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From ABC’s to PhD’s: A Day in the Life of a PhD Student
Dorothy Hunse, a PhD student at McMaster Divinity College interested in church renewal and community formation, shares what is at the heart of being a doctoral student.

Dorothy Hunse Learning to see yourself as an authority in your field while being reminded every day how little you actually know: Dorothy Hunse.

Being a doctoral student means I am a relatively solitary creature, spending great amounts of time in my room with my books, laptop and precious backup keys. I tend to cover my desk (and floor and walls) with little bits (and sometimes big bits) of paper, the repositories of thoughts and questions I hope might one day develop into an article or perhaps even a book.

I can become obsessed about when to use a comma or a period in a bibliographic reference. And I will sometimes burst forth from my room and rush downstairs to my husband either to complain vigorously about an author’s annoying ability to take 10 pages to say what could have been said in one paragraph or to enthusiastically recommend yet another book he has to read because it has been so transformative for me. (I actually gave two sets of friends a book on Luther’s theology of the Cross for Christmas one year. That pretty much says it all doesn’t it!)

I emerge at times to gather provisions and grab a conversation with my husband or a friend. I have been known to venture out into the world every so often in search of groceries or shampoo. I commune with other doctoral students. We are generally a friendly bunch and enjoy talking. And, yes, we even enjoy joking around when we’re not (or perhaps especially when we are) stressing over an assignment that’s due.

It is true, we are a bit of a strange bunch. Even stranger still, most doctoral students like that fact. But all in all we’re not really that bad once you get to know us. It is a strange experience being a doctoral student – well, crazy-making is more like it.

I returned to doctoral studies after pastoring for seven years. I am predominantly an introvert by nature and sometimes found ministry quite taxing on this aspect of my temperament.

Now the reverse is true: doctoral work is proving to be quite taxing to my extrovert side. As doctoral students, you are continually invited by your professors (whom I have found to be infinitely patient, encouraging, helpful and challenging) to begin seeing yourself as an authority in your field while being reminded every day by everything you read how very little you actually know.

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You long to change the ministry, change the Church and change the world with your ideas, while not being able to shake the concern that the production of yet another book might not be the best way to go about this. I find myself filled with awe and gratitude for the opportunity to devote myself to the study of theology while also wishing I could be happy doing something a little easier.

When I filled out my application for the program, I had to write a paragraph stating why I wanted to pursue doctoral studies. As I wrote, the awareness that this was the next step in my discipleship came pouring out of me. I knew deep down I was pursuing doctoral work not simply to receive a degree but because it was going to be part of my journey to God.

Little did I know at the time how prophetic the idea of discipleship would become for me. This has truly been one of the hardest experiences of my life. For someone who has always enjoyed school, I have never experienced so much fear and doubt. I have never come so close to thinking that my abilities might not be enough. I have had to draw near to God, not so much in flights of awe and praise but for my very survival.

And my survival, it would seem, has needed to come through a process of dying to self. This has been a cross experience for me, and it has needed to be that.

My secret confidences in myself and my abilities are being stripped away. And though painful, all of this has only served to convince me that I am where I currently need to be. Because in the midst of figuratively losing my life, God is leading me to experience more about what it means that Christ, the One who dwells within us through the Spirit, is my life. As it turns out (and really not so surprisingly at all), the very work God is doing in me is becoming the basis for my writing: an exploration of how we might help the Church rest, even yet more deeply, in Christ’s indwelling presence.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2009.




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