The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Jun 8, 2013

Five Years of Doctoral Studies: What Went Well and What Could Have Gone Better

[updated 6/10/2013 to briefly discuss teaching abroad as a very legitimate option for newly graduated doctorates]

Dear reader, I am very interested in hearing about your own personal experiences in doctoral work, especially if you are/were a married student or who attended a different kind of school. Please feel free to comment below.

Through the grace of God, the mercy of my advisers, and the support of my friends, after 5 full school  years of doctoral work, I have my doctorate in hand! In light of that, I thought it would be beneficial to add some personal reflection on what went well and what could have gone better in my five years as a student. Naturally, doctoral work goes differently for everybody, and the perspective you have here is the rather subjective musings of a bachelor who worked full-time during his studies at a Southern Baptist school. Married students will have a significantly different perspective, as will those lucky few who didn't have to work full time. Naturally, attending a secular university or a school of a different denomination will also provide a different experience. Nevertheless, I hope that this post will provide some food-for-thought for those contemplating (or currently in) doctoral studies.

Overall, the experience was positive, and I believe that I experienced the Lord's leading both to and through this particular program. I want to emphasize that with a lot of help and support, I survived it, and I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, so to speak, nor am I the most diligent of students (though I got better through the years). Thus, once again, let me stress that this was a positive though difficult experience. I want to start with some negatives, however, just so that I can end on a strongly positive note.

The following is somewhat subjective and focuses mostly on my own personal experience. Nevertheless, I hope it can be an encouragement and a forewarning for those considering doctoral studies. As I mentioned above, I am definitely interested in hearing from others who have already finished (or are in the midst of) this journey.

5 years in a Ph.D.: what could have gone better

1. Finances
Now, fortunately, I paid my bills on time and no burly mobsters with names like Benny "the Cement Truck" Antonelli will be coming round to beat my tuition payments out of me [note to the impressionable reader: that is not generally how SBC schools operate, so you may put aside your concerns]. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the cost of a doctorate and the amount of debt I would accrue.

Now, I'm not exactly a free-spender, at least with the big stuff. My car was made in the last millennium. My only computer is over 5 years old. I rent a small apartment with a housemate. I don't own a 72-inch plasma TV (or any TV, for that matter, though my housemate has a decent one). I try to shop cheaply for groceries. So as far as the "big stuff" goes, I'm not extravagant. (now the "little stuff" can be a different story; let's just say I've made too many "impulse purchases" of books on Amazon, not all of which were necessary for doctoral work).

Furthermore, I've worked full-time or close to full-time for most of my academic career. I was able to avoid actual school debt until my last year of seminary in Pennsylvania. So for a total of 9 years, through one bachelor's and almost two complete masters' degrees, I was fortunate to accrue only some credit card debt and no school loans.

Nevertheless, doctoral work is a whole different story. From the moment I received my acceptance letter in my last semester of my M.Div. ("Congratulations, you're in! By the way, you now owe us a $2,000 non-refundable enrollment fee"), things went downhill. And this was at a cheaper school! It is possible to stay out of debt even in a doctorate (I have a friend with a family who is working full-time and so far has been able to stay debt free), but it takes a whole lot more dedication and knowledge than I had at that point.

In retrospect, I wish I'd had somebody to go to, perhaps a few years before doctoral studies, that could have sat me down and just given me some financial advise. I'm capable of working hard and balancing my checkbook, but I've never learned long-term financial planning. Looking back, I think I could have planned better, made a few more sacrifices, and ended up in a slightly better situation. Of course some stuff is unpredictable (when my Geo Metro went from 3 cylinders to 2 cylinders, I had to shell out 4,000 for another used car, and that went straight to a credit card; I don't see how that could have been avoided).

On the plus side, the Lord provides. Whether it was a friend giving me a check, or my parents lending me some money to take a particular summer class, I've always had enough to pay my bills without missing anything of benefit in the program, though my checking account ran dry once or twice. Nevertheless, I'm on the verge of starting a second job just to survive until I can find a teaching position. So my advice to any prospective doctoral students is this: start planning financially years before you are accepted into a program (especially for married students, I imagine). [note: for what it's worth, Southeastern is actually very affordable for doctoral students. I paid a higher rate since I was not an SBC student, but it was still cheaper than comparable evangelical schools. The school does have some quirks, however, such as not allowing you to pay tuition on a credit card and making it difficult to obtain a federal student loan, as opposed to a private (e.g., Sallie Mae) student loan. The wise prospective student will research each school's financial policies and overall expenses before committing].

