FiSch blog

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!

Transforming the Mind 2015 – a report

Transforming the Mind 2015

Last weekend, about 45 Christian postgrads, postdocs, early career academics and those who work with them gathered at Dovedale House in the tiny village of Ilam in the Peak District. Together we worshipped, listened to talks, ate, shared our stories, went on walks and even had a barn dance! Having been to the conference every year since 2008, every year I am amazed again by the excitement that develops from recognizing each other’s passion and struggles as Christians in academia.

Three speakers stimulated our discussions. Maithrie White, the conference chair, spoke in her opening talk about Romans 11:36 ‘For from him and through him and for him are all things.’ She spoke about the love of learning as a gift from God, about our need to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2) and our calling to be a faithful presence in the university. Christian scholars play a role in creating, restoring and celebrating the world God has made.

Chris Wright gave two talks, provocatively entitled ‘What story are your living in?’ and ‘What mission are you living for?’ He showed us that the Bible is fundamentally a story, a drama in six acts that tell the grand narrative of the universe. We participate in this story, so it is important to find our where we are in this drama and what part we play. The six acts are creation – fall – Old Testament promise – Christ and Gospel – New Testament mission – new creation. Each act has its reverberations in the present. God has a mission and he has created a people through whom he is working to accomplish this mission. The mission of God is to redeem the whole of creation, with redeemed people from every culture, through the cross and resurrection of Christ. This mission is not limited to individual people, but also includes society, culture and creation. God’s intention is that the presence of his people will bring blessing to the whole world, so that one day full redemption will be realized in the new creation. During a time of discussion we were challenged to think this through for our own context. How does my discipline and the university as a whole fit into the Bible’s overarching story? Which bits of God’s good creation does my discipline deal with? How does my discipline show the effects of the Fall? Does my discipline give any glimpses of God reconciling all things to himself (see Colossians 1:20)? Where does it need to be transformed by the gospel?

The final speaker, Rhoda Hawkins, brought us back to the theme of love. So often we see in the university that ‘Knowledge puffs up’, but as Christians, instead what should be our guide is that ‘love builds up’ (1 Cor. 8:1). The insecurity, overblown self-confidence and arrogance that is so typical of many academic environments must be transformed by grace. In this way we, who been given much, will be able to rejoice in the gifts God has given us, and learn to use them to take every opportunity to show God’s love by sharing our faith, inspiring others, challenging the ethics of the university and benefitting society.

So we can pray with St. Aquinas, whose prayer ‘Ante studium’ (‘Before study’) includes these phrases:

‘Instruct my beginning, direct my progress, and set thy seal upon the finished work.’

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!

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.

Why do a PhD? For the love of wisdom…

Field experiment

I started applying for PhD projects mainly because I didn’t want to abandon ideas I’d been developing during my earlier studies.  I had a blue-sky, rose-tinted, starry-eyed view of academic research.  In my final undergraduate exams I may have lost precious marks by trying to work out my own odd ideas instead of focusing on the breadth of existing scholarship that my lecturers had imparted.  So here was an opportunity to redeem myself: I could do a PhD and work everything out in a thesis!

That was back in 2003, and the PhD project I began in Leeds that autumn did have a certain abstruseness to it.  My ecological field experiment wasn’t quite as blue-skied as I could have hoped when West Yorkshire’s weather fronts gave me wet socks and soggy recording sheets.  But there was an exhilarating mix of solitary fieldwork and library visits plus time in labs, offices and the pub with colleagues.  And I had a remarkable supervisor whose mature wisdom was mixed with an enthusiasm as youthful as my own.  I could say that we were both students of God’s works – even if his faith wasn’t in Jesus.

Why did I feel so sure that developing theoretical ideas was right for me in God’s eyes?  Encouragement from other Christians had something to do with it – not so much church friends as, writers, speakers and my parents.  Most recently, a short book called Creation Regained by American theologian Al Wolters had turned out to be not about creationism but a reformational worldview that valued the whole of earthly life.  Prior to that, a discussion circle called “the Big Picture Group” in Cambridge had excited me about serious critical engagement with western culture.  And before that, a bit of Francis Schaeffer, some creation science literature and general encouragement from my parents had led me to expect my faith to have implications for every area of knowledge.  I had little idea how it might work out, but I was sure the journey would be exciting.

