Keeping the Faith in Grad School
Column Description: Writing as a Christian who is a doctoral student at a public institution of higher learning, Lakelyn reflects on how graduate students can maintain their faith in graduate school when it seems hard to do. This column is not about how to “beat” the “other” side in debates about religion or secular ideas. It is not a column about winning arguments or converting people. Rather, it is about cultivating Christian mindsets to various struggles in graduate school and navigating what it means to be a Christian and a scholar.
By Lakelyn Taylor
University of Central Florida
October-November 2021 / September 2021
I have not dreaded anything during my PhD program as much as I dreaded taking comprehensive exams back in November 2021. However, I started to feel guilty about having dread and anxiety especially after being told more than once it was silly to worry. It was not until I heard a Christian talk-show host, though, that the confusion over my own emotions really set in. This host firmly stated that emotions like fear, anxiety, and worry are sinful and are indicative of a weak relationship with God. Ouch. Needless to say, that did not help me. In fact, I was even more upset because I questioned if I was in the wrong for feeling the way I did. This article is centered on emotional expression while in graduate school as I navigate the answer to this question alongside you.
In graduate school, we are often not given the wherewithal to process or express our emotions as graduate students. It is not uncommon to start the day off feeling like you are on top of the world and then spend another sleepless night wondering why you decided to get a PhD in the first place. Without the space, time, and energy to devote to ourselves, our emotional states often get neglected. Navigating our emotions, though, can be a critical part of keeping our faith. God gave us emotions, even the “negative” ones, so we should acknowledge them and treat them with the same care as we do any other part of our spiritual lives.
The first thing you should know about your emotions is that they are all valid. Felling fearful? Valid. Feeling angry? Valid. Feeling joyous? Valid. Our emotions are a part of how we manifest the image of God. They indicate when our values and moral standards are met or violated and, when attended to, can be flags for reflection. They are also a way we can glorify God and make His greatness known. My advisor put it this way: It’s all about balance.
The concept of Yin and Yang, although not a Christian principle, can teach us a lot about emotional expression as part of our faith integration. There is no Yin without Yang or vice versa. There’s a little of one within the other. So it is with our more “negative” emotions. Your fear, anxiety, worry, and stress over graduate school work do not have to be mutually exclusive to your feelings of faith and trust in the Lord. In fact, acknowledging both can be a bigger testament to those around you than trying to appear as if you aren’t struggling at all. Think about it this way: “I feel anxious about [insert terrifying thing here], but I know God is still good and I trust Him to walk with me through it.”
Consider Peter in Matthew 14:22-33. Peter attempts to go to Jesus by walking on water. He succeeds at first, his mind and heart set only on Jesus. But then he notices the waves and the wind around him and begins to sink. It is key to note here that Peter did not begin to sink because he was fearful, but rather because he allowed himself to act on his fear and allowed it to grow stronger than his faith. A song titled “One Step at a Time” from the musical His Story (10/10 recommend) provides lyrics to this iconic event. The lyrics from Jesus’ point of view state, “Why would you fear? Why would you doubt? If you started to sink I would pull you out.” Jesus is asking Peter why he let his fear overtake him to the point where he doubted Jesus would act on His promises, not admonishing him for feeling fear to begin with.
This event translates into all of our emotions – even the “positive” ones. We can just as quickly let our happiness become bigger than our faith in God when we try and take overdue credit for God’s handiwork. At the end of the day, it is not wrong to feel the wide range of emotions we have been given as image-bearers of God. We can hold our faith and our fear (or another other emotion) in balance as we seek to glorify the Lord.
So, let me encourage you not to feel guilt or shame over the emotions you experience during graduate school. It’s not an easy journey and we are typically put through the ringer more than once before we graduate. Embrace what you are experiencing and ask yourself, “What are these feelings trying to tell me about my situation? How can God receive glory in light of how I feel?” Find someone you trust who you can express your emotions to and who can also provide you with a solid Christian perspective on them. Navigating them out loud with a fellow Christian can often be the best way to process them and balance them out with your faith and trust in God.
In case it is not clear, I disagree with the talk-show host somewhat. I don’t believe your relationship with God is weak or that you are less of a Christian if you feel anxious or stressed. A key thing to note, though, is that I’m not saying our emotions are always right. Sometimes they can mislead us. That’s why it’s good to talk through them with someone and to pray to God about what you are going through. You’ll be amazed at the clarity both will provide you.
My prayer for you this week is that you find the wherewithal to process your emotions and that you can come into a space where you recognize the validity in how you feel. I pray you will achieve a balance between emotion and faith as you journey through your graduate program. God doesn’t reject your emotions, so neither should you.
Oh, I guess I should also tell you: I did end up passing my comprehensive exams – dread, anxiety, faith, and all.
And so we go….