An influential female leader recently told me she wished she had pursued graduate education at the same time as her husband. But it didn’t even cross her mind.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports women generally make up 53 percent of doctoral students in America. But according to data provided by the Association of Theological Schools, in the United States, women make up only 23 percent of the doctoral students in theological education. Many reasons exist for that discrepancy, and it testifies to the reality that many women don’t even consider theological doctoral work.
Whether or not we have, or should prioritize, equal numbers of men and women in advanced degree programs, we certainly need Christian women to be trained to disciple and serve in our churches. We need women to be theologians. Doctoral work is certainly not the only way to serve the church and society, but it’s one way to be equipped for service.
I finished my doctorate six months ago and, as I look back on the process, I can identify four reasons I pursued my doctorate.
1. I Pursued a Doctorate to Worship
We were made to learn. Learning about God, his Word, and his world leads to awe and worship. Hours of study may seem like a call to drudgery, but ultimately it’s a call to delight.
I not only felt God’s smile on me in my studies, but my studies also made me smile. I readily admit I’m a nerd, but the delight I felt in learning isn’t unique to me. We’re all called to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). We are thinking beings, and worship involves leveraging all we are to show God’s great worth. As John Piper once said, “God-centered exultation is rooted in God-centered education.”
We’re each called to be learners, not necessarily in graduate school or seminary, but we should all feel compelled to use our minds to the glory of God. Read a poem, look closely at a blade of grass, crack open a Bible commentary, or learn to change the oil in your car. Do these things, and delight in the God who made your mind.
2. I Pursued a Doctorate to Be Trained
After my undergraduate graduation, I went on a month-long mission trip to a Christian school in Peru. I taught first-graders how to read, using what I had learned from my mom, a phonics specialist. I also tutored a seventh-grader in percentages. Although math is not my forte, percentages had been my favorite chapter in seventh grade. After the school day, I taught a program for the sixth-grade class who were all failing language arts, and I got to use the same curriculum I’d grown up with.
That trip to Peru demonstrated God’s powerful use of my previous education. God had equipped me even before I was saved to work in that spot with those children (Eph. 2:10). If he had been so purposeful in his preparations for a short trip, I didn’t want to waste any opportunity that he gave me to learn.
The church and the world would benefit greatly from having more theologically trained women.
The end of learning isn’t just for increased knowledge or personal gain. Learning should be used in love to build up the church for God’s glory and honor. My doctorate likely won’t be used in every way I anticipate, but it has been and will continue to be used in ways I can’t imagine. Though I didn’t know if pursuing a doctorate would provide me with a job, I knew I would be better trained for whatever good works God had prepared for me.
3. I Pursued a Doctorate to Steward What I’d Received
When I started my degree, I was 30, single, and working at a college. As I considered how to best leverage my singleness, energy, time, job, and resources, a doctorate seemed wise.
Moreover, it was a matter of stewarding my gifting and passion. I love academics and flourish best when I’m intentionally learning. It also stewarded my influence. Studying prompted me to be a better teacher, a better resident director, a better dean, a better mentor, and a better church member. Being a student made me more compassionate and supportive of those around me.
4. I Pursued a Doctorate to Grow in Faith
I pursued my doctorate because I wanted to grow, not just in knowledge but also in faith. The Lord used my doctoral program—the content and the process—to grow me spiritually. Doctoral work is hard. James 1 says to count it all joy when you face trials of various kinds, since the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. Doctoral work fits into that category. The result, he says, is “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4). Trials rightly encountered and endured lead to Christlikeness. That’s just as true of the challenges and hardships that come through a doctorate.
I was led to the end of myself in doctoral work; I learned dependence and trust as a result. I had a twice-yearly ritual. I found the same staircase on campus, sat on the bottom step, and recounted how God had been faithful to that point in my studies. When I finished the first way I had seen him act, I would move up a step and recount the next way and then the next. I eventually outgrew the staircase. God’s faithfulness to me in the program was so abundant there weren’t enough steps to count all the ways he had worked.
You might think a doctorate isn’t for the faint of heart. I was often faint in heart, weak, and discouraged. But the Lord provided encouragement, resources, and strength. When God guides, God provides. My faith grew as I stepped into doctoral work and watched expectantly, knowing he would have to act.
These aren’t the only reasons to pursue a doctorate, but I hope women understand the great advantage and joy of pursuing doctoral studies for the glory of God. The church and the world would benefit greatly from having more theologically trained women.