You Asked: Why I Chose the University of Pretoria

A number of people have asked me why I did my PhD at the University of Pretoria (South Africa), so I thought it might be helpful to do a post to answer that question. This is intended, to some degree, as an advertisement for UP, or at least a declaration of my positive experience. I know that my reasons will not be satisfactory for everyone. And, I’m okay with that because I realize doing doctoral work is a very personal decision that must be worked through by each individual according to their own interests, abilities, and goals.

Following are many of the reasons (not necessarily in order of priority) that made UP a good fit for my personal/family situation.

1. I was accepted by the University of Pretoria.

This may seem self-evident, but it is an important part of the process. I’m aware of people who are unrealistic regarding which universities are available to them either because of their academic standing (e.g., gpa or the respectability of their master’s program or school), a lack of specific prerequisites (e.g., a thesis track M.A.), or life situation.

My advice: Realistically evaluate which institutions are actually available to you and narrow your list of options to a few of those programs. It seems better to me to settle for an institution that you can get in to, rather than to sit around “dreaming” about being accepted to the “big name” university. Does this mean the institutional reputation doesn’t matter? No.

2. The University of Pretoria has a good reputation as a research intensive institution.

There are a variety of university ranking systems (e.g., Academic Ranking of World Universities, the QS World University Rankings, and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings) that use a variety of matrices to determine ranking. Similar to the US college football polls, each of these systems, based on their own criteria, may rank the same university higher or lower than the others do. However, similar to the football polls, these systems don’t usually have dramatic variations. Also, it is important to recognize that various departments/faculties at a university may be stronger or weaker, so you may need to consider the overall reputation of a school or the specific department of your interest.

My interests and life situation suggested a research focused PhD (sometimes referenced as “the British model” or “research only”) was what I needed, and UP had a good reputation with this type of PhD model.

3. The University of Pretoria’s PhD is “research only.”

“Research only” seems to be a misleading label for many because I continue to be asked, “all you have to do is write a paper?” Some seem to think this means an enlarged term paper. It does not. At legitimate schools, research only means doing real research, creating knowledge, and being vigilantly critiqued. It also means doing whatever your supervisor/mentor (“Promoter” in South Africa) demands, whether that be learn a language or do additional study on research methodology or show up for a meeting or seminar, etc. So, “research only” is not necessarily an easier path; it is a different path.

This SBL article is helpful in seeing the differences between an “American PhD” and a “British PhD” from the perspective of students in each of those models.

4. The Theology Department at the University of Pretoria does not necessarily look like me.

Given my particular field, Science of Religion and Missiology, it seemed like a good thing to work among people who don’t necessarily see eye to eye with my theological positions. Because of the nature of course work it would have been more important to me to study under those more in line with my theological positions if I were doing an American PhD.

Doing a research PhD meant that, under the guidance of my promoter, I was basically driving the train and letting my work speak for itself, which seemed appropriate since the interest of evangelical missiology is to persuasively present the claims of Christ to those who don’t already believe. Working under a theological umbrella that was broader than my own gave me the opportunity to test my personal positions and output from a variety of angles.

It is also important to note that UP uses blind peer review to examine the thesis. In addition to theology faculty readers, three other readers (international, national, and institutional) examine the thesis. And these readers are not chosen by me nor required to be in line with my theological positions, so the document undergoes a comprehensive review that is not a rubber stamp.

5. The University of Pretoria was easy to work with in terms of enrollment, paperwork, and followup.

Since my research of universities began while I was resident in Israel, it was important to me to be able to communicate with people via telephone and email. The people at UP (the registrar’s office, department secretaries, professors, student services, and library staff) were available and responded quickly to emails and were easily reachable via telephone, too. This concern became more important as my field research began; I was in another country and couldn’t just drop by the student service center or library for this or that issue.

