This is first in a short series of reruns of old columns which I wrote many years ago, as the fictional Professor Theophilus, in an online magazine for Christian college students.  Several people have been kind enough to say that my Ask Theophilus columns kept them sane in those days.


I'm pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature at a secular research university.  For the most part my professors and colleagues are very open to my academic discussions of faith.  I've found a local community of believers and joined a weeknight discussion group organized by the church.  I really enjoy interacting with both Christians and nonbelievers in an academic setting.  I like my field in itself, I enjoy teaching, and I've had the joy of seeing many of my friends become Christians as they interacted with thoughtful believers trying to be faithful in the academy. 

All the same, I think about quitting the field weekly, maybe daily.  Everyone in my program who takes work seriously at all seems to be neglecting friends and family and sleeping 5-6 hours a night, just to get by.  The sheer amount of work the program expects of students is incredible. 

I'd like to have more time to be involved in my church, do volunteer work, and maybe even cook a meal and enjoy it with friends.  Though I'm fighting, I can also feel the burden of work stifling my relationship with God.  It's really hard to do more than skim through a Psalm in the morning and then start work.  Though I take Sundays off, it's hard to sustain whatever thinking I do about God throughout the week. 

I guess what I'm asking is: Does it ever get better? Will I ever have more time? Or is the graduate school lifestyle the same one I can expect in my academic career?



Of course it's possible that you shouldn't be in graduate school, but you don't give much reason for thinking that this is the case.  To start with: Yes, it gets better.  Frankly, though, it doesn't sound too bad for you now.  You obviously find time for worship and other church activities several times a week.  You obviously have time for friends, or you couldn't have had the joy of seeing “many” of them turn to Christ.  You just want more of these good things.  I can hardly blame you, but we can't have everything at once.  What about losing sleep?  Five hours is a little stiff, but six hours a night, at your age, for a few years, doesn't sound so bad to me.  People who are in at the start of something new and big often lose sleep.  Newlyweds do.  New parents do.  People beginning new careers or businesses do.  People organizing volunteer ministries do.  People in love do.  Converts do.  Should we be surprised that grad students do too?

I said a few moments ago that it gets better.  Let me fine-tune that statement.  It can get better, but that depends largely on you.  Perhaps these two reflections will help you. 

First, about grad school itself.  Needless to say, it isn't easy, but even so, many grad students work harder and lose more sleep than they need to.  Ironically, the commonest reason is that they are so smart.  All through high school and college, they were the ones who breezed by while others had to toil.  Grad school is often the first time in their lives that they've really had to work the way other students have had to.  Suddenly they're forced to learn the time management habits that everyone else learned years earlier.  Put all this together with the fact that for the first time in their lives, everyone around them is just as smart as they are, and what do you get?  A recipe for insecurity, an urge to overwork, and a motive not to take the time to learn the habits that would make it all easier -- they take too much time to learn. 

You keep telling yourself that you don't have time to sleep because you have so much to do.  But the less you sleep, the slower you work, and the more the work piles up, the less you sleep.  Naturally, you get sick.  The prospect of losing time to illness terrifies you, so you refuse to take time out to rest.  Because you do refuse, the illness lasts for weeks instead of days, and you lose more time still.  May I point out the obvious? None of this is necessary.  It's driven by anxiety, not need. 

Second, about spiritual discipline.  The sanctification of everyday life is difficult; everyone finds it hard to sustain a focus on God throughout the week, not just grad students.  Having too much work makes it hard -- how right you are! But believe me, not having enough work would make it harder still. 

I commend you for wanting more quiet time to pray, but you already have far more than you think.  You can pray while you're walking to school; you can pray while you're riding the bus; you can pray while you're making your dinner.  True, you won't always be able to pray in words -- you'd find it hard to do that while talking with your thesis supervisor -- but you can have a prayerful spirit even then.  When St. Paul writes “Pray without ceasing,” I don't think he's talking about having a longer quiet time, though that's good too.  I think he's talking about the cultivation of an interior quietness of soul that makes it possible to pray literally all the time.  May I once again point out the obvious?  Progress in interior quietness will also help you in time management, because the place that anxiety once filled is more and more filled up by God. 

As I said before, perhaps you shouldn't be in graduate school -- perhaps you aren't as well suited to the academic life as you seem to be -- but I don't think so.  I think your problems can be fixed.  Yes, it gets better, even when it gets harder, as sometimes it will.  That's how the path goes.  I don't mean the path of scholars, though scholars should follow it too.  I mean the path of God.