Why (I nearly didn’t) do a PhD, part 2

Last week I outlined three questions that I felt needed answering before I could commit to 3 or more years of study. Although the process that led to me reflecting in this way was painful at times, it meant that I went into my studies confident that I was making the right decision. In this post, I want to unpack each of the questions in a little more depth, and explain how they helped me realise that a PhD was the right choice for me.

1. What am I doing it for?

Richard’s post at the start of this series raised the question of utility. Like him, I believe that research need not have an immediate application in order to be worthwhile; nevertheless, it’s still vital to be upfront with ourselves, and with God, about the reasons why we might want to pursue postgraduate study. At my point of low ebb, I discovered that my reasons up to that point had been mainly superficial: essentially, that I was good at it, that my lecturers wanted me to continue, and that the prospect of leaving university was scarier than the prospect of staying. There was nothing in these reasons to sustain me when I ran out of steam. It was only through a period of prayerful reflection and discussion with others that I became confident to articulate deeper, more substantial reasons for further study: as an act of worship, to pursue and deepen my wonder in God’s creation, and as a preparation for teaching and being a witness in a university context. If you’re thinking of a PhD, ask the Holy Spirit, like David, to ‘search your heart’ and help you understand your motivations.

2. Who knows me?

I was fortunate to be part of a postgraduate Christian Union group throughout my period of study, as well as being increasingly involved in my local church. Part of the transition to a PhD was realising that these communities could provide a spiritual home that was more stable than the constantly-shifting dynamics of my university department (where undergraduate friends, although greatly valued, would disappear during holidays and graduate long before I did), or even than the various shared houses I rented during my studies. I needed to make a decision about which communities I’d be willing really to commit to – to be open with them about my ups and downs, to ensure that periods of busyness didn’t stop me from being a part of them, and to seek opportunities to serve them with my own gifts. We all need to be known, not anonymous – and known not just as minds on legs, as sometimes can be the case in academic communities, but as full, emotional, spiritual beings.

3. What is my vision?

The final issue I felt needed resolving was about what it means to be part of the nebulous entity called ‘the academy’, since a PhD can often serve as an apprenticeship for this vocation. The issue was that I felt I was getting mixed messages: a lot of the rhetoric surrounding postgraduate study painted it as the highest of callings, an elite occupation for specially-selected superhumans; yet the day-to-day experience of my MA showed a different story of frequent insecurity, self-promotion or hypercriticism, arising from the pressure to be original, to compete, to get a job. To survive and serve as a Christian in this environment we need our vision of the academy to be redeemed, so that we can see where we fit in and not be swept up in self-inflating rhetoric or left disillusioned. We need to see the academic world as it really is, to see how it could be, and to see how we can contribute to its transformation. The work of FiSch is a great way to start thinking about this! (For a start, you could try looking here and here). For me, this started by realising the importance of holy enthusiasm and wonder to my calling – but that’s a topic for another post!

Hopefully these questions will provide food for thought to others considering PhD study. As always, comments and further discussion welcomed!

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