Post PhD: Work in multiple disciplines

Laura Vander Velden


Jul 26, 2018

Laura Vander Velden is anticipating a Fall defence of her doctoral dissertation (titled: After Barth: Stanley Hauerwas’s Reception of Karl Barth’s Theology as a Test Case in Modern Theological “Method”) after wrapping up work on a PhD at Wycliffe College. Her future appears certain: she has already secured a position as Assistant Professor in Counselling Psychology at Providence Theological Seminary.

Q: What will you be teaching at Providence?
LVV: It may seem odd for a PhD in Systematic Theology to be teaching Counselling Psychology but while working on my PhD, I also decided to gain a second MA in Counselling, which has always been a concurrent passion of mine.
Concerns around mental health and pastoral care have been underlying motivations for my theological study. Although they are not always present on the surface (due to the necessary limitations of specialized study) there are underlying threads moving in the direction of psychology throughout my dissertation, and in my earlier research as well (on Barth's doctrine of providence and suffering). I feel very blessed to have had this opportunity to study in multiple disciplines since my work in theology has ultimately—as with all good theology—been practical in its roots and orientation.

I have always studied theology because I want to know more of who God is in relation to a suffering world, and how it is that I can serve. I have not always or even often had a clear picture of the end goal—how and where I could serve, but for me, working as a therapist as well as a theologian is a great gift. And now I have the wonderful opportunity of working in an academic setting where I can do interdisciplinary research while teaching in a collaborative and growing counselling psychology department at Providence.

To start, I will be teaching courses like psychopathology and human development, which are subjects in which I would like to pursue further interdisciplinary research. I think there is a need in the church and in the broader culture right now for trained clinical practitioners who are aware of the bio-psycho-social (and spiritual!) complexity of mental illness, but who are also deeply rooted theologically. I feel truly honoured and humbled by the opportunity, which I hope to continually grow into.

Q: What was your time at Wycliffe like?
LVV: I lived off campus, but in hindsight, I think it would have been wiser to live in the dorm since it provides an instant community. That being said, I did spend considerable time in the Wycliffe building, studying and visiting with other students. I spent some time working at Crux books and also as a caterer/server for special Wycliffe events.

I found the students, staff and faculty to be remarkably warm and inviting, which was especially appreciated for an introvert like myself. Having pub afternoons—a tradition for many years at Wycliffe—was a highlight. I always enjoyed discussing theology with colleagues and peers in the collaborative environment, something I really missed after moving away from campus. It is wonderful to have the time to be formed and grow with like-minded peers who are passionate about theology and the church.

Q: How has God used your studies to deepen your faith?
LVV: My faith journey as it has intersected with my studies has been very painful at times, and I have found myself journeying through darkness, feeling called through the darkness, but also experiencing fearfulness and doubt.

When I was living in Toronto, some of my most cherished times were during morning or afternoon prayer in the chapel, where I found the structure and support of the Anglican liturgy and community provided an upholding strength and comfort that I relied on. I found myself leaning into and on the liturgy and the confession and prayers of the church across centuries. I felt myself being upheld in community and I was provided with words and context to participate in the prayers and the pleas of the church, even amidst my own weakness. The confession of the community through creeds and prayers became my confession when my own words and prayers had run dry.

I am continually learning and appreciating the necessity of the community in the upbuilding and upholding of individuals (myself included) in Christian faith.

I have had the advantage of studying at places like Wycliffe—where rigorous academic work is a privilege to participate in, under the teaching of a world-class faculty, but the academic work does not overshadow or exist in contradiction to the mission of the church or the call toward holistic formation for the purpose of Christian service.

Theology is a challenging discipline to study because it demands so much of you intellectually as well as spiritually and psychologically—I think it is crucial to have mentors and peers in the process—even if some of them are found in books themselves—we should not engage in the task alone—we need to be formed in community and in fact, we always are—it is just a matter of choosing a community of growth and support wisely.

Related to this, academic study as an often abstract and intellectual task is not done well if it is divorced from the concrete physical world of relationships and loneliness; health and disease; birth and death. Many people have a distaste for what they imagine to be the irrelevance and abstraction of theological study, but the truth is, when theology is engaged in properly, it has everything to do with the way we live our lives and the decisions we make dozens if not hundreds of times each day. In a sense, there is nothing more practical than theology as Christians who are committed to living a life of faithfulness to Christ.

Q: Would you recommend doing a PhD to others? (Why or why not?)
LVV: I would say make the decision carefully and as best you can with the discernment of a trusted community. Be prepared that [a PhD] often comes with significant sacrifice (as most good things do), and consider its value apart from simply a “career” per se. I know every person’s journey is unique, as difficult as the process has been, I have never regretted the decision to embark on the PhD. I pursued this course tentatively but with some persistence, because I have had a few significant “open doors” and encouragement from trusted others that correlated with my passion and abilities, but I certainly did not have a clear sense or expectation of what was waiting on the other end. I know some of my peers have finished their programs and found professorships, some have withdrawn after a time, and others have finished and branched into some incredibly creative and diverse areas where they are actively contributing to the life of the church and to society (often in an interdisciplinary capacity) where their intensive study in theology informs their work significantly.

Go into it honestly and with your eyes open to the possibilities as well as the sacrifices.


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