To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D.: that is the question

Communications Staff — October 15, 2009

When Brian Vickers first stepped onto Southern Seminary’s campus he had a mission.

He needed to find room 267.

When he got to the door he knocked and stood there, waiting, all the while examining the plaque on the door, which read: “Tom Schreiner, Professor of New Testament.”

The two men had never met.

The door swung open and Vickers spoke first: “Hi, I am Brian Vickers.  I came here to do a Ph.D. with you.  I hope it works out.”

You could say it worked out: today, Vickers serves as assistant professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern alongside Schreiner, who became his mentor and supervisor in the Ph.D. program.

Getting a Ph.D. worked out well for Vickers because he knew what he wanted to study, and who he wanted to study under. But for many students who dream of completing a Ph.D., things are not so clear and many students are troubled about this specialized degree.

Who should pursue a Ph.D.?

Jonathan Pennington, assistant professor of New Testament interpretation, said the Ph.D. is for students who are serious about teaching and research because it is fundamentally a research degree.

“Spurgeon once said about preaching, ‘If you can do anything else do it.’ That is how I feel about the Ph.D.,” Pennington said. “For me I knew that it was what I was supposed to do.  I could not be satisfied doing anything else but teaching.”

Should someone who is a pastor or missionary think about getting one? Wisdom among Southern Seminary’s faculty members varies on this question.

“A pastor typically has to deal with applying the Bible to everything across the board,” Vickers said. “If you are going to do a specialized Ph.D., then you have to ask yourself is this really preparing me to be a pastor.”

Tom Schreiner, associate dean of Scripture and interpretation and James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, advised pastors and missionaries to think hard before committing to the academy-oriented program.

“Usually they (pastor/missionary) shouldn’t,” Schreiner said. “But there may be some cases where they feel called to do scholarly work to help them in their pastorate or mission work.”

Chuck Lawless, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism, said some missionaries and pastors should consider studying for the terminal degree. There are more opportunities for ministry for pastors or missionaries who have a doctorate, he said.

“For missionaries there are increasingly open doors for someone to teach overseas,” Lawless said. “For a pastor, we are increasingly living in an educated society, so in a lot of cases we end up shepherding someone with a doctoral degree.”

Although many students think that the Ph.D. provides them with additional time to study, professors encourage students not to think that this degree is for everyone.

“A reason not to pursue a Ph.D. is because you love seminary and want to learn more,” Pennington said. “It is a great thing to want to learn more, but many students feel that way.”

David Puckett, who heads the Ph.D. studies department at Southern, said that it is not a good idea to pursue a Ph.D. if you are assuming that it would secure a job at the completion of the program.

“The job market in higher education is already challenging, and will almost certainly become much more difficult as a result of the economic stress we are experiencing,” Puckett said.

Vickers said that the desire for the Ph.D. should not be a desire for a mere title.

“I think that students should prefer the title ‘pastor’ over the title ‘doctor,'” Vickers said.

Shawn Wright, assistant professor of church history, cautioned students against thinking that the possession of a Ph.D. equates with greater wisdom and godliness.

“A student should not assume that a Ph.D. will automatically make him as wise and godly as that professor that he so admires,” Wright said.

Timothy Paul Jones, professor of church leadership and church ministry, said that the Ph.D. should not be viewed as a badge of prestige.

“If what you want is the prestige that comes with having the letters ‘Ph.D.’ after your surname, please don’t apply to any Ph.D. program – and please avoid our Ph.D. program in particular,” Jones said.

What factors go into the decision?

Grade-point average might serve as one indicator, Pennington said.

“If you have less than stellar grades there is not even a question: don’t pursue a Ph.D.  In addition you need to ask your teachers if you should pursue one, unless a teacher pulls you aside and encourages you to pursue further study,” Pennington said.

Bruce Ware, professor of theology, said that there must be a very strong desire that would warrant the time and effort that goes into earning a Ph.D.

All agree that life circumstances are one of the primary considerations for those contemplating studies beyond the M.Div.

“There are lots of people who are gifted and qualified and able to do one, but because of personal circumstances they should not do it.  It is really hard on families; your wife needs to be in 100% support,” Vickers said.

Lawless added that one’s local church should be in support of the student who is pursuing a doctorate.

When Pennington first told his wife that he was thinking about doing a Ph.D., he said she lovingly laughed at such a prospect.

“She asked where we were going to get all the money,” he said. “Over time, God began to provide and she realized this was going to be a good thing.”

How should you prepare for the Ph.D. program?

Ware said Southern’s  M.Div. is broad and prepares many students well to pursue advanced studies.

“I would encourage the default being a student ending his academic career with the M.Div.,” Ware said. “But if you are thinking about getting a doctorate then my advice actually goes in two opposite directions: Try to get the most out of the breadth of the M.Div, but also try to narrow and take a lot of classes in your field of interest.  Take the tough ones too.  Build a solid foundation.”

Jones encouraged would-be Ph.D. students to push themselves academically and to hone their writing skills.

“Read beyond the minimum, especially in the areas in which you want to specialize – and then, write, write well and learn to write better,” Jones said. “Begin seeking an area of study about which you may want to write a dissertation, and – even before you apply for a Ph.D. program – do everything in your power to become the expert in that area.”

Many professors also praised the Th.M. program as a means of preparing students to enter the Ph.D. program.

“The Th.M. is really helpful because it lets a person find out if this is really what they want to do,” Pennington said. “Most M.Div. students should not begin by thinking about the Ph.D., but the Th.M., and Southern has recently revamped its Th.M. program.”

How do you pick a school for Ph.D. studies?

“I based my decision upon who I wanted to study under,” Vickers said.

Pennington, who studied at St. Andrews in Scotland, said a student might consider the differences between a Ph.D. in Europe vs. one at an American school; the former is strictly research oriented, while the latter includes further classwork.

“There are pros and cons of both systems of course,” Pennington said. “In the American system you are entering a program.  In the British system you are applying to a person.  In the American system you take more courses and are prepared to teach out of the shoot.  In the British system you do more research and are prepared to write.”

Each situation is different

In the end whether or not to do a Ph.D. is a case-by-case decision.  All Southern professors interviewed agreed that each student must weigh the strengths and abilities that the Lord has given him. Puckett said the Ph.D. program is one that should be entered only after a time of careful, prayerful thought.

“This is clearly an issue of God’s guidance and all of the wisdom that would be a part of coming to understand His direction in any other area of life applies here,” he said. “Certainly one may have a God-given conviction that this is the course of action one must pursue.”

Southern professors also advised students to examine their motives.

“Every student should ask themselves, ‘Am I looking to further my name or the kingdom?'” Schreiner said.

Said Jones: “It’s my hope that our Ph.D. students long to be not merely scholars but ‘servant-scholars’ – persons of humility who seek to contribute to a field of study for God’s glory, not their own.”

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