UK (University of St Andrews) Double doctoral success for divine couple

A divine duo who marked double doctoral success this week (Wednesday 30 November) have more than one reason to celebrate.

As well as being awarded their PhDs in Hebrew Bible from the School of Divinity married couple Ethan and Tamara Knudson managed to juggle two new additions to their family during their time in St Andrews.

Ethan, who is from America, and Tamara, who was born in Stirling and raised in Zambia, met at University in Oregon and, after marrying in 2014, decided to return to the UK to be closer to Tamara’s family and her Scottish roots.

Keen to continue their studies, they each decided to apply for a Masters programmes and St Andrews quickly became their top choice.

After being accepted for MLitt courses in 2016 they moved to St Andrews and “immediately fell in love with the town”.

Ethan said: “Much of our early days of getting to know one another had involved study ‘dates’ and we were delighted to take this up again, our favourite spot being the library at Martyr’s Kirk. It was a stressful year, but every day we’d take a stroll along East Sands to relax and process what we were learning with one another.”

From the outset, Ethan hoped to continue on to a PhD and, as the year moved on, Tamara found that she wanted to pursue doctoral studies as well. They both applied for PhDs in Hebrew Bible and were accepted to study under Dr William Tooman.

He said: “We had our first child, Eilidh, about halfway through our second year of the PhDs. This of course made for some unique challenges as we balanced childcare, both of our studies, and work (I was tutoring and Tamara was a research assistant to Dr Tooman). However, we felt very blessed and, in a sense, that we both got to have the best of both worlds – being able to take care of our daughter and pursue our passions. On top of this, we heard from so many others what an isolating time they had found the PhD to be, but we never felt that. We were always able to process and work through questions together and help each other along since we faced so many of the same challenges.”

Ethan added: “Our supervisor was incredibly kind and flexible to accommodate our unique situation. At the time, he hosted a weekly Hebrew Bible reading group in his home and for a long while we just brought our daughter along and set up a cot for her to sleep in their sitting room. When Eilidh was just a couple of months old we took her with us to a conference in Switzerland – part of the partnership between the School of Divinity and the University of Zürich. One of us just stood at the back of the room and bounced with her in a carrier through the sessions while the other took notes. A few months later, we took her to another conference at the University of Glasgow at which Tamara was a presenter.

“As Eilidh got older, we would often have supervisor meetings all three of us together with Dr Tooman. One of us would play or read with Eilidh on the floor in his office while the other checked in and then we’d swap. This led to a hilarious moment when another faculty member knocked on his door and opened it only to find Eilidh and Tamara building a giant mushroom out of Lego on the floor. Needless to say, he was caught a bit off guard and it took him a few moments to recalibrate and remember his question.

“We never had the expectation that we’d complete our PhDs at the same time, but fortunately we somehow did finish within a month of each other. I like to think there was never any sense of competition between us, but perhaps that’s only because Tamara finished first!”

Just as the couple were planning to submit their research, they found out that Tamara was pregnant with their second child. Despite having terrible pregnancy sickness at the same time as her viva was scheduled to take place, Tamara managed to get through it and their baby boy Arlo was born at home on the memorable date of 11/11/22.

Looking back, the couple said they don’t know how they managed to combine working for two PhDs and having one small child with another on the way.

Ethan said: “The reality is that the only way we managed was with the support of incredible friends and family. Our fellow students in the School of Divinity and the community in our church, St Andrews Baptist Church, were especially kind to us – offering help with childcare, providing meals, and just looking after us all the way through. On top of this, we are so thankful for scholarships from the School of Divinity and St Leonard’s College, without which it would have been financially impossible for us to both study.

“Currently we share a job with St Andrews Baptist Church working with youth and students in town. We’re not entirely sure what’s next, but our hope is that whatever we do and wherever we settle we can continue to share parenting and work together!”