Graduate school is hard! I gained a full comprehension of this obvious truth firsthand in 1997 when I began a doctoral program at Columbia University. Like most graduate students, it was a good thing I didn’t know how difficult it was going to be when I applied for admission to the program.
Graduate students face a withering array of opposition in their quest for success. Time, distance, financial stress, physical and intellectual limits, family and relationship demands, the dread of failure, and the constant struggle to remain disciplined constitute a fearsome phalanx during graduate school. Unfortunately for me, these kinds of pressures, together with the tasks of completing all my coursework, passing comprehensive exams, and submitting a dissertation proposal wound up spoiling a large portion of my time as a graduate student. I learned, however, that such pressures don’t have to spoil this exciting time of life.
It is important to note that Christian graduate students face a crucial additional pressure in addition to the daunting challenge of mastering the most advanced and complex intellectual ideas across a wide variety of scholarly disciplines. It would be bad enough if all they had to do was learn the material and carry out research related to it, but virtually every field of study has leading thinkers who actively oppose and even ridicule the validity of Christian truth. It is no secret that secular university professors are not, on average, the most faith-friendly tribe in American demography. The pressure from both peers and professors to abandon faith can be intense.
The Apostle Paul, no stranger himself to the rigors of graduate study, recognized that advanced study of any kind is an exercise in spiritual warfare. In 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, he speaks to all Christians, but his words are especially relevant to graduate students:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (NIV)
Spiritual warfare is an intellectual matter at its heart. While thinkers and researchers usually have noble motives in the discoveries and theoretical constructs they offer the rest of us, evil always has a way of infiltrating new ideas in an effort to turn them against the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Truth.
In my own march through two of America’s leading graduate schools, Columbia’s Teachers College and Princeton Theological Seminary, I learned some principles and strategies for success that may be helpful to other graduate students.
1. Know the Field
Recognize the battle is not purely intellectual. Every field has ideas that are challenging to Christian faith—even theology and biblical studies. That is the nature of the spiritual warfare that pervades all areas of study. Still, every field has brilliant Christians who have learned to negotiate an understanding of their faith in light of (or even in creative, healthy tension with) challenging ideas. As a campus minister at Princeton University in the 1980s and as a pastor of university students and professors for 24 years, I have never seen anyone fall away from faith because of the intellectual issues they were struggling with. People who are committed to a relationship with Christ can and will find answers to the intellectual dilemmas they encounter. I have seen people blame intellectual issues for their abandonment of faith, but it has always been obvious other issues were driving their choices. The Christian faith can stand up to any intellectual challenge the academy can offer.
2. Look Closer
Seek out a deeper understanding of Christian faith as your understanding of other fields of study increases. Many times when people assume there is an intellectual conflict between their field and Christianity, they are working with a substandard grasp of Christian truth. While the heart of the Gospel is simple enough for children to grasp—and childlike faith is indeed a spiritual value—it is totally inappropriate to take a child’s comprehension of Christian truth into battle with what Schleiermacher called “the cultured despisers of religion.” Most of what children believe about Christianity is wrong. While their faith is admirable, their knowledge is simply insufficient. Be sure to grow intellectually as a Christian as you advance in your studies.
A great (and free!) place for Christian graduate students to start thinking harder about Christian faith is Ravi Zacharias’ podcasts, “Just Thinking” and “Let My People Think,” both available at RZIM.org. Another fabulous podcast that is more discipline-specific for graduate students is the “Veritas Forum” podcast, located at Veritas.org. In addition to classic Christian apologists like C.S. Lewis, thinkers like Lee Strobel, Tim Keller, Dinesh D’Sousa and N.T. Wright are turning out excellent books on a regular basis that explore important aspects of Christian apologetics.
3. Plug In
Stay involved in ministry to others while you are in school. It is extremely important not to get isolated in faith while facing the pressures of graduate school. Staying involved in church and keeping up with personal spiritual disciplines is important for ensuring your spiritual life, but I found that staying involved in ministry to others gave me a crucial outlet. I had no faith struggles at all in my doctoral program at secular Columbia, but I struggled terribly with my faith during seminary at Princeton. Staying involved in ministry to other people helped me not to implode into my own conflicted inner life. News flash: self-absorption is harmful to your spiritual life!
4. Find Balance
Keep the rest of your life in balance. Once again, time, distance, financial stress, physical and intellectual limits, and relationship demands—together with maintaining personal mental health—constitute a serious challenge for graduate students. It’s important to pay attention to all these factors while you are in school. You are simply going to have to live on a budget to get through it all. That means more than keeping a disciplined financial position. It also means making time for the other important factors of your life. Purposefully planning time for friends and family, worship, exercise, play and rest will go a long way toward ensuring your success and keeping your spiritual life strong. If you are married, have children, or are involved in a romantic relationship, it will be important to negotiate in advance the way you will make time for the people you love. If those people are not signed-on and committed to your success, you are going to face some painful conflicts. Sign them up early, and be faithful to the time commitments you make with them.
5. Stay Calm
Don’t succumb to fear! As I mentioned above, I allowed the pressures of regular life, combined with an extremely compacted time frame, to spoil the first eight months of my time at Columbia. Although I was succeeding in my coursework, I simply made no progress in preparing for my comprehensive exams, which were looming just four months later. I was living in a state of constant anxiety, blaming everything for my dissatisfaction except the real thing that was bothering me. One night as I was leaving New York City after a class, I heard a program on NPR Radio about fear and I pulled over out of traffic, weeping. I realized I was letting the fear of comprehensive exams spoil an experience I should have been enjoying immensely. I immediately repented of letting fear rule my life, and I recommitted my studies to God. The fear that had been paralyzing me melted away, and I found a new joy in my studies.
Graduate school can be a fearsome challenge, but don’t let fear win the victory over you. If God has called you to be in graduate school, He will walk through it with you and provide you with holy boldness to meet the challenges you face.
Joseph Castleberry, Ed.D., is the president of Northwest University in Kirkland, WA. He and his wife Kathleen have 3 daughters.