What's it like being a Christian PhD student?

UCCF Team 23 Oct 19

What are your plans after graduation? If you're hoping to pursue a career in science, you've probably considered applying for a PhD. But what's day-to-day life like when you're studying for a PhD? We spoke to Philip Leung and Alistair Senior, two Cambridge PhD students, to find out how Christians can use their research as worship and hold out the gospel to their colleagues, while navigating the challenges of a high-pressure academic environment.

Hey guys, thanks so much for joining us on the Science Network blog! Today's post is the next in our series on life after uni, and this time we're talking about PhDs. You're both doing PhDs at Cambridge at the minute - how far through are you, and what are you researching?

Philip: I have just started my third year of PhD in theoretical astrophysics. My research looks at the early stages of planet-formation theory, when the molecular cloud from which we believe solar systems are formed has collapsed into a central star/protostar surrounded by a disc of dust and gas - a bit like Saturn’s rings. My special topic of interest is in how large scale magnetic fields are dragged towards the star by different processes as the disc evolves. We have some but quite limited observational data on these structures, so I call my work ‘day-dreaming about star systems using mathematics and computers’.

Alistair: I’m technically in my first year of a PhD in aeronautical engineering although I did a MRes related to the PhD topic last year so it feels more like a second year. My research is attempting to gain a better understanding of how we should be designing the compressors used in the jet engines of aircraft for improved performance. The method, however, is more of the focus; we’re trying to develop a machine learning method which essentially aids the generation of new physical understanding, and so accelerate us towards this goal. So if successful this method could be applied to other problems, maybe even astrophysics!

When you were thinking through what to do after uni, what made you choose a PhD?

Alistair: After graduating from university, I went and worked for a church for a year to give myself the opportunity to grow in Bible teaching skills and test the waters for full-time paid ministry. During that year it became clear that God has placed a desire for me to be reaching out to those who haven’t yet heard the good news of Jesus. Looking back to my time at university I realized there were so many great social opportunities to share the gospel compared to a normal working life. I also wanted to continue to grow in Bible teaching skills; the University environment in Cambridge provides plenty of opportunities through student and international ministry to be putting these to use. This was combined with the realization that God has gifted me academically in such a way that doing a PhD was a real option for me, which isn’t the case for everyone. I enjoy studying engineering from an academic standpoint and trying to understand how things work, so a PhD felt like the right option. If you like the door seemed pretty open and so I decided to take it.

Philip: My final year of undergrad was a tough one, following the aftermath of my 3rd year where I faced a string of challenges both academically, socially and in my family (bad relationships followed by my father suddenly dying from a heart attack over the summer). I was very much in crisis mode throughout the year, and applied to stay for a PhD because I liked the look of my subject (I have been fascinated by the stars since my father showed me documentaries about space when I was a toddler), and because of the stability of an established support network already present, particularly at church. I was not really looking forward in life back then, and did not bother applying to other universities. My mother and I prayed that the Lord would open the door to the path He wanted me to take and to close all other doors. In the end, the PhD was the only door that opened, so I took it.

It's brilliant to hear how clearly God was at work opening the right doors to lead you both to where you are now. Now that you're studying for your PhDs, what does your daily routine look like?

Philip: I try to stick to a normal working week of 9-5 or 10-6 on weekdays. It is important to have a good work-life balance, and Sundays are reserved for church, chill and Christian fellowship. When I go to my office, the first thing I do would be to look up the latest articles on the Astrophysics repository to see if there are any new and fascinating ideas in the field (sort of like reading the news). I will then set myself some goals for the day ahead and tackle them one by one. PhD is mostly independent work so you have to plan and execute your work carefully to be efficient. During the week, there are group seminars where leading researches from across the world come to present their latest research and we have an opportunity to hear and interact with them. As a PhD student, I also have the opportunity to teach some undergraduate students, which I enjoy very much, and I usually teach two small group classes each week. Doing a PhD is probably one of the most flexible times in life, where you are pretty much in full control of how you spend it. In my second year, with my supervisor’s permission, I was able to swap my Saturdays with Wednesdays to attend a year long bible training course alongside the PhD, which I have found very helpful in growing deeper in my faith and also skills for service.

Alistair: I’m quite similar to Philip in that I try to stick to a normal working week, the lack of structure in a PhD means there is always more work you could be doing, so for me having that structure protects me from making my work an idol or becoming lazy. But yes, the flexibility means I am able to change my plans to accommodate other commitments. My typical day involves some time reading papers, and the rest of the day trying to write some code to implement my ideas. I normally use lunchtimes as an opportunity to meet and read the Bible with people but it is also the best time for conversations in the lab. On certain afternoons I also teach undergraduates and there are also occasional seminars and lectures which I attend out of interest. I spend one evening a week helping lead a student Bible study group at church and another evening helping with an international café. The other evenings soon get filled up quickly with various other social commitments. The weekends are normally pretty free although I often use these times and my spare evenings preparing Bible studies, catching up with work or just resting!

