Some PhD FAQs

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I promise I will get back to your regularly scheduled programming. This is the last doctoral digression (for the time being anyway). But since I’ve received dozens of questions over the past couple years about pursuing a PhD (including several after last week’s post), I thought it would be helpful to tackle the pertinent issues in one place.

For the most part, the questions below are not the exact questions I’ve received, but they capture the kinds of questions I’ve gotten over the past weeks and months.

Should I pursue a PhD?

That depends. You need to know yourself, know your options, and know your goals.

(1) You need to know yourself. A rigorous PhD is not for everyone. There’s no shame in that. A doctoral degree is not a measure of godliness or effectiveness in ministry. It’s not something to do just because other people are doing it or people you respect have done it. You must be motivated. You must enjoy reading. You must be fairly well disciplined and organized. You must be a proficient writer. If you haven’t been one of the top students in undergraduate or graduate school, I’d think twice before pursuing a PhD. I’m not saying B- students can’t do excellent doctoral work, but I’d get some honest feedback before enrolling in more school.

(2) You need to know your options. Don’t bankrupt your finances, your family, or your soul for a PhD. Count the cost.

(3) You need to know your goals. If you main goal is to procure some kind of status symbol or have people call you Dr., I’d angle for an honorary doctorate somewhere (obviously, I’m not suggesting people with honorary degrees have angled for one). Sure, I’ll be proud to have finished my work, but I find it distasteful when people insist on being called Dr. (often without an academic degree) or when they put PhD after every byline. Enough already.

If your main goal is to be a full-time academic, be realistic about your chances. We need full-time academics. It’s a noble and wonderful calling. The job market, however, is terrible. There are far more doctorates being awarded than there are jobs out there that actually require a doctorate.

If you just want to learn and be stretched, a PhD can be great, but check first if there are cheaper, more flexible (even if less prestigious) ways to be a lifelong learner.

So why did you pursue a PhD?

There were at least six reasons: (1) I’ve had the itch to do so for almost 20 years. (2) People who know me said I’d be able to do it. (3) I wanted to grow intellectually and be challenged at the highest academic level. (4) It would give me a seat at the academic table (should I need it) and allow me to teach at universities or seminaries. (5) I love to read and to write. (6) I found a subject I was really interested in and for which I could make an original contribution to scholarship.

Incidentally, before applying to doctoral programs I was told by one scholar friend that it would be a waste of God’s time and my effort for me to get a PhD just to get one. He counseled me that if I didn’t want to make an original contribution to my field that I shouldn’t apply.

Do you recommend pastors get their PhD like you did?

Probably not. I am a firm believer in seminaries and in the need for educated clergy. But with extremely rare exceptions, a PhD is not necessary for effective pastoral ministry. In fact, in some cases, it can get in the way of effective ministry. It takes time. It takes money. And when you are done, if you aren’t careful, you can be more distant from the people you are called to shepherd.

And yet, I am a pastor, and I went back to school to get my PhD, so clearly I don’t think the answer is always no. I think my program has made me a better thinker and a more careful scholar (I use the term loosely). I’ve enjoyed the whole thing. I never got to the burnout “please make it stop” stage. I’m glad I got—well, almost have—my PhD.

I would also say that I’m glad I waited to get my PhD. There are certainly advantages to getting your PhD right after seminary while your intellectual fires are burning, your family commitments are fewer, and your pastoral responsibilities are small. Finding time to get a PhD in the midst of full-time ministry and a busy family life is challenging. But for me at least, I was better prepared for a PhD after another 16 years of reading and 10 years of constant blogging and writing. I also fear for bright, young seminary graduates that if they go straight into doctoral work, they’ll never make it to pastoral ministry. Maybe that’s okay. But if your goal is the pastorate, a PhD won’t prepare you much for that, and you may enjoy the academic life so much that your dreams of pastoral ministry fade away.

Along the same lines, realize that professors—most of whom have a PhD—may be inclined to encourage doctoral work. After all, they did it, and they enjoyed it. I’m not suggesting you can’t trust your professors (I am one!), but seek counsel from multiple voices.

What kind of program should I look for?

