How to Start, Continue, and Finish a PhD

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Full disclosure: I have submitted my dissertation and am awaiting the necessary feedback before scheduling my oral defense. Therefore, I have NOT finished my PhD, so my title might be a bit misleading. I have been wanting to post about this for awhile now and feel that I have achieved the necessary level of “done-ness” to finally post about it. Also, Pete Enns has a great blog post about this whole thing. His post should carry a little more clout than mine, considering its source.

First Step: Starting the PhD:

I have been in my program now for 6 years. In that time, I have been asked by several people (mainly my students when serving as their TA), as well as some close friends, if I think they should do a PhD. I have told every single one of them blankly, “No.” I don’t always know each of their situations fully, nor do I know what type of people they have in their life. I just want to offer each person (and will continue to) the chance to hear someone say no to their ambitions. When it came time for me to finish my Master’s programs, I asked many of my advisers for their recommendation letters, etc. and what they thought about my career aspirations. Many of them said, “You’ll be great! This is the right path for you! You have what it takes!” I had one professor in particular (side note: he served as one of my references on all 9 of my applications) who flatly told me, “Don’t do it.”

I was taken aback when he said that to me. Naturally, I was hurt and a little surprised/ worried. I asked him in a panic, “You don’t think I have what it takes? Am I not smart enough? Do you think I’ll fail??” He simply told me, “I will keep telling you no until you have decided you want it. It has to be in spite of people telling you no. You need to have the attitude that you will go forward anyways.” This sentiment has guided me in the ways I have responded to others. Getting a PhD, especially in humanities, is at least a 4-5 year process and is NOT for everyone. In fact, it’s not for most people.

That brings me back to starting a PhD. The simple answer to starting a PhD is making sure you really want it. Like really, really want it. You do not need to be the smartest person in the room (I learned that right away in my program). In fact, some of the smartest people in your PhD program won’t be able to handle the stress and drop out. Did you see that number at the top of this post? 43%. Forty. Three. Be prepared to to at least consider dropping out at one point. You will. Which brings me to my second point…

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Step 2: Continuing a PhD:

The simple answer here is “Don’t Give Up!” It’s more complicated than that. There are many blogs on the phenomenon of “Impostor Syndrome.” Basically it’s the idea that you somehow snuck past the admission board’s radar/ qualifications and do not belong among your peers. Honestly, I did not shake mine until about 2 years in. It’s actually a  good thing to be surrounded by some of the most astoundingly intelligent people you will ever meet. In my program, I quickly learned that I was going to have to work probably 1.5x harder than them to keep pace. It was a shock, but it also helped me develop very powerful tools in order to continue my program and get to where I am today.

The second part of continuing your PhD is to endure setbacks and surprises. In my program, I have dealt with several surprises and setbacks that in total probably delayed my program for at least 6 months. Things happen. Surprises happen. Issues arise that you were not expecting. You will need to engage your work ethic all the more in these instances. In fact, without going into specifics, the setbacks in my program have actually helped my dissertation topic become much more relevant than it would have been had I finished a year ago. Sometimes it hard to see the forest for the trees. Just keep going!

The final part of Continuing a PhD that I want to cover here is nasty: Comprehensive Exams (“Comps” as they are called at my school–I’ve heard others call them “Quals:” Qualification/ Qualifying Exams). I have finished and submitted my dissertation. It took me 3 full years from proposal to submission. Comps were worse; way worse. They were hands down the hardest part of the program for me. I took the normal time off to study (at Fuller this equates to a full quarter of studying and then about 75% of the next quarter to study before taking the exams at the end; i.e. studying from January until the exams at the end of May). I had to read and remember about 150 books for my exams. Seriously. It was horrible, awful, trying, and overall nasty. If you are in the early stages of a PhD program, get started now on some of your comps studying, assuming of course you have the extra time. The sooner you get through those exams, the sooner you can fully focus on your dissertation topic. Also, make sure to choose varied areas of study if you have any say in what topics your exams will cover. I had complete freedom to choose the topics, but I realize that others don’t.

