Walking into a classroom at one of the top universities in the world after 12 years out of education was a daunting yet exhilarating experience on many levels. Will I be the oldest on my course? Will I know how to write in English at this level? How will I balance three children with a full time+ course? Will I fit in as a Christian? Is this real – am I actually walking through these medieval doors?
After a couple of months in the clouds though, reality started to settle through other clouds – exhaustion and isolation. I wasn’t the oldest, but nearly. Writing Oxford-level English was a learning curve, especially as a non-native speaker – but thoroughly enjoyable. Balancing the children with a PGCE course… well, I did get some sleep between 02:00 and 06:00. And I wasn’t the only Christian on the course – but fitting in was still another matter.
In the meanwhile, I was writing assignments, and for each I managed to find topics that related to my faith. This was important for me, and as a trainee religious education teacher with a Theology degree, it was not that difficult to get away with. I did start to wonder though – do other Christians feel the same as I do? Do they fit in? Do they also try to integrate their faith with their academic work? How do they manage life with studies?
Undeniably, I was in the best place to find out, with subscriptions to all journals imaginable at my fingertips, and a library with over 13 million printed books. I set to work. But I found nothing on the experiences of Christian postgraduate students. First, I thought I must be doing something wrong, so I asked for the librarians’ help. It turned out, there really was virtually nothing to be found in the English-speaking literature regarding people like me. Sure, there was some information about the experiences of religious undergraduate students, some even about Christians. But it was clear both from my own background and from conversations with others that being a graduate student is a significantly different experience to that of our undergraduate years – both as a student and as a follower of Christ.
Thus started my journey through a research Master’s and then a PhD, in order to facilitate the exploration of a student body making up a quarter of England’s almost 550.000 postgraduate students.
The first findings from just one university – my MSc research – were fascinating, and clearly indicative of a need for further exploration. I hope to share some of the results in a later post. But for now, that would spoil the fun by potentially influencing the results of a much larger scale project running at present:
The next step in my academic journey is a mixed-methods study, exploring who Christian graduate students are and how they perceive their university experience as students of faith.
And now over to you. I shared some of my experiences with you. Will you share yours with me? Please fill in the survey www.christianpostgrads.org if you are a postgraduate student in England, and/or send the link to Christian postgraduates you know in England. They can win a £100 gift card if they complete the questionnaire.
But more importantly, we can gain a better understanding of who Christians in academia are and of their needs within and contributions to higher education.
Szilvi Watson is a doctoral student at Kellogg College, Oxford. A native of Hungary, she has lived in the UK with her British husband and 3 children for 10 years, 4 of which have been spent studying student religiosity. When not juggling books, data and family life, she loves walking, tending her cichlids and creating quilts.