posted by Amy on Dec 14

Recently a friend asked me why I want a PhD. I fumbled for an answer, and ended up saying several things: Because I love being a graduate student, surrounded by smart, passionate people and swimming happily in an ocean of knowledge. Because I hope to help make the world a better place, both by participating in academia now and, if I live long enough, by what I do next. And, finally, I said it was because the sum total of all the advice my high school guidance counselor gave me was, “With your IQ, you should get a PhD in something.”

I am constantly reevaluating my decision. I transferred to BU in 2010 with the intention of finishing my M.Div. and going on somewhere to get a doctorate in something. I had recently done primary source research for a paper on Methodist church trials. It combined my love of history with my knowledge of the law, and I thought I might do a dissertation on that. But in my first semester at BU I took a class from Elie Wiesel. He meets individually with all his students. When I went to chat with him he asked me what I planned to do, and I told him about my interest in Methodist church trials. He looked bored, and I suddenly realized I wasn’t very passionate about it either. Over the next two years I took four classes in ethics from Norm Faramelli, and I figured out that I am very passionate about ethics.

Near the end of my second semester at BU I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. I didn’t know if I would be able to stay in school. I thought I might die soon. (Median survival after this diagnosis is around 23 months). Most importantly, I thought it might be selfish to go on for a doctorate after I graduated in 2012. Everything was up in the air as the deadline for applying to doctoral programs approached. I was bald from chemo, ten pounds heavier from steroids, and still reeling from the diagnosis and its implications. I thought maybe I should go back to Colorado after graduation and take an appointment as a licensed local pastor. Maybe God was calling me to use my experiences as a cancer patient to minister to others.

I raised this concern when I met with Dr. Farmelli and his teaching assistant. The TA assured me that I would be in ministry as a doctoral student. In my work as a teaching assistant, research assistant, and classmate I would be helping prepare future pastors for their work while supporting the academy and the church. I had thought my desire to continue graduate studies was essentially selfish and self-indulgent. Maybe it is, but she convinced me that in following my own deepest longings I also serve others. I applied to the BU School of Theology, to BU’s (secular) graduate school of religion, and to Iliff School of Theology. The BUSTh application was accepted, and I decided to go ahead with it.

The question is far from finally settled, though. I have a long way to go yet, and I am getting increasingly homesick for my family, my friends, and my hometown (Denver). My health continues to be an issue. Thankfully, I don’t have any cognitive impairment from cancer treatment, but Stage IV cancer is “treatable but not curable.” I still have cancer. I still have to get infusions every three weeks and swallow 6 big pink pills a day every other week. My cancer is “stable” for now. No one can say how much longer that will last. I don’t think about cancer constantly anymore. But I never manage to get very far from it.

Last week I attended a meeting where a BU professor came to talk about getting books and articles published. He said anyone who wants a PhD should go ahead and do it. If nothing else, you get 100,000 words you wrote that will always be there. Looking at me, he said there’s no upper age limit for scholarly work. One of our professors is 75, and he has written 13 books, including a massive three-volume set that he started when he was 70. Writing is a way to make a permanent mark on the world. Whatever I write will still be speaking for me after I’m gone.

He was also enthusiastic about the job prospects for people with PhDs. Yes, good jobs in higher education are scarce, but, according to him, private business loves doctors of philosophy. I have heard doctoral studies likened to an extended hazing. The fact that you put in the time, made the effort, jumped over all the hurdles, and stuck with it sets you apart. And, especially with interdisciplinary work, it makes you uniquely able to address real-world problems. To get a doctorate, you have to learn how to write, think and analyze complex ideas. You learn to stand in front of audiences and speak, teach, persuade, and motivate others. These are eminently marketable skills. He told us about a colleague who quit his professor job and got a job with a consulting firm. He’s still writing and publishing academic work, as a sideline, while making vastly more money than BU pays its professors. Most of the other attendees were young people who had all been strongly discouraged from pursuing doctoral studies. There are very few tenure-track positions in academia, and adjunct professors work for less than minimum wage, with no benefits and no job security. They were thrilled to get some encouragement for a change.

I was encouraged too. One purpose of the meeting was to talk about how to position oneself to apply for tenure-track academic appointments. There are conventions that must be followed. I do not want that life, which means I have a lot more latitude in what I research and what I write about.

