A few years ago on FiSch we began a series called ‘Why do a PhD?’ – trying to give some food for thought to readers who might be considering doctoral study. The blogging team has turned over somewhat since then, and new instalments are in order. Today is my turn – in my case, ‘Why do a DPhil?’ (Oxford stubbornly retains the alternative abbreviation, just to give its graduate students that little bit more explaining to do.)

I’m heading towards the end of my third year as a doctoral student, and my journey here doesn’t take long to recount. I always loved reading, and studying literature; an English degree was a natural step to take, and I vividly remember sitting in a talk at the Oxford English Faculty open day and thinking – yes, this is exactly what I want to be doing every day for three years! As I came towards the end of that degree, I still felt mostly the same way, and knew I wanted more. After taking a brief break to do some ‘normal’ work, I was ready to plunge into the academic world again as a postgrad. I spent a year in Cambridge getting my Master’s and then headed back to Oxford for the DPhil.

When I was thinking about whether to go into further study – during the last year of my undergrad and the year following – I was in a similar time of decision to all of my peers: what did I want to do with my life? Academia would never have crossed my mind before Oxford, but now I had tutors as role models and numerous friends considering postgrad degrees. I thought about the questions which a previous post in this series brought up: Do I love it? Am I good at it? Is it worthwhile? The first two were simple to answer; the third, I was increasingly convinced, I could also say yes to. I was reading various books and articles about God’s love and purpose for everything in his world, including literature; I did the ‘Transforming Vision’ course with the Thinking Faith Network, which introduces the basics of the Reformational outlook on living and flourishing in God’s world. I had more and more reason to think that studying further would be a great way to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’.

The more important ‘why’ for me, though, wasn’t (and isn’t) for the abstract idea of doing a PhD or DPhil. I was drawn to a particular area of literature – medieval religious literature – and a particular topic – recluses and their communities. Why did I want to study this specific thing? Partially it was that I had an excellent, encouraging tutor for the medieval period. But more personally, medieval religious texts were eye-opening and engrossing, weird and wonderful, challenging my preconceived ideas of Christian history and bringing together two parts of my mind and life – my love for literature and my faith.

I was drawn in by the questions being asked, both by the medieval writers themselves and the modern critics analysing them, and what those questions might mean for my understanding of my own spiritual life as well as of literature. I wanted to be able to give good answers, on both counts; I wanted not to be divided in my thinking. If all truth is God’s truth, then there had to be ways to talk about all the things I was thinking about – the self, in relation to God and other people; time and history and our place in them; reading and prayer and eternity – which wouldn’t undermine the different perspectives I was balancing, but instead integrate them.

I’m still pursuing that undivided, integrated way of living and thinking. I quickly realised a DPhil was never going to answer all my questions, whether academic or spiritual. And thinking deeply doesn’t necessarily lead to living rightly. But on a fundamental level, it felt and still feels right to me to serve God by asking and exploring these particular questions.

If you’re considering further academic study, this is perhaps something to consider. Why this field, and not another? Why this topic, and not something else? There are many good answers to those questions, but if you’re a Christian, somewhere at the base of yours should be a desire to serve and glorify God in the work you do – as only you can.

Alicia Smith

Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.