Every now and then I hear people talking about the jobs that are the toughest, most dangerous, or most stressful Interestingly, no one ever puts “postgrad student” on those lists. I suppose that’s because the actual death rate for postgrad students is relatively low.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
If you’re thinking about pursuing a postgrad degree (e.g., Th.M. or Ph.D.), or even if you’re already in one, you really need to consider the challenges that you’re facing. Otherwise, it’s a bit like rock-climbing with a blindfold on. I suppose that’s good if you want to make it more challenging. But a postgrad program is challenging enough by itself. Trust me.
1. Financial Challenges
Money is a major stress factor for postgrad students. You worry about how quickly the money is draining from your bank accounts. You wonder if your spouse ever wishes you’d quit and find a job that pays. You watch the job boards anxiously wondering if there’s a pot of gold, or at least clay, at the end of this rainbow. And many postgrads struggle with the month-to-month stress of wondering whether they’ll be able to make their rent payment and buy groceries.
One of the most depressing things I’ve ever done was calculate how much it was costing me to get a Ph.D. in theology. It’s painful enough when you factor in tuition, books, moving/travel, food, lodging, and everything else that you’ll spend while in your program. But it gets worse when you add in everything that you’re not earning at the same time. I think I just went back to bed.
2. Relational Challenges
“Don’t you wanna play with Leah?” That’s what I’d often hear from my 3-year-old daughter as I was trying to pound out a few more paragraphs on my next chapter. (To be fair, she said that to everyone. It just hurt more when I thought she was saying it because I studied too much.) Other times I’d watch my family head out the door for an afternoon of fun and frivolity…without me. And friends? Sometimes I wondered if I still knew what that word meant.
As a postgrad, you often face a brutal choice: keep your nose shoved in the books so you succeed academically, or spend quality time with the people who mean the most to you. Balancing those two often feels like an impossible task.
3. Emotional Challenges
What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m not smart enough? What if I can’t come up with something interesting to say? What if everyone realizes that I don’t really know what I’m talking about? What if I fail? What if I disappoint my family? What if I can’t get a job after? What if we run out of money? What if…?
Each of those questions is its own emotional energy drain. Even when you’re not actively pondering them, you know they’re always waiting for you. Any quiet moment can turn into an energy-sapping worry session. And those are just the questions you struggle with before you even start your program. It only gets worse as you go.
During your program, you’ll face the emotional drain that comes from all the other challenges listed here, dealing with significant criticism of your academic work (often for the first time), and all the uncertainties and doubts that accompany writing your first book. (We call it a “thesis” or “dissertation,” but it’s really a book.) Even finishing part of your thesis can be draining as you realize that now you have to start on the next part. It’s a little like the exhilaration of climbing a big hill, only to realize that there’s a taller one on the other side.
4. Physical Challenges
As a postgrad, you’ll spend countless hours just sitting: reading, typing, thinking, and most importantly, wasting time on the internet. So it would seem that being a postgrad is physically easy. Wrong.
The postgrad life comes with at least three physical challenges: (1) not getting enough exercise, (2) not getting enough sleep, and (3) not eating well enough. You often have to choose between academics and exercise/rest. And postgrads routinely sacrifice their diet for the sake of saving a little time and/or money. But all of these choices come with a price. Continue down this road and you’ll end up physically and emotionally drained.
5. Spiritual Challenges
Anyone who has studied Bible and theology in an academic setting should already know about the spiritual challenges involved. Although you’d think that nothing could possibly be better for your spiritual life than to spend hours reading the Bible and thinking on theological issues, the truth tends to be far different.
The problem is almost inherent to the scholarly task. Academics take some aspect of reality and make it an object of study. But that runs the risk of making it into just an “object”–something that has lost the power to amaze and overwhelm you. This can happen to the art historian, the literary critic, the quantum physicist, the sociologist, and yes, the theologian. And when it does, theology becomes an intellectual exercise, a dry game with little or no spiritual depth. And it doesn’t take long before dry theology produces a dry theologian.
6. Academic Challenges
I saved this one for last on purpose. It’s the one that many people think of first, but it’s probably the easiest challenge on the list to address. Indeed, I suspect that if you can address the other five challenges, this one will almost take care of itself. In other words, if you can stay financially, relationally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy, I don’t think it will be that difficult to be academically healthy as well.
Nonetheless, the academic challenge is real. Being a postgrad requires a set of skills that most have not developed before. You’ll be researching, writing, and thinking on a different level, developing into an independent researcher capable of developing and defending unique arguments on important issues. You may think that you did this in your grad program, but you probably didn’t.
In future posts, I’ll offer some suggestions for handling each of these challenges. But for now, here are some questions you should ask yourself:
- Which of these challenges will be most difficult for me? Everyone experiences these challenges differently. Which will be hardest for you? Are you prone to emotional burnout? Do you tend to struggle with personal relationships? Are you already stressed financially? And so on. If you’ve struggled with any of these in the past, be prepared to do so again.
- What do the people around me think about these challenges? Ask a couple of people who know you really well to read this post. Then ask them what they think. Do they have any concerns about how all of these challenges will affect you?
- What does your spouse think about these challenges? If you’re married, then you’re not the only one who will struggle with these things. Although I wrote this from the student’s perspective, your spouse will face each of these challenges as well. And I don’t mean that he/she will just have to help you through them. I mean that he/she will struggle emotionally, physically, spiritually, etc. as well. So talk with your spouse about each of these and how you will handle them together.
- Do you know any former postgrads? By all means, get more feedback from people who have been down this road before. What do they think about these challenges? What did they do to handle them? What other challenges would they add to this list?
- What specific things will you do to handle these challenges? If you’re going to continue down this road, get practical. What exactly will you do to address each of these. And, if you identified one or two particularly significant challenges, spend extra time thinking about how you will handle those. I’ll be writing more posts on each of these challenges, but don’t wait for me. Start thinking now about how you’ll approach these.
If you are a current or former postgrad, I’d love to hear what you think. What were the biggest challenges that you faced?
[This post is part of my series on How To Survive and Thrive as a Postgrad. Check out the rest of the posts if you’d like more thoughts on the postgrad life.]