Once again, though, let me stress that the Lord always provided, sometimes in the nick of time. Often that provision came through good friends of mine, sometimes through anonymous sources, sometimes through overtime at work, but He always provided.

2. Lack of Sleep
This one may be more unique to me, but hopefully this can still prove to be a useful warning. My lack of sleep was not caused by the doctoral workload, which is actually quite manageable. Rather, I worked third shift and my body refused to sleep in the daylight hours to the extant that it should. I don't know why (and yes, I tried darkening the room, wearing "blinders," drinking "Zzz-Quil," both eating and fasting before I went to bed, etc. Nothing worked consistently). For most of my 15 years since college, I have worked third shift to some degree (the exception was 3 years in a factory, second shift, during my M.Div.). During my college days, I had no trouble sleeping whenever, be it morning, noon, or night (and, occasionally, during class or chapel! :) Something changed when I started my MA, however, and I'm not sure what. Suddenly I had more difficulty sleeping. The result is that for 3-4 days out of the week over most of my ph.d., I have only managed about 4 hours of sleep a day, and I'm not sure why. I had the time to sleep, but not the ability. I don't know if this is something that other doctoral students have struggled with (some people can work 3rd shift with no problems sleeping during the day), but I think my advice to doctoral students would be to try to get a 2nd shift job if at all possible. Most classes will be in the morning or early afternoon anyways, and you can dedicate most of your mornings to research and reading. If you work from 4pm to midnight (or similar hours), you can still, most likely, get at least 6 hours of solid sleep for the day. (yeah, I know, that's less than ideal for good health, but this is doctoral work; the rules change!)

For those of you that may have to work 3rd shift, coffee and strong energy drinks are your greatest allies. It's probably not actually safe to drink the latter (there's nothing like actually feeling your heart rate elevate as you chug down a can), but if it's a matter of drinking an energy drink or allowing yourself to plow off the road on the way home from work or school, the former is much preferable. During classes, make sure you drink plenty of coffee and you should have no trouble staying awake (you do not want to fall asleep during a doctoral class!)

[disclaimer: despite having a ph.d., the author, Paul Himes, is not an actual physician and is not qualified to dispense advice regarding the safety, or lack thereof, of coffee, energy drinks, or other caffeinated beverages. The reader should drink such beverages at his or her own discretion! The author is not responsible for any resulting caffeine addictions or the urge to get involved in extreme sports]

3. Lethargy and lack of discipline
This one is partially connected to the last one. I believe working 3rd shift and being unable to sleep a reasonable amount per day resulted in bouts of inactivity that could have been put to better use. One the one hand, in the grand scheme of things I don't think I'm a lazy person. I've worked multiple jobs all throughout my education, most of them time full-time, and I've turned in my work on-time. Furthermore, this is not about taking legitimate breaks and relaxing by yourself or with friends. Often times a good science fiction book or watching a movie with friends helped me relax and regain my sanity.

What I am talking about, however, is bouts of inactivity where I did nothing at all constructive. Partially, I was tired and frustrated that I couldn't sleep. Partially, however, I lacked the self-motivation to get myself up to start doing something useful. (I suspect this is more likely to be a problem for bachelors than married students!) Had I been a bit more disciplined, I'm sure I could have accomplished much more and probably finished at least half a year earlier than I did.

Furthermore, "idleness is the devil's workshop." The less busy you are, the more open you are to temptations and even depression. When I was tired and lethargic, I could occasionally get depressed. Now I don't mean "depressed" in the sense of considering something drastic (like jumping off the Empire State Building!) Rather, I mean "depressed" in that there were a few dark moments where I wondered about myself, doctoral studies, and a multitude of worries and cares that fly in whenever the door is left open. These moments only came when I was alone and only when I was not busy doing something constructive. The solution, I think, is to have a solid, consistent schedule (including personal time in the Word) and to spend time around other people. Allow yourself time to relax and read a book or play a game, but try to not have any real "downtime" where your are bored and just lounging on the couch. I am ashamed of the many hours I wasted that could have been put to use writing or exercising or reading.

4. Early sloppiness in my work (that improved)
This is both a negative and a positive. It wasn't until my mentorship and dissertation work with Dr. Black that I realized how careless and sloppy I had a tendency to be. I'd always been told that I was a decent writer, but the technical aspects of my work left a lot to be desired (for any former teachers, at any level, reading this post, I apologize for any papers of mine you read that had a lot of typos! As somebody who has read and graded papers, I know how annoying that can be). I sincerely wish I could go back and re-write some of the papers and even articles that I wrote during the earlier stages of my doctoral work. The problem, frankly, was a little bit of laziness on my part. I'd done very little proofreading through most of my education. By the time I was working on chapter 3 of my dissertation, I was personally proofreading each chapter six times and having others look at my work as well! So, fortunately, there was improvement.

