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PhD after Seminary? 3 Considerations

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The hardest lesson for me to learn in my nine-year academic journey was patience. My goal in this article is to prepare you, the budding Bible academic, for an endurance race of mind and spirit. Hold this thought: academia is hard, but it is harder after seminary. 

I decided that a PhD was my ultimate goal before I even stepped foot in a Greek 101 class, the summer before my first semester of full-time seminary. I was inspired by accounts of martyred Reformers such as Tyndale and Latimer, men of letters who trained at Oxford and Cambridge. My goal was to finish seminary and get to England, to follow in their footsteps, and to return home as a highly educated pastor–scholar. 

But I am impatient. So I worked harder than necessary in seminary, striving to finish in three years with the highest grades possible. I graduated magna cum laude. But during those three years, I slept little, gave up surfing, neglected friendships, and tested my marriage. If that collateral damage wasn’t enough, every doctoral program I applied to in both the States and the UK accepted me into their program on one condition: I had to do another master’s degree first. The worst of ironies: My rush to finish seminary quickly wasn’t necessary, and in the eyes of every postgraduate program I applied to, both in the States and the UK, seminary was not sufficient training for the rigors of a PhD.

What I am going to do in the rest of this article is outline for you a few steps to prepare for the realities of higher education in biblical studies or theology, and suggest some ways you can endure the prolonged process of earning a terminal degree. If by the end of this article you are fully persuaded a PhD is for you, I applaud your tenacity. And if by the end of this article you decide a PhD is not for you, I applaud your humility.

1. Finances

Let’s talk about money. Do you have enough to pay for both your tuition and living expenses for another degree post-seminary? What about family? If you are married, have you and your spouse discussed the possible increased burden on the non-student to provide an income suitable to cover costs?

My advice to most people interested in doing advanced theological education is to either have somebody else pay for their tuition—whether scholarship, family money, donors, etc.—or wait until one of those financial resources is in place. One of my closest friends at Durham University was accepted to an elite program of study with one of the most sought-after doctoral supervisors in the world, but he delayed moving his family overseas for two years because they had a hard time selling their house in the States. That took a great deal of patience on his part, but it paid off (no pun intended) when they were finally able to move to England. He did not have the tremendous burden of paying a mortgage in one country and rent in another. 

Be honest with your financial situation. If you cannot afford to pay tuition and living costs, don’t do a PhD (yet). Give yourself the time necessary to apply elsewhere. Try to secure a fully funded scholarship. Spend the time required to raise financial support from family, friends, and churches who believe in your calling to be a biblical scholar. Or decide that now is not the time to get a PhD, and maybe consider other career choices that still enable you to fulfill your vocation. In fact, let’s talk about career.

2. Career

Perhaps the hardest thing for me to say to any budding academic is: “If you do a PhD, you’re taking yourself out of the job market for at least five to ten years.” It is hard for me to say that because most people do not get what I am trying to say. They think, “But those are years of preparation for a beautiful career as a scholar afterwards.” 

Maybe. But it is going to hurt—a lot—when at the end of your academic journey you look around you (or at least on Facebook) and see your peers from high school and college. Many will have stuck with one career path and are now in elevated positions of leadership, with enviable levels of income, and on their second or third home purchase. Over the decade, they built strong and diverse skill sets and grew invaluable networks in a particular industry, while you spent the same years reading lots of books and writing a few papers. 

I come across a bit harsh, but I say these things to convey the gritty reality of life as a postgraduate student. The most depressing day of my life was the day I walked out of my PhD examination, the dreaded viva, with the best results possible: pass, with no corrections. That meant I did not have to fix anything, not even typos. From the moment I walked down the ancient steps of the Theology Department at Durham University, I was a doctor. And I was incredibly sad. What was I going to do now? I had spent the past nine years working so hard to get to this point, and I did not have a job waiting for me, I was close to broke, I did not own a home, and the clock was now ticking on our UK visa, which meant we had to leave the country very soon. I had made the mistake of putting too much emotional stock in earning the coveted designation, “Doctor of Philosophy.” 

