Combating the Idolisation of Academic Success
Like most doctoral students, research is something I simultaneously love and dread. I study puritan church polities in the seventeenth century, and it has been a real blessing to be able to see how historical research on puritan theories of church government and political conformity bear a significant relevance to the Church today. I enjoy seeing the connections between the past and the present and have been exploring ways to serve the Church through what I learn.
There is always another side of the life of a doctoral student, however. When I first arrived in Oxford, other students warned me of ‘impostor syndrome’ that most newcomers were plagued with: a constant fear or anxiety that we are not as good as the rest of our cohorts, we don’t meet up the standard of academic research here, and somehow we got in by accident. Impostor syndrome was introduced to us as something we would eventually grow out of, but for me it has been something I need to battle against on a daily basis.
When I got the offer from Oxford, I had been rejected by most of the programs I applied to. Studying theology and church history at a conservative seminary had made me an undesirable applicant, according to a potential supervisor I spoke with. It seems going to a conservative seminary indicated that my approach to history would be problematic and I would not have the proper skillsets for doing research in an academically rigorous, secular institution. And yet here I am, in my fourth (and hopefully last) year of DPhil, trying to write up my dissertation. The fear and anxiety are still there. There is a thin line between daydreaming about a cool academic job and feeling inadequate as a postgraduate. Both reveal my idolisation of work and the deepest desire of my heart—a need to be recognised and appreciated.
As a Christian postgraduate, I find combating the worldview and lifestyle that dominate the academia more challenging than the academic work itself, but there are practical means God has provided to help me persevere, including opportunities to serve Him through what I learn. The Latimer Trust has provided me such opportunities through writing. I started with a short piece, a book review on Dr Andrew Cinnamond’s What Matters in Reforming the Church? Puritan Grievances under Elizabeth I, but this opportunity has encouraged me to think about how I can serve the Church through writing more generally. Latimer is the starting point, but God has opened other doors, including writing for a Chinese overseas Christian magazine based in North America.
It’s easy to forget why I pursued a PhD in the first place when the world I live in upholds academic success as the only criteria of self-worth, and it is especially ironic when the focus of my research is the lives and thoughts of seventeenth century puritans, many of whom treated their faith so seriously that they were willing to sacrifice everything they had for it. In a way, Latimer has encouraged me to do exactly the opposite of what the academia has repeatedly told me to do. Instead of incessantly finding new, important, and impressive things to say, seeking opportunities to present papers at important conferences and publish journal articles, and constantly building up my CV, I am given an opportunity to really listen to what puritan preachers had said and written, appreciate how they fought for their faith, and share what I’ve found with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. ____________