The function of graduate work is to make specialists out of generalists. There is nothing wrong with being a generalist, but generalists are aggregators of knowledge. Specialists have an opportunity to add to the realm of human knowledge.
Ph.D. study refines the specialty of the specialist, revealing knowledge the generalist learns later.
If these assertions are true of knowledge in scientific and historical fields, they are no less true regarding the religious Ph.D.
Here are a few thoughts about why you should consider seeking a Ph.D. today.
Ph.D. Work Adds to Human Knowledge
The simple circle represents all human knowledge. After elementary school, we know a little represented by a very small circle in the middle of the larger circle of all human knowledge.
In high school, we learn a bit more and the circle in the middle enlarges. After a bachelor’s degree, one gains a specialty and the circle enlarges again along with an extended bulge. A master’s degree deepens that special area, represented by a longer protrusion of the specialty bulge.
Research papers then take us to the edge of human knowledge. Once we reach the boundary, we focus and we push at the boundary for a few years until one day the boundary gives way.
That dent in human knowledge is called a Ph.D.
Basically the doctor of philosophy dissertation contributes to human knowledge in a way previously not done.
I have a Ph.D. focused on missiology, but I mainly focused on North America. I studied everything foreign missions practitioners do, but I did it in a North American context. Then, I did my dissertation on the strategy
When I walked into my doctoral dissertation committee to defend my research, they said, “Ed, you know more about this than we do, so why don’t you just tell us.” That’s what a Ph.D. dissertation is supposed to be—you should be the expert on your dissertation subject.
A person completing a dissertation should know more than anybody else in the world about that one topic. They may not know much else(!), but they must be a world-class expert in that one subject.
The Goal of a Ph.D.
Every Ph.D. candidate should strive to make original contributions to scholarship. I don’t think many Ph.D. students do that anymore. Too many Ph.D. candidates simply rehearse and regurgitate knowledge available to everyone else. Such a process contributes nothing to human knowledge.
If a Ph.D. dissertation fails to add knowledge to humanity, it should not be Ph.D. Period.
If you are pursuing a Ph.D. study—something that adds knowledge to a specific topic—you could become the world’s leading expert in that area. At the very least you will make other experts in that field more knowledgeable.
My dissertation was on church-planting systems. I became an expert on the systems that undergird church planting in denominations. As a result, I know information about church-planting systems: their development, history, and assessment process.
I researched things that nobody else in the whole world had researched (maybe because no one wanted to!). I did a statistical analysis on the efficacy of those church-planting systems in a specific denominational context over a multi-year period. I became the world’s expert on church-planting systems by expanding the world’s knowledge on this specific topic.
I’m not smart in EVERYthing; very few people are. But if you are doing a Ph.D., you should be an expert in that thing.
I’m often asked about what topics I’d suggest for dissertations.
I think a fascinating dissertation topic would be on alternative ecclesial communities. In light of the decline and ultimate death of emergent churches as a viable force for mission advancement in North America, alternative ecclessial communities have taken that place in some of those now alternative contexts. That dissertation would be fascinating.
Other Ph.D. ideas include
- The defining and determinant factors that are driving people away from denominations and into networks.
- Augustine is quoted as saying, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” An interesting dissertation would be a global study about the questions people are asking about Christianity. A question to be answered is what is the God-shaped hole looking like in different cultures and contexts?
- I would love to see a research project on the elongation of the conversion process. I believe conversion is a punctiliar moment in time. There is a time when you are dead in your trespasses and sins, and then a time when you’re alive in Christ. What are the factors leading to conversion? What are the objections?
- A study on people who de-converted.
- The efficacy of campus ministry.