So think hard first about whether you really want to go through the rigors of a PhD, or if your seminary degree is sufficient for you to fulfill the vocation I assume got you here in the first place. Yes, you want to serve the Lord and his people as capably and comprehensively and compassionately as possible. But do you really need a doctoral degree to do that? Maybe not.

There are, however, some alternatives you should consider. Can you work on your PhD part-time while working another career? Absolutely. In fact, one of the smartest Greek scholars I know is working on his PhD long-distance while working full time as a helicopter mechanic. How insane is that? I know at least two other young scholars who did their PhD work while working as chaplains in the military. That’s just pure grit.

Let’s take this back to the issue of patience. There’s no rush to get the PhD. Take a few years away from your studies after seminary if you need to raise money, raise a family, or raise up a church. Invest yourself heavily in a new job, whether as a pastor, a software developer, a fireman, and then slowly begin to think about taking on the burden of doing your PhD alongside. For many of you, I am certain the new job and all the benefits it brings will deplete the novelty of a doctorate pretty quickly. For others, you will be fired up even more to hit the books in the early mornings and evenings. Either path is available, but make an informed decision based upon your own situation.

3. Resources

Finally, I want to talk about resources because you are going to need all the help you can get to do a PhD after seminary. This section can be broken down into three main categories: physical and mental, spiritual, and intellectual, and each deserves attention.

Physical and mental health

I group together the physical and mental because they are so intrinsic to each other. If you’re not taking care of your physical health, your mental state is going to suffer. I know this from firsthand experience, and from discussions with other doctoral students around the world. 

During my first eighteen months at Durham, I was so fired up to be at such a beautiful, rigorous academic setting (and amazed that I actually got accepted) that I neglected to exercise. Remember how I said earlier that I stopped surfing during my seminary years? I remember a discussion in our postgraduate offices about how we all were slowly growing the infamous “PhD belly.” We were spending nearly every waking hour sitting at a desk reading, drinking gallons of coffee, and eating whatever cheap food we could find that all of us were putting on weight. I was so ashamed of myself. I had spent my latter teens and much of my twenties in the Navy training hard and feeling great about myself. Now I was letting myself go, and it was affecting my mental health. Depression, anxiety, sleep issues: these were all things I now dealt with on a daily basis. 

So I made a change. I signed up for a triathlon, bought a bike, and started swimming every day. In fact, I loved swimming so much that I forgot about running and cycling and started competing for the Durham University Swim Team in open water swimming competitions. Although the time I spent each day training was about one to two hours, it paid dividends in my physical and mental health. And that dreaded PhD belly? It went away, too. 

Spiritual resources

The strange irony of doing a PhD in biblical studies or theology is that you can get so focused on one tiny little aspect of theology or the Bible that you start to lose sight of the bigger realities of the Triune God. In fact, I’m so convinced of the universality of this experience that I would say every postgraduate student working in biblical studies or theology struggles to “look up.” I’m not here talking about the few individuals who sadly leave the faith during their studies (a phenomenon which cannot be entirely attributed to critical study of the Bible), but rather the committed Christian scholars-in-training who fail to devote sufficient time to their relationship with God

Be invested in a local church during your studies. In fact, before you even leave for your newfound intellectual playground, whether a university or seminary doctorate, do your homework on churches in the area. Ask current postgrads about the local church scene. Get recommendations from friends. Investigate local church websites and find out where you can fit in and plug in. 

Almost immediately after I received my acceptance letter from Durham University, about three months before we boarded a plane from Los Angeles to England, I began sending emails to churches in the town of Durham. I explained who I was, my background in ministry, my heart for serving the local church, and my contact information. I received responses from a few of the churches I contacted, and actually ended up getting hired to work as a worship pastor and community chaplain for a dynamic church in Durham. Our family’s connection to King Church enabled us to weather some heavy times during our five years in the area, and my role on the staff gave me ample opportunity to step away from the intellectual study of Scripture to its practical application in real people’s lives. 

Get connected ahead of time. Get resources before the storms roll in, because I promise you they will. Doing a PhD is hard work, especially if you choose a non-confessional institution where you are unlikely to be surrounded by like-minded believers. You and your family, if you have one, will need all the support you can get. And best of all, you will put into practice and hone the very skills and training you received in seminary.

