I spoke with a British friend who commented that Americans are fixated on degrees. He elaborated on the tendency toward the need for further degrees to do one’s job well or simply for the prestige of having a graduate or doctoral diploma. At first, I was offended, particularly since I had two graduate degrees at the time and was completing my doctorate.
After further reflection, I understood his point. As the director of the PhD in Leadership program at Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School, I am musing on this issue afresh. It is not uncommon for me to be asked the question by potential and incoming students, “Where are graduates placed once they receive their degree?” Honestly, it is the question I asked when I was looking at doctoral programs, so I get it.
Yet, it also underscores the slight tendency toward viewing a degree as a ticket toward a different career, usually academic. Granted, in today’s academic-saturated culture, it is nearly impossible to be offered an academic position if you do not have a doctorate, thus in some respects it is necessary. So, I offer this qualification – a doctorate is beneficial if not necessary to advance in one’s career and specifically to obtain an academic position. But this reason should not be the primary reason.
So, why should you pursue a PhD?
1. It is a testimony to God.
Christians are usually not known for academic rigor. When it comes to scientific methodology, social science research or cutting edge writing, the academic arena oftentimes dismisses Christian scholarship. Doctoral studies provide the opportunity to enhance God’s reputation by engaging in deep critical thinking through sound and worthy integration of general and special revelation. Then, when new insights are discovered, the doctoral student or graduate is able to contribute to the broader academic conversation, both Christian and secular, by publishing findings that benefit the church and humanity. As the director of a PhD program, it is my prayer and passion to cultivate such good scholarship that both Christians and non-Christians when they read our dissertations and papers walk away saying, “Christians can do excellent research and scholarship.” LBC | Capitals’ doctoral programs intentionally strive to do this.
2. It is an act of stewardship.
Doctoral studies are not available to every person. Some individuals live in a part of the world where access to higher education is highly limited. Others have not had the graduate program opportunities that would then open up doctoral education. Thus, if a person has the chance to pursue a doctorate, he/she should approach it with a stewardship mindset. Questions such as, “How does God want me to use this degree?,” “How will my research enhance the kingdom?” or “How can I better serve my context as a result of my studies?” should infuse our motivation. I always encourage applicants to view doctoral studies as a call from God. For, if it is a call, these questions will naturally circulate in our mind. LBC | Capital’s doctoral programs are not primarily designed to help you, but rather, to help the kingdom through you.
3. It is a means of discipleship.
Renewal of the mind is certainly a Christian mandate. Doctoral studies embrace this purpose in an academic context. Yet, I will be the first to say that my seminary studies proved to be dry, soul-depleting times. Academics sterilized my passion for God by extracting education from discipleship. To be fair, the institution did not intend this outcome to happen. In fact, they attempted to avoid it. Yet, it occurred because I allowed it to happen.
When I began PhD studies at the same institution, I vowed to embrace it as a means of transformation. How can this knowledge stimulate my soul? Are my mind, heart, and soul integrated as I study? Am I viewing my studies as an act of worship? I intentionally kept these reflective questions in the forefront of my mind so that my doctoral education would be a means of discipleship.
As a director, I am passionate about this goal. Having served as a pastor for many years, my heart of hearts is to nurture transformation. It is a joy to say that one of our key aims in the program is to “nurture the development of biblical character qualities in our students.” My prayer is that student’s souls are more alive coming out of the program than when they entered it.
4. It provides peer relationships.
Ministry and leadership are oftentimes lonely. The weight of making decisions, casting vision and propelling an organization forward can drain a person. I found myself relationally isolated at times in the ministry. Yes, there were wonderful friends and supportive colleagues.
However, my academic curiosity looked for an arena to discuss ideas and theory, a place to let the mind go without the need to resolve “Will this work?” I found this community in my doctoral program – a setting to wrestle and share without fear of getting it wrong and to receive pushback from others on my ideas without caution due to my position. The cohort model at LBC | Capital, where students journey together through the program taking all the same courses, is designed to foster collaborative peer relationships where safety is present to discuss openly creative thoughts, theories, ministry challenges and personal struggles. In other words, it is a place to cultivate academic friends that will last beyond the program.
In my opinion, these are the principal reasons to pursue a doctorate. I constantly repeat these motivations to our students. Are there other reasons, possibly more personal? Yes, most certainly. At times, an organization is encouraging a person to receive a doctorate. In some cases, a person has been tapped on the shoulder about their leadership potential thus encouraged to further their academics. Other times, a person receiving a position is dependent on that person going back to school. I understand the complexity of individual decisions. Yet, there has to be transcendent, more soul-abiding, reasons to pursue a doctorate. Otherwise, the rigors required will consume a person.
Academia is a gift. It is a call. It is an act of worship. It is a means of growth. It is an opportunity to leverage the mind for the good of the kingdom. And from these perspectives comes great joy, not only for the student but the beneficiaries of our education – the Church.
(Dr. Kevin Gushiken is a professor at LBC | Capital and the PhD in Leadership Program Director.)