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In converstion with…

Blog — 6th November 2018

In August, the Link sat down with three PhD students who represent a range of nationalities, progression in their studies, and involvement either part time or full time.

Chisomo Nkawa, a part-time PhD student based in Zambia, is in his first year of study.

Nabil Habiby, a part-time PhD student based in Beirut, Lebanon, is in his fourth year of study.

Andrew Pottenger, from the United States, is a full-time PhD student in Manchester, and will be submitting his thesis this October.

Link: What is the best advice you received before starting your PhD?

Nabil: Many people told me I would feel overwhelmed, and that’s natural, and that this feeling will become less in my fourth and fifth year and as I begin to see the end. I am finding that’s true. They said, “Just keep working and researching and slowly things will take shape.”

Chisomo: One philosopher remarked, “to be forewarned is to be forearmed.” The advice that came before I got here was regards to my family, this level of study is something that will require much more thinking. What would that look like in terms of creating time for my family, even within this busy schedule?
I need to think of it in terms of priorities: your family, your work and other commitments. But ultimately my desire is this whole process does not have a negative implication on my relationship with my family. My family is number one.

Andrew: Probably still the best advice I’ve gotten was from Gustavo Crocker (Church of the Nazarene General Superintendent), who said, “Treat it like a job, Monday to Friday, 8 to 5, and then put it away.” I have taken one day off every week for the past year, at least. I just know that I can’t do what I need to do if I don’t take time off.

Even though people can be in different fields, there’s still this point of commonality where you can relate to one another and you can help each other out.

Link: Where do you find the most support as you go through what is, often, a very lonely or isolated process?

Nabil: As a PhD student, you’re working on a very specific topic, so it’s hard to discuss that topic with most people, because it makes no sense to them. For me, I found some other people who are doing higher education who I can discuss things with. Of course, I do discuss how things are going in my studies on a logistical level with my wife and close friends, but I can’t discuss my research with them. It won’t make sense.

Chisomo: I have monthly meetings with my primary and secondary supervisors. That is a good platform for me to discuss my ideas and have my ideas challenged and get feedback on what I’m researching. Within our church community itself back home, there are very few people who have advanced in studies in the Bible, so the level of interaction is not quite there. Although in our church we are blessed to have one professor, and we have some doctors who have studied in different fields. General discussions not related to what I’m doing take place, and for me that’s helpful.

Andrew: On the one hand, you’re your own support system. You have to be relentless; you have to just do it. Then, if you’re married, your spouse. Then I would say your advisor is extremely important. Fortunately I have two very, very good ones. We have a time in June where 40 or 50 PhD students from all over the world are here at NTC. In addition to the formal things like seminars and listening to each other’s presentations, more important is the informal times. Even though people can be in different fields, there’s still this point of commonality where you can relate to one another and you can help each other out.

Link: Andrew, you mentioned the fundamental importance of your relationship with your supervisor. Could you each share some advice on how to find the right supervisor?

Andrew: Tell them what you need and what you expect from them. My experience was I needed a supervisor who was going to communicate with me. I made it very clear during my application process that what I expected and what I needed were not hand-holding, but someone who could communicate and who would respond when I had questions. That means if I ask a question over email or need to set up a meeting, I hear back from both advisors within 24-72 hours, every time. I’ve had nothing but good experiences.

Chisomo: It has to do with having someone who is both critical and objective. I like to be challenged in my point of view. If you have someone as your advisor who can challenge your thinking, for me that’s far better to have such an advisor. Communication and emails distance us from face to face communication, but when you have a supervisor who is constantly responding and communicating with you through technoogy, that is efficient.

Nabil: If possible, try to find an advisor who has done work in what you’re doing – in the same historical era, or biblical book, or field. If it’s not possible, I would advise the student to change topic, if necessary, to fit the advisor’s profile. Along the road, an advisor who has done work in that field will be better able to point you in the right direction. You have to find resources yourself, but you know you’re talking to someone who has that knowledge.

You have to think about your passion, but also something challenging. For me, I like my mind to be stretched.

Link: What is the best way to pick a topic?

Nabil: Pick something which is interesting to you, that’s the first one, knowing that no matter how interesting, at some point you will probably get tired of reading in that topic for six or three years. The second advice: play to your strengths. I enjoy working with narrative and I also enjoy reading history. And my Bachelor’s degree was in literature, so we did lots of literary criticism. And my MA paper was in Mark, also using narrative criticism. I played to that strength because I know I’m good in that.

Chisomo: You have to think about your passion, but also something challenging. For me, I like my mind to be stretched. There are questions that have not been asked about that particular topic: are you able to ask those questions and explore those questions? Like Nabil said, for me the MA dissertation also built into my PhD line of research or area of interest.

Andrew: Obviously it’s got to be something that turns you on; you have to sustain a high level of interest for anywhere from three to six years, day in and day out. The way I did it was just think about what I loved. I studied theology most of my academic career, but what I was really good at and what really excited me is Church History. I spent my days off just reading this stuff for fun. When it came time to decide, do I want to make a theological project – which makes sense going to a theological school – or do I want to do a straight history project?
A lecturer at seminary … said, “You’d make a better historian than a theologian.” That might be disheartening for some to hear, but for me that was decisive in choosing a history direction.

In my case, I hope to be of benefit to the Middle East and Lebanon. The first gate to that is earning a PhD in Biblical Studies.

Link: Why are you pursuing a PhD?

Nabil: One of the pieces of advice given to me was that, in this day, you need a PhD to have a voice, to be active in the scholarly and academic world. If I want to teach and have a voice that is respected, I need a PhD in biblical studies. When I was thinking about my PhD, that’s one of the discussions that I had with Dr Kent Brower. Sometimes you do it just because you have to do it in order to achieve something else. In my case, I hope to be of benefit to the Middle East and Lebanon. The first gate to that is earning a PhD in Biblical Studies.

Chisomo: In my own district within Zambia, I may be the only one pursuing PhD studies except for one who is doing a Doctor of Ministry. For me, I look at the investment that the church is putting into my education, and my desire to give back to the church in Africa and theological schools. It’s a positive investment. The returns are not for the immediate period, but for a future that for me looks bright in my district.

Andrew: Why would you put yourself through all that just to study the ancient Romans or Constantine? My answer has always been a passionate ‘Why not?’
Aside from that, our churches and individual missionaries must work within a variety of political systems, not all of which allow for the freedoms of democratic nations. We can learn so much from the Church under Rome and in the time of Constantine. We must pursue God’s mission, and obey the law; that often requires knowledge and wisdom. The right, ethical, and legal thing to do is not always so clear in every case: how do we as Christians in different nations and systems of government operate faithfully and in respect of the rule of law?

The ‘separation of Church and State’ as it developed in the United States is quite distinct from the ‘state church’ system found in Europe and the UK. Other areas exist where there is not the same distinction between categories of ‘political’ and ‘religious’ at all. This was a pressing question for Christians in the time of Constantine, and under the rule of the Romans: and we can learn from their example.

It’s important to understand this context wherever we find ourselves serving.


NTC would like to thank Nabil, Chisomo and Andrew for their time in helping with this article