Beginning PhD Studies: A Humbling Experience

The egg-head PhD student.

This is a thing.

PhD students are known to be neck-deep in the stacks of the library poring over the most minute (and obscure) work that relates to their field, and yet unable to remember the simple things, like their keys. I had always laughed at the notion of such a person. Surely this was merely a caricature made by those not given to the commitment of doctoral studies.

And yet, Monday, I was not laughing.

Because it was me.

I sat in my office, thumbing through several commentaries on the book of James, enjoying the quiet comfort of no pending assignments or deadlines, smugly patting myself on the back for already being so far ahead in my reading, sipping my Texas pecan coffee fresh out of my french press, when a text from my wife made my stomach drop.

“Are you in orientation?”

I immediately looked up at my Outlook calendar. To my horror, there it was: PhD Orientation at 1:00pm.

There I was: in my office at 2:45.

This is not how or who I am. Those who know me understand that I’m that guy when it comes to being on time. I’m the if-you’re-not-5-minutes-early-then-you’re-5-minutes-late guy. I’m the leave-an-hour-early-just-in-case-you-get-a-flat-tire guy. Some people are afraid of spiders or heights or public speaking. I’m afraid of being late.

But I was almost 2 hours late.

And horrified.

This was not the way I wanted to begin my journey towards a PhD. This was not a proud moment. This was traumatic. (And I understand those of you who read that last statement and thought, “Geez. This was traumatic?!” I know, first-world problems. But still. Horrified.)

Because I work on campus, it didn’t take me long to grab my notepad, run down the hall, and slide in the back of the room in silent shame.

Once I sat down and my heart-rate lowered to a non-triple-digit pace, it finally struck me: I’m a PhD student. And though I’ve known for some time that this was the direction that God seemed to have been leading me, and that I’ve been preparing for PhD studies, that was the moment that it actually struck me.

I’m a PhD student.

I don’t write that to brag, but it was a realization that I hadn’t felt before. It’s as though my brain had already made the connection, but that was the moment that the electric current decided to make its maiden voyage.

And that thought was both humbling and exhilarating.

It is an overwhelming thought that I am expected to become academically proficient in my field. I’m studying systematic theology! That’s a broad and infinitely important subject. And I can’t simply stay on the surface and describe what others have said (though I must be capable of doing that). I need to develop a competency that leads me to make unique contributions to the field of systematic theology!

And I can’t even remember when orientation begins!
(Pray for me, seriously.)

But after the orientation was complete and I reflected back on what was said, I sat with several thoughts running through my head:

  1. Few people take up this task: It seems obvious, but the further one goes in his studies, the fewer there are alongside him. It takes a special sort to sign up for more school, more assignments, infinitely more reading, and more papers. Not many make that commitment.
  2. This is a major commitment of years, energies, time, and money. I’m taking 2 4000-6000 page reading seminars in the first semester just to get my bearings. I love to read, but that’s intimidating. For the next several years, I don’t get to pick how I spend my free time. I don’t choose what I read. I don’t even choose what classes I take (my supervisor dictates the entire program). I have signed my life over.
  3. This is a huge honor. There are thousands of other men more intellectually gifted than I am. There are thousands of sharper minds and higher IQs. But God in his wisdom has so ordained it that I have this opportunity. I can’t explain it. I can’t justify it. And I won’t try to. But I must honor that opportunity by giving my best efforts in every aspect.

And I can promise you this: I won’t be late again.

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