10 Lessons I’ve Learned While Working on my PhD

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After nine weeks out of the pulpit this summer and after almost five years enrolled as a part-time PhD student, I’m a few weeks away (Lord willing) from submitting my thesis.

All the heavy lifting is done. All that’s left (I hope) is proofreading, cleaning up the bibliography, and fixing any formatting issues. Once I submit, I still need to travel to the UK to defend my thesis, so I’m not spiking the football just yet. But as I wrap up my study leave and head back to the church, I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect briefly on what I’ve learned over the past years—not what I’ve learned about John Witherspoon (I can write more about that later), but what I’ve learned about, well, learning. While gaining mastery in a subject area is important, a good doctoral program should do more than grant an academic degree; it should help you become a better thinker, a better student, and maybe even a better person.

With that in mind, here are ten lessons I’ve learned along the way.

1. Serious scholarship takes serious time. I’ve written a number of books, but there is a big difference between popular-level writing and academic writing. I knew that in my head, but the last several years reinforced that conviction. A good popular-level writer might be able to crank out a chapter in a day. A good scholar might spend all day tracking down a single footnote. That’s why real scholarship is all about momentum. You can’t write a dissertation or a journal article or a serious monograph by grabbing 15 minutes here or there. Reading can be done in the cracks of life, but not the writing.

2. Don’t settle for abstractions. Early in my program I had to meet with a professor at the university to talk about my studies. It was one of those stressful meetings where you try to pretend that you know a lot about something you started reading about. The professor, whom I had never met before, sat in his dimly lit study with mounds of books and asked me in a serious British tone: “When did the Scottish Enlightenment begin?” I fumbled for an answer, saying something about the 18th century and David Hume or Thomas Reid or Francis Hutcheson. He cut me off. “The Scottish Enlightenment did not exist until 1900 when the term was first used by William Robert Scott.” The point: look at history on its own terms, not first of all by the big terms we’ve assigned to it.

3. Read the original text. The same professor gave me the sage advice to always read the original texts, and try to read them first. Secondary sources are invaluable, but my professor was right: often they are harder to understand that reading what the person in question actually wrote. I found this to be true. I’d read chapters of commentary on Frances Hutcheson and still be unclear of what he thought. Once I read him for myself, the clouds started to part. Read texts. Read texts. Read texts.

4. You know less than you think you know. Academic work can certainly puff up. We’ve all seen (and hopefully don’t resemble!) haughty doctoral students, or recent graduates, who are at great pains to let everyone know all that they know. But done properly, graduate studies should make you humble. Do I know more than when I started five years ago? For sure. Am I more aware of all I don’t know? Absolutely. I could tell you things about Benedict Pictet or Lord Shaftesbury or the Enlightenment or the Presbytery of Paisley or the Cambuslang Revival or the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America or a dozen other things you don’t know much about. But it wouldn’t take long to get to the end of my expertise on these subjects. Once you see top-notch scholarship, you realize you aren’t doing much of it! You do what you can in your specific (micro)field and stay humble about 10 million others things you don’t know.

5. The best scholars know more than you think they know. Scholarship is like any other area of humanity activity. There’s a bell curve. There are some bad scholars (who should quit their day jobs), a lot of hard-working scholars making a contribution here or there (most dissertations are utterly forgettable), and then there are the few at the top who set the conversation and reshape their field—Richard Muller in post-Reformation theology, Mark Noll in the history of evangelicalism, Richard Sher in 18th-century Scotland. And these are just a few names relative to my studies. It’s true: some people have already forgotten more than you’ll ever know.

6. But everyone makes mistakes, so get the facts for yourself. Having said all that, don’t assume the experts have it all right. And I don’t just mean their interpretations, which are always open to scrutiny. I’m talking about names, dates, and places. I found a number of honest mistakes from even the best scholars in my field (and I’m sure I made some too). Keep digging. Like Reagan said: trust but verify.

7. Good writers rule the world. Yes, a slight exaggeration. But only slight. Most students can’t write well, because most scholars don’t write well, because most people don’t write well, because writing is really hard. It’s one thing to read a lot and have a mastery of your material. It’s another thing to present your material in clear, accessible—let alone arresting—prose. To be sure, there is plenty of writing that gets assigned to us for one reason or another. But I can almost guarantee it: the writers who actually get read, and the writers you actually want to read, are writers who write well. Don’t settle for smart; work hard to communicate what you know in a way people can understand.

8. Perfectionism kills (and so does procrastination). Over the summer as people asked how my doctoral work was coming along, I often repeated the line someone told me early in the process—”There are two kinds of dissertations: perfect ones and finished ones.” That quip often kept me focused when I was tempted to spend half a day down an unnecessary rabbit trail. Of course, procrastination is the other problem that plagues most students, so I worked hard to fill out every form as soon as it was given to me, reply to every email as soon as I could, and to set realistic goals along the way that I wouldn’t let slide.

9. Learn to write with a word limit (and learn to teach with time constraints). Most dissertations have a fixed word/page count. This is, no doubt, to help the examiner who has no time (or interest) in reading 650 pages on the history of serif fonts in Ecuador. But the limits are also to help the student. What sounds like a blessing at the beginning of the process (“Hey, I don’t have to write more than this!”) will be your biggest struggle by the end of the process. Firm limits force you to be selective. You can’t say everything you want to say. You have to keep your argument moving. You have to digest, synthesize, and articulate your views, not simply chronicle what you are reading. Establishing boundaries for yourself (or for others) in writing and in speaking is one of the best ways to really grow as a thinker and teacher.

10. Doing history is about loving your neighbor. There are 10,000 things you can study, as a graduate student or as the proverbial lifelong learner. My doctoral work has been in history, and historians argue not just about history but about how to do history. Christian historians in particular argue about what it means to do “Christian history” or “history as a Christian.” For my part, I think my goal as a Christian historian is to love my neighbor as myself, and that includes my dead neighbors. That means I try to study others as I would want to be studied. If I were someone’s research project, I’d want that student to get to know me, to take me on my own terms before using me as an axe to grind, to talk about me in a way that made sense to me. Of course, others may be able to see things about ourselves that we miss. They may interpret things differently than we would. But still, the golden rule is a good goal. Work hard to understand your subject, just like you would want someone to work hard to understand you.

P. S. I know I haven’t said anything about choosing a program or what advice I would give people considering PhD work. I’ve gotten a lot emails over the past couple of years with questions about doctoral studies. I’ll try to write another post along these lines in the next few weeks.

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