Of course, I had a lot to learn. In particular, it’s taken a long time to see where any distinctive fruit of a Christian worldview in ecology might hang. And there were frustrations and periods of dejection, not to mention late nights and loneliness.  But God did more for me in that PhD experience than I could ever have imagined. I think the Spirit also achieved more through me than I had hoped, although it’s often harder to see the fruits of our faith in the wider world.

So what would I say now to a Christian considering the PhD journey?

  1. Take your giftings and passions as a guide.  Do you love wisdom even without being able to see its practical impact?  If not, there are other ways to change the world!
  2. Be really stringent about finding supervisors you can work with: try especially to get advice from other students of a supervisor.
  3. Seek God’s wisdom from every source you can.  Be sure that Jesus is lord in your discipline, even if you can’t see how!

Mentoring for Christian postgraduates

If you read our “About” page, you’ll see that Faith-in-Scholarship is all about “Dynamic Christian thinking in the university and beyond”. Within that, there is a particular focus on supporting postgraduate students. Today we have an announcement about one aspect of that.

One way in which Christian postgraduates can grow as Christian scholars and thinkers is through local groups. These provide an excellent opportunity for people to work through what it means to follow Jesus as a postgraduate student.

But, as well as learning from your peers, it is also important to learn from more experienced Christian scholars. This can happen in those local groups. For example, you could invite lecturers to give talks or to share their testimonies, or you could read articles and books by Christian thinkers. But this will only get you so far; to really benefit from their wisdom requires more focused, long-term, one-to-one support: mentoring.

Now, probably the best way for this to happen is if your supervisor is just such an experienced Christian scholar. That is, not just a scholar who happens to be a Christian, but someone who has thought long and hard about how to approach and understand your discipline in a faithfully Christian way. But most Christian postgraduates do not find themselves in this position.

So what other possibilities are there? How can Christian postgraduates find a mentor?

This is something we’ve been working on. We’ve been laying some foundations, and making contacts, so that we now have potential mentors lined up in most subjects. We’d now like to link those mentors with potential mentees. Would you be interested? Why not get in touch and see if we can make some connections?

We don’t have a rigid pre-defined plan for what this mentoring will look like. It could be as simple as being introduced to each other, and then having someone you can email with questions every so often. Or it could involve meeting face-to-face, or chatting via Skype every couple of months. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

How can churches support their postgrads?

Last week we considered some of the contributions postgrads can make to their churches. This week, we’re turning the question around: how can churches support the postgraduates in their congregation?

The basic answer to this question, I think, is at first sight rather down-to-earth and simple: churches can support their postgraduates in the same way in which they support other believers with a wide variety of callings. The apostle Paul encourages us: ‘Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ (Col. 3:17; see similar exhortations in 1 Cor. 7:17 and Col. 3:23). One of the main functions of church services is therefore to build the congregation up so that they can serve God faithfully in the callings that He has given them – whether that be as a housewife, administrative officer or university professor (Eph. 4:11-13, Heb. 10:24). In Christ we are a renewed humanity, called to be fruitful, to till and keep the earth (Gen. 1:28, 2:15), and to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mk. 16:15; emphasis mine). This ‘building up’ happens in a variety of ways: through teaching the Bible, through praying for one another, through sharing life. The latter can be particularly valuable to postgraduates, who can feel isolated because they are often far from their families, sometimes even in another country, or because they lose themselves so much in their work that their social needs suffer. All of these aspects of being church should equip us for service to God, which we render in all that we do, including our studies and research.

However, I suspect that the main readership of this blog is postgrads themselves, and not necessarily their church leaders! So what can you yourself do to help your church to support you better? As Thom wrote last week, we need to get stuck in, and allow others to get to know us, so they can pray for the things we are struggling with.

