Sunday, July 3, 2011

Why Academia, Part I: Why a PhD?

I fell a bit behind with this blog. The past week was a bit "off," as I fought a slight cold and we coped with some other household things. But this is as good a time as any to tackle my subject: Why I'm Getting a PhD! I plan for this to be the first of a short series.

I don't want to assume that people know what I'm talking about when I discuss academia, because let's face it, it's a quirky path, and there are good reasons that few people choose it! Again, I don't expect this to make for the most fascinating reading. But I know that some of my family and friends might nevertheless enjoy having a clearer idea of what I'm doing and why.

First, to address some of the frequently asked questions...
  • My doctoral program is in Historical Theology. (More on this in subsequent posts.)
  • The program lasts a minimum of four years. (There' real maximum. There are some alarming stats for how long it takes people to complete their degree. My goal is five, and that would be a highly respectable length.)
  • I'm currently going into the 2nd year of the program.
  • During these first two years, I do coursework, much as I did in undergrad and in my Master's program. My seminars generally have between four and eight students in them.
  • My third year will be devoted to proposing and researching my dissertation topic.
  • The fourth and any subsequent years will be All Dissertation, All The Time.
  • Unless I am teaching undergraduate survey courses. Right now, I am fortunate to be on a Fellowship that doesn't require me to be apprenticed to a faculty member as a Research Assistant. (Which is great, because it means that studying really gets to be my full-time job!) If I am offered the opportunity to teach, though (as most of the PhD students are), it will happen no earlier than Year 4.
Of course that doesn't get to the really big question -- that is, what's the GOAL of all this?

Believe it or not, it's not because I love studying SO much that I desire to be a professional student. Mainly, I want to write. And teach. My dream situation, as of now, would be to teach theology/church history to undergraduates at a small Christian liberal arts college, perhaps in the type of "Great Books" Honors track Kevin graduated from.

Honestly, the idea of working with undergrads excites me more than working at a large research university or teaching Masters- or seminary-level students. I like the idea of punching holes in kids' presuppositions and getting them excited about perspectives they would never have considered, or authorities they would never have taken a second glance at. (Believe me, teaching theology, even to Christian youth, affords MANY such opportunities.)

I'll talk more later about why I want to teach theology specifically. Essentially, for me, the undergraduate setting is where the action is. I love the idea of having a hand in forming hearts and intellects during those years.

Note, though, that I referred to this as the "dream" scenario. Frankly, lots of PhD students want those small-liberal-arts-school posts right now. And there aren't that many of them to go around. The market stinks right now; that is just the reality. I need to be realistic about the fact that my ideal situation might not be realized right away, or ever -- especially since I'm married to someone who is working in an extremely similar field, and who will be seeking similar kinds of work (though he is looking to teach at a seminary, which is a little different)!

That's where, along with the realism, a little creativity comes in handy. Especially if I am able to launch something of a writing career (which, after all, is something I have always wanted, and which is a major part of academia anyway), then I think I can find various ways to put my degree to good use...even if it means taking on lower-paying adjunct jobs for awhile, or writing/consulting on curricula for churches, or who knows what else. I got enough enjoyment out of my brief stint teaching community college-level online courses to know that the work can be rewarding at any level. And that, if it's all I can get, I'm willing to work with it!

At any rate, I really don't know what my 30s will bring, especially since I want to have kids, also! The upshot is, I think it's silly to get too rigid about what I want my career to look like, at this early stage.

As you might have gathered, a PhD is a lot of work without the guarantee of a huge payoff. I'll admit, that's something I wish I had taken more seriously when I was 22 or even 25. I don't think it would have ultimately changed my plans -- but it's much easier, at 22, to think, "I don't care if I accumulate some debt, or that it'll take me longer to get my career started than my peers," than it is to live with the reality when you're a little older and married. I see people I went to high school with becoming homeowners, and we're living in a little apartment and driving a 20-year-old car. It isn't glamorous.

On the other hand, I get to devote my time to studying subjects that I love and find meaningful. I try to remind myself every day what a luxury that is. While I can't take a romanticized view of it, I know it's not a bad place to be.

Finally, I'd add that when I was little, I had this idea that PhDs were "the smartest people." Surely, if you had the brains, you had no choice but to advance to the highest possible degree. I know better now...some of the most intelligent people I have known had no degrees to their name, and I can confidently tell you that holding a doctoral degree does NOT mean you're a genius!

In reality, getting a PhD is a strange thing to do. I think the only difference between me and a well-read non-academic is that I read obscure books for a living and am required to argue about them with some degree of precision and originality. While one has to have intelligence to reach this level, I sometimes think the job, the academic lifestyle, is more about having a liking for, and the disposition to thrive in, a rather eccentric subculture, than it is about being "smart."

I'm not sure how good a job I've done answering the why question. Maybe this will help: in the next installment of this series, I'm planning to write about why I chose to study theology. To do that well, I may need to "rewind" a bit, to my storied Hollins and Yale days. :)

1 comment:

  1. I love that you're my smart, well read friend and you still hang out with me. I suspect you and I need to have a girls' night in which our conversation isn't hijacked by our husbands. ;-)