The solution, I think, is that doctoral students should start a habit early on of rigorously proofreading each paper they write (and, ideally, make a deal with another student to read each other's papers). Some professors will be generous with their grading; others will not. But there's two things you should never have to be called to task for in doctoral work: sloppy writing and sloppy research.

(and I desperately hope that this post is not so full of typos as to render my previous paragraphs ironic!)

5. Lack of a teaching position.
It's a bit disheartening when you apply for a relatively small Christian college and get word back that they had over 100 applicants and you're not one of their final choices. It's also a bit discouraging to apply to a school that you think you might be a good fit for and then not even receive an acknowledgement of their receipt of your application. So, dear prospective student, let me spell it out for you: for every school you apply to teach at, there's probably 99 other applicants, and most of them are more qualified than you are! In other words, do not assume you will have a teaching job waiting for you as soon as you become ABD. Having said that, begin applying to schools as soon as you pass comps and become ABD, and begin praying quite frequently for the Lord to open doors. Also, establish contacts and connections with people and schools. My own situation is currently that of trying to pick up a second job in addition to my security job just to pay my bills for the next year. Come late Fall 2013, I'll start the application process once again and pray for direction. [note: my advisor has been very helpful in providing letters of recommendation and keeping his eyes out for positions. I doubt that all advisers are as helpful as mine has been, so make sure you cultivate relationships with a number of professors that may later help you out with letters of recommendation and job leads]. To put it in perspective, over the past school year I applied to 20 schools with openings (six of which did not even acknowledge my existence) and was only granted one phone interview. But never give up hope, and keep trying!

[updated 6/10/2013] As a friend recently pointed out in the comments, there is one very important option that all doctoral students should look onto: namely, teaching abroad. I know of two very recent grads from SEBTS that are doing so, one of them in an evangelical school and the other in a restricted access nation. Generally, you'll have to at least some support (some schools overseas may pay you a bit, but rarely will you get a full-paying job), but the benefits as to the experience you gain and the potential ministry opportunities cannot be matched. At the very least, I believe every evangelical doctorate should attempt to become involved with teaching overseas during summer or winter breaks; but for now, there are many positions overseas crying out to be filled by doctorates, and who better to answer the call than evangelicals? For more information on this, keep an eye or two open for a forthcoming JETS article by a friend of mine who is currently teaching overseas. [end update]

It's worth noting that the work load of the doctorate was not unreasonable. I felt that, even working full-time, I had plenty of time to do quality work. Hopefully this is an encouragement (though married students who also work full-time probably have it worse than I did).

5 years in a Ph.D: what went awesomely well!

1. Great teachers and mentors
And now for the positive! Possibly the most significant aspect of your doctoral work will not be which school you went to, but rather who you studied under and who influenced you. This is only partially a matter of prestige (i.e., how many books/articles somebody has written); mostly, it is a matter of guidance and influence. I was extremely fortunate to write my dissertation under Dr. David Alan Black, grade (and teach) for Dr. Maurice Robinson, and take classes with Dr. Andreas K√∂stenberger. Yet all of the teachers that I took at Southeastern were awesome, and all proved to be an encouragement in one way or the other.

Dr. Black was my mentor and advisor, and he helped "whip me into shape" for my dissertation and has strongly encouraged me in my endeavors. My reasoning for asking to study under him was because of his broad work in New Testament studies and Greek, and I was told I could write on anything related to the New Testament or New Testament Greek under him. Dr. Black was very "laissez-faire" in regards to the content of my writing while at the same time very strict on the technical aspects (and also very tough on making sure I was reading foreign language sources!). Furthermore, mentorship under him had a spiritual component to it as well; Dr. Black is heavily involved in the New Testament Christian life, including missions, and wishes to ensure that his students are as well. Studying under him was definitely a great choice.

