Why (I nearly didn’t) do a PhD, part 1

About 3 months before I was due to begin doctoral study, I had a sudden crisis of confidence in my decision. Up until that point, my choice had been straightforward and relatively unreflective. I had done well in my undergraduate studies, and my lecturers encouraged me to consider postgraduate study. I had realised I enjoyed libraries, notepads and blank Word screens (and, in my case, headphones and study scores) more than might be considered usual, even in a university context; and so I had duly signed up for an MA, which had passed by relatively uneventfully (once the usual shock of leaving a huge undergraduate cohort and joining the smaller, more pressurised world of postgraduate study had worn off). Everything seemed set for me to carry on through – and yet one morning I found myself sitting at my desk, poised to continue work on my MA dissertation, suddenly dreading the prospect of another 3+ years of this – and hoping in my stomach that the funding applications I’d sent off would be rejected, so that I’d have an excuse to back out of it all. What was going on?

Looking back, it’s not too difficult to interpret this episode as a classic example of postgraduate burnout: it came at the end of a frenetic summer term, in the calm after a long period of busyness, when I’d not been wise about the hours I’d kept or the balance between study and rest, and my extreme emotions did fade after a few days.

But I can see it also as God’s way of waking me up, of forcing me to confront the significance of the decision I as making, that in order to honour Him in my studies I would need to consciously bring them before Him, and remain accountable to the wider Christian community for how I pursued them. In retrospect, painful though it was at the time, I’m grateful that I was forced to think through the foundations of my study in this way. As my (somewhat cautionary) contribution to our ‘Why do a PhD?’ strand, I want to highlight three questions I felt I needed to answer as part of committing to PhD studies. Hopefully they’ll be helpful for others considering the same path:

  • What am I doing a PhD for? There are many reasons to pursue further study, but some are stronger than others; I felt I needed to be confident I had a really firm foundation before I set out.
  • Who knows me? I needed to be assured that there was a community who could share the process with you and help me keep my eyes fixed on Jesus. I also needed to be willing to commit to that community as a priority.
  • What’s my vision of academia? I realised that I’d never really thought through how the university as an entity might fit into God’s plans for redeeming creation, and how I might be called to contribute to it in that spirit. I felt it was crucial I thought about that, too, if I was to be a faithful witness there.

Next week, I’ll expand on each of these questions, and on its significance in my own experience of PhD study.

Comments

I’m struck by “accountability to the wider Christian community”. I want to recommend that perspective .
Why has God placed me here, at this time, with this very particular gift, opportunity, achievement, hope, skill-set, knowledge-base, friend? It boils down to: “What must I do with the time that is given me?” – a question we’ll ask over and over again in our lives. We’ll never answer it well without recognising that the Father, in reconciling His beloved cosmos by the death of His Son, is renewing it into a Kingdom where all His first intentions with it will flourish.
It’s unlikely that we are asked ‘out of the blue’ to say what makes us tick as practitioners in scholarship, but starting with the churches we attend, we might create opportunities to explain our calling IN the body of Christ TO the body. It’s not self-evident to them, but with explanation, it can enrich both our understanding and theirs. That way, with all the people of God, we come face-to-face with the height and depth of God’s manifold wisdom and love within the created order itself.

Thanks for the observation, David! I think that’s absolutely right, and for Christians working in the academy it can be really helpful to look at it in that way. Our academic work needn’t be separate from the rest of our service to the body of Christ – actually, it can be central to it!

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