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10 Ordinary Lessons from Doing a PhD in Theology

By Cole Hartin

This past week I fulfilled the last of the requirements to graduate with my PhD in Theological Studies from Wycliffe College and the University of Toronto. After five years of classes, teaching assistantships, exams, outlines, research, writing, an oral defense, and several seemingly arbitrary formatting requirements, my hands are now clean of it.

For me, this degree has been deeply challenging, but my most constant sense has been gratitude, notwithstanding moments of frustration and doubt. It has been a joy to devote so many hours to studying theology, with a focus on the doctrine of Scripture. I am grateful.

And while I’ve learned a lot about Victorian exegetes, patristic interpreters, and scriptural ontology, I’ve been reflecting lately on the more general life lessons I’ve gleaned in the past five years. Some of these have been spiritual lessons, but others have been more run-of-the-mill survival skills that I’ve picked up.

I hope this will be of some use to those considering advanced theological study, or to graduate students who are working through a degree right now.

Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned through my doctoral studies:

  1. Nobody cares about your projects.

Well, this is not entirely true. If you’re lucky, you’ll have some good friends and good professors who are genuinely interested in what you’re working on. For the most part, however, the further you tread along the path of theological study, the more your interests tend to become a niche. By the time you’ve settled on a thesis project, you will have gone so far beyond the realm of what any but the nerdiest students are interested in that you might as well resign yourself to obscurity. Moreover, everyone tends to think the project they are working on is the most essential and interesting; otherwise they wouldn’t be working on it.

Save yourself and others some grief, and recognize that nobody cares about your class paper or your dissertation. Why should they? Talking to people in your parish will be an especially sobering reminder here.

Hold your work lightly. Don’t shoehorn it into conversations. If you recognize nobody cares about your work, you’ll be delighted and surprised by those wonderful souls who appear once in a while and want to know what you’re writing about.

  1. Being knowledgeable doesn’t make you a good student/professor/person.

St. Paul reminds us that “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Studying theology can be a wonderful, heady experience. Obviously being an expert in one little pocket of knowledge is a good thing, but it is important to recognize how specialized and narrow that expertise is. Furthermore, in my experience anyway, some of the most knowledgeable students (or professors) were the most annoying. It’s better to know less if it means you won’t be a jerk. And nobody will want to work with you if you are condescending.

Aiming to master one’s discipline is a great idea, but make sure to balance that with civility and humility.

  1. Academia can take over your life if you let it. Don’t.

Doctoral studies, like any demanding endeavour, have the ability to take over your whole life. There are always more books to read, more articles to write, more conferences to attend, and so on. If you don’t put some concrete and firm boundaries in place, you’ll spin out of control.

This is all the more relevant if you have a family. Often, those closest to us suffer for our over-work or preoccupied minds. Don’t gain the academic world at the expense of your soul, your prayer life, or your family. This is to say nothing of simply having fun and doing things you love.

Think about it like this: Even if you excel in every area academically but neglect your spiritual and familial life, the best-case scenario is that you end up with a stellar job at a wonderful institution. But that’s all you’ll have. You’ll have missed out on a satisfying relationship with God and meaningful relationships with others. That’s not worth it.

  1. A can of beans, eaten out of the can, is as nutritious and easy as you can get for 79 cents.

Cheap, fibrous, plant-based protein. Need I say more?

  1. Prayer and study go hand in hand. Keep them that way.

I have often heard warnings that advanced theological study may be detrimental to my faith. I’ve never found this to be the case. In fact, I’ve found that the more I read good theology, the more it soaks into my prayers, and enlivens my faith. When I write, then, I pray that I would write something that brings glory to God, and that is of service to the Church.

Earning a PhD in theology is not an end in itself, but it is a tool to deepen one’s relationship to God, and to edify Christ’s Church. Don’t silo off the Church from the academy. Instead, keep them close.

  1. Somebody is always going to hate what you’ve written, and somebody is going to think it’s awesome.

Whether you are writing an article for an academic journal or offering lectures in a parish setting, there are always going to be people who disagree with you. This is partly because they will have associated you with a particular school of thought, whether they deem you too liberal or conservative, too evangelical or Catholic, too technical or not technical enough.

A wise pastor-professor once told me that some people find their meaning in life by criticizing the efforts of others. This is surely true. Be prepared to be disliked.

But on the other hand, know that if you write from the heart, and work hard, you will benefit others. Some people will find the same article or lectures that others detested to be deeply moving or thoughtful. Be thankful for these moments of encouragement.

  1. Failure is the doorway to growth, and (can be) a stepping stone to holiness.

I suspect there are probably some scholars who always get things right. They are accepted to every program or conference they apply for, they achieve flawless grades and test scores, and every article they write is wonderfully received.

Well, I’m not one of those students. The path to and through my PhD included a lot of failure and setbacks. I’ve had some success with publishing articles and presenting at conferences, but I’ve had many proposals that have been flops.

I’ve learned that these moments of failure and rejection are best received as opportunities for growth. A paper that is rejected by a journal often comes with comments that can be used to make the argument stronger. And besides, I’ve noticed that my setbacks are a sobering reminder of my need for God’s grace, that I do what I do for Christ’s sake, not for my advancement. These failures then become moments of prayer and stepping stones toward holiness.

  1. There is no shame in using a student discount when you are into your second (or third, or fourth) decade of life.

For a while I was embarrassed showing my student card for 10 percent off my coffee on campus, as I lined up behind pimply 18-year-olds. I got over it.

  1. Aim for great, not perfect.

There is a kind of despair that comes from having a glorious vision of what your work could be, but never quite arriving there. The temptation is to keep working and working and working until you’ve reached perfection. Though diligence and perseverance both have their place, knowing when to quit is important. There is always something that could be enhanced, some thought that could be deepened. But you don’t want to spend 15 years working on a five-year degree. So, aim for great, work hard, but don’t let your vision of perfection stop you from reaching the next stage of your program or your next project.

  1. A storage closet can be used as an office.

It’s important to find some dedicated, quiet study space. Libraries can work well, if you can drown out the rustle and giggles of freshmen students. Otherwise, try using a corner in your home.

For years, we lived in a small, two-bedroom basement apartment with our two sons. There wasn’t much extra space for me to work. I found, though, that I could fit a small desk and chair in the furnace closet. That became my home office, and the place where a lot of the dissertation magic happened.

It’s okay to sanctify some other dim, half-forgotten space and to make it your office.

I’m sure some other graduates might have pointers to add to the list. Share them in the comments below!



  1. OK, did Radner know you were having to resort to eating beans from a can? He’s been there. Unless that is/was more about time and convenience than money, shame on those folks. Sometimes getting knowledge is more like being a scorpion instead of an egg (or something like that…I suspect I’m mangling Jesus’ saying).


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