For many seminary students, the thought of a PhD simultaneously entices and repels. On one hand, there are books—lots of glorious, thought-provoking, soul-shaping books! On the other, there are books—lots of intimidating, confounding, expensive books! Besides books, the classes, research, and papers promise to fill your intellect but empty your wallet and energy. Determining if you should pursue an advanced degree takes prayer, sober judgment, and wise counsel.
If the Lord has called you to undertake a PhD, soak up all the advice you can find. From my own observations, conversations, and experiences, I offer 10 tips to help you succeed. This list is not exhaustive, but it may set you on the right track and help you avoid pitfalls.
1. Don’t begin until you find a topic you’re passionate about.
Instead of completing their PhD, many students have an “ABD” (All But Dissertation). They make it through their course work, but they burn out when it comes time to write their dissertation because they lose interest in their topic.
When I was seeking a topic for my dissertation, it was important for me to have a green light from my wife. I wanted her support, and I wanted her to believe in my topic. After many failed attempts, I hit on a topic that combined my major research interests. Only then did she give her approval. I am glad she pushed me because I needed a topic that would keep me energized until the very end. I pray you can find a topic that enthralls you, too.
2. Write papers on your topic during your course work.
One of the benefits of defining your topic first is that you can study, research, and write in your topic area during your course work. This gives you more time to become acquainted with the scholarship in your field, build a stout bibliography, and test your ideas long before you submit your dissertation. A friend of mine was able to complete his PhD in three years because he strategically wrote papers during his course work that he parlayed into chapters in his dissertation.
3. Find a good mentor professor.
My advisor believed in me and wanted me to succeed. That meant he pushed me until he was satisfied that my work would stand up to scrutiny. Because I knew my advisor loved me, I could more easily accept his critiques without taking offense. When it’s time to enter a program, the advisor you choose will influence your experience more than almost any other factor—so choose wisely.
As an aside, if your advisor doesn’t love you, you still shouldn’t take offense. Weigh your advisor’s feedback and make the necessary changes with as little pushback as possible. Supervising is a difficult, time-consuming task, so be sure to cut your advisor some slack.
4. Prioritize your family.
A PhD takes phenomenal work and concentration, and you will face the temptation to steal from your family to give to your studies. Don’t give your family the scraps. Schedule time with each member of your family—put it on your calendar.
Doing this may feel impersonal, but you have to make your family a priority. The idea that you can make up for lack of quantity time with quality time is a myth because you can’t have quality time without investing a large quantity of time. You just don’t know when opportunities for quality will strike. Also, share about your work with your family members so they can know how to pray for you and then celebrate with you as you reach significant milestones.
5. Pursue your PhD with a friend.
Many factors have to line up for you to find a friend who wants to complete a PhD at the same time and at the same school, but ask God for such a blessing.
If you can’t find a friend to start the program with you, make an effort to become close friends with at least one classmate. Don’t consider the time you spend building the friendship a distraction. Everything about your journey will improve with a friend. Isolating yourself is dangerous for your scholarship and for your soul.
God gave me the incalculable blessing of doing my PhD with my best friend. We had a blast together. We shared resources, jokes, and miseries together. Between classes, we would play ping-pong in the student center to relieve stress. We also had a healthy competition that kept us churning out papers. Neither one of us wanted to fall too far behind our deadlines because we were determined to graduate together. Joys will be multiplied and challenges divided if you find a friend to go with you.
6. Become a research guru.
Whatever time you invest in improving your research skills will pay huge dividends. Take the time to learn about different databases, Boolean operators, and how to use different search engines. The library has mountains of resources to help you do your work, so take advantage of them.
Libraries offer classes and tutorials on how to find books and articles, improve your writing skills, and structure arguments. On multiple occasions, librarians helped me find out-of-print and other obscure resources. They scanned pages from hard-to-find books when I needed a quotation or a footnote. They helped me so much, I thanked them on the acknowledgments page of my dissertation.
7. Take careful notes as you read and track citations.
Early in your studies, develop a method for categorizing and saving quotations. Be sure to include the bibliographic information along the way. Otherwise you will waste untold hours tracking down the source (learn from my mistakes).
Utilize an app like Evernote, Scrivener, or Zotero and stick with it, so that when it comes time to write, you will have all your research at your fingertips.
8. Eat right, exercise, and sleep.
You’ll need all the brain power you can get, so take care of yourself physically. You’ll be sitting behind a computer for hours a day, stretching your mental powers to their limits. Don’t be like my friend who lived off Mountain Dew and Doritos. A reasonable diet, exercise, and sleep routine will benefit your scholarly work.
When my father was in seminary, one of his classmates went to the doctor seeking relief for skull-crushing headaches. When the doctor found out that he was a graduate student, he referred him to an ophthalmologist. The ophthalmologist told him he had eye strain, so he needed to pause every hour and rub his eyes.
The man took the doctor’s advice and would pause every hour to close his eyes and pray for five minutes. He said this practice not only resolved his problem with headaches and helped his academics, but it revolutionized his spiritual life.
9. Reach out to other scholars.
The deeper you dive into your topic, the fewer scholars will have expertise in your area. Those who do have expertise in a specific area often find that only a handful of people read their academic works, so when someone shows interest in their specialty, they are usually happy to share their knowledge.
Whenever I wrote to scholars about their work, I found them eager to help. On a few occasions, I needed to make sure I was interpreting their work fairly or to get clarification about something they said. I’m glad I took the time to contact them. Their feedback significantly strengthened my work.
10. Study coram Deo (before the face of God).
Academic studies should make you a better worshiper, but this can only happen if you intentionally bring your studies into the presence of God. Paul warns that knowledge puffs up (1 Cor. 8:1), but this doesn’t mean we should wallow in ignorance. Paul also says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16; Ps. 1:2; 111:2; Ezra 7:10).
One of the highlights of writing my dissertation came when I was studying how God adopts those who are united to Jesus by faith. I was studying Romans 8 and reading C. E. B. Cranfield’s commentary. Cranfield points out that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus addressed God the Father as “Abba ho Pater” (Mark 14:36).
Cranfield added that in the act of adoption, the Holy Spirit takes those very words of Christ and puts them on the lips of believers so we also may cry “Abba ho Pater” (Rom. 8:15). That undid me. Sitting in my little study, buried under piles of commentaries and journal articles, in the midst of the most academically intense period of my life, I put down my head and worshiped God.
That experience was a gift because I now know firsthand that academics can feed worship. Don’t let academics become a dusty, heartless enterprise. Choose to study in the presence of God.
May these tips help you as you consider whether and when to pursue a PhD, and may you always do your academic work—and whatever else you do—heartily, for the Lord (Col. 3:2).