The UP staff also handled all of my paperwork responsibly. Some other schools also appeared capable and responsive to my inquiries, but one particularly large university made my decision to pass them by very easy because of the haphazard way they handled my inquiries and paperwork. First, it was impossible to speak with anyone on the telephone and the wait time for email responses was entirely too long for my tastes. But the coup de grâce came when I received a warning notice of insufficient academic documentation, which I had spent considerable money to secure and send to them via registered courier. After a few email back and forths I was told that consideration of my file was being terminated for failure to provide said document. Ironically, the next day, I received in the mail the document they said they had not received, . . .  returned to me in that university’s envelope. Obviously, they had received it. Obviously, they mishandled it. Obviously, they wasted my time and money. Obviously, they were not for me.

6. The Price was right!

While I was not guaranteed any money, I had received some hints that there was a good chance I would receive a “bursary,” which is South African for “scholarship” or “research grant.” However, whether I did or didn’t receive any money, it was inviting to see that UP was a state university that was clearly getting some good state funding that made the tuition unbelievably cheap, even for an international student who pays more than national students. In fact, their tuition was significantly lower than what I found among the other schools I considered, which were in Israel, England, and the United States.

The bursary or scholarship funding at UP was handled in a way different than I had ever experienced. In other words, I didn’t have to apply for it. In fact, there was no way to apply. Since I had never seen an automatic scholarship pool before, I didn’t believe such existed. However, each time I inquired about how to apply for a “bursary” I was told, “You do not have to apply. If you are in the PhD program, you are automatically considered.” As part of my research proposal, I had prepared and submitted a research budget, so they did have some financial information regarding the project, but nothing stating need for a scholarship.

I think, but don’t know for certain, that interest in particular research (perhaps based on new areas of research and/or publishability) and apparent research progress are important considerations for the bursary. To be clear: I’m guessing those are factors, but DO NOT know for certain.

Anyway, the happy news that I had, in fact, received a bursary for the first year’s costs arrived with a contract. The contract was an agreement that if for ANY reason I didn’t complete the PhD I had to pay the money back with interest. It was a hassle for me and my two witnesses to initial and sign the myriad locations throughout the document, but it was certainly financially worth the hassle.

Note that I said, “first year’s costs” above. At UP, PhD students pay the bulk of their overall tuition at the first year’s enrollment, each subsequent year requires a much smaller tuition that amounts to an insignificant continuation fee and, in my case, an international student fee. Thankfully, each year after my first, I also received a contract and bursary covering the costs of my program.

Final Thoughts

I’m sure there are other things that influenced my decision for the University of Pretoria, but these important reasons are what come to mind.

Now, that I have finished my course, though I’m still waiting conferral, I can say that I believe I made the right choice for me. Knowing what I now know, would I do it again? Absolutely!

If you are considering UP and have questions, I’m happy to try to answer them. You can start the process in a comment.

Comments

  1. Ross Hickling says:

    Congratulations, Dr. Dunning, on your recent accomplishment of having your doctorate conferred! I am considering making application (PhD) to several schools including UP. I was wondering how much time UP required for international students to be on campus conducting research? Do you think that UP has a tutor/sponsor who would be willing to take on a thesis project with a Christian apologetics theme? Perhaps it would fit under New Testament Theology? Thanks for your time reading and replying to this email.

    Ross Hickling

    • CraigDunning says:

      Ross,

      UP is a residential research center, so ideally, they prefer that you do your research there as an international student. However, under certain conditions, waivers from this requirement are granted. Since my project was field based research, I was granted a residency waiver provided I agreed (up front) to come to campus any time my professor requested me to do so.

      Depending on what angle you want to pursue, I do think you could present a successful proposal for an apologetics theme, which could fit under NT or practical theology or missiology, perhaps.

      If you want to discuss your project ideas further, or want to know more about my experience, we can continue via email: cdunningarlingtonbaptistcollege.edu. Alternatively, you can call me on my office phone: 817 461-8741 ext. 143.

      Best wishes.
      cd

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