Conversational Theology

1. Know what you have got to say

This is a huge one for me and I really ought to have learned it by now. More often than not, when the thesis stalls and I stop working on it, it’s because I don’t really know what I’m doing, not because I’m being lazy or bored or any of the other reasons I think. When I work out what I’m doing, it’s easy to make progress.


2. Have the research done

For me this means checking the secondary literature, making notes and so on. This not only helps with knowing what I want to say but also gives me something to hang what I’m saying on. Footnotes, references and quotes contribute significantly to wordcount but require minimal brain power to put in.


3. Sleep well at night

Not always easy to control but makes a huge difference to productivity. I have more or less cut caffeine out of my diet at the moment, which is helping me.


4. Eat well during the day

I have started buying ready-made sandwich fillers. I hate that I am buying them, but it does mean that I can make a sandwich in 30 seconds, almost as easily as opening a packet of crisps or eating a chocolate biscuit and pretending that’s lunch. Real food = real productivity.


5. Knit

It’s not that I haven’t knitted at all in the last few months, but what I have knitted has been stressful gift knitting or competition knitting and so on. I’m now knitting a jumper which involves miles of mindless stocking stitch which is perfect to pick up for ten minutes or more when I need a break.


6. Take long breaks

I used to feel guilty about this before this week. But my pattern in the last four days has been one hour of writing, one hour break. I can write 500-1000 words in an hour, so if I do that two or three times a day I’m well within the target for 10,000 words in a week. And I don’t feel dead at the end of it.


7. Watch tennis

I admit, this is not always possible or desirable. But I find that tennis is the kind of thing that doesn’t require constant attention and is quite soothing in the background. Sometimes music works, but I tend to prefer words or silence. Tennis gives quite a lot of silence without being totally dead. Queens is on BBC2 this week, then a week on Monday Wimbledon starts. I’m hoping for a very productive two weeks then.


8. Don’t try and do ten other things as well as the thesis

This is really, really hard for me in general and especially at the moment. I feel like I could be using all the non-thesis hours of the day for other work and especially writing. I’ve got three editors waiting to hear from me with stories and I haven’t worked on a single one all week. That’s tough. Partly because I like writing and I love the stories I’m working on. And partly because there is a nagging fear that these opportunities won’t last forever. But I honestly believe that the reason I’ve got so much thesis written is because I have had my mind on it all the time. It’s what I’m thinking about in the bath or in the car or when I’m in bed going to sleep. Normally, those are the times I’m thinking about my stories. My mind can’t make progress on both at once. I am not superwoman. This is hard to acknowledge.


So, okay, I have not written 10,000 words of my thesis this week and I probably won’t because I have a friend coming to stay for the next two days. But I have written over 8,000 words in four days and I know I can write the rest when I have the chance. And then I will have the final chapter done and the thesis almost complete.

When I first started telling people I was thinking of doing a PhD, I got mixed responses. Lots of encouragement but also quite a lot of warnings. I remember one friend in particular, who had done a PhD years earlier in a different field, telling me to be really, really sure I wanted it because it was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her, but despite all the warnings, I vastly underestimated how hard it would be. Not academically. I knew, and still know in my saner moments, that I’m intellectually up to the task. It’s all the other stuff.

It’s five years since I started on this path and I’m not done yet. Here’s what it’s already cost me:

Physical health:
I eat badly when I’m stressed and when I’m working to a deadline. For most of the last five years, it’s been one or other or both of those. Consequently, I now weigh four stone more than I did when I started. Spending days tied to a desk, staring at a computer, also means that I am even more unfit that when I began.

Also my teeth are in really bad condition because I haven’t been able to afford the dental treatment I’ve needed. I’ve been to an emergency dentist a couple of times, but that’s it. I don’t qualify for any of the categories that would entitle me to free treatment and for at least half the time, I’ve lived in places where it’s been virtually impossible to find an NHS dentist.

Mental health
For the first two years of the PhD, I was unhappy. That was because I was living overseas and was homesick.

For the last three years, due to a combination of factors all connected in some way to the PhD, I have been depressed. I’m taking medication and I’ve had counselling, which all helps. But still, I would say that this is a direct consequence of being a PhD student. The loneliness, the fear, the burden of a long-term deadline – every PhD student goes through this, even if they don’t have all the other stuff I’ve had to deal with.

