While working as an Academic Advisor at Asbury Theological Seminary I regularly met with new M.Div or MA students who professed their desire to continue in their academic careers to the point of earning a PhD or equivalent terminal degree. Most wanted to do so out of a desire to teach, though some were certainly more interested in research oriented vocations. It was my job to help them to achieve their academic goals by helping them to plan out the most effective degree path at the seminary. As a PhD student myself (theology – University of Manchester), I was able to speak with them about the real challenges of applying for (and getting accepted into) a reputable program, as well as the work that it takes to remain in the program. I was also able to talk with them about the differences between research and taught programs, working over seas versus staying in the U.S., and the availability of funding for various programs.
At that time, I was still very new to my own research program. The information that I provided to students considering an academic career path was sound and accurate, but it was far from complete. I have learned a lot about what it takes to earn a PhD since I last worked at the seminary. I have learned that, while planning and dedication may help you get into a program, it takes an entirely different set of skills to finish what one has started. There are a plethora of ABD (all but dissertation) PhDers out in the world. The opportunities to quit before the end abound. The challenges often seem insurmountable. And many times, the end does not justify the means. It is up to each student to decide when enough is enough.
Yet despite the many challenges, day after day, I and many other students continue the long march toward the finish line. It is this march, and its ramifications, that were lacking from my earlier conversations with PhD hopefuls. It is this march that is perhaps the most important part of the whole story, because it is this march that tests the character of one who would become a teacher of others. If I could go back and add something about the ‘experience’ of earning a PhD to the conversations that I had with those students, this is what I would say.
‘It ain’t all sunshine and roses.’
Getting a PhD requires the FULL support of family
While this may sound like an obvious statement, I’m not sure the vast majority of the students I spoke with as an Advisor really understood the impact that such an undertaking will have on a family. I am truly blessed in at least one regard. My wife, Sarah, has always been my #1 supporter, cheerleader, and fan. She has supported me in every undertaking since I have known her, whether professional, personal, or academic. She was 100% behind me when I decided to enroll in seminary (indeed, without her complete support I never would have attempted it, nor should you without the support of your spouse), she was 100% in favor of my pursuing a PhD, she has been 100% supportive of my decision to drop to part-time work in order to devote more time to research, and she has been 100% behind me as I seek to more fully understand God’s call on our lives and as I continue to wrestle with following His son, Jesus. All of these decisions have affected her in profound ways, and she has never flinched in her support.
In addition to my wife’s loving dedication, I am blessed with the continued support of my extended family. I am fortunate to have parents and a brother who love the Lord and understand what it means to take a path that appears foolish to the world. They believe in me so much that they have supported us regularly with their prayer, presence, and finances.
My in-laws have been tremendous supporters as well. Though they may not fully understand some of the decisions that Sarah and I make for our family (like leaving a well-paying job to move to a tiny town in Kentucky and enter grad school), they love us and back us up each time. And they are some of the most giving people I have ever known. Our children are fortunate to have such wonderful grandparents (on both sides) as living examples of God’s grace.
Getting a PhD means learning to rely on loved-ones for support. This is most definitely prayer support, but often this support must take physical form as well. When you enter a long-term research program, you are not the only one getting the degree. You see, your family is in it with you, whether they want to be or not. So I would suggest that you only undertake such a task if they have willingly agreed to get a PhD with you.
Getting a PhD requires self-sacrifice and family sacrifice
The reason for this, of course, is that getting a PhD requires a great deal of sacrifice. On the self-sacrificial side of the equation, a research (or taught) degree takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. If you think writing a 30 page paper at the Master level takes effort, just think about the sustained energy and time required to write a full doctoral thesis, which is essentially an academic book based on original research that contributes significantly to a chosen field. Every page that I write takes weeks of dedicated research, and might get rewritten a dozen times before it reaches its final form. Even then, it might ultimately get scrapped if it proves unnecessary to the project.
