Competitive Greek Anxiety, Ph.D

So classes start this Monday. Well, one at least — my Greek class. And from what I’ve heard, that should be enough: It’s a ten-week course, and due to the “intensity” of it all, students are highly discouraged from working part-time jobs or anything that might distract. I’ve got my textbooks already:

So far, I’ve met two other students in my class: One of them has taken Greek before at a different school, and the other has been studying furiously all summer long. No pressure.

Actually, pressure is something I’m starting to feel here, and not just about Greek. On one hand, the people we’ve met have been astonishingly welcoming and friendly, going out of their way to make us feel loved and at home. I get the sense that at least here in CRW (the seminary apartment complex) everyone kind of functions as one big extended family. But as soon as the conversations turn to academics, the tone changes, the eyes shift, and suddenly I feel like I’m back in undergrad running for student body president again. Only this time, *everyone* is running. And already ten miles down the road (sorry for the mixed metaphor).

A lot of the pressure seems to be about getting into a PhD program — and apparently there are many students who come here with no intention of going that route, but then get swept up in it anyhow. I’ve been told that to get into a decent PhD program, I’ll need to maintain a 3.8 or higher GPA, which means that A minuses are a bad, bad thing. I’ve also gathered that in addition to an M.Div, I’ll probably need another more specialized master’s degree to be considered by any top-tier school, and that my planned MA in Christian Education might not be “serious” enough for PhD work. Oh, and since I’m in my thirties already, if I wait too much longer to get a PhD, I might have a hard time getting accepted, since a younger candidate would be a better investment and have more years of productive reasearch/teaching in the field.

How much of this is true, and how much is exaggeration and/or hype? I don’t know yet. I was mostly just happy to be back in school again. I remember when I was in high school, there was a lot of peer pressure and competition to get into a good college (yes, I went to one of *those* high schools). And then in undergraduate, everyone seemed to be motivated to achieve so they could get into a good graduate program. Now that I’m finally here (ten years later) this is familiar — everyone is still focused on “what comes next.” To borrow a programming metaphor, I wonder if that’s a feature, or a bug, in our culture? Perhaps both, to some extent.

I talked to my brother, Jeff, on the phone the other night, and he helped me put a lot of things into perspective. Because seriously, who really needs a PhD to start a micro-brewery monastery? I’ve always thought I would go on to get one someday, but if I do, I think it will be on my own terms, and for the sake of the knowledge, not the image. By striving hard to “achieve” and outdo those around me in this competitive academic environment, I would essentially be “conforming” to the process and doing “what everyone else is doing.” And I’ve never been about conformity, now have I?

Time to go study some Greek. Everyone else here may be looking for a grade, a spotlight, or even the ability to read the New Testament a more original form. Not me — I just want to be able to read Homer’s Odyssey in it’s original language…

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16 Responses to Competitive Greek Anxiety, Ph.D

  1. Why would you *want* to get into a PhD program? If you’re intending to teach in academe, it makes sense. If you’re planning on using a series of progressively larger churches as stepping stones to big steeple fame, it is the practical thing to do. But pastors need to be generalists. We are theologians, yes. But we are also counselors and administrators and webmasters and janitors. The more we allow ourselves to get deep into the arcana of a particular sub-field, the less capable we become at our core skillset. We become too focused, too narrow, and less able to convey the startlingly simple truth of the Gospel message.

    And unless Princeton Seminary has an agricultural extension I’m not aware of, it’s going to be pretty useless on the microbrew front.

    Fight the power!

  2. Mark says:

    Koine Greek, which is what you’ll be taking, is to Classical (Homerian) Greek what street talk is to King James English. Sorry to spoil things for ya, but you’re taking the wrong kind of Greek to read Homer 😉 (Yes, I caught the joke).

    Seriously, you’ve raised an important point. Why are YOU going to seminary? Some of your fellow students are going as another step on the road to earning a PhD. But what about YOU? Is it your desire or your call to become a researcher or to teach a field related to religion in higher education? If so, then start working for that 3.8+. But if you understand that your life’s work isn’t about that, then relax because a 3.0 is more than good enough. You’ll also find, by relaxing, that you absorb and retain more information than if you’re stressed out about getting exceptional grades. Let the rat race scuttle past you and settle into being the student you love to be.

    Now as for your homework, repeat after me: eimi, ei, estin, esmen, este, eisin….

  3. Trait says:

    You know, I hate that the atmosphere is like that. One of the things I really enjoyed about my grad school experience is the camraderie I felt with my classmates and the feeling that most were in it for the education and not a step on academic ladder. I know you’re there for the right reasons and won’t get swept up into the johnson measuring contest I’m sure is prevalent there. I can’t wait to read about the insights you gain from a few weeks in Greek class.