Other believers can help us to gain a biblical perspective on things that we struggle with in our research. Likely the church does not always have the depth of knowledge that is needed to help with specific issues with, e.g. literary criticism. But you may find that another body of believers, such as a local postgraduate group, can help you with this.

Also, by offering our specific expertise, e.g. in an interview, by giving a talk or leading a discussion, not only does the church benefit from the knowledge we have been privileged to gain, but we ourselves also grow in our service to our church. So if you have knowledge, skills or experiences you could offer your church, make them available! And don’t wait for the opportunities to present themselves to you: take the first step, and ask how your gifts can be of service. Do not be discouraged: you will find that over time, situations will emerge in which your specific knowledge and skills can be put to good use in the body of Christ.

What can postgrads contribute to the church?

Recently upon chatting with an older and wiser Christian we got onto the topic of discerning the idols of our culture. He, a pastor from Cambridge, quickly came out with the following: “healthcare and education”. Now, agree with him or not, his answer was telling. He continued by saying that the two people groups among his congregation that most often shrank back from service in the church and felt justified in doing so were doctors and academics. Why? Well, the answer seemed obvious; our culture thinks that education and healthcare will solve the world’s biggest problems and so what they’re doing is really making a difference.

Being a wannabe “education professional,” i.e. a postgrad, I wondered (1) if this were true and (2) if it were, what I could do to change that? Whether or not these are the two idols of our culture (I don’t know), I think his observation should be considered and might shape an answer to the question “what can postgrads contribute to the church?”

Getting stuck in with the everyday

The first answer is: they can get stuck in with the everyday activities of the church.

This is probably not the answer you might expect coming from a Christian postgrad. But, first and foremost, we should let the body of believers direct our activities. If there is a need for coffee servers, children’s leaders, treasurers, readers, or cleaners, then we should be prepared to sacrifice our preconceived ideas about how we might contribute to the church and get stuck in. The church needs its members to be sacrificial; that includes those who are in the academy. I say this because it’s a temptation of mine (as I’m sure it’s true of many academics) to read all week, attend church, and then hit the books again, falsely thinking that my doing my PhD is the only real way I can serve God.

Use our gifts for God’s mission

But this warning aside, the role of the Christian postgrad can be far richer than one might have previously thought. The church needs people who understand the prevailing ideologies of our culture. People who can critique, enrich and engage the ideas that surround us. In a previous post I quoted Don Carson:

we ought to be encouraging our best and brightest to demonstrate love for God with their minds and hearts, taking on the strongholds of intellectual lostness with exactly the same kind of missionary zeal that we want to take on the strongholds of, say, Islam and Buddhism. Moreover, the need is not just evangelistic and apologetic. Much of this work should be motivated by a passionate desire to offer God our best in every domain of life, whether we are grinding valves on a motorcycle engine or wrestling with the magisterial voices of the Western philosophical tradition. The Kuyperian vision of not one square inch where Jesus does not say, “This is mine!” is not a restrictively geographical sweep.

– i.e. Jesus’ lordship extends through all of culture as well as all the earth.

What can Christian postgrads contribute to the church? A 500 word blog post will not even begin to answer this question, but I hope this post has been a catalyst for your own thinking.

Reflecting on music and faith

As someone who’s recently signed up as a new FiSch Fellow, I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself and my interests. I’m a musician and music lecturer based in York, and I enjoy the kind of ‘portfolio career’ that’s becoming increasingly common for those involved in academia, and especially in the arts. I work variously as a music lecturer, piano accompanist, instrumental teacher, ensemble coach and oboist, with an assortment of other music-related odd jobs popping in from time to time as demand dictates. Demand is high at the moment, as the university’s end-of-term concerts loom, marking starts to build up, pupils enter for summertime instrumental exams, and students gear up for final recitals, hunting around for a pianist willing to accompany them. ‘Scholarship’ for me thus covers a broad range of activities: as well as reading, writing, thinking and teaching, it involves the day-to-day physical activity of practice, rehearsals and performances, as well as listening to, arranging and sometimes composing music.

