Character Building through Higher Education

I ran across an excellent article at the The Gospel Coalition (TGC) website on the value of pursuing a PhD. The author argued that the most important result of pursuing a doctoral degree wasn’t necessarily how it might advance one’s career, but how it could be used to build one’s character. I encourage you to check out the article.

Having recently graduated with a doctoral degree, I can resonate with the author’s experience. Working on a doctorate causes you to be more precise with your words. Words really do matter. Words, the written word in particular, are how we communicate ideas with our audience. Whatever your vocation or discipline, be careful with your words. Think before you speak. You may even want to write out your thoughts in order to clearly articulate what you mean. It is also helpful to have several other people read what you have written. The input of others quickly enables one to see just how imprecise and muddled one’s thoughts actually are.

Three more things I learned through my studies, besides the topic I researched for my dissertation (more about this in future posts), is perseverance, humility, and self-awareness. I believe most doctoral students come to the point in their studies when they are ready to throw in the towel. For some this takes place after the first seminar, for others preparing for comprehensive exams. For me it was two thirds of the way into my dissertation. I had already passed the number of pages I thought it would take to complete the dissertation. But I was way wrong. I saw no real end in sight. I contemplated setting writing aside for a season to gather my thoughts and develop a strategy to finish this thing. However, I didn’t contemplate it for long. My wife prodded me on to finish, so that I could graduate in May. So, I pressed on, and by God’s grace and a two-week extension from my program director, I finished my dissertation with plenty of time to defend it and make it to May commencement.

The one thing I continually take away from my doctoral studies is just how dependent I’m on God for everything. I’m reminded that he takes the weak things of this world, the things others may deem foolish, the things that are not to confound the wise, to show himself to be strong, so that he receives all honor and glory. I am nothing in and of myself. I know my weaknesses and deficiencies as a person and as a scholar. When I successfully defended my dissertation all I could do was thank God for it. I knew the topic I chose was bigger than anything I was capable of doing on my own. I knew it would stretch me in ways I had not even foreseen. I knew if I was going to succeed, it would take the strength of God making itself known in my weakness. The entire process from beginning to end served to remind me that I need God’s help every single day in every single way.

The whole process of doctoral studies also caused me to become more aware of who I am as a follower of Christ, as a husband and father, and as a person in general. With the added weight of school on an already busy schedule the hidden cracks, the faults and failures, in who I am clearly became visible. It is like when an eighteen-wheeler begins to cross an old wooden bridge. All of the hairline fractures that are invisible to the naked eye all of a sudden become exposed under the weight of the truck and its cargo (I got this illustration from Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, 139). I got to know things about myself that I would have rather not known, because I didn’t want them to be there. But after they were exposed, I had to trust that God would use these experiences to make me into the person he desires for me to be, someone who is holy and growing in his grace. Thank God that he not only allows but uses difficult and painful experiences to shape us into the image of his Son. He doesn’t intend for us to waist the pain and doubt he leads us through.

You may not be pursuing a doctoral degree or even contemplating doing so, but I hope you can resonate with some of the lessons I’ve learned through my most recent venture into higher education. You may have had similar thoughts through altogether different experiences. My encouragement to you is when going through such times keep the end in view. Don’t become so fixated on the present circumstance that you lose sight of the greater goal God has in mind. If you are in Christ, he is refining you and preparing you for an eternity with him.

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