Science in Christian Perspective

 

 

Science College Teaching/Research

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A Guide to Graduate School for Christians in Science:
Growing and Staying Sane

William M. Struthers,* graduate student at The University of Illinois at Chicago

Is this really worth it? That is the question that I have asked myself countless times since I began my career as a professional graduate student (at least it feels like a career). Many scientists who pursue careers in industry or academia will obtain their advanced degrees while enrolled as a full-time graduate student. Graduate school is an experience that is qualitatively different from undergraduate work. As a psychology student finishing my undergraduate work, getting into grad school was the prize that so many of my classmates and I had pursued. After my acceptance into a doctoral program, I thought that my worries were over. I have never been more wrong.

In college I rarely considered how my studies fit with my faith. My religious beliefs were neatly packed away in the corner of my life labeled "Church Stuff - Open Only on Sundays" My faith did not interfere with my college life, so why should graduate school be any different? My first semester in graduate school was the beginning of the end for my neatly packaged world. The long hours studying, the time spent learning statistical software packages, preparing discussion sections for my teaching assistantship and developing my research techniques and conducting experiments were difficult enough without the loneliness and competitive, often spiritually hostile, environment. Preparing a thesis can become an obsession. "Publish or Perish" is the warning at lab meetings and beefing up your vita is a top priority. This atmosphere can suffocate anyone who is interested in pursuing a life in research or academia and Christians are not immune to these pressures.

As Christians in science, we face a unique challenge - most schools offering advanced degrees are not interested in integrating our discipline with our faith. Unlike theological schools, a psychology or chemistry graduate at a research university is not encouraged to grow spiritually. Christian campus organizations are usually geared toward undergraduates, and graduate/undergraduate relationships present another opportunity for grads to walk on eggshells, especially when they may be responsible for evaluation of course work and grade assignments. Within the university, faculty and graduate colleagues can be hostile toward what they view as "oppressive religious values." In some ways, we can feel as if we are in "Inherit the Wind" with tweed coats and lecterns. In addition, the trend toward specialization that many universities have as a part of their structure makes pulling together our research with our faith quite difficult.

So what can a Christian who is a graduate student working with non-Christians do? From my own experience, graduate school has been a challenging time of soul-searching and spiritual growth. It has refined my character, my faith, and my commitment to Christ. How can we stay sane and grow closer to Jesus during this time? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Manage your time wisely.

This is, without a doubt, the key to continuing your Christian walk and maintaining your sanity. Few people realize the amount of work that goes into graduate studies and the amount of time that disappears. Reading journal articles, studying for exams, setting up your lab for experiments, running statistical analysis, and preparing lecture notes all seem to take twice the amount of time that they should, so plan accordingly. For procrastinators (like me) the lack of departmental and/or advisor deadlines can act as a silent Black Hole. Be disciplined with your academic goals; set dates, and be accountable to someone who is close and can monitor you. Semesters pass much more quickly, and before you know it, that abstract submission date or oral exam, which seems so distant, will be upon you. Above all, continue to make time with God a priority and guard this time jealously. Too often I have found myself putting time aside to read that article in Scientific American" or Brain Research - placing God on the back burner. Only at the end of the day before I drift off to sleep, do I remember him. Your time is the treasure that you give to what you value; don't forget your time with God.

2. Stay in the Word and have consistent quiet times.

Just putting time aside with God is not enough. All Christians, whatever their occupation, get spiritual nourishment from taking in the Word on a daily basis. This is what anchors our relationship with Christ. Consistently studying the Scriptures, meditating on them, and offering our prayers to God draws us closer to him and helps us put our studies and our anxiety into perspective. Looking back on these past few years, I have noticed that the times that I have struggled the most with my advisor, my experiments, or my nervousness about my future were when I was not in the Word. God will grant us the peace that we need (Ps. 55:22, Phil. 4:7).

3. Be honest.

The pressures of classes, getting manuscripts accepted, and collecting data for conference presentations can sneak up on you and tempt you to omit references, embellish results, or stretch your data. Science is not done in a vacuum and, unfortunately, academia can be a very competitive profession. Competing for fellowships, awards, and funding can bring out the worst in anyone. Plagiarism and falsifying data damage your integrity and testimony. Being dishonest in your research is one way to set yourself up for a professional fall. You also need to consider the ramifications of publishing false information that other investigators are trusting to be valid for their own research. One example is the well-publicized account that occurred in Francis Collins' lab (Science 274 [Nov. 8, 1996]: 908, 10). Dishonesty goes against the tenets of Scripture (Eph. 4:25) as well as science (Philosophy of Science by Del Ratzsch, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).