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Step 3: Finishing your PhD:

This part might seem less complete, but that is because I am not completely finished. I want to really talk here specifically about finishing your dissertation. As I mentioned above, mine took 3+ years from proposal (July 2014) to submission (October 2017). My wife and I had our daughter in 2015, and I was a stay-at-home dad from Aug. 2015-Spring 2016. It was amazing, and I do not for one second regret the time I took off for that role. I mention it here to note that if you are just charging through your program (or maybe you have a topic in mind from the get-go), it will probably not take you 3 years to do your dissertation.

Regardless of how long yours takes, I would bet that as you get closer and closer to finishing it, you’ll find some laziness, lack of work ethic, or just general disinterest creeping in. I certainly did. Once you are at the editing phase, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “I’m almost done;” or “It’s just a few days of editing left, I’ve earned a few days off.” Fight through this. Remember: after you submit you can take days off. Full disclosure: I probably could have submitted mine in late August or early September if I had just pushed through these 50% “on” days. It’s hard to quantify, but I think I hit the wall there at the end. If you find yourself in that stage, just keep going. You’re so close and you can take your “well-earned days off” after you submit. It’s just around the corner.

To close this post, I just want to say that everyone is different. You will likely think the things I struggled with in my program are trivial or small matters. Maybe you’re struggling with other things such as funding, support, or adviser issues. If so, reach out to someone you can trust. Make sure you have people you can count on that are outside of your committee members, especially if your problems concern one or more of those members. Also, find at least one other PhD student you can talk to honestly about the program. We’ve all had struggles. Even if that person doesn’t struggle with the things you do, chances are he or she has other problems to discuss with you. This PhD thing is a process and we ought to help each other through it.

If you have questions for me, drop them in the comment box below. I’d be happy to answer them as I am able. If you’re thinking of pursuing a PhD program, talk to someone about it. But make sure that he or she is honest with you; i.e. that they will tell you to not do it unless you’re really sure it’s what you want.

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Midweek Blog: Bonhoeffer and Spending Christmas apart from Loved Ones

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I wanted to pause our series on American Church History in order to post a blog about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Christmas. Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) wrote several books which are widely regarded by Christians even today, but his Letters and Papers from Prison have a much different tone than some of his other, more theological and ethical texts. In Letters and Papers, obviously, one gets a picture of how Bonhoeffer experienced prison and isolation from his family during World War II. There are many selections which describe his experience in prison while the city in which he is incarcerated is bombed. It paints a sobering picture, since not only is he bound to a cell, but the prison building itself is subjected to artillery shells striking the area around it.

Several of his letters actually address spending Christmas in jail, which is the focus of this blog today. Bonhoeffer writes in a letter to his parents, “The only thing I can do to help is to believe and know that your thoughts about it will be the same as mine, and that we shall be at one in our attitude towards the keeping of this Christmas. Indeed, it can’t be otherwise, for that attitude is simply a spiritual inheritance from you. I needn’t tell you how I long to be released to see you all again” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 165). He mentions that this Christmas (with him in prison) will be a somber one, but it should not dampen the holiday for everyone simply because he is incarcerated. It sounds easy enough, but I am sure that his family (which they actually illustrate in a letter that they wrote to him) missed him in the house during their regular traditions.

If nothing else, I think Bonhoeffer here shows how difficult it is for families at the holidays to be separated from loved ones because of prison, wars, or other circumstances. The sacrifices of people like Bonhoeffer’s family, as well as their torment around the holidays, make his Letters and Papers relatable to audiences today.

Another passage I want to discuss comes from the same letter. Bonhoeffer writes, “From the Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell. For many people in this building it will probably be a more sincere and genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God… that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn-these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people” (Bonhoeffer, 166).