PhD life sounds great! What do you love most about life in the lab?

Alistair: It’s great to be surrounded by people so passionate about their subject and challenging me to push my understanding further. We have a very friendly work environment: it’s very easy to talk to anyone in
the lab to get advice. We also get to go on industry visits and conferences all expenses paid which is not bad! I sometimes need to remind myself of the great privilege it is to have access to such great minds and facilities and I realise this is something I should not take for granted. The flexibility of doing a PhD also enables me to be involved in student and international ministry, do some academic teaching and also be a part of the University karting team giving me more opportunities to witness and do things I enjoy.

Philip: Every day is a new adventure. Because doing a PhD is about extending our current state of knowledge in a particular area, every endeavour is really a step into the unknown. This is perhaps also one of the scarier aspects of a PhD, as there is no guarantee that what I try will work! I am grateful to God for giving me a very experienced and sympathetic supervisor, as well as group members who are willing to help when I am struggling. There is also a house cat from the neighbourhood that visits my department on a daily basis, so I enjoy going out to pet and take photos of her when I am stuck in a loop thinking on a particular problem.

As well as all the joys, I imagine there must be some struggles that come with being a Christian in academia. What are some of the challenges you face as a Christian PhD student? How do you face those challenges?

Philip: The biggest challenge is the temptation to blend in with others, and lose the sweet aroma of Christ which should mark us out whatever walk of life we are on. Academically, it is the mindset to make academic success as the marker of my joy and worth rather than Christ, which can be seen in my reaction to colleagues when they talk over coffee about their progress and the feeling that I’m in a constant atmosphere of competition. Being part of a local church and deliberately making the effort to know my colleagues socially has been very helpful. The example of other Christians at church reminds me that life is much bigger than merely academia, while knowing my colleagues socially reimpresses on me the reality of our mutual need of Jesus, and our lostness without him. This also helps me to tackle the related challenge that while it is relatively easy to get to know my colleagues professionally and socially, it is tempting to never mention Jesus and the gospel for fear of their negative reaction. I have found prayer to be absolutely essential in this: God is a very present help in giving me wisdom on when, how to act and what to say. Finally, there is the challenge common to all PhD students of ideas not working out and being very tempted to give up. Knowing from God’s Word that He is both sovereign and loving, and that He knows His plans for me in giving me a PhD to do, is what keeps me going in these times.

Alistair: I couldn’t agree with Philip more, idolising academic success is a big temptation, alongside just blending in and not making an effort to speak about Jesus. I would also add that it is easy to become self-reliant in an academic environment and forget that it is God who indeed provides! Being stuck in at church is essential for this. Hebrews 3:13 is a verse I keep close to reminds me of this, because these sins are deceitful!

'But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.' Hebrews 3:13

For me the secular work environment actually reinforces this reality. There are frequently conversations about the bleakness of the current political and environmental situations we face in this world, reminding us of the reality of living in the last days, that we need Jesus and that we really need to be working for riches which last for eternity (Luke 12:13-34). The biggest challenge I think we all face in the Christian life is keeping our eyes fixed on the treasure we have in Jesus, I am incredibly thankful to live with other brothers from church and begin each day with a shared Bible thought and praying for each other regarding the day ahead, which helps us all to keep our perspective on who we are serving and what our priorities should be. I also have Bible verses on my desk and am trying to memorise key gospel promises to remind me of the great treasure we have! Remembering that everything we do in the Christian life is a form of worship also helps to keep me motivated when I struggle to see the significance of my work, what matters most is not how successful I am but the manner in which I work.

That's so true - ultimately, all the work we do should be with the aim of bringing glory to God, whatever career we choose! With that in mind, what advice would you give to a Christian student who's considering applying for a PhD in science?

Alistair: PhDs provide wonderful opportunities to be a part of a very social lifestyle and engage with some of the top minds in your field. With these come great opportunities for sharing the gospel. So if you have the academic gifting and the inclination to do so it is definitely worth considering. That said I think it’s also important to realise the great danger of idolising work, blending in with those around us and making academic success your greatest pursuit. If you are stuck in with a good Bible-teaching church and have a good community of Christian brothers and sisters around you that will help you keep things in perspective, but it is important to be wary of this temptation. Whatever you choose to do, make sure your main motive is to worship and appreciate more of God!

Philip: Make sure you keep seeing Jesus at the centre of your work and your life, whether he grants you the opportunity to study for a PhD or not, as ultimately he's the only one who will keep you going. Make it your goal to see Jesus through your scientific discipline, and see that he is the one who has 'created all things, and in him all things hold together' (Colossians 1:17). You can glorify God in any work He has called you to do, but if you have the gifts, a PhD can be very helpful both to your own appreciation of seeing Him in Creation, and also a great help to the outside world who hold on to the myth that science and faith cannot go together. We certainly need more Christian academics to be doing good science, and also reaching the lost in academia. Ultimately, commit your plans to God - He will open the right doors, and close the ones He has not purposed for you.

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