Life as a graduate student provides awesome opportunities to practice living for the kingdom — now.
You’ve made it into graduate school. It’s probably been a long, hard academic slog getting there, yet you love learning, I’ll bet. You’ve made lots of sacrifices and had lots of providential doors opened for you.
But whether you’re in business, medical or law school, or, like me, are blissfully TAing your way through a Ph.D. in the humanities or social sciences, you may feel like life is on hold, and you’re alone.
You’re busy just surviving.
Let’s back up a bit: You’re a Christian. And you’re a grad student. This does not necessarily make you a minority, but you might feel like the last of your kind. I know I did, and do, every now and again.
As an undergraduate, parachurch ministries such as Cru or Intervarsity were probably looking for you. Or if you looked even a little, you could find some decent ministry that provided an encouraging space for you as a Christian student. But in graduate school, that safe place to land may be harder to find. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. Indeed, I suspect that there are more Christians around and above you (among the faculty) than you might imagine. At first, however, you might empathize with Elijah.
"I am the only one left," he declared, after an earthquake, wind and fire shook the mountain on which he’d gone to hide. Elijah felt like he was the last of his line and that there wasn’t anyone else out there doing God’s work. This is after an angel fed him, and God had used him to defeat the prophets of Baal. Pretty heady stuff.
Like Elijah, we may have come out of an awesome series of undergrad experiences that propelled us forward into our work as grad students. We knew we were probably near the top of our classes and among the best at what we did. We excelled. We were the best and brightest as college seniors. Now as first- or second-year Ph.D. students, or first-year business, law or medical-school students, we’re just only OK, surrounded by smart(er) folks than ourselves.
It’s dreadful for the ego.
I know I feel that way. The "imposter" syndrome — that nagging sense that we got into our programs because of some clerical error and not because we’ve earned or otherwise deserve it — is real. Starting out, you really do wonder if your presence there is some kind of grand mistake, especially as friends get their careers and families started, and you get left behind and remain "still in school."
But it’s precisely at these too-frequent-at-first moments of existential doubt that you ought to remember you’re where you are for a reason, even if it’s 3 a.m. and you’re grading undergraduates’ papers or tending fitful bacteria in a lab on a Saturday afternoon.
Thank God He doesn’t waste anything, or anytime, in our lives. Life as a graduate student provides awesome opportunities to practice living for the kingdom — now. God has a different kind of arithmetic, as C.S. Lewis said, and there are three specific places you can start working as a witness for that kingdom and letting your light shine before men. Here’s how you can live out the Gospel, even if you’re in a windowless room with three other grad students.
You’re working with professors who push back the edges of known human knowledge, but who may also be desperately lost people and who are, like you, desperately in need of Jesus. Do good work. Excel at what you do. But go beyond that, and stand as a witness like Daniel, Joseph or Nehemiah, all figures who did excellent work, gave glory to their Father in heaven and made their masters ask, "Why?" Tell them! First with your deeds and then your words, show Christ to your committee. Depending on where you’re doing your work, you may be one of only a handful of believers your faculty supervisors have in their lives. Make the most of that.
There are Christian grad-student peers at your university. But you have to find them. No one will come and find you, at least not very often. It’s up to you to get out and search. So if there isn’t a grad-school ministry of some kind on or near your campus already, find a good church near your university and ask the staff there for introductions.
When you do find a few Christians, start a fellowship. Meet for coffee or tea once a week, and pray for your professors and for your students. It doesn’t matter if you’re from a gaggle of wildly disparate fields. That’s part of the fun! God loves the life of the mind. Share that life with others. Read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, well, together. Find faculty members who love Jesus, and invite them to mentor you. Your presence will encourage and embolden them. Just knowing a couple Christian graduate students, one professor told me, was enough to make him feel far less alone.
3. Your students
If you’re a teaching assistant, or any kind of adjunct, work on your witness to your students. Grade their work on time. Prepare well for your class sessions. Make your lectures engaging. Have approachable office hours. Have extra office hours. Go above and beyond the call of contracted duty. Show them you care for them. When you encounter Christian undergrads, talk about your faith. And don’t be shy about it with others. Students crave authentic and empathetic interaction with the likes of you (believe it or not, they look up to you). With boundaries, be bold with a servant’s heart and a scholar’s mind.
And remember what God told His bummed-out, burnt-out prophet Elijah: "I reserve seven thousand in Israel — all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal" (1 Kings 19:18). He commanded Elijah to get up, get out and get back to work. We should do the same. Let’s claim the name of Christ as grad students with all our flaws. We’re not alone, and even if there may not be that many of us, there are still some. The Gospel is needed in grad school. Will you help carry it there?
Copyright 2011 Will Mari. All rights reserved.