Friday, October 12, 2012

to phd or not to phd . . . that is the question

Well friends, this seems to be the month of baring my soul.  Forgive me as I rehearse the litany of my privileged-world problems:  Oh why can't our house addition be done already!?; When my escape drinking became a problem; My perfectly well daughter takes a long time to walk!; and finally, today's "issue":  is further study for me?

Preface all of this with the fact that I love school.  I used to dread summer break.  I read textbooks for fun as a child.  I love tests (I prefer them to papers).  The structure and cameraderie of the academy have always felt just like home to me.  Where my husband has a taste for nice electronics, I have a snobbish preference for the best schools

I'm also called to ministry.  As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, I am committed to a lifetime of bringing God's word to a hurting world. 

I think I'm also called to teaching.  The dimension of ministry I enjoy most is study, contemplation, preaching, and teaching all ages.  I really enjoy helping people come to new realizations and insights in their understanding of God's work in the world.  I love teaching children and bringing the eternal story into their lives - helping them find their place in it. 

I don't view these calls as contradictory or mutually exclusive.  I have had professors all along the way who ministered to me, and who viewed their work in academia as a called vocation.  I've long suspected that my call may lean in this direction as well. 

Our United Methodist Church struggles to find enough ordained elders who are called to teaching in seminaries.  But I can't imagine my journey into ministry without Dr. Meeks and Bishop Pennel, who gently cared for us, even as they demanded the highest academic performance. 

So, if I'm called to it, and I will find joy in this vocation, what is holding me back?

1)  Jeff and I have entered into the season of growing small humans.  We want more than one of these, if our bodies will cooperate.  I've come to realize that they require a lot of time, energy, and the very best of me as a parent.  Unfortunately, pursuing a doctorate right now would demand the same things - for about five or seven years!  (Yes, don't get me started on the Master of Divinity.  The only advanced degree - 84 credit hours! - that gives you no advantage on a doctorate.)  Can I balance it all without losing my mind?  I'm not sure if I want to find out the hard way.

2)  We are committed to growing deep roots in a community.  There is no guarantee that I will always be appointed to serve a church in Nashville, but I will always be in Middle Tennessee somewhere.  Close enough to our family and friends here that we have a network.  The reality of the academic life is that you have to be willing to move where you are accepted to study, and then be willing to move where there are jobs in teaching.  Good theology programs are not a dime a dozen.  They are flung throughout the nation.  I can apply to Vanderbilt, and I could very well be rejected.  I've made Jeff move away once before, and it was not a particularly happy time for us.

3)  A more existential problem.  I will be expected not only to teach as an academic, but also to contribute to the body of knowledge in my field through publishing and lecturing at conferences and events.  Will I have enough original thoughts to do this for decades?  Will the well run dry?

And just what would I study, you ask?  I've actually got that pretty well figured out.  Allow me to put you sleep:  I am interested in studying the period in United Methodist and American history just prior to the Civil War (1840 - 1860 or so).  I think that the UMC comes closest to mirroring the American political system of any denomination, and as such, we have forecasted many of the political changes that came about in American history.  We split before the Union and the Confederacy did, over just the same reasons:  slavery serving as the smokescreen for a federalist/republican controversy. 

The current best institutions to study such a topic?  Emory or Duke.  At least they're still in the South?


heartontheleft said...

Let's start off by adding the one factor that you didn't list - financing. How is this degree going to be funded? Do you have the resources available? Also, at some time, you will also have to figure out how to fund the dissertation research? These two questions haunted me all through the process of getting my doctorate as I had to seek my own funding.

You mentioned the family and that is as important if not more important than the financing. Are you prepared to shrink the number of hours that you will share with your family because you can't shrink the number of hours that you have to give to the pastorate? Is your family willing and able to share you with another task?

I already had my doctorate (in Science Education) when I contemplated seminary - financing ruled out that path. And when it was apparent that there weren't enough hours in the day to justify a part-time pastorate with a full-time job, I opted out of the pastoral path all together.

And when it is all done, where do you want to be? Do you want an academic life teaching history during the week with a pastorate on the weekend or do you want a life that combines the pastorate and academic life together? Both will demand that you publish; the second option may give the opportunity to publish one paper that is in both worlds. The first option doesn't always give that opportunity.

I would pick Duke over Emory but then again I am partial to the Piedmont section of North Carolina. The choice of schools will have more to do with your ability to achieve the goal you stated in your piece - if there is no one at the school you would like to go to, you may not be able to do the study you want.

Final point, why do you want the Ph.D. after your name? For me, the doctorate was probably more personal than professional so it was worth it. Would I do it all over again if I could. Probably, though I would probably be more cognizant of the financing than I was the first time. If I had known then what I know now, my doctorate would have gone smoother and easier.

So, there you have some thoughts on a Friday afternoon. I wish you well and may God bless this journey, wherever it may lead you.

Tony Mitchell - Ph. D. in Science Education - University of Iowa, 1990

Emily said...

Tony - thanks for your thought-provoking questions!! Yes, if I wasn't able to finance it easily through grants from the university and some loans (and some outside grants like the Dempster Fellowship from GBHEM), I would not do it. We have just whittled our debt down to mortgage and my college and grad school loans. I'm not quite ready to take on a huge debt again!

Regarding the family/pastorate/school conundrum: I would request to be appointed to school, and leave pulpit ministry behind for a time. If this was possible (and I know many whose conferences were willing to do this), I could at least have just family and school vying for my time. Again, once I was teaching, I would hope and request that my ministry would be in academia. Not a separate ministry job on the weekends. The pastorate is the academy and the students in this scenario.

Yes, Duke and Emory are the best institutions right now for this area of study because of the scholars who are currently teaching there. That can all change in a matter of years!

I actually want a Th.D., and I (theoretically) want it solely so I can teach other aspiring ministers in seminary.

But your point about the financing is most cogent and practical. I am very attuned to our budget and capabilities, and would not be able to fund my own doctorate and research. So a lot would hinge on that.

Thanks for helping me think!