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February 10, 2021Leadership

PhDs: Who Needs to Finish Them?

Getting a PhD might not always be a linear path, but it is a valuable experience.
PhDs: Who Needs to Finish Them?
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I do. I need to finish. Not because Dr. Dan Treier is the beloved director of my program and offers good arguments. And not because a PhD would help achieve my dream of becoming a MN Vikings team chaplain.

I need to finish because I have a waitlist letter from Wheaton waiting to be framed as a reminder to never limit God to my lack of creativity.

When I first applied to PhD programs, I hoped to be a professor in a Bible college or seminary and teach overseas (whether fulltime or during the summers). As a woman in the U.S. I recognized firsthand that my work be taken more seriously if I had a doctorate. I also saw the demand for PhD-credentialed faculty in the Majority World for accreditation.

I narrowed my passions to apply to programs in biblical ethics. However, I was waitlisted at two institutions (including Wheaton). I determined to reapply. The Lord used that year of waiting to refine my writing, critical thinking, and scholarly interests. Since preaching was my “side hobby,” I decided to boost my CV by presenting a paper at the Evangelical Homiletics Society conference. There, God opened doors beyond my dreams. I discovered I could become an OT scholar who contributes to homiletics. Had I been accepted the first time I applied to Wheaton, I never would have known that I, as a woman, could do serious academic work in homiletics.

When I entered Wheaton, I was giddy. At the PhD level, I felt like I could finally love the Lord with all my mind. I was my only limitation. And I met my limitations quickly, while wearily cramming for German or receiving crushing feedback on papers. But the two-year application process left me without a doubt that the Lord had brought me to Wheaton. I would either graduate or die. (Trying to figure out German sentence structure made me a bit dramatic).

Not everyone has the certainty I gained from my personal experience. So, I offer some reasons why, by God’s grace, I intend to finish my PhD. I frame these as encouragements to other weary students. I then offer corresponding “That said” sections for those: 1) who are considering applying for PhDs and/or 2) who may advise PhD applicants.

Finish a PhD…
  • If finishing the degree is an act of faithfulness. My other reasons below assume this. I have godly, brilliant friends who have withdrawn from PhD programs for reasons that involved being faithful to the Lord, such as supporting their family in crisis or managing physical/mental health. Too often, academia confuses workaholism for faithfulness. That said, do not enroll in a PhD program if you are doing so for your own ego, status, or sense of prestige. Build a “sending” community to faithfully pray you through the process. Only apply for a PhD program if your spouse is on board, not guilted into consenting. Collaboratively strategize to serve and empower your family as they make sacrifices with you. If you are single, don’t assume you’ll have more time. You’ll have to bring home the bacon –and cook it and clean up after it –with no one to hold you and tell you they still love you when you’re at breaking point. Invest in a church community with a healthy theology of singleness.
  • If finishing the program is a way to love the LORD with all your mind. “For wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Prov 8:11). Fellow PhD colleagues, have you lost sight of pursuing wisdom in pursuing the next addition to your CV? Revising our writing, clarifying our communication, and defending our arguments are formative processes. In our idolization of status and credentials, we can miss the goal of learning. A learning community has the power to sharpen our minds and support our spirits. That said, apply to PhD programs with a grave sense of spiritual obligation. Choose programs that care about forming you as a scholar —intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Prioritize mentors/programs with reputations of caring for their students. Do not apply only to those who are famous. It is better to be formed into the image of Christ than to gain the approval of the Church and lose your soul.
  • If you are a woman or an ethnic minority. Anecdotally, I have seen women/minorities propose more integrative topics, constructing much-needed scholarly contributions. However, women and minorities face unique challenges before, during, and after the program. Although there are generally more hiring prospects now, you will feel pressure to prove that you weren’t “just a minority hire.” That said, the application process will be difficult. You may not know anyone in your demographic with a PhD. Single women may battle the lies that it’ll make you more intimidating, that “when you find the right guy, that stuff [preaching, PhD, etc.] won’t matter,” or that you’re a liability to the Church. I am in PhD studies because Darrell Bock accepted me as an intern when another opportunity fell through due to my gender. Pastors too often neglect encouraging their women to pursue seminary or doctoral studies. I was terrified to tell my supportive former pastor, Gary Brandenburg, that I might shift my focus toward homiletics. He’s kind but bluntly pragmatic. Instead of responding with skepticism, he gave me a look that said, “Well, duh, you should!” My current pastor, Mitch Kim, attended my first ETS presentation, and it meant the world. Pastors, know the gifts of women in your congregation. Wherever you fall on the complementarian/egalitarian spectrum, the intellectual gifts of the women in your congregation are a matter of your stewardship. You could be their help or hindrance in their quest to love the Lord with all their minds.
  • If your project will contribute to the Church. My topic combines my passions for theology of suffering, hermeneutics, and preaching Christ in the Old Testament. The Church needs quality research on biblical and theological topics. That said, not every worthy topic will directly change the lives of Christians in the marketplace. Faithful excellence in obscurity can honor the Lord. Determine how researching your topic is forming you to serve the Church.
  • If you are willing to contribute to a more constructive evangelicalism. In our “uncivil war,” there is an increasing evangelical anti-intellectualism that associates education with a liberal elite. In contemporary political and ecclesial opportunism, both the right and the left are driven by fear, unable to charitably evaluate constructive responses to our fears. PhD programs have not always facilitated growth in gracious dialogue. But they can. And thoughtful, integrative biblical-theological scholarship informs our cultural engagement better than pitiful proof-texting and pithy tweets. That said, it is vital to invest in the local church and have friends outside of academia. Consider ministry involvement in diverse settings before beginning PhD studies. I spent my seminary summers working for a missions organization and teaching overseas. Building deep relationships with those serving on the front lines of ministry has shaped the questions I bring to my work and reminds me of the world outside my red brick tower.

If you take away nothing else, know that we can’t separate our personal journeys from our academic journeys. While a friend prayed over me today, I saw the Wheaton College sign, where I had prayed in the uncertainty after my first interview. The God who brought me to Wheaton in His perfect timing could be trusted in other areas of my life. One day, I hope to hang a framed diploma next to a framed waitlist letter as evidence that the One who began a good work sustained me and was glorified in my completion of a dissertation beyond my finite imagination.

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PhDs: Who Needs to Finish Them?