This passage strikes me because I’ve never considered how the Christmas story can resonate with individuals who have no home, family, or safe haven to go to at Christmas time. Not just for prisoners, but for the homeless and the lonely people in the world, the Christmas story has a special message for all of them: Christ entered this world in a similar circumstance. Joseph and Mary were travelling and trying to find a space for Jesus to be born. The only space left was in a stable area. The humility of Christ’s birth speaks to those whose existence can only be described as “humble.”

Bonhoeffer, as a prisoner, knew isolation and loneliness at Christmas. He though, unlike so many, had a loving family who came to see him when they were permitted and who missed him at Christmastime in their home. How many of his fellow prisoners felt a much deeper loneliness and isolation than he did because they had no such support? How many prisoners incarcerated today feel a similar loneliness and isolation, especially at the holidays?

I want to draw this blog to a close by examining one final passage from Bonhoeffer’s letter to his parents. He writes, “It’s only when one thinks of the terrible times that so many people in Berlin have been through lately that one realizes how much we have to be thankful for. No doubt it will be a very quiet Christmas everywhere, and the children will remember it for a long time to come. But it may perhaps bring home to some people for the first time what Christmas really is” (Bonhoeffer, 166).

He touches on a powerful notion that speaks also to today’s world. There is the obvious connection that Christmas has become too commercialized in the United States, and that a “quiet” Christmas is the remedy, but I think there’s more to it than that.

The idea that it might only be when things are “quiet” during tragic times that one experiences what Christmas really is about has a powerful impact to those who are suffering this holiday season. Illness, enmity, strife, fear, and loss can lead to a painful Christmas season. However, it might be that those who are dealing with such heartache will have an experience of Christmas and Christ’s love that they need in such a dark hour. That is not to say that people should see their struggles as a good thing (no one wants to hear that), but that Christmas specifically might shed a small light into their dark world. After all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about anyways? Christ came as a light into a dark world. The good news of Christmas can be just the right thing for those seemingly surrounded by bad news.

Upcoming Presentation at American Academy of Religion Western Region

Hello everyone!

Sorry I haven’t been posting lately, but I am teaching my first class this semester and am really enjoying it. It’s been a lot of work, but I have learned a lot and feel like I am starting to find my groove with teaching. Anyways, this post will be pretty short. I wanted to let my readers know that I will be presenting a paper on Henry Ward Beecher at the upcoming American Academy of Religion Western Region conference at Santa Clara University March 20-22, 2015. My presentation will be on Saturday, March 21, 2015 at 2pm in the Nineteenth Century Section. My paper is entitled “The Celebrity Preacher: How Urbanization, Money, and the Press Helped Make Henry Ward Beecher Famous in the mid-Nineteenth Century.” I am looking forward to the conference and, hopefully, great discussion after my presentation. If any of you are going and would like to meet up at the conference and talk about your research as well, I would welcome that chance as well. Have a great week!

AAR and SBL Week 2014: A Warm Weather Location at Last

Well the time has come around again. AAR/SBL week has arrived. This year a welcome change has occurred. Since this will be my third national conference, I have yet to attend an annual meeting not held in a chilly climate: 2012 was in Chicago and 2013 was in Baltimore. But this year, sunny San Diego will be a nice location for the 30,000 or so people who attend the meeting.

Each year, I try to attend as many presentations as I can, many of which are way outside my area of expertise. I find that this helps me keep a finger on the pulse of the world of religious studies at large. Everyone praises the book exhibit hall, but it can be very overwhelming even though most attendees view this space as a “sanctuary” away from all the conversations. The AAR welcome reception is often a good place to go and meet people and get some free food (don’t expect it to suffice as dinner though).

I wanted to post a very brief blog as an invitation. I will be in San Diego from Friday evening through Monday night of the conference. If any of my readers wish to meet with me, I would love to meet you. If you have ideas, topics, criticisms, praises, tips, etc. for my blog I would welcome them (you can also always include those in the comments of any blog post). I would also love to hear about your blog, research, church experience, etc. Therefore, if you would like to meet up, feel free to leave a comment with your email address, or you can email me @ misterdan01@yahoo.com. Hope to see you all in San Diego!

