From the observatory to the pulpit


A large percentage of PhD students don’t follow a career in academia … will it all turn out to have been a waste of time?

This is something of a ‘farewell’ post from me, as I’m stepping down from the Faith-in-Scholarship blogging team, in order to concentrate on my studies, as I move to Durham to train for ordained ministry in the Church of England.

The photo dates from May 2005, and shows me (on the left), in the first year of my PhD, on an observing trip to Hawaii. (What sacrifices we make in the name of science!) I was working on a large project to survey a significant fraction of the sky, and to catalogue many thousands of galaxies. That was followed by a few years of postdoctoral research, also on galaxy surveys, during which I gradually made the transition from astronomy to computer software, until I left astronomy completely in 2013 and started working on non-astronomical software. But during all that time I had a growing desire to pursue church ministry as a possibility, and that has taken shape in the last few years.

How on earth (or in heaven!) can a PhD in astronomy be useful preparation for church ministry? I can think of five things I picked up through being a postgraduate, which I’m sure will be useful in the years to come.

Transferable and ‘soft’ skills. This should be familiar territory, particularly for those working in the sciences, where you often end up working on big collaborative projects. But all PhD students learn a lot about perseverance: how to keep going, for a long period of time, even when you don’t seem to be making any progress. You learn to put a lot of love into your work, in faith and hope that it will bear fruit in due course. This is good training for any vocation you may end up pursuing.

Intellectual virtues. The discipline of writing a thesis inevitably moulds your character in many ways. You grow in fairness, integrity, empathy, and your ability to reason clearly. And you gain a greater sense of humility. The one thing I learned more than anything else during my PhD was how little I knew, and how little I still know!

Astronomical knowledge. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about really, really, really big things. That seems like good preparation for studying theology!

An appreciation of the diversity of human vocations. Doing something arcane and apparently useless forces you to think about why it is worthwhile. Why should Christians do obscure PhDs? Why not do something more obviously worthwhile instead? Having wrestled seriously with that question myself, I hope I will be able to support and encourage all kinds of Christians to pursue their callings and vocations as something worthwhile and God-given.

A wife. I would never have met fellow-blogger Eline had I not done a PhD!

I hope you will also be able to look back on your PhD years with a similar sense of gratitude. But even those years in our lives we may consider to be ‘wasted’ are never wasted in God’s purposes: just think of the years Joseph ‘wasted’ in prison, or the years Moses ‘wasted’ in the wilderness. Or think of how Paul was able to look back even on his many persecutions without regret or bitterness. All the years of our lives, whether good or bad, are heading towards that great day of Christ’s return, when all will be made new, and when all tears will be wiped away.


My prayers and best wishes as you prepare for the ministry.

Many thanks Roy, much appreciated!

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