Many of the women I know with PhDs did not originally set out to complete a doctorate, nor did they assume from an early age that they would. Few fell into the march from undergraduate work to graduate to a terminal degree (to be completed by age 30). Yet, here we are, young and old alike, prodding, discerning, exploring, and making our way to a PhD and beyond. Why? What is so irresistible about giving away years of our lives, expending energy we may or may not have, and spending money we’ve barely accrued to read difficult books, attend conferences with difficult people, and hear difficult feedback—all as part of a day/month/year’s work? God knows why. (No, really. It’s called a vocation.) As one of our editors quipped about the conference circuit (or circus): “who doesn’t love paying a weekend and a $1000 for a CV line?”
With another school year underway, and application season germinating anxiety, now seemed like a good time to revisit the PhD process. The post that follows is intended to be a bit tongue-in-cheek even as I am describing some very real experiences. It is not meant to be taken too literally, nor is it void of helpful information (I hope). While loosely based on my own PhD journey (yet to be fulfilled), this also emerges from hours of commiserating with others along the way. For those who are going through or have completed a doctoral program, perhaps you’ll relate to some points moreso than others. Feel free to share your wisdom gleaned in the comments below.
1. Don’t make a plan.
Up until the doctoral level, school is about submitting a fine application, deciding on majors and electives, then checking the boxes of course requirements (which all happen to fit nicely within a given term). At the doctoral level, everything switches. For one, applications are more like matchmaking than simply sounding competent and passionate. You’re looking for the right fit at the right time. As my Church History professor would say, sometimes it happens that you’re the flute applying to the orchestra in a year when they’re looking for a tuba. It isn’t simply about applying to a program, you’re petitioning to work with an individual advisor about whom you may only know some of their published work.
So, when making a plan, only go as far as getting into a program, and trust that everything else will fall into place. Sounds ridiculous, right? Here’s the thing: the application process itself is so labor intensive that to try and consider next steps beyond getting in while also writing out application materials can be almost debilitating. Coming up with a financial plan alone is difficult when every school offers differing levels of financial support. However, there are ways to find out how much it will cost to attend during the different phases—ask the admissions folks to connect you with financial aid and any other student support offices. If the financial aid guy offers limited or vague information, keep digging. How much does each phase cost? When does scholarship money apply (and when does it not)? Getting a clear table of this information will come in handy before saying ‘yes’ to anything.
As for the academic side, it will be crucial to reach out to senior scholars to find out things like, if they’re accepting students for the year you want to begin studies and what their current research encompasses. How they respond will give an inkling as to their personality, and whether they seem like a good fit for your personality. If you can afford to go to conferences—especially the large and intimidating national AAR/SBL (American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature)—do so. Make coffee dates, crash school parties (preferably with another student, which is how I grazed my way through the Union, Vanderbilt, and Yale soirees one year), talk to grad students.
Planning for a degree that can take anywhere from four to ten years is nothing short of Herculean (or Sisyphean, depending upon your temperament). Each phase needs its own set of plans—academic, financial, social-emotional. And these plans need to somehow mesh with the lives of those around you, depending upon your household and/or employment situation. The coursework phase will feel familiar enough, but then you suddenly discover someone has handed you a parachute, pointed at the straps and pulleys, and told you to jump. How do you plan for that?? (Keep reading.)
2. Don’t take the advice of others.
Some things are intelligible only when we experience them for ourselves. Yet, when it comes to a PhD in the humanities, there are many (MANY) voices flagging us down and asking, are you SURE about this..?? The cautionary tales and horror stories are out there. And, while human hubris whispers, “but that won’t apply to me,” try not to dismiss them outright. Read through the social media accounts, blogs, and at least one or two of the many books available before setting your heart on applying to any school. All those conversations you’ve had with other grad students are crucial for filtering information about a given program or school. They are also significant as you continue to ask yourself, but why? Why do I want/need this degree? What is it that I want to do or be in the world that requires these particular letters after my name?
This is a strange time to be studying and ‘doing’ theology, to be honest. The church and higher education both appear to be sinking, with the demise of the church acting as a tsunami wave taking out the institutions that used to nourish it. For example, where I live, one school is sunsetting its MDiv program and another has shuttered its School of Theology and Ministry. Yet another school’s seminary seems to be imploding, and those are just about the only theology schools within 50-100 miles. Of course, I could move to where the opportunities are. That’s how it’s typically done (still). Much of the advice I received over the years implicitly or explicitly assumes that I would do just that. And yet, thanks to a global pandemic, some faculty job descriptions now include whether or not the individual is required to reside nearby, or how often they will be expected to be on campus.
So, again, what is it that you truly want to do or be? And what experience or credentials does that dream require (even amidst a changing reality)?