How to Read about Slavery

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For the last month I have been deep in the belly of studying for comprehensive exams. It has been rewarding, infuriating, and educational all at the same time. I wanted to post a quick blog today about something I have been studying. One of my exam topics is abolitionism. The many books I have examined so far tend to cover much of the same ground: William Lloyd Garrison, the “immediatists,” the Liberty Party, Frederick Douglass, etc. Often many of the books will examine the numerous, Northern, white abolitionists who were most vocal in the 1830s-1860s. While this is great to read about and shows the strategies, shifts, and divergent beliefs on slavery, it tends to overlook the real issue: the plight and suffering of blacks in the South. 

Enter the book I am reading today (pictured above), Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism (New York: New Press, 2006). It’s a multi-author work, which the editors describe as follows: “Black protest within the United States was one of the most important factors in terms of recruiting whites to abolitionism” (p. xix). I have only gone through the first four essays and have had more visceral reactions to these short essays than I have in reading several full books on the subject. One such reaction came from a particular essay by T.K. Hunter which describes two plights of slaves who went with their masters to free lands (one to England and one to Massachusetts), and how the slaves wanted to be considered free since the places they were in were free. The essay examines law principles and how liberty functions with geography (a great read, really), but my reaction came from its description of how these people were accompanying their masters on these trips and wanted to seize the opportunity to be free. This shows me that their desire for freedom was ever before them and something for which they deeply longed. Even recounting this essay for this blog saddens me. 

This brings me to my point and the title of this post: how we should read these accounts/ works. I feel that all too often I read about the abolitionists in the North with a callous distance (e.g. “another book about white men arguing over whether or not they should vote”). When books like Prophets of Protest come along, we are greeted with a fresh, confrontational work that presents us with direct accounts of black men and women protesting the institution of slavery and clamoring for racial equality (a benefit usually denied them by their abolitionist brethren and sistren) in addition to the abolition of slavery. I would ultimately argue that one of the best ways to read about slavery is to engage accounts of those who were oppressed and who continued to endure and fight for freedom, not simply the more oft-cited William Lloyd Garrison-type white abolitionist.

By allowing ourselves to be confronted with the actual harsh realities of slavery of the 1800s, including how the abolitionists continued to practice racial segregation even after the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, we should feel uneasy and unsettled. I would offer this closing remark: In reading about slavery, abolitionism, and emancipation, if you aren’t unsettled or upset by it, you aren’t reading a full account of it. 

Is It Bad That I Am an Extrovert and Going into Academics?

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So I decided to take a break from my series on women in Church History in order to write this post about the field that I am hoping to get into. I am about halfway done with my PhD in Church History at Fuller Theological Seminary, so now is a great time to question whether or not I should be going into this field. Maybe it’s the location of Fuller’s School of Theology just down the street from the School of Psychology. Maybe it’s the fact that I am presenting a paper at the American Academy of Religion this weekend. Either way, I have been thinking about this time and again for the last few years, so I figured posting it online for anyone who wants to see it is a good way to perform a self-evaluation.

Academics is a tight field to get into. There are no shortage of articles chronicling the difficulty of the job market. It often rewards those who are already a part of the guild while sometimes resisting the influx of new individuals who have no credentials behind them. After all, if requirement #1 is experience, how do you get the experience (an age old question for job seekers across multiple fields)? But I digress…

I have often heard professors and other colleagues of mine speak of the hilarious social experiment that is academic conferences. Often the dialogue will go in some way like this: “It’s so funny how they put all these introverts into a room and force them to network and talk to each other…” I have honestly heard some version of this statement several times over the last few years. I always hold my response in for their sake, but my natural reaction is: “I love talking to other people! This is fun!” Such an attitude comes from the fact that I am an extrovert, through and through.

