into a book.
While I was writing I tried to get a couple friends to proof-read it for me, and they said they would, but I never heard back from them. Finally, I contacted a former professor of mine and he introduced me to the world of scholarship, but thankfully behind closed doors so I wouldn’t suffer the same amount of embarrassment. My arguments and my writing structure were critiqued, severely, though in the kindest way possible. I panicked and then began to rewrite the book trying to do more research to substantiate my claims. Two more scholars who I deeply respect took a look at it and I knew from the bit of feedback I was receiving about my chapter on Romans 1 that I had gotten in over my head. One person asked if I had interacted with a certain argument and I had not. Another asked if I could better defend myself against the criticism that there was a lot of eisegesis in my argument. I couldn’t.
To make matters worse I was talking with a person who is a Ph.D. student and this person informed me that the particular branch of the publisher that had agreed to produce my thesis didn’t give much if any editorial attention to books that came through that arm of their publishing company, which made me feel like I was about to do the equivalent to self-publishing my thesis. What little “peer review” (more like superior review) I had received was all I need to see that I wasn’t ready. I thought I knew a lot. I didn’t, so I contacted my closest mentor and asked what I should do. I was advised to shelf the project for now. He agreed to look at it with me at a later date to see what we could do with the strong material and what we could do to strengthen the weak. I decided it was better to be humiliated in private by people who cared for me, but who were honest, than to let my ego blind me into publishing something that would be subpar and eaten alive by anyone who reviewed it.
Le Donne suggest that it may better to submit papers to regional conferences to receive feedback while a Master’s level student. I agree. I presented on Acts 19 at the NW SBL Regional Meeting and people like John R. Levison and Kent Yinger were present. Their feedback was very helpful, insightful, and challenging. I learned so much from them that day. Now, as Le Donne notes, if you’re being pushed by your thesis examiners to publish then go for it. I wasn’t being pushed, even though I was praised. I spent many hours learning the hard way that trying to publish Master’s level material in order to beef up your future CV may not be as wise as taking your time, learning your German and Latin, presenting at conferences, and finding mentors who will be honest with you about your work while also caring about you enough as a person to tell you the truth behind close doors.
I hope Le Donne’s post, Keith’s comments, and my story help some student out there to think deeply about their decision to try to publish their Master’s level work. This is only my story. I know others have been more successful, but it doesn’t hurt to hear examples from both sides.