It’s good to have a moment to step back from this day-to-day activity and think about what it really means to serve God as a musician – and particularly as an ‘academic musician’ (or a ‘musical academic’, or a ‘musical scholar’ – I can’t say I’ve got the terminology sorted yet!). I find the challenge when things get busy is to keep an awareness of the connection between all these different activities, and their basis in the gifts and calling of God. Rather than resenting yet another rehearsal because it takes time from my writing, it’s important for me to remember what that a rehearsal is a gracious, communal act – a musician putting in time to help to serve the composer whose music they are playing. The same goes for performance – part of a musician’s calling to serve their community by sharing their gifts with them – and, more obviously, for teaching. Of course, as someone called to make music for Jesus, it’s not really surprising that when I am able to engage with these activities with the right kind of mentality, I find that it has a positive knock-on effect on my other scholarly activities, too.

I’m looking forward to being able to reflect further on serving God in the field of arts scholarship in future blog posts here, and in the process to get closer acquainted with some of the most important recent writings on theology and the arts. A few questions that I want to think about more as part of these blogs:

How does modern music, and modern art more generally, fit within a Christian worldview? (My PhD study revolved around recent music from a loosely avant-garde tradition, so it makes sense that this question would be important to me.)

What role(s) can artistic activity and artistic scholarship play in building the Kingdom of Heaven?

How can the common Biblical connection between music and communal worship feed into my musical activities day to day?

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on these topics, too, and other questions about the arts, music and faith that need considering.

How do Christians vote?

A guest post by Will Allchorn, a PhD student in Leeds

As a Christian studying politics, I always find it fascinating looking at intersections between my faith and politics. Last Thursday’s UK General Election gave me this chance. Here are some of the findings I unearthed having looked at the political science literature on Christian voting in the UK.

1. ‘Religion Matters’

One common view in UK politics is to see UK politics as secular politics and therefore to ignore religious dimensions of political activity. Famously summed up in the phrase ‘We don’t do God’, it points to the lack of Christian parties and the rise of secularism in UK society to suggest that religion is not an important factor in how people vote.
An alternative, minority view is that religion matters. For example in Northern Ireland, communal divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism are still key predictors. Moreover, north of the border, people still talk of a confessional divide between Catholics and the Church of Scotland.

2. Denominational Voting

Two political scientists in this second camp are Stephen Fisher[2] and James Tilley[3] at the University of Oxford. Here are some of their findings:

a) The Anglican Church: Still the Conservative Party on its knees?

One truism about Christian voting in the UK is that Church of England Church goers tend to vote Conservative. Below are 2015 figures of voting intention that bear this point out:

However, there has been a shift away from this norm. UKIP’s popularity has actually risen more among Church of England adherents than in the general population. This questions the stability of this received wisdom.

b) The Catholic Church: The Labour Party at Prayer?

Meanwhile, political science evidence shows that Catholics tend to predominantly vote Labour. Looking at the graph below, however, we can see this ebbing slightly from the mid-1990’s.

In fact, this graph suggests that Catholics now increasingly vote Conservative. This switch suggests that Catholics’ socially-conservative beliefs, particularly on issues of society and morality, are now matching how they vote.

c) Non-Conformists: The Liberal Democrats at Prayer?

A final trend in denominational voting is that Baptists, Methodists and other non-conformist congregations are more likely to vote Liberal Democrat. As shown by the graph below, this relationship is not as stable as the above two, but it is a commonplace suggestion.


What can we conclude from this? While it can perhaps be too bold to suggest that one’s Christianity affects how one votes, we can suggest that historical linkages of culture and social background shape how different UK denominations cast their ballots. More research needs to be done into the exact reasons, however, and despite suggestions that ‘We don’t do God’, the above evidence contests that claim.



[1] Clements, Ben and Spencer, Nick (2014) Voting and Values in Britain: Does Religion Count? London: Theos

[2] Fisher, Stephen (20th Feb 2015) ‘UKIP rise more among Church of England members’ LSE General Election 2015 Blog

[3] Tilley, James (11th Dec 2014) ‘Religion is an important predictor of party choice in UK general elections’ LSE General Election 2015 Blog