My wife and I often joke about the need for introverts to take all these Myers-Briggs personality tests and analyze why they act the way they do. To this day, I have taken several of these tests and have no idea what letter combination I am (other than that it starts with an “E”). Now, I appreciate that there are those out there who want to know how/ why they act and think the way that they do. I am just not one of those people. This brings me to my main question: Can/should extroverts work in the academy?

I have often seriously considered this, seeing how everyone around me has the ability to study/ read sources from sunrise to sunset (often later than that) without talking or interacting with anyone. I simply cannot do this. I need to talk to my wife when she comes home. My working hours usually end when she walks in the door, because as an extrovert, I need interaction with other people to be energized. My introverted colleagues don’t need this boost. They can study for 18 hours straight (and like it!?), and this scares me a little. I am often worried that I can never keep up with people like that. Introverts are the norm in the academy possibly because of their ability to devote countless hours to reading/ writing.

This brings me to my conclusion on the matter: extroverts have a huge place in the academy, teaching. I have heard many people who are established professors/ scholars say that teaching annoys them. It gets in the way of their true passion: writing (as do all the meetings and committees they have to be a part of). I find hope for myself in this fact. I pursued a PhD because I wanted to teach. I find it invigorating to help others deepen their understanding of their faith and their faith traditions. I get energized by helping to lead discussion groups and even lecturing (the few times that I have done it). I think this is where extroverts can really shine. Some of my favorite teachers I have ever had were the loudest, most passionate people about their jobs. My math teacher from high school was just like this, and I loved going to that class. The love for the job really comes through with people like this.

The academy has plenty of introverts and will continue to see a steady influx of them for years to come. I think more extroverts need to consider this field. Not only is our voice not common (and can provide a new perspective on certain topics), but we can really find a niche in teaching. After all, I think that extroverted teachers are the best, but I might be a little biased.

Martin Luther and Capital Punishment

ImageSo this week I am re-reading Martin Luther in preparation to lead a small group of students in a discussion of their assigned reading. I came across a passage in Luther’s treatise, Concerning Governmental Authority from 1523. Luther writes, “To punish too little is more tolerable, for it is always better to let a scoundrel live than to put a godly man to death. The world has plenty of scoundrels anyway and must continue to have them, but godly men are scarce” (presented in The Protestant Reformation, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand, 2009 edition, pp. 82-83).

I found this passage interesting for several reasons. First, that Luther notes the danger of executing a godly person. Now, in applying this to modern capital punishment, the number of “godly” people executed is probably pretty low, but Luther’s sentiment still rings true in that “the world has plenty of scoundrels anyway.” I wonder how such a message would be received today, particularly among politically conservative Christians. Often you hear Christians cling to an “eye for an eye” in order to support capital punishment. Another position among Christians supports a “complete pro-life” position which is anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, anti-capital punishment, etc. The above quote from Luther does not really fall into either one of these camps.

So should Christians today look at the issue like Luther does, i.e. that it’s “better to punish too little” than to punish too much? I find Luther’s line of argument to be helpful. I have personally supported capital punishment, but over the last 5 or so years have reshaped my understanding/ position on it. I still think that capital punishment has merit, particularly with individuals who are too dangerous to be allowed to reenter society. However, capital punishment (especially in the USA) ends up being a 20-30 year process and often crosses ethical lines with “lethal injection cocktails” and the like. I usually arrive at the conclusion that it’s a silly process anymore and that life without the possibility of parole is preferred for individuals whose actions are too heinous to allow them to ever be released from prison.

I also find Luther’s prohibition of executing a “godly” person to be helpful. One frequently hears stories and accounts of people finding a faith in God while in prison, particularly through missionaries (from Christianity as well as other faiths). Is it right to execute some of these people? What about those who committed a crime in youth and are a completely different person now?

I close by asking a few questions: is capital punishment moral/ should Christians support it? Can our resources used for capital punishment be employed elsewhere, particularly in the penal system? I welcome your thoughts/ opinions on the matter.