13 Ways of Looking at Graduate School: Part 1

Today, we begin a new guest series by a longtime ESN member who has asked us to keep his name out of the limelight [as he has opportunity to serve in unqiue mission contexts — added by Tom, 9/1/2013]. All we’ll say for context is that he recently completed a PhD in the natural sciences at a major research university. We’re very grateful for his contribution to the blog. Thank you! The corny title, an allusion to Wallace Stevens’ poem, is my fault entirely. ~ Mike


Failure is normal in graduate school. Waterfall by 3sth3r, on Flickr

Failure is normal in graduate school. Waterfall by 3sth3r on Flickr

By God’s help, I have recently finished my PhD and am now transitioning into a faculty position. I was asked to share some thoughts for this blog about finishing a PhD and the things I’ve learned during graduate school. While many of the points will already be familiar to most of you, I hope that you can derive some helpful benefit or reminder from them.

1. Failure is normal

Most days of experimental work for a science PhD feel like failures (at least mine did), with only a few intermittently punctuating days of success. Experiments often don’t work or give data that are hard to interpret, exams are often difficult, and there are the normal workplace stressors like interpersonal relationship problems and funding uncertainties. Because my thesis tried to combine two very different disciplines, I often felt like I would never graduate. Somehow it took me years before I realized the “constant failure” nature of grad school. Simply recognizing the normalcy of frequent failure is part of keeping balance in the middle of it. I realized that I was not alone (most grad students experience similar failures at times), and that God’s promises of His good purpose and care were true, were for ME, and were meant to be applied on these depressing days.

2. Work the locks

One of my friends told me a story from some spy movie, where two commandos were caught at a tall fence and could see in the distance fierce attack dogs running after them. One of the men, skilled at opening locks, was trying to pick the lock on the fence gate. But he kept looking up at the approaching dogs, getting more and more nervous. His partner quietly told him, “Forget the dogs. I’ll take care of the dogs; just work the locks.” Sometimes when there is a lot of pressure, the key is to focus on the specific task at hand and get it done. Then turn to the next task and get it done. Let God worry about the (alleged) “impending-doom” if various deadlines are not successfully met (1 Peter 5:7).

3. Surrender the degree to God

When I was faced with daily indicators that I would not be able to successfully complete my degree, one thing that gave me peace was to repeatedly surrender to God my degree —

God, if you don’t want me to get this PhD, that’s ok. Your will be done. I’ll just work on it for as many years as You want me to until they kick me out, and meanwhile enjoy You and seek to minister to the coworkers and friends and classmates You’ve put beside me. Then You’ll move me on to the next assignment.

One of my friends told me that I had too much of a “defeatist” attitude, and that I ought to “claim by faith” my degree completion. (Ironically, that friend ended up failing out of his degree program.) There is definitely value in praying “in faith,” but I think that surrender to God is also important. Do we really want God Himself, or do we just want His gifts and help in our lives? The former, I hope… it’s better to have God and experience career failure than to experience career success but drift away from Him.

4. Depend on God

“Apart from Me you can do nothing,” said Jesus (John 15:5). The longer I live, the more I discover how correct Jesus’ statement was. Whether it be a day of research, an evening dinner with friends, a weekend trip, a meeting with the boss, or anything else, I absolutely must spend time asking God for His help and enablement beforehand, or it will generally be a failure, both professionally and spiritually. These days, I want to be more like Moses, often “crying out” (Ex. 15:25) and “falling on his face” (Num. 16:4) to ask God for help. Or Nehemiah, praying quickly on-the-spot before speaking (Neh. 2:4). Or Paul, who said

Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God. (2 Cor. 3:5)

I seek the humility of John the Baptist, who said of Jesus “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Click here for Part 2 of 13 Ways of Looking at Graduate School

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4 Comments

  • bytheirstrangefruit@gmail.com'
    katelin commented on March 22, 2012 Reply

    looking forward to this series. The title reference made me happy!

  • gretchen.genesis24@gmail.com'
    Gretchen commented on March 24, 2012 Reply

    Love the ‘work the locks’ reminder!

  • julierey52@hotmail.com'
    Julie Reynolds commented on September 3, 2013 Reply

    These are all good to remember even after finishing the Ph.D. As a postdoc I daily struggle with failure and the need to surrender my career plans/path.

    • Tom Grosh IV commented on September 3, 2013 Reply

      Julie, Thank-you for giving us a glimpse of your life as a post-doc. May you (and other postdocs) truly know the presence and grace of God each and every step of the Way. To God be the glory!

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