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?
- 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!
- Be really stringent about finding supervisors you can work with: try especially to get advice from other students of a supervisor.
- 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!