"It wasn't easy! Hurdles I overcame on the road to my Ph.D."
By John A. Bertone
Oct 30, 2018
Wycliffe’s Ph.D. program trains candidates to carry out innovative research. Graduates go on to teach in universities, liberal arts colleges, and theological schools. They are also equipped for positions of leadership in ecclesiastical and related organizations, or for academically enhanced ministerial practice. But in addition to the practical learning and training that happens at Wycliffe, graduates comment on the impact the College had on their spiritual development, and the support and community they found here. Adjunct professor Dr. John Bertone writes below about some of the challenges he encountered in the pursuit of his own Ph.D. and concludes it was all worth it.
Obtaining my Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from the University of St. Michael’s College (registered at Wycliffe College) was one of the most fulfilling events in my life.
It’s been said, “It's the things you fight for and struggle with before earning that have the greatest worth. When something's difficult to come by, you'll do that much more to make sure it's even harder - if not impossible - to lose.” Before enrolling in my studies all kinds of things ran through my mind: “I can’t do this. I’m married now. I have other responsibilities. What happens if I leave my full-time job and I fail? How will I pay for this? How do I learn all these languages? What is the subject of my dissertation?”
What are the top strategies I used to overcome my hurdles?
ESTABLISHING A FIRM SUPPORT BASE
If you are married, having a supportive spouse will make all the difference. My wife offered to bear the financial responsibilities while I was enrolled in my program, so I could concentrate on my studies. We had one child at the beginning of my program and I became primary parent, changing diapers, making edible meals, and everything else that goes with caring for young children. Our two other children were also born while completing my Ph.D. studies. There were times when I read Barney in one hand and James Dunn in the other. We lived close to my parents, and many times I called on them to watch the children. They often provided meals when I was at the university for seminars, or doing research.
If you are undertaking a Ph.D. program in Canada it is worthwhile exploring options for financial assistance through the Canadian government (e.g. Social Science and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC]; Ontario Graduate Scholarship [OGS]). There may be financial support available in the form of bursaries as well as Teaching Assistantships through your university or college of registration.
Every Ph.D. student experiences “the blues” at one point or another during their program. I tried to remain optimistic and found some support through sharing my struggles with other Ph.D. students. My confidence was boosted by presenting papers at conferences. Wycliffe College also provides opportunity for graduate students to present their research through various venues. These forums provided constructive feedback that resulted in much-needed encouragement. Teaching experiences also boosted my confidence. Your professor for whom you are a teaching assistant may provide an opportunity for you to teach a class. I was also pro-active in securing part-time teaching opportunities at community colleges and local seminaries.
Another major support was my dissertation supervisor. He gave me wise advice on narrowing down my dissertation subject and explained what worked and what didn’t work. I remember getting bogged down on trying to get a dissertation proposal passed through a committee after spending one year preparing it. He advocated my viewpoint before the dissertation proposal committee. When I wrote the dissertation he demonstrated patience, offered wise advice, was interested and enthusiastic about my research, corrected my grammar and spelling, and encouraged me while writing. No doubt, he helped me avoid some embarrassing moments. Having doubts or concerns about your progress or asking for help are not signs of weakness but a conscious decision to want to succeed. It is important to keep communication lines open with your supervisor and inform him/her of your progress. Our agreement was that after I completed a chapter of my dissertation, I would pass it on to him for constructive criticism. He would respond promptly, which allowed me to make necessary adjustments and progress to the next chapter.
HAVING A PLAN
Another hurdle was trying to complete the Ph.D. in a timely manner. I heard of some students never completing their program because they either had other priorities or they lost interest. It simply took too much time. I wanted to make sure I completed the program by setting a plan in motion. My Ph.D. program in New Testament consisted of completing eight doctoral seminars, passing language exams (French, German, Hebrew, and New Testament Greek), writing Four Comprehensive Exams followed by Oral Examinations, a Dissertation Proposal, writing a Dissertation, and passing a Dissertation defence. I committed to passing my language exams early in my program by taking courses offered through the university in the summer. Also, I focused my coursework so that it would somehow assist me in furthering my research for my dissertation. For example, in your research paper for one of your seminars, you might probe a subject that can be expanded into a full-blown dissertation.
CHOOSING A DISSERTATION TOPIC
Reading current publications in your field will increase the flow of creative juices and spur you on to examining something in greater detail. For me, it was Gordon Fee’s magisterial work, God’s Empowering Presence on Pauline Pneumatology. I had an interest in Paul’s understanding of the Spirit and the Jewish Law. After reading James Dunn, E.P. Sanders, Frank Thielman, etc., I noticed they had different views on the Law and the extent to which Paul’s understanding of the Spirit contributed to his view of the Law. After much deliberation, I decided on Romans 8:1-16 as the subject of my dissertation, of which there was no agreement as to what Paul was trying to communicate. This was an area of further inquiry. This subject would provide a high level of interest and enthusiasm for me. I have to admit that there were times in my research when it felt like things weren’t going my way, but those times helped me develop a tenacity, and my desire to succeed saw me through.
As a Ph.D. student, I learned how to make decisions on my own and then to bear the responsibility for my research. Another hurdle I knew I would encounter was reconciling differences of opinion from those who were on my committee directing the course of my program and on the panel for my dissertation defence. At times, I have to admit this aspect was frustrating, but I had to make the decisions, bear the responsibility for my research, and make a responsible effort to defend my positions. I wasn’t timid in this - no doubt, some probably misunderstood my passion for my views as a demonstration of stubbornness. Before entering my program, I would have reacted sharply to differing viewpoints. However, this abrupt reaction changed. In my interactions with faculty and other Ph.D. students, I learned to be more tolerant of individuals’ rights to defend their opinions.
HARD WORK PAYS OFF
If you ask me, “Knowing what you know now about all of the hurdles you encountered in earning your Ph.D., would you still pursue it?” My answer would be an unequivocal, “Yes.” Not only did I earn a degree that recognized my expertise in a particular academic field, but I experienced growth. I learned how to be self-motivated and developed excellent organizational skills. I developed confidence in public speaking and the ability to analyze and communicate large amounts of complex information.
My Ph.D. paved the way to unexpected vocational experiences. I am currently Adjunct Professor at two academic institutions (undergraduate and graduate), but I am also employed by the Ministry of the Attorney General.
Pursuing a Ph.D. can be a daunting task. If you have the desire to obtain it, then go for it. Nobody promises that there won’t be any hurdles, just that it will be worth it in the end.