Having been through the rigors of a research doctoral program, and also serving as a pastor, I have been asked several times by pastors if they should pursue a PhD (or related research doctoral degree). The short answer is, “It depends.” I have several questions that I ask them to help diagnose if I would or would not recommend them pursing a research doctoral degree, especially if they plan to serve in vocational ministry. Here are some of those questions:
1. Why do you want to pursue a PhD?
Some people want to pursue a PhD because they feel like they need to one in order to be published or to write a book. If that’s their stated reason, I push back on that. If you want to write a book, then write a book. Depending on your intended topic or audience, you don’t necessarily have to go through a grueling (and often expensive!) doctoral program to do that.
I wanted to pursue a PhD because I wanted to be more competent and confident handling the word of God. Furthermore, I felt like my Masters of Divinity raised many theological and historical questions that I wanted to engage more fully before I was ready to lead in a church. I found the PhD program very helpful for me because it exposed me to the best of theologians in the history of the church, and it challenged me to think more critically than I ever had before.
2. What is your ultimate career goal/vision for your career?
If pastors are going to exercise meaningful theological leadership in the church, it will make sense that some of those training for full-time ministry also pursue theological and biblical research at the highest level. For others who plan to work in vocational pastoral ministry, a PhD might not be necessary or even wise. Other degrees (e.g., D. Min., D. Ed. Min.) might be more practically valuable to them depending on their personality type and career goals. Another consideration to bear in mind is whether the person wants to retain the ability to teach in higher education. If so, they might be wise to consider a research doctoral degree instead of other professional degrees.
3. Is this the right time?
You need to consider if God has provided wise avenues for you to pursue this educational goal. Do you have a reasonable way to pay for the expense of a doctoral degree? Is your family able to cope with the challenge? Many will have to relocate, find new schools for their children, find new jobs, and generally endure many challenges so that you can go back to school. It may be that waiting for a more opportune time might be the wisest option.
4. What does your spouse think?
Many spouses will have to take on an extra load (either at home or in the workplace) in order to support their significant other while they are in a research doctoral program. If they are not bought into the vision of you pursuing a PhD, then that might be the Lord telling you “no” (or at least, “not yet”).
5. How much have you prayed about it?
Not to sound uber-spiritual, but many people have considered advanced degrees, and even are drawn to the experience. But I have found that few have given serious prayerful effort to discerning God’s will. You should be engaged in regular prayer to the Lord for clarity on the issue. And that prayer shouldn’t be alone. You should be praying with your spouse, and even with others within your church, as you try to discern the Lord’s will for your academic future.
6. What does your Pastor/Mentor think?
If you are going to pursue a rigorous PhD program, you ought to have some outside affirmation. Similar to how the Lord uses his saints to give you an external call that affirms an internal call to ministry, it is wise to have someone in your life that can affirm that you have the fortitude, intellectual virtues, and spiritual maturity to handle a terminal degree. Paul warns us that “knowledge puffs up,” and therefore we can be assured that advanced education brings with it the potential for prideful temptation (1 Cor. 1:8). If you’re someone especially prone to pride, it might be prudent to postpone the PhD until a greater measure of spiritual maturity is achieved.
I hope that these questions are helpful for you as you consider pursuing a PhD or as you counsel someone considering such an academic track. The educational journey, while often challenging and grueling, can produce great dividends for your soul and for those under your pastoral care, if engaged with humility and a heart set on God’s glory rather than your own.
**This post also appeared on the Blog of the Center for Pastor Theologians