Financial cost
To be fair, this has been minimal. I began the PhD with no money and I am ending it with no debt. People have been generous and funding has always appeared when I have most needed it. Mostly, I have learned not to worry about money, but there have been a few occasions when I’ve not known how I was going to pay bills.

I have lost friends over the last five years. I have been a very bad friend to a number of people in that time. I’ve had to prioritise work over people in a way that I wish I hadn’t. It’s hard for people to get what it’s like being a PhD student and it’s frustrating to have to keep trying to explain. Sometimes it’s easier just to let the friendship drift.

If I had known five years ago what it was going to cost me, I would never have begun. As it is, I don’t know whether I will finish.

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Apologies for those who were hoping for a return to regular posting this year. The PhD is progressing but there is still much to be done and for a variety of reasons, none of it has been done in January.

One of those reasons has been that I have been applying for a job. I was interviewed today and didn’t get it. This adds one more to the long list of Jobs I Have Not Got.

These places have all Not Given Me A Job (this is not a fully comprehensive list; those in bold are where I got to the interview stage):
St Ebbes, Oxford (twice)
St Andrew the Great, Cambridge
St Nicks, Sevenoaks (three times)
LymingtonRushmore Holidays (three times)
St Dionys, Parsons Green
Christ Church, Cockfosters
St Barnabas, Kensington

Holy Trinity, Lyonsdown
Knowle Parish Church
Bishop Hannington Church
St Leonards, Exeter
Lichfield Diocese

These places have Given Me A Job (this is a fully comprehensive list):
Fairmile Court Conference Centre: Assistant Chef
Fort Pitt Grammar School: Maths teacher
St Andrews, Oxford: Parish Assistant
Westminster Seminary: Greek Teaching Fellow (part time)
Tyndale House: Admin staff (part time)
Other than the teaching job and my current part time admin job, these have all been 1 year posts.

By contrast, everywhere I have ever applied to study has offered me a place.

So, here’s my question. Why don’t I get ministry jobs?* What is it about me that makes me so utterly unemployable? I need to know, because I’m fast running out of options to study more and I think a job in academic research would be the quickest route to ruining my mental health on a permanent basis. I work hard; I’m a fast learner; I’m good with people; I’m a great teacher; I have lots of things I’m really, really good at. I won’t teach your kids Sunday school classes or run your toddler group, but other than that I’ll do whatever you need me to. I won’t undermine you or threaten your authority but I’ll push you to be as good a minister as you can be to your congregation.

*I don’t have a particularly good record of getting other kinds of jobs either, but I think my inadequacies as a school teacher who can’t coach second 11 hockey would probably cloud the issue here.

For the moment, anyway. I haven’t been posting a whole lot lately and I don’t plan to until after 2010: The Year of the PhD is over. So long, and thanks for all the comments. I’m freezing the threads now so that I don’t get distracted by new comment notifications.

Courtesy of Peter Leithart.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

My brother got married on Saturday. He is not a Christian, and after a certain amount of discussion and compromise, he and his fiancée decided to have a civil ceremony, followed by a church blessing. The church service was really very good in lots of ways – welcoming and warm, appropriate to the couple, clear on the distinctives of marriage, openly Christian whilst recognising the different opinions of others. But there was one particular thing about the service that made me very happy indeed in a wholly unexpected way.

I did one of the readings, and since they asked me to choose what I wanted to read, they got something from the Song of Songs. The passage that I read included the wedding procession of 3:6ff in which the bridegroom arrives perfumed with frankincense and myrrh, in a carriage inlaid with gold. In a totally unrelated decision, they chose to sing a couple of Christmas carols in the service, including O Come All Ye Faithful, with the following verse:

Lo, star-led chieftains,
Magi, Christ adoring,
Offer him incense, gold, and myrrh;
We to the Christ-child
Bring our hearts’ oblations…

Coincidence? I think not.

Jam Cary (co-author of the funniest sitcom on TV at the moment) is organising the second Blueprint annual conference for Christians working in the media, arts, design and music on Feb 13th, 2010. I seem to have agreed to lead a seminar on the portrayal and use of sex in the arts and media, a subject about which I feel somewhat underqualified to speak, but nonetheless one which is extremely important to consider.

More information about the conference is here and booking forms are here.

Conversational theology:

the art of learning deep truths about God and man in the company of friends, whilst drinking tea and eating cake.

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