All of this research, writing, editing, rewriting, and re-editing takes time. Since there are only so many hours in the day, this means that you will be sacrificing either 1) time earning a living, 2) time with your family, or 3) sleep. Since none of us can function long without #3, most of the time required to complete a PhD comes from #1 and #2. If you are not fully funded (as I am not), this means that you will have to make some serious sacrifices in order to complete your degree. And these sacrifices are always shared by your family.
I decided early on (well, late in my seminary degree) that I am unwilling to sacrifice more time with my family than is absolutely necessary to complete my research. At the end of the day, a PhD is a piece of paper. Yes, it comes with some great perks, but when I finally go to be with Jesus, I want my wife and kids to remember me as a loving husband and father, not as a workaholic who was never at home to play with them.
Even though I made this decision early, our family still has to sacrifice time together in pursuit of the PhD. I travel to England and to conferences in the U.S. on a regular basis, both for research and professional development. When I have a deadline to meet, I spend evenings out studying until the work is done, and sometimes I have to say no to fun family events in order to complete my work. Even when I am home, I run the constant risk of being either distracted by something I was reading earlier in the day or exhausted from the mental task of research. Every single moment of quality time that I miss with my wife and kids impacts us all negatively.
And we haven’t even begun to talk about the financial sacrifice. You have no doubt heard people talk of putting their lives on hold for grad school. I disagree that this occurs to a great degree. The best parts of my life have occurred while in grade school (i.e. my wonderful marriage to Sarah continuing and the birth of my two children). However, there are some things that must be paused in order to follow this path. I gave up a promising career in the tech industry and the accompanying pay check to work part-time for part-time wages for most of the last 7 years, any hope of owning our own home, the security of a full bank account, and the choice of where we live. If not for the generosity of our families, and some much loved donors, we would never have made it this far. Even once we are finished, we will have a long row to hoe in making up for lost opportunity.
While each of thee things certainly affects me (and my family) in profound ways, our solidarity and reliance upon God for all that we have (since all good things come from Him) carries us through. But there are other burdens that, while they may affect family in a secondary way, are the sole burden of the PhD student.
Getting a PhD requires long hours of solitude
If you are a highly social extrovert, these next words will hurt. They will cut deep. You see, getting a PhD is not like other degrees. Even with a taught program, where classwork is still required before writing a thesis, much more emphasis is placed on individual achievement, which means a lot of time spent working on things alone. When it comes to a research degree like the one I am in ALL of the work is completed in solitude.
On average, I spend 4 hours each day working on research alone. In addition to this I occasionally spend evenings alone while I write. I also work in an office with only one other person, and am about to begin working from home as our office goes through a move. This means that I am effectively alone for 9-12 hours a day. I am an extrovert. Let me tell you, this is difficult sometimes.
Even if you love books and love to do research, as I do, the constant solitude will get to you. For this reason, some of my colleagues and I have scheduled a monthly seminar where we get together to discuss our research and ‘hang out’. But one meeting in a month doesn’t begin to make up for all of those endless days of solitude.
For those of the introverted persuasion, the idea of spending hours alone might sound awesome. But I would caution you as well. Do your friends and family think you are weird now? Do they say you lack social graces? Just imagine how you’ll be after several years of near solitude.
If you plan to embark upon a PhD, please please make arrangements to spend time with normal people on a regular basis. Your family and friends will thank you, and it might just keep you from going insane.
Getting a PhD may lead to depression and anxiety
Grad students in general learn to deal with heightened amounts of stress as they cram for exams and hurry to write papers on a regular basis. I would love to say that four years in a Master’s program will prepare you for the stress of chapter deadlines and editing schedules, but I would be lying. When your entire degree rests on your doctoral thesis the pressure to do everything as well as possible mounts to incredible levels and though there may be brief moments of respite, like the days immediately following the submission of a chapter, the intensity level and stress remains high throughout the entirety of your program.
While there are many negative consequences to high stress, the one that I have found to be the biggest detriment to finishing a PhD is depression.
