Tuesday, March 20, 2007

throwing in the towel - part 1

This week, I officially declared my intention to quit my Ph.D. dissertation. It's not a decision I came to lightly, but I'm confident that it's the best one I can make in this area right now. Let me start with some background.

I decided when I was about nine years old that I wanted to be an engineer. No, I didn't want to drive a train--I wanted to build bridges. (I'm guessing most kids at that age don't even know that meaning of the word.) About five years later, I refined my ambitions and decided I would prefer electrical engineering, because it was closer to pure physics. Then I had one of those summer camp moments, where I felt that God was calling me to be a pastor (as he does with so many 15-year-olds). I decided to go to Bible College, because that's what my pastor had done, and generally speaking, that's what anyone at my church did who was planning on ministry. The fact that I was seeking a bachelor's degree rather than a three-year diploma worried me a bit that maybe I was in it too much for the academic honors. But I was a bit young to be starting college anyway, so another year delay before entering full-time ministry probably wouldn't hurt.

I started my undergraduate studies at 17 and finished at 20. (Yes, I crammed credits, but not too much--mostly it was that they gave me a lot of transfer credits for the AP courses I'd taken in high school.) At some point in my last year, I started thinking about the remote possibility that I might want to go back to school someday and get a seminary degree. I browsed catalogs in the library, figuring I had better resources at the moment to evaluate schools than I might later on. At least I could get a sense of where I'd want to go, if it ever came to that. Then, I'm not sure where it came from, but a thought awoke in my head, that most churches don't hire 20-year-olds for anything beyond youth ministry. I'd been working in youth ministry throughout college, and I didn't think much of it. So maybe it wouldn't hurt to use the academic momentum I already had, keep going to school for a while, and that way by the time I finished (at the ripe, old age of 23), I'd have a better shot at the job I really wanted.

So it was that, after waiting to finish college before getting married, my wife and I began our new life together hundreds of miles away from home in a place we'd never expected to live, temporarily of course. We moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, where we still live, eleven years later. The plan was to earn a Th.M. (master of theology) degree, which is sort of like an M.Div. on steroids. An M.Div. (master of divinity) is the standard professional degree for ministry--like an M.D. for medicine or an M.B.A. for business. An M.A. is generally a more academically-oriented degree in the humanities, often the first stage in a Ph.D. program, for instance. A Th.M. is essentially a combination of the two, so you get your professional degree but with an extra academic emphasis. A faculty mentor in college had told me his one regret about seminary was that he didn't get the Th.M. while he had the chance, and I figured too that it would give me a chance to balance out my languages. I started learning Greek in college and continued throughout seminary; with the later start on Hebrew, a Th.M. in OT would allow me to catch up.

The other nice thing about a Th.M. is that, as an academic degree, it's supposedly useful for teaching. Once upon a time, you could, for instance, be a Bible College professor with just a Th.M. That's becoming less and less the case. The desire to get and maintain regional accreditation is pushing even Bible Colleges to require more doctorates, and the market seems to be providing them with more than enough candidates. If I'd realized that earlier, I might not have bothered with the Th.M., but at least it opened the door to the possibility of a career in the classroom, rather than the local church. Also, because I had to earn the M.Div. first, before moving on with the extra year for the Th.M., I got a chance to do some adjunct teaching, which I found that I enjoyed. So by the time I was wrapping up seminary, I was thinking more and more of an academic path, which meant I now had to start looking at Ph.D. programs.

I ended up with a choice to make. I received a three-year full tuition scholarship to the Catholic University of America, which would allow us to stay in the area, and which fortunately knew something of the small seminary I'd attended (mostly positive). I had applied to two different programs there--Biblical Studies, in the School of Divinity, and Semitic Languages, in the School of Arts & Sciences. I felt like Semitics would be more useful, more challenging, and less redundant of what I'd already done; the only problem was, I'd have to get another master's degree. I figured it would be worth the extra effort, since I'd come out with a broader range of qualifications. It would require three years of full-time coursework, plus doctoral comps and a dissertation. Realistically, I could still be done with school by the age of 30.

This is going to get kind of long, so I'll break it off here and continue in another post.

1 comment:

Trevor said...

I remember now where I got the idea that I might not find the ministry job I wanted at 20 years old. I completed an apprenticeship in my home church as part of my bachelor's program, and the pastor told me then that, even though he thought I'd be a good candidate to come on staff, others were more skeptical about my age.