Perhaps the biggest challenge is to find trustworthy voices. There is a sea of reference materials, guidebooks, and research how-to’s, some of which are directed more specifically toward either the sciences or the humanities, while others try to span both. Senior scholars may be able to describe the changes they’ve seen, but after a while there is a special amnesia for the trials and tribulations of the doctoral process itself. Current and recent grad students are less likely to gloss over their experiences. If, like me, you decide to just run toward the dream of earning a funny hat and those sacred letters, P, h, and D, then I suggest keeping your notes handy, and picking up a few books for those times when you suddenly realize you have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into. Here are a few of my favorites for just those moments: The Thesis Whisperer (blog); The Professor is In (a service, blog and a book); Finish Your Dissertation Once and for All, by Alison Miller (2012), Air & Time & Light & Space: How Successful Academics Write, by Helen Sword (2017).
3. Go in with only a rough sketch of what you want your project to be
…and nothing more. Hear me out for a moment: doctoral work will open new worlds and just might alter your universe, if you have time for that. If you want to progress through a program and graduate before reaching the ten-year cliff, have a very clear idea of what it is you want to study. The more focused your idea is at the outset, the less time it will take to explore all the tangents—partially because you may be less tempted to look into, say, all of the ecological models currently in use in wetlands research when you’re researching theologies of baptism.
Just out of curiosity while writing this, I re-read my Research Statement (so artfully crafted all those years ago). There is a bare thread of connection to my current work, yet I was pleasantly surprised to see a trace of continuity. I had not intended to include an ecological approach when I started, but coursework opened a line of inquiry that I hadn’t imagined before. While I have no regrets about that, I can see how the amount of exploration I’ve had to do made the path a little more winding (though other factors have also contributed: see #4).
Knowing that you’ll be writing from within a specific tradition, or whose work you want to engage, or—better yet—which sliver of a conversation/discourse you want to address will set you up reasonably well for the proposal, which will then guide the research. Set up a folder early on titled something like, “future projects,” or “that’s interesting—but not now.” As my advisor asked me repeatedly for the first several months of my candidacy, “if your dissertation could answer one question, what would it be?” All other questions may be tucked away for another day.
4. Be sure to make major life changes at one or more points along the way.
Doctoral work is a fabulous time to change ecclesial traditions, move across country (at least once) and/or away from your academic community, lose loved ones, and undergo any number of medical crises. Of course, most of this will be totally out of your control. Which means that you get to practice the art of learning to live within your own limits. You could try to maintain a rigorous writing schedule while commuting regularly to doctor’s appointments (yours or someone else’s); or, you could estimate a more humane and manageable timeframe, and look at the best options for meeting those alternate goals. Looking back, I can see that I probably needed to take a semester break at one point, when I lost a family member, but at the time it felt like I couldn’t. Spring semester had begun and I was serving as a TA. In those moments life feels both chaotically fast and interminably slow simultaneously. I needed to take a pause, reach out to one or two trusted folks, and consider all the options. But I just kept trying to live according to perceived expectations (my own? Others? I’m still not sure whose).
Life will change course during the time you’re getting a PhD. It just will. Divorces happen. Children (can) happen. Marriages, deaths, sudden caretaking responsibilities, and financial duress all seem to wait in the wings for this moment. Why? There is no “good” reason, but I suspect it’s because you are moving toward a dream. You are moving toward the thing that you don’t want to live without. And while the universe will continue to beckon you toward PhD completion, the rest of the cosmos just might throw a lightning bolt or two in your general direction. Which leads me to a final point . . . .
5. Don’t embrace community support.
The myth of the lone genius continues to pervade our films and our psyches. It is a fallacy. Find the couple/few folks with whom you can be vulnerable and they with you. I’m talking about the kind of friendship and comradery that digs into the dirt and composts the refuse that grad school and life will shovel out, to help you transform it into solid ground. The PhD is not a solo act. It truly takes a whole network of friends, family, colleagues, and mentors. It’s true that at the end of the day it’s just you and the dissertation. But even woven into that singular experience is an ecosystem of relationships that have the potential to buoy our spirits and keep us afloat.
Academic work can take the soul to arid places—find water. Try any and every spiritual practice you come across, and don’t be concerned about mixing it up. One week centering prayer may unlock the writer’s block, while another week calls for reciting the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer to move beyond stumbling blocks. Things like yoga and tai chi are great for remembering that we are more than our brains—there’s a body, too. Do whatever brings light to the soul. Go for walks. Learn to talk out loud and toss out ideas to the wind. Describe your thesis to the trees, or maybe the cat if he’ll sit and listen. No practice is too eccentric and, most likely, no single practice will be effective throughout the whole process. Learn the technical tools, yes. More importantly, learn what tools and tactics you bring to the work and to the process as a whole, and they will strengthen you for the long haul.
To quote the late Frederick Buechner, “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And sometimes, that calls for a PhD. I sincerely believe this, even as some days I am genuinely troubled by the systems and hierarchies of knowledge and power that make up so-called higher education. Admittedly, I feel compelled to get a PhD, to have those particular credentials, so that I might gain access to conversations that concern the lives of many but are open to only a few. While I don’t yet know what all that means or entails, I do know that I have a dissertation to finish, another piece of paper to receive, and a funny hat and robe to wear come May.