Right now I’m still writing papers, reports, and this blog. One way I know I’m an ethicist is everything I write comes around to ethics and the local church. (That statement, “ethics and the local church,” is far from simple. It encompasses theories of knowledge, human nature, God, church, society, law, social change, personality, meaning, value, systems theory, embodiment, practice, virtue, and moral formation.) I wrote a paper on liturgy and sacraments last semester. It was about ethics–the ethics of doing liturgy well, and the role of ritual in forming character. I just wrote a report about my research for a study of clergywomen in leadership, and it also ended up being about ethics and the local church.

I had a scan last Thursday. I’ll get the results tomorrow. I will find out whether the cancer is better, worse, or about the same. Except for the first one, in 2011, all my December scans have shown progression. Whenever I’m waiting for scan results I try to maintain a posture of cautious optimism, tempered with a healthy dose of denial. I have learned to consider “stable” a good result and, as far as I’m concerned, even a scan that shows some progression is “stable” if there are no new lesions.  I feel fine. I can function. The cancer is not yet affecting the way my body and mind work. Someday I will find out that the cancer is advancing and there are no more options for trying to control it, but not yet. Not yet.




3 Comments to “Doctoral studies”

  1. Bens Says:

    As a christian you would believe in the healing accounts found in the bible. These are anectdotes, even given that they are true. Those biblical healing accounts have not been subjected to any rigorous scientific studies.

    A long time ago Galileo gave anecdotal testimony that the earth was round, and not flat, for which he was put to death.

    It may be unwise to be dismissive of anecdotal evidence because scientists are not always at the forefront of discovery, despite their best intentions and efforts. They sometimes lag behind and they would investigate when there is a groundswell of anectdotes.

    For the cancer patient who has weeks and months to live sometimes, drugs are provided that have not yet been subjected to the full rigors of scientific inquiry, but based on anecdotal evidence that it has helped some people.

    As a last ditch effort, patients are put into drug trials when there is not even a shred of anectdotal evidence that the drug has helped anybody.

    Good luck.

  2. Amy Says:

    In reply I would say: The healings in the Bible are classified as “signs and wonders:” signs of the reign of God; proof of God’s power; evidence of God’s ability to intervene in history. It’s not really possible for you to know what, specifically, I believe about the healing miracles, or any of the other miracles reported in the Bible. With all due respect, I find it quite wearisome to have strangers tell me what Christians, and I, believe. It happens to me all the time on Twitter. There’s really no point, is there?

    Galileo’s “crime” was being a scientist. Based on his own observations, he maintained that the earth was not the center of the universe. He was not executed for that, but put under house arrest. The Roman Catholic Church has since confirmed that he was right.

    I don’t see anything in this post about anecdotal evidence, dismissive or otherwise. But thanks for sharing your views.

  3. Amy Says:


    I’ve been chewing on the way you use the word anecdotal. In the words of one of my favorite movie characters, “You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

    Galileo basically invented science, which involves setting up a situation where you manipulate the environment in some way and record what happens. It’s “science” if other people can do the same thing you did and replicate your results. It’s an anecdote if somebody’s cousin’s hairdresser supposedly did such and such and got result A, but there’s no way to verify it or replicate it. Most experiments involving people have a control group and an experimental group, and are “double-blinded,” meaning neither the patients nor the health care providers know whether they’re getting the thing that’s being studied or the thing it’s being compared to. In studying cancer drugs, it would be unethical for the comparison to be a placebo, so it’s always a known anticancer agent.

    Galileo did astronomical observations and concluded that the sun is the center of the solar system, not the earth. That appeared to violate the Bible, and the church convicted him of heresy. Nothing about his work was “anecdotal.” To this day, people can do the same work he did and come to the same conclusions. A clinical trial is a scientific experiment. There’s nothing “anecdotal” about that either.

    I don’t blame you for being frustrated or angry or cynical. But I’m not. I also don’t think there’s some vast Big Phama/Medical Establishment conspiracy to bilk sick people, nor do I think it’s all useless. Cancer is complex, subtle, and cunning. It keeps mutating. We’ve come a long way from thinking cancer is one disease that you get in different parts of your body to understanding that each person is, as they say, “an N of one.” Each human being on the planet is one of a kind, so the cancers they get are also, in some ways, unique to them. That makes it hard to match people well enough to get reliable data.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Theme by Eric for Amy, who owns the copyright for this site, and has reserved all rights.