What does it look like for a Christian to be doing postgraduate research? Postgrad research is an opportunity to contribute to expanding our knowledge about the physical world. Everyone hopes for breakthroughs, securing an academic position or even saving the world. These discussions are common amongst supervisors encouraging students to go beyond an undergraduate education and committing to a short or long term project. In this limbo between scripted lessons and employment significant emotional, relational and spiritual challenges are to be found. There are, in fact, many questions surrounding what it look like to be a Christian doing postgraduate research. In this blog post, we asked a group of New Zealand Christians in Science members who are currently involved in postgraduate or postdoctoral research, or those who have just completed their studies questions about being faithful in their workplace. We hope you will also share your experiences of keeping Christ in the centre of your studies in the comments section as well.
Should Christians be involved in academic research?
Absolutely, one of my greatest joys is studying the world (natural world in my case) and discovering the enormous care God has taken and amazing beauty he has instilled into the universe. God calls his creation good in Genesis and one of our first tasks is taxonomy (naming the animals) this discovery and enjoyment of the created order is crucial to our purpose as humans. We are also called to be stewards of the world (gardeners) to tend to the created order. Humans have the ability to encourage and allow nature to flourish or to destroy and selfishly hoard the resources around us for our own glory.
Doing research is just like any other vocation and should not be lifted onto a pedestal above other careers or our primary vocation. Our primary vocation being our call to be image bearers of God on this earth. However, this does not mean our work is meaningless but is where God has placed us to do good work and to show others himself. In this way Christians should be in every career in order to “become all things to everyone, so that I(we) may by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). In this way if you are good at the work you should become a researcher so that more image bearers may be found in a career of science or research.
Should I continue my study to do postgraduate research do masters or PhD?
This is a very personal question. I would ask myself what is motivating me into further studies if it is wanting to get a degree and status in society I would question my motives. I think strong curiosity is crucial for maintaining momentum through the long hours. You will never have had to think so deeply about one very particular project ever before in your life and this sort of work does not suit everybody. That being said try not to compare yourself with others, research requires many different unique perspectives and your differences might turn out to be the very thing needed to lead to a breakthrough.
What should motivate me to do research?
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. Luke 10:27
One thing a professor said to me was this: “You’ve been given a unique set of skills, interests and experiences. If you don’t say this stuff, who will?” I found that helpful—the nature of academic work is that few other people are specialists in your particular area, so you have something unique to contribute.
Discovering new things about the universe is a great thing to have the opportunity to do full time.
How do I deal with failure?
Research does not involve textbook experiments that are known to work, research is done at the edge of human knowledge. Switching from undergraduate experiments that are known to work to research where most things you try will not work, at least the first time, is a huge shift in what you are used to. However, this makes the successes all the more exhilarating.
I guess there are two kinds of failure at this level: (1) your research topic doesn’t deliver the hoped-for results; or (2) you flunk the degree. Regarding (1), my supervisors advised me that it’s okay to find that “Oh, well, the thing I thought would work, didn’t actually work after all” because you’ve still learnt something. It’s a bummer, but it’s still a valid finding. As for (2), well, that’s an even tougher question!
It can help to realise that a PhD is a training degree, and a great opportunity to work out what you’re good at; what works, and what doesn’t work. Lots of things won’t work, so it’s good to try a few things. The main thing is to develop skills which you can use in future – especially basic time management and research skills, which will serve you well whatever you do next.
You are not in this alone, during your suffering you have many people that can be there for you notwithstanding God. Stay connected with your friends and family. Pray about the failures knowing that God knows what it is like. I found counselling to be incredibly helpful when it came to processing through failure. Most universities provide free counselling so I would recommend making use of that service.
My supervisor said I have to give up Church to become known in a field – is this true?
No, your supervisor is incorrect – that happens sometimes, they are not God. For general career tips I recommend listening to this great talk by Prof. James Tour, one of the world’s leading synthetic chemists, and a committed Christian who has helped many students and scientists around him, including a Nobel Prize winner, come to faith in Christ.
It is important to get a second opinion about the required amount of work at your current level. You are not required in most universities to blindly do what your supervisor says and some supervisors use their power unfairly. Your department should have channels for you to talk with people about whether some behaviour is okay. Often there will be an experienced supervisor in your department that is approachable. Make sure that your co-supervisor is also kept up to date on your progress and what sort of work you are putting in.
How do I juggle a social life and research?
I recently read a study that said that 40% of PhD students struggle with mental health issues, which I think is a good argument for maintaining balance in your life:
Finding a church small group or group of Christian graduate students, that cares about how you are going, is important. You won’t be able to do everything you might want to – but if you are committed to your research that should be okay.
How do you juggle weekend experiments and church commitments?
It might be helpful to plan your experiment schedule well in advance to minimise clashes. Sometimes missing services or other events may be necessary, but if you have planned it then you should be able to avoid missing firm commitments if you are serving at church in some way. Commit to give extra when you have a time which is less busy with experiments.
How do I deal with other students which are hostile toward my faith?
Always with good humour. Hostility is often from lack of understanding. Gently questioning what they think themselves about the big questions can help them be more self-reflective rather than simply parroting skeptical questions that they have heard.
For more help with tricky question we recommend checking out the resources on the website.
My church is hostile to science how do I help them understand what I have learnt?
It depends what role you have in your church, and what the reason for hostility is. It is unlikely that they are really hostile to science as a whole; if they are, any opportunity to let people know about the positive history of interaction between science and faith may be useful – often there are opportunities to speak to youth or small groups. There are lots of great resources online, such as the ‘Test of Faith’ resources at testoffaith.com.
What do you do when modern science clashes with the bible?
Work out what exactly the areas of perceived conflict which are of concern to you, and seek the wisdom of other Christians who are more experienced in the area. You are unlikely to find a major issue that great Christian thinkers haven’t already spent a lot of time on, while retaining their faith.
We will end this article with the great astronomer Kepler’s prayer
“If I have been enticed into brashness by the wonderful beauty of thy works, or if I have loved my own glory among men, while advancing in work destined for thy glory, gently and mercifully pardon me: and finally, design graciously to cause that these demonstrations may lead to thy glory and to the salvation of souls, and nowhere be an obstacle to that. Amen.”
Johannes Kepler – The Harmony of the World, 1619, end of book 5, Chapter 9.
Sermon from Richard Goodwin on doing his PhD
Theology of vocation with Tim Keller