FAQ: To PhD or not to PhD

Surprise! I’m still alive!

Since last summer, I’ve been buried in research and writing. If the Lord wills and the creek don’t rise (as we say in the south), I’ll defend my dissertation on April 18th and step into a new (and highly anticipated) season of life and ministry. I am humbled and incredibly thankful for all the words and notes of encouragement and faithful prayers; one day I’ll have to write a mini-memoir about how the Holy Spirit has shown up over and over again, effectively carrying me through this entire process. Glory be.

As I draw near the end of a 10 year journey through grad school, there has been a significant increase in the number of master’s students and graduates of master’s programs who have sought my advice about whether or not to pursue doctoral work and how to go about deciding on a program. I thought I’d write up a short, to-the-point advice piece based upon my observations and experience. What follows is specifically intended for those whose work has a significant (though not necessarily exclusive) focus upon apologetics, broadly conceived.

So you’re pondering the possibility of doctoral work…

First: Do a Lot of Honest (!!) Soul-Searching. Image result for doctoral cap

Why are you considering doctoral work, really? If you are driven mainly by a desire to expand your public platform (credibility, more prestigious speaking invitations, a publisher for your book proposal, etc.) you have some serious prayer and contemplation to do before continuing your education. Front and center on my desk, I have a neon-orange index card on which I’ve written Galatians 1:10, which reads:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

If you are totally honest with yourself, and you find that your deepest desire is something other than building the Kingdom as a servant of Christ, what you need right now is a season of spiritual formation, not doctoral studies. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: chasing limelight is destructive to the soul. Would you still consider PhD work if you weren’t going to get those three magical letters after your name? If you worked your you-know-what off for the next five-plus years to earn a PhD, and Christ (not you) got 100% of the attention and acclaim for it, would you rejoice in that? How you answer these questions matters…a lot.

Second: Do you need a PhD? 

Analyze the kind of work you’re doing right now. Are you passionate about blogging, writing popular level material such as Bible studies, devotionals, and practical/accessible apologetics books? The Kingdom needs these things! They are highly valuable! But they don’t require a PhD. If you are able to proficiently engage with the level of literature necessary for the kind of work you do, and you aren’t seeking to engage with or contribute to higher scholarship (academic journals, books, conference papers), you likely don’t need to invest years of your (and your family’s) life and tens of thousands of dollars in a doctoral program. Your work would benefit far more from other kinds of training and experience.

If you are intent upon working in academia full time and long term, then yes, doctoral work is necessary. However, you need to know that academic posts in theology/apologetics/philosophy are extraordinarily difficult to obtain (the market is flooded–hundreds of applicants per opening). And I will also say that working in academia is often highly romanticized. Professors are extremely busy and spend a lot of time doing non-glamorous things; it’s not like the movies, where profs wax poetic in majestic lecture halls full of riveted, starry-eyed students and then sit around in artsy coffee houses with their tweed-coated colleagues, leisurely discussing deep topics and reading aloud from their manuscripts-in-progress. We have to wait until we get to Heaven for that.

If full time academia is not your goal, that doesn’t automatically mean you have no legitimate reason to pursue the higher degree. The question I had to be able to answer in the affirmative was whether or not doctoral studies would best equip me for my known calling. In other words, would it be the preferred route for further developing the particular specialized skill set and knowledge base necessary for the fulfillment of my vocational/ministry calling. In my case, the answer was yes; I needed to be mentored as a researcher and writer by seasoned academics, because I believe I’m meant to engage with higher scholarship in several connected disciplines, and also work to integrate and translate this knowledge for pastors and laypersons in the church. Essentially, the range of writing and teaching I need to do means that I have one foot in academia and one foot in the church. Perhaps this describes you as well.

Third: What kind of PhD program is best for you? 

If you’ve made it though the first two points still convinced that you are indeed meant to do PhD work, your next question is what kind of program you need. You absolutely must zero in on a specific topic you are passionate about. It doesn’t necessarily have to be extremely narrow, but it needs to have a well-defined focus. You might try writing out several thesis statements for your research interests. In fact, keep a running list of these and edit them as inspiration strikes. Look for common themes in your statements; do they tend towards theology, philosophy, history, literature, or science? This will give you a good idea of the direction you need to go. Because of the very interdisciplinary nature of my interests, I chose a Great Books based general humanities program that offered several options for official concentration. This has allowed me to explore various relevant facets of Western intellectual history and put them into conversation with the contemporary scholarship related to my research topic. A program limited to just one of the above-mentioned areas wouldn’t have given me both the latitude and depth I needed in a program. To be clear, this approach doesn’t make you a generalist; rather, it enables you to specialize in something that is, by nature, interdisciplinary.

It’s also important to understand that a PhD from a seminary versus a PhD from a university will open different avenues for you. It should probably go without saying that a PhD from a seminary wouldn’t be a wise choice if your goal is to work in a secular university. When evaluating the programs that are available to you based upon your previous education and your ability to relocate (or not), be sure to first investigate the accreditation of the institution. That factor will affect your post-graduation prospects if your goal is full-time academia. There is also a lot to be said for doing a program at a secular university, if you plan to engage in higher-level scholarly debate and polemic writing. If you hope to serve specifically at a seminary, in academic theology, or as a full-time teacher/pastor in a church, a seminary program could be just right for you.

I hope this has been helpful to you in some way! God’s blessings upon your discernment process.

Peace of the Lord be always with you. +

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