  4. anniem says:

    I say embrace the competition. You need engines to push your motivation when the crunch feels heavy. Your survival mechanism can either be to check out and choose–rather than risk–failure or to engage and dare to be at the top of your class. This is why graduate school makes the [wo]man more than almost any other life experience. I know you–I know if you put your balls to the wall, so to speak, you can easily float to the top of your class.

    This is no time to let yourself off, whether you want a PhD or not. A 3.8 is a great and perfect goal.

  5. Neal Locke says:

    @David and Mark — long before I ever set my course for seminary, or theology, or even microbrewing, I decided I would someday pursue a PhD. It has more to do with the extent to which I value education, and the educational opportunities offered by a PhD program that I couldn’t duplicate on my own. I think it’s a family thing, too, since both of my brothers have the same goal. The problem is that I always envisioned it as something I would do for my own edification and in my own timing — not out of competition, peer pressure, or some sense of artificial urgency.

    @Annie — I get what you’re saying, and for others that might indeed be a motivating factor (and that’s great for them), but not for me. I crash and burn when I feel like I’m doing things for inauthetic reasons–and anything less than education for its own sake would seem that way for me. In fact, it’s those “warning signals” that promted this post.

    In the end, my brother’s advice was best: I need to relax, enjoy what I’m studying (and appreciate that I GET to study, full time!), and just be me. Which DOES include a PhD end-goal, but on my own terms or not at all. Like most things in my life, I certainly won’t follow the beaten path (even the well-word institutional path of academia) to get there.

  6. Neal Locke says:

    @David — one more thing: No, Princeton Seminary doesn’t have an agricultural extension, but I’m working on it. Seriously. More on that later, though…

  7. Dannah says:

    Since when do you care what people think? Hehe you’ll do just fine, you’re in your element. Go lead a protest or something.

  8. JohnF says:

    Speaking as one who recently thought that a masters would be enough and decided that PhD would be much better (albeit in a very different field), I don’t agree that the only purpose of a doctoral degree is to get onto the academic treadmill. The essence of the degree is the experience of learning to think for yourself and defend your ideas among those who know much more than you.
    And I don’t believe that programs would really want you to have two masters degrees before applying. Most PhD programs would rather you get your masters with them so they can train you in their culture and their interpretation of the canon of knowledge. Even if you plan to challenge it, you have to know what you’re challenging– think Paul in Rome.
    Anyway, I don’t think you’ll ever be sorry you took extra classes or wrote more dissertation chapters.. it’s not a bad life, right? Soak up as much of the experience now– you’ll miss it when you leave!

  9. Rocky says:


    I linked to your blog from a comment you made on the PGF blog. Nice work.

    Hey, I took the 10 week Greek course at Princeton in 2001. It’s a great experience, especially if Ross Wagner is still teaching it.

    Good luck.

  10. Neal Locke says:

    @Rocky — Actually, the prof for this class is Shane Berg. But I’m hoping it will still be a great experience, and I’ll keep my ears open to see if Ross Wagner is still teaching here.

  11. DB says:

    @ Rocky & Neal

    Ross Wagner does still teach at our fine institution. Shane Berg is amazing and your are blessed to have the opportunity to learn the basics with him.

  12. Neal Locke says:

    @DB, actually I’m looking forward to it. A friend of mine from undergraduate days went to church with Shane Berg when they were at Yale together, and speaks highly of him. So have several other students I’ve met since I’ve been here.

  13. Lisa Smith (Parker) says:

    Long time not talk. I think it has been since Lisa and Johns wedding. i just caught up with Lisa W again. I am so excited to hear you are going into seminary. I will praying for it all to go well. Drop me a line at if you get a chance and i will send you pictures of my little almost 3 year old. Life is good and looks like it has been treating you well too. Cannot wait to catch up.
    Lisa Smith(parker from El Paso)

  14. Lynnette says:

    Wow, that sounds a lot like how I feel about starting high school. Everyone is so concerned about being *the* best, especially in band. I guess we both have to keep telling ourselves that we’re here for our own reasons and not just to be better than the next person.

  15. Marc says:

    Hi Neal,

    Since I’m fairly new to your blog, I’m sorry that I didn’t find it before you had these horrible experiences, or at least soon after. I’ve been at PTSEM for a year now and, oddly enough, have had the exact opposite response. I came expecting a rigorous environment where everyone was clambering for an academic honor (like other institutions) and was pleasantly surprised by how many people just wanted to help each other get along. (sidenote, gosh my english is going down the tubes. I’m reading over this post and half of this just doesn’t sound correct. Back to the grammar, rhetoric, and style books for me.) Perhaps it is just the people you have encountered thus far. Most of my friends are going for very practical degrees, looking to be in Youth Ministry or in the Church. I’m one of the few I know who is reaching for a PhD (well, possibly reaching. My wife and I still have to decide all of that.) So, here’s hoping that you find more of the people I hang around with and fewer of the people you seem to be encountering.

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