4. Get involved with a local church.

Fellowship is absolutely necessary to maintain accountability in your spiritual walk. The church gives you an opportunity for corporate worship and provides you with a chance to learn and grow with those who are like-minded. The church also provides an opportunity to develop your spiritual gifts and serve your community. If you are married, your spouse can give you emotional support. If you are single, where does your emotional support come from? Your brothers and sisters in Christ are a valuable resource to both married and single students. An encouraging word from your pastor can lift a load off your shoulders. The body of Christ is most effective when we are actively involved and part of the work of the church (1 Corin. 12:12 - 26).

5. Find a mentor.

Your advisor may be your professional mentor, but you will also need a mentor who will help you grow in your spiritual walk as well. Although your focus at this time needs to be on your research, God also desires for you to develop Christian character and become more like his Son. You will face many temptations as you struggle to complete your degree requirements. A mentor can prepare you for unforeseen problems or touchy  issues that you might not see coming. Additionally, they can offer advice about personal matters that academic advisors may be hesitant to. Finding a mentor who is mature in Christ will help you navigate the ethical, spiritual, and emotional waters that you undoubtedly will face.

6. Think in terms of integration.

Too often we approach our studies as if they were separate from the rest of the world. In this age of academic specialization, we are encouraged to be experts in a particular field and carve out our niche. Try to make a conscious effort to incorporate your research into your Christian perspective and avoid the isolationist mentality. In his book, The Idea of a Christian College (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), Arthur Holmes wrote that all truth is God's truth. If this is true, the truths that your research reveals must not contradict the truths revealed in Scripture. How do Christian scholars in your area of expertise integrate their faith with their research? In psychology, David Myers and Malcolm Jeeves have written several books dealing with the major questions, such as the mind/brain problem and the nature/nurture debate. Physicists might be interested in picking up a book by Hugh Ross or Roger Penrose. Becoming involved in professional societies, such as the American Scientific Affiliation, and reading journals devoted to integration can help you to incorporate your faith with your research. If Jesus were to ask you how your research draws you closer to him, what would you say? When you can clearly see how your research brings you toward a greater understanding of God, then you are integrating your faith with your work.

7. Be a missionary.

 Look around you. There are lost souls that need Christ in your department. They are your fellow graduate students, staff, and faculty members. While I am not saying that you have to stand on a soapbox at the next colloquium and deliver a hellfire and brimstone salvation message, you can still be a light in the darkness (Matt. 5:14 - 16). The life that you live can be a tremendous witness to those who work around you on a daily basis, and they may be more willing to listen than you might think (Science 277 [Aug. 15, 1997]: 890 - 3). Your character can speak volumes about the love of Christ. Because you will probably be in the lab a majority of the time with your labmates, you have a mission field of future scholars who will teach the next generation of students. This is your chance to affect lives for Christ in a way that you may never have the opportunity to again. Reach out to those around you. Pray for them and minister to them. Speak to them about spiritual matters in your office with respect and love. The Great Commission does not exclude scientists.

8. Know your strengths and weaknesses.

 Be aware of what you do well and what you need to work on. As a general rule, try to work toward leading a balanced life but take comfort in the fact that God has endowed each of us with special gifts that he intends for us to use. Identify what your strengths are and continue to develop your career around them. Use your God-given abilities so that they bring glory and honor to him. At the same time, you may notice some areas where you have difficulty (as I mentioned earlier, mine is procrastination). Be intentional about developing these areas so that they detract as little as possible from your work. Try to set a minimum standard to stay above so that your research progresses, your testimony remains intact, and you are becoming more like Christ in everything you do. Find out what your weaknesses are and strengthen them. We all have weaknesses. The key is to make sure that they are not our downfalls.

9. Read something outside your field.

One way to refresh your spirit is to read a book to expand your intellectual boundaries. Many times I have stopped and realized that I have not read a book that was not related to psychology or biology in the past three or four months. If you are a bioengineering student, pick up J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. If you are an anthropology student, read Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or Bill Hybel's Honest to God. Stretch yourself. God has given us so many wonderful ways to understand him. It would be a shame to look at him only through our microscopes. See him through the eyes of C.S. Lewis, Thomas Aquinas, J. . Packer, or Rene' Descartes. It will change your perspective on just how awesome our God is and give you a greater appreciation for disciplines outside your own.

These are just a few of the ways that I have found to help keep me sane and growing while I have been in graduate school. My wife has been a source of encouragement and has picked me up more times than I can count. It would also be disingenuous to give you the impression that I have cruised through without any bumps or bruises along the way. Everyone will have a few horror stories. God teaches us about himself throughout our lives. Your time in graduate school can be a battle against time, ideas, finances, deadlines, anxiety, and loneliness. However, it can also be a time of spiritual growth, evangelism, and personal victory. We can choose to struggle through it all on our own strength or be victorious through the love, strength, and grace of Christ. Is it really worth it? It has been for me.