Why do a PhD? The place of Christians in academia

I was reminded (at the recent Transforming the Mind conference) of some words of Christian professor of philosophy, Nicholas Wolterstorff:

Over the years I have had many students come into my office to discuss career choices. Should they set their sights on becoming a professor or should they go into some other line of work? And if they set their sights on becoming a professor, should they go into philosophy or into some other discipline? Rather late in my career I took to putting three questions to students contemplating some particular career choice: Do you love it? Are you good at it? And is it worthwhile? I always made a point of adding that they might not find a position that satisfied all three criteria, but that is what they should look for nevertheless.

When I look back on my own reasons for doing a PhD in astronomy, I can see that I would have answered a (tentative) ‘yes’ to all three of those questions.

First, I had a love for my subject. My first degree was in mathematics, and people’s typical response when I told them what I was studying was, ‘Oh, I’m hopeless at maths!’ But when I became an astronomer, people gave the opposite reaction. Astronomy, as anyone will tell you, is a fascinating subject, and I loved finding out more about the universe. I was also very eager to think more about astronomy from a Christian perspective, and, by immersing myself in the subject, it became possible to begin to do that. But, in hindsight, I don’t think I loved astronomy quite enough to sustain a full research career. So I drifted very gradually towards computer programming after completing my PhD. (You do need to be at least slightly obsessed with your subject if you are going to devote your whole life to it, I would suggest.)

Second, I was good at it. Well, good enough, at least. I didn’t do particularly well in my first degree (at Cambridge), but I knew I had the potential to do better, and was able to try that out by doing an MSc in cosmology (at Sussex). This then opened up the door for a research council-funded PhD studentship, also at Sussex.

Third, I thought it would be worthwhile. There are plenty of reasons for this, but one of the main reasons was a belief in the importance of there being Christians in academia.

Universities have a hugely influential place in Western society. Most of tomorrow’s leaders will spend some of their most formative years at university, and most of the big ideas shaping our culture have been gestated within the academic world. If we are praying that God’s will would be done on earth, and if God is giving us the opportunity to shape the world around us by pursuing an academic vocation, then why would we not take that opportunity? Can you imagine what it would be like if all Christians decided, as a matter of principle, not to be academics – if there were, all of a sudden, no Christian university lecturers at all? It would be almost unthinkable.

It was this kind of consideration that led me to pursue a PhD. Now, it doesn’t matter so much that, for me, it didn’t turn into a career as an academic astronomer. I still benefited enormously from the experience. And I was able to support other Christian academics during my PhD – and, as someone who has been a PhD student and a postdoc, I can continue to support other Christians in that situation, indefinitely.

So if you are doing a PhD, or thinking of doing a PhD, then it’s probably already the case that you love your subject and are good at it. What I’ve been wanting to communicate through this post is that it’s worthwhile – it’s not a waste of time. So keep going!

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I am interested in pursuing cross cultural leadership for my PhD. Any suggestions?

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