Again, that depends. Not all programs are created equal. I’ve read plenty of dissertations and thought, How in the world did this get awarded a PhD? This is barely an MDiv thesis. Just because someone has a PhD doesn’t mean they’ve done anything like rigorous academic work. At the same time, I finished my program in five part-time years (and would have finished in four years if I didn’t change churches), while I know brilliant people who worked full-time for seven or eight years to get their PhD. I think my program was legit, but there are certainly programs that demand more. Think through whether you want a program that is good, better, or best. Don’t bother with anything less than good (and if you don’t know what is less than good, ask professors you respect—they’ll tell you).

Know the difference between American and British PhDs. Those with a reputable American PhD will tell you: “I had to do coursework. I had to take comprehensive exams. I had to do years of work before I even got to my dissertation!” Those with a reputable British PhD will tell you: “I didn’t have anyone holding my hand. I had to know what I was doing from day one. It was all sink or swim on the dissertation!” The advantage of doing a British PhD—and the reason so many Americans look overseas—is that you don’t have to do coursework in addition to the dissertation. There are plenty of excellent programs on both sides of the pond. There are pros and cons to both approaches.

What school should I choose?

The one with the supervisor you want to work with. Period.

To be sure, some jobs may want to see that your degree is from Yale or Cambridge or Edinburgh, but unless you are trying to get into the highest levels of academia, pick the right supervisor before the right school. Sometimes the elite schools have the best advisors. But not always. In fact, even if your aspirations are for a career in academia, you’ll likely see doors open if you have the right contacts, which means, again, the right supervisor.

The best advice I got when starting to look at doctoral programs was to focus on finding the best supervisor. Most Americans know next to nothing about the University of Leicester (pronounced Lester), but my supervisor is a top-flight historian, an excellent mentor, and easy to work with. That made all the difference. If you are thinking about PhD work, don’t just look at prices and pretty pictures online. Ask your professors whom they would recommend you work with.

Why did you choose to study history?

I never thought seriously about Old Testament or New Testament. My interests were more in theology and history. I chose history because I could more assuredly say what I wanted to say about my subject matter. My sense is that the Brits are less fussy about liberal shibboleths than their American counterparts anyway, but even so, I figured history was the best way to spend the bulk of my time reading things I wanted to read.

How did you pay for it?

There are many ways to pay for your program. Many of the most sought-after programs will award a limited number of scholarships that essentially pay you to do doctoral work. Some people seek help from churches, family, and friends. Others try crowdsourcing. I paid for my program out of my own pocket.

Was it hard?

In some ways, no. But mostly, yes.

The PhD was not hard like a math problem can be hard. There was never a moment when I couldn’t understand what I was reading or when I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. You don’t need to be a genius to write a good dissertation in the humanities.

At the same time, I did work hard. My biggest advantage was that after years of blogging, publishing, and sermonizing, I already knew how to write. Poor writing is what sinks a lot of bright doctoral students. The other struggle for many students is discipline. Procrastination will kill you. So will an unwillingness to receive correction. It’s also important that you keep momentum going. You need a lot of internal motivation and a willingness to figure things out on your own. And the figuring out—at least in the British system—is not just your subject matter. No one tells you what your next three assignments are. You have to ask questions, read the handbook, and seek out help. From the first meeting as a PhD student, I was expected to set the agenda and come prepared to share what I knew and ask questions.

How did you do it with everything else going on?

I do sleep, usually around seven hours. I exercise and spend time with my family too. I’ve been a full-time pastor all during my doctoral work. It can be done.

But I needed a flexible program. I had to take a few seminars (e.g., handling rare books, reading old handwriting), but there was no official coursework. My program required me to travel to the UK once a year. In addition, I had to Skype with my supervisor at least once every other month. There were also periodic reviews with papers to submit (showing my progress) and probationary interviews to complete. The dissertation was the main thing, and the rest was flexible.

More importantly, I would not have been able to do a PhD without the generous support of University Reformed Church and Christ Covenant Church. This may not be feasible in smaller churches. In my context there were other capable pastors eager for preaching opportunities and ready to lead in my absence. All told, the two churches gave me more than three summers off for research and writing. In my experience, a PhD is not something you can do 30 minutes here or there, or by setting aside an hour every evening. You need concentrated time. You need momentum. Once I got going, I could get a lot accomplished in a short period of time. But once that time was up, the engine started to idle. I found that I could keep reading while I was a full-time pastor, but I need months away to write.

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