Why I’m Not (Currently) Studying for a PhD

Every now and then, someone I know will ask me, “Elliot, you’re a pretty smart guy. Why don’t you go on to further studies?” I am flattered by their assumption that I’m intelligent, but here is my answer to that question:

1. While I love to study, I don’t have a strong enough interest in a single subject. I’m generally a curious person, and I love learning new things. I would be happy taking classes in various disciplines for the rest of my life. However, it seems to me that to get a PhD you need to have an exceedingly strong interest in one particular area. This interest has to be strong enough to sustain you through several years of study and (in most cases) poverty. I do have a strong interest in the areas of theological ethics and hermeneutics, but am I interested enough in one particular idea or person to devote several years to exploring that person or area? I don’t think so.

2. No one I know with a PhD has recommended that I pursue one. Sure, there have been people who have suggested it, but none of those people have had PhDs. This criterion is important to me, because the kind of people who would know best whether I would enjoy/be successful at getting a PhD are the ones who have gone through the process themselves. In all of the time I’ve spent in school, I’ve never had a professor come up to me and say, “You should consider going on to further studies.” That, I think, is significant.

3. I don’t think that it would seriously improve my job prospects. There are already a lot of highly educated people in the world, and it seems to me that the number of highly educated people is growing much faster than the number of universities that would employ them. If I were to get a PhD, it would probably be in an area closely related to theology. This means I could only teach at places where there was a department where people with PhDs in theology could teach, which severely limits the number of institutes of higher learning at which I could be employed. When you combine this reality with the fact that I would most likely get into debt in the course of pursuing a PhD, I say: why bother? There are people to whom it makes sense to get a PhD in theology, but at this point I’m not one of them.

4. I love to teach, but I am more interested in the church than I am in the academy. What gets me excited to teach something is the idea that it will help to make people better and more faithful disciples of Jesus. This means, I think, that I would be happy teaching in a church or in a church-sponsored school, but not anywhere else. I enjoy teaching at my church, and I will continue to do that until I feel called to do something else. Some people feel called to be a Christian witness in secular academia. While I think that calling is important, I haven’t felt it myself.

5. Speaking of calling, I don’t think God has called me to it. This isn’t a completely a separate reason from all the others, because the first four reasons express aspects of it. I believe that God primarily calls people to himself, but he is also able to call his people to certain tasks at certain times. I think that he does call some people to get PhD’s, but I have not felt that he is calling me to do that. During those times in my life that I have thought God was calling me to something, I felt a strong tug in my own heart that was corroborated by the counsel of wise and prayerful friends. I have not felt that call with respect to getting a PhD. That’s not to say that I will never feel it, but that is the situation right now.


2 thoughts on “Why I’m Not (Currently) Studying for a PhD

  1. As you say, Ph.D. programs entail considerable specialization. The first few years are usually broader, though still in the discipline, but the dissertation itself is usually extremely narrow. A Ph.D. is a research degree, and makes little sense if you don’t want to be a researcher. It is also the entrance requirement for jobs in higher ed. As you say, there are plenty of other places to teach people that don’t require a Ph.D. Working in higher ed has its rewards, but it is very competitive and doesn’t pay all that well, except at those places where you’re hired as a researcher and are only secondarily a teacher. I enjoy working in higher ed myself, but I don’t recommend it unless you really feel called to the academy.

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