I highly recommend being a research assistant or a grading fellow for somebody during your years in doctoral work (and it doesn't have to be your advisor). Grading itself is usually not too great a commitment (a couple hours a week; much more during the final weeks of the semester, but by then your own work should be mostly done). This will pay a little bit, but more importantly this is about gaining experience (grading and teaching) and building a relationship. I was fortunate to be Dr. Maurice Robinson's grader for 4 out of the 5 years I was here; Dr. Robinson, probably more than any other professor at Southeastern, was very much familiar with my church background (independent/fundamental, only with more "fun" and less "mental"), and we had some good conversations. Also, he had great stories! While I never got to take a class with him, I was nevertheless influenced towards a Byzantine (Majority) textual position just by being around him (although, in my case, it's a lot about my dissatisfaction with the sacred cows of eclecticism). Both Dr. Robinson and Dr. Black have been very helpful in my attempts to find a job teaching.

Teachers are the greatest asset of any school, and I was privileged to take classes with a number of great scholars. Especially beneficial were my classes with Dr. K√∂stenberger. His encouragement is the reason my first paper got accepted for publication (in BBR), and his Second Temple Literature class opened my eyes to a whole new field of research. In addition, I took a summer class with Dr. George Guthrie on Hebrews, which was one of the greatest classes I ever took at any level, and I was able to have a distant ed. class with Dr. Gene Green from Wheaton on 1 Peter (nobody at Southeastern has taught 1 Peter at the doctoral level in a long time, to my knowledge). This was extremely important for my dissertation.  You should especially try to take classes where the professor has written on the topic (especially if their dissertation or a major publication is related to the topic of the class). Also, although many advise that you should structure your classes around your dissertation, I strongly disagree. I deliberately took the class "Christian Faith and Science," even though it has nothing to do with my dissertation, simply because I was interested in the topic. My paper for that class was eventually published in the British journal Science & Christian Belief. Furthermore, I audited "Old Testament Theology" simply because I felt that it would be a shame to go through a doctorate in Biblical Studies and not take anything Old Testament related.

The bottom line is this: consider your teachers and classes well, and take those teachers and classes that you will enjoy. Ultimately, it is the people, not the school name, that determines the value of your doctorate.

2. A great local church.
Get involved in a local church. Period. No "buts"! First of all, you may find an outlet for your studies (I once did an entire Wed. night Bible study on Biblical Lament, based off of what I had learned from Dr. Heath Thomas in a one day seminar; hopefully it wasn't overly academic, but you'll have to ask somebody else about that!). Secondly, you will find a family that will encourage you and be your friends. With a good church, Sunday truly becomes a day of relaxing fellowship and worship, a welcome respite from the rigours of the week.

So I cannot stress this enough: find a good church, make friends and minister with them, influence people, and be influenced in turn. Through my church I have received a lot of encouragement and prayer, I gained many opportunities for ministry (preaching, teaching, ushering, sound booth, missions committee), and Sundays truly became a day of rest and worship. In addition, your brothers and sisters at church will offer various degrees of accountability that you can take advantage of.

3. Getting published
Trying to get published is a lot like trying to ask a girl out. Expect to get rejected time and time again! (so keep trying!) Having said that, it is a worthwhile endeavor, not (hopefully) for selfish reasons (look at me! I published an article[that few people will read but that somebody, somewhere, will someday misquote for a mostly insignificant paper at some obscure college!]), but rather because it is an opportunity to contribute to the ongoing discussion of biblical theology, to make your voice heard in the conversation (even if it's a small voice!). Being published can also give you a sense that your work is not wasted (regardless of whether or not somebody actually reads your article; at least it's there if anybody is researching the topic!)

For me, getting my first paper accepted for publication resulted from just a bit of encouragement from a certain professor. He had called me into his office and suggested sending in my latest paper for publication somewhere; it's unlikely that I would have done so otherwise, since this particular paper was one that I was not exactly sure of. Furthermore, the first journal I sent it in to rejected it. Yet perseverance and stubbornness should be hallmarks of a doctoral student, so I tried again and was privileged to have it accepted.

The lesson, I guess, is to listen to feedback from teachers and others and constantly try to publish your papers (or at least present them at conferences). Expect to be rejected, but keep trying--not for your own glory (trust me; you won't become famous with a few articles) but rather to take part in the awesome, ongoing conversation that we call "theology."

4. Finishing
Well, in the end, I finished, and that's something to be grateful for. It's a good feeling. I guess it's a certain vindication of my parents' and friends' investment in me. I don't know what the Lord will permit in the future, but to have finished doctoral work is an immense privilege. Furthermore, I will stress again, it was, overall, a very positive experience. Good people, a good church, good classes, and good guidance from those wiser than me contributed to create a solid five enjoyable years of Bible study. Who can complain about that?