I am going to be painfully transparent here. I have wrestled with occasional bouts of depression ever since I started my PhD program. It is easy, when everything rides on one project to begin questioning. What if my work isn’t original enough? What if I am not a good enough writer? What if I get stuck or find out that my goals are unachievable? What if I am not good enough to get a PhD? What if I fail my defense? What if they find out that I am really a fraud and have no business in this degree? What if I fail? What if I let down my family? What if their sacrifice has all been for nothing?
This self-questioning can very easily lead to bouts of depression and anxiety, and these things are only compounded by the vast amounts of time spent in solitude. Though I occasionally go through this myself, there is only one remedy that I have found that draws me out of it. No matter what your family and friends say, you will always question yourself in a situation like this until you begin to remember.
Remember. Your worth does not lay in your ability to earn a PhD. God loves you and considers you of such great worth that he sent his only son, Jesus, to die for you. Remember. Your family loved you before you began a PhD, and they will love you after you are finished. Remember. You had what it takes to get into the PhD program int he first place. The administrators and professors of your school believe that you have what it takes to succeed or they would not have admitted you. It it in their best interest to help you succeed. Remember. Tomorrow brings a new day. Remember. Your family and service to the Lord are more important that your degree. Remember.
In remembering, you will find freedom from anxiety and depression. Don’t be discouraged. Just remember.
Getting a PhD will test your courage
Only the arrogant fail to realize what a privilege and responsibility it is to earn a PhD. For the rest of us, who don’t believe we are God’s gift to the academic world, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to begin on a path that requires such great personal and family sacrifice, that tests our abilities and perseverance, and comes with the possibility of failure (though statistically speaking, most students who begin a PhD will complete it unless they quit. Students are rarely kicked out or simply fail once they begin).
It also takes courage to announce that you are undertaking something that is looked on by the world with equal amounts of fascination and disdain. I have often hesitated to tell people that I am a PhD student in theology, because they immediately begin to act weird around me. Often upon finding out what I do, people begin to use larger words in conversation and try to vainly talk about topics they think are related to what I do, especially of a spiritual or religious nature. I can’t count the number of times I have heard someone say to me, ‘well, I’m no PhD, but . . .’ It can be a significant barrier to real conversation.
Announcing that you are pursuing a PhD also carries with it the inherent ‘expert syndrome’, where everyone begins to assume that you must be an expert on everything if you are ‘smart enough to get a PhD’. Some will begin to admire you for knowledge that you don’t possess and expect you to be able to speak intelligently about every topic, while others will loathe you for being a ‘know-it-all’. I recently had a good friend look at me when I couldn’t figure out something simple about a car door and exclaim, ‘You’re getting a PhD for cryin’ out loud!’ To which I responded, ‘In theology! Which means that I know a lot about a very narrow group of things.’
While the above scenario was hilarious at the time, it takes courage to daily interact with people who don’t really know what a PhD represents, and who either expect too much from you (and are sorely disappointed when you can’t deliver) or loathe your because they presume you are a know-it-all.
Getting a PhD (in Bible or theology) is a calling
If there is one thing more important than everything else that I have said so far it is this: getting a PhD in a biblical discipline is a calling. It is not something that you should undertake unless you are certain that God is leading you in that direction. The path to a terminal degree is fraught with challenge, danger, and sacrifice, and all of this is undertaken in vain if it is not where God has called you to be equipped.
Remember that scripture cautions all Christians about this:
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1)
While other terminal degrees in other disciplines may be a simple matter of career choice, choosing to pursue a PhD in a biblical discipline is a calling by God to a vocation of teaching the word. It should only be undertaken with the utmost humility and discipline.
If you do undertake the challenge of a PhD in this way I am sure that you will find, as I have, that it is worth all of the sacrifice and challenge, and rather than turning you into a person that your family loathes to be around, it will be a transforming experience that God uses to shape you into the image of his son, my savior, Jesus Christ.