Intellectual resources

Last of all, you need to be fully equipped with the best possible resources for your postgraduate journey. Imagine trying to run a twenty-mile race through the Rockies without water, food, a hat, or a headlamp. You would be pulled from the course in short order due to exposure, dehydration, and fatigue. Doing a PhD is like that. You need basic tools to survive. And if you have the best tools, you are actually going to thrive. Here are a few practical suggestions to crush your doctoral studies, to lead from the front, and to finish strong.

Books

If you choose the full-time, on-site option for your doctoral studies, you will undoubtedly have access to a fine theological library. But imagine this scenario (this was basically the first two years of my PhD): you are sitting down one morning early in your research and realize you need to start reading heavily in the commentaries on Romans 4. So you grab your rucksack, trek over to the university library, and get a coffee with a friend. Then you finally pull away and find the section on the fifth floor of the building, where it is quiet and air-conditioned. You grab the fifteen commentaries you need, and then fall asleep at a corner desk overlooking the River Wear. It is hard to do research. When you wake up at 2 p.m., you are hungry. So you are off to the local cafe, with six books in your rucksack and three under each arm. After a two-hour lunch you are back at your desk, sweaty from the haul, and you plop down too tired to even think about reading anything. 

Here is a second scenario (from the last three years of my PhD): you have just arrived home from the pool. It is 7:30 a.m., and you have a fresh cup of coffee beside you, a notebook open to a clean page, and you boot up your computer. There on your screen is the Logos Bible Software App, as it was the night before, open to Genesis 15 with twenty commentaries linked to the very same verse. You are ready to roll, skipping the need to spend hours of your day lugging heavy books around. Sure, I would head off to the library for those hard-to-find monographs that only research libraries can afford. (Many of those are also in Logos—do a search!) But I learned through the course of my doctorate that the more thinking time I gave myself, the more my writing improved. Use Logos, like I did, to save time and go deeper. 

Writing tools

Not all word processors are the same. And only the foolish limit themselves to Microsoft Word. I settled quickly on Mellel as my writing app of choice because it allows you to write in Hebrew (backwards) with zero problems. (It was created by Israeli developers.) If you are doing any sort of original language work, get Mellel. Other good options include Ulysses, Scrivener, and Drafts (the latter was used to write this article, and is a fantastic writing app for getting ideas out quickly without any lag time, and it syncs across all your various platforms: desktop, mobile, etc.). You can also use the Notes Tool in Logos for a permanent and synced record of all your deep research into the thousands of resources in Logos Bible Software.

Also, make sure you settle on a word processing program that can integrate easily with Zotero or other dependable bibliography apps. I used Bookends, which is built for Mellel, but find out which footnoting tool works best for you. You are going to need to keep track of every book, chapter, and article you ever read, so do it from day one and be consistent.

Apps

Stay off social media apps during the working day, and focus on apps that help you to concentrate and get the work done. The most useful apps will help you track time, avoid distractions, and increase efficiency. Look into the following to cover your bases: Freedom.io, Dictionary (use the synonyms function daily!), and Tomato Timer. 

And of course, for those times when you are away from your computer and books, keep the Logos Mobile App ready to go. You can keep your notes synced with your desktop app, look up commentaries on a whim, and run down rabbit holes at leisure to find new insights that will surprise (and perhaps alarm) your doctoral supervisor. I used the Logos Mobile App nearly every day to cool down after my swim training. I could drink a protein smoothie, listen to Bach, and compare the different interpretations of Romans 5:1, all from the comfort of the locker room, so I never skipped a beat in my studies. 

Final thoughts

In some ways, seminary does not prepare you for a PhD program. The structure is different, you are expected to be more mature, more self-starting, and more independent than when you were given hundreds of assignments with deadlines. That sort of pressure can lead to frustration and anxiety, especially when compounded by financial struggles, vocational doubts, or a lack of resources. My advice given above is borne out of nearly a decade spent in academia working towards a PhD, from day one of seminary to the climax of passing the viva. Your journey into postgraduate studies after seminary will look differently than mine. But the principles outlined above, including finances, career, and resources, should hold true for anybody brave enough to enter the academy based upon a firm conviction that Christ’s church needs more scholars. Will that be you?

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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the editor of Word by Word's Lecture Hall and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger