Things I Learned From My Doctoral Program

I am completing revisions to the final copy of my dissertation and making plans to travel to Louisville for graduation next month. It is hard to believe that this 4 1/2 year journey is coming to an end. To be honest, part of me is mourning the loss of the challenge, the learning, and the camaraderie of the process.

Obviously I learned a lot about my area of specialization (ministry leadership) and my dissertation topic (church organizational culture). But the program taught me so much more, changing me in the process. Here are the five most significant things I have learned from my doctoral program:

  1. Self-discipline. I have always been a very self-motivated person, but earning a Ph.D. through a hybrid distance/on-campus program forced me to become even more disciplined, especially during the dissertation phase. It’s one thing to stay motivated when your professor imposes deadlines and your classmates expect regular participation in online discussion; it’s another to remain disciplined when you no longer have those accountability checkpoints.
  2. Critical thinking. I think one of the most transformative parts of this process has been my development as a critical thinker. Not “critical” as in “negative,” but critical in terms of being able to examine evidence, consider and weigh my own motives and biases, remain open to other possible viewpoints and interpretations, and synthesize these factors to arrive at unemotional conclusions.
  3. Strategic planning. Again, I’ve always been a good strategic planner, but my dissertation research–an eight-phase process utilizing four different research methods and 330 participants representing two dozen groups–really challenged me to grow even further.
  4. Theological reflection. As part of my development as a critical thinker, my program challenged me to examine and clarify my theology. On some issues, I am now able to articulate the rationale for long-held beliefs; on others, I ended up believing differently than I did going into the program.
  5. Greater appreciation for the diversity of the body of Christ. My doctoral program utilized a cohort model where all participants move together through coursework and comprehensive exams. There were nine of us in my cohort: eight guys and myself. Nine very different people from around the country (and one living overseas) with very different–and deep–experiences, backgrounds, goals, beliefs and values. Over the course of the first three years, we got together twice a year for two weeks at a time, basically spending the majority of our waking hours together. In addition, we interacted online several times a week with only brief breaks between semesters. I am proud to say that instead of familiarity breeding contempt, we developed a deep appreciation and love for one another. In fact, our regular interaction is one of the things I miss the most as this journey comes to an end. Those guys have truly become my brothers, in Christ and in this experience.

Earning my Ph.D. has truly been a transformative experience, challenging me to grow intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. I will be forever grateful for this opportunity, for the ways I have been changed, and for all those who supported me along the way.

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One thought on “Things I Learned From My Doctoral Program

  1. Angie, been following your posts for a while now. On this one, I’m wondering if you felt like (or cared, or wished, etc.) your program contributed, not just incidentally, but intentionally, to the shaping of your character and competency. In other words, do you feel like this program developed you as a disciple and Kingdom-leader? Please don’t read those questions as anticipatory of a certain response, I am genuinely wondering as a researcher and someone who is part of an initiative on re-imagining theologial education that suggests that, in many instances, we simply can’t assume that standard PhD programs are all that well suited to cultivate what we call, “missionary theologians,” – those who have been shaped by, and therefore seek to shape others through, praxeological sorts of theological education. Thanks for youre reflections. FYI, our initiative (a white paper, video, discussion forums, etc.) are hosted at – thefutureoftheologicaleducation.com

  2. Thanks for sharing what you learned! I had some similar takeaways from my seminary experience and can relate.

    I loved how you phrased your second point about arriving at "unemotional conclusions." Critical thinking is so hard to do sometimes, but so necessary for growth!

  3. Thanks for sharing what you learned! I had some similar takeaways from my seminary experience and can relate.

    I loved how you phrased your second point about arriving at “unemotional conclusions.” Critical thinking is so hard to do sometimes, but so necessary for growth!

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