Waiting for the ink to dry on my recent PhD diploma, I began reflecting on the last several years of academic activity. Several questions quickly arose in my mind. Does the church need more trained servants with PhDs? With the rise in number of people with PhDs and significant instability in many sectors of Christian higher education, can I, in good conscience, encourage others to pursue PhDs? The title “independent scholar” is becoming increasingly commonplace at academic meetings, and a brief survey of the employment center at an annual Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) meeting reveals the days of getting a degree and simply walking into a professorship are long gone. So, if the PhD no longer holds the same career-enabling power as a “union card” for the academy, why go through the trouble?

Despite the fact that earning a PhD may not immediately land you a full-time teaching job, there are immeasurable benefits to the experience. Pursuing a PhD may not transform your career, but there is little doubt it will affect your character.

Here are four ways I found the experience helpful.

1. Precision

During my PhD study I had the privilege of doing a one-on-one tutorial with a reputable scholar. I wrote several papers, and upon their completion he would sit and listen to me read my work aloud. He would then dissect my imprecise sentences, pointing out the vague language and easily misunderstood assertions. My immediate response was, “Well, what I meant was . . .” only to have him say through a stonewalled mug, “You didn’t write that. Why didn’t you say that, if that’s what you meant?” While frustrating at the time, this experience taught me the importance of taking great care with my words in an effort to remove ambiguity and increase clarity.

Precision with ideas and words is often sorely lacking in Christian circles. We need more people who have spent years fighting for the right words, knowing and believing that words matter. We need clear and articulate writers and orators. Not everyone needs a PhD, of course, but the church does need more servants who have labored to develop precision in their thinking and writing about critical theological realities.

2. Accountability

In addition to enhancing precision, the exercises of writing and presenting research reinforce accountability in our work. Pursuing academic excellence means checking your sources for accuracy, making sure you’re presenting other positions fairly, and recognizing you will give an account for the words you speak and write. It means being grounded in the awareness that you’re speaking into a community of scholars of which you are merely one. This is a powerful corrective in a society rife with social media soundbites passing for theological dialogue. As Christians, we need more people who have committed themselves to communicate with honesty, integrity, and care in their writing and speaking.

3. Disciplined Endurance

PhDs don’t come easy. They require serious commitment, both from the student and his or her family. Find someone with a PhD and ask about the time he or she almost quit the program; you’re sure to find a story at hand. (Mine coincided with my first comprehensive exam.) Intellectual “heavy lifting” is a wise exercise for men and women who foresee themselves in vocational ministry for the rest of their lives. Stretching ourselves intellectually—month after month, year after year—strengthens minds and sharpens time-management skills.

I like to run long-distance races, and I’m often struck by how much mental discipline is involved in completing a half-marathon or marathon. When you begin training the first mile feels impossible, but once you’ve completed a five-miler, running one mile is a piece of cake. The same goes for intellectual processes: pushing hard, even if it’s just for a season, will transform a person’s ability to think, write, and engage current issues in culture and scholarship for the church. As the apostle Paul writes, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3–4).

Completing a PhD means wading through many difficult books and articles on a scholarly topic—sometimes in other languages. It takes discipline to learn research languages like French, German, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. It takes discipline to avoid cutting corners in your research when you know you can get away with not looking at a certain work that’s difficult to get your hands on. It takes discipline to keep writing a dissertation you’re ready to either submit or burn. However, in the midst of such academic challenges, Spirit-enabled perseverance becomes a lifeline, and Christlike character is forged.

4. Humility

A final character aspect that’s shaped through the PhD process is humility. This might seem counterintuitive. Really, getting a PhD will make you more humble? Yes. Undoubtedly.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I think of my 9-year-old informing me, after being taught a handful of French phrases, “Daddy, I’m so ready to go to Paris now that I know French!” A PhD destroys such childish naiveté. In-depth research in a specific area not only increases your knowledge of that subject, it also reveals how little you know about the innumerable other subjects you haven’t researched. While it’s certainly possible for knowledge to puff up (1 Cor. 8:1), a good PhD program will produce graduates who recognize how much they still need to learn. And it’ll remind you that it’s only through humility that we become teachable at all. 

If You’re Considering

Finally, if you’re considering a PhD, be sure not to overlook three vital things.

  1. Count the financial, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual cost. It’s steep.
  2. Have others affirm this is a good direction for you and that your spiritual giftedness points in the direction of teaching or preaching.
  3. Recognize that having a PhD won’t impress anyone whose opinion matters (e.g., family and friends) once you actually have it. Seriously, if you need a PhD for personal satisfaction and contentment, don’t get one. It will neither accomplish what you want nor give you what you need. That is found in Christ alone.

A PhD isn’t for everyone, but it can be a great thing. If you approach it for the right reasons and prayerfully pour yourself into the work, you will almost certainly be refined in terms of precision, accountability, disciplined endurance, and humility.