Christian Women in Academics: Panel Discussion

I participated in a panel discussion at Briercrest College on Monday night. Four of us, at various stages in our graduate studies, shared with the students some of our experiences. One of the panelists had just been accepted into an MA program; I am in the midst of my MA; one panelist is completed her MA; and the fourth panelist has completed her doctorate and is now a professor.

Interestingly, I was the only one in a seminary (theology/biblical studies) program. The other three were all in humanities programs (english and history) at secular universities. This made the conversation diverse, as there are some differences between a religious studies and a humanities program.

Despite our different programs, our experiences shared several common traits:

First, graduate studies always seem to take longer than expected. If it’s a two-year program, it will likely take three or more. This is because programs are designed as if school is the only thing in your life, and anyone who is trying to accomplish a school/life balance will find the program taking longer.

Second, three of the four of us are married with children and the question was brought up about balance and priorities. While we all had different examples of what this looked like, the common denominator was having a spouse who was not only supportive, but also encouraging and actively involved helping to find a way to carve out time for the school work (i.e. flexible working schedule, assisting with childcare, etc).

Third, graduate studies, even in the humanities, helped with our spiritual formation and how we view the life of the church. One panelist talked about how doing an entire degree that looked for themes and threads and commonalities across different narratives in her graduate research, gave her the tools to put together worship services that are thematically consistent and are structured in such a way that the entire service tells a story from beginning to end.

Fourth, we all agreed that the programs we were in are not money-makers. In fact, the chances of coming out of our programs and getting that big paycheck are pretty slim. We all are doing our studies because we love them and see value in our studies.

Because I was the only one speaking from a seminary program perspective I tried to bring up some of my unique challenges, without being too negative. I reiterated that I love my program, I love my classes and I love theology, but that does not mean that there haven’t been more than a few struggles. I did preface my comments by saying that the challenges I’m currently facing could be related to the fact that I’m adjusting to major culture shock coming from Ontario to rural Saskatchewan, and that perhaps in a year or two, these current challenges will have resolved themselves accordingly. (Have I mentioned that it is the end of March and it’s still freezing cold? How do people live out here with 6 months of winter?)

A. Very often I am the only woman in the class. When there have been other women in the class, we are in the minority, and more often than not, I am the only theology/biblical studies major (most of the other women in the classes tend to be counseling students).

B. With the majority of classmates being male, it is a challenge to make friends. The guys are very protective of their relationships with their wives (which is a good and noble thing), but very often I have very little in common with their wives. (Try telling a Barth joke at Ladies’ Bible study on Wednesday mornings. It doesn’t go well, hahaha).

C. There is a community assumption that I’m having a hard time adjusting too. This has been played out countless times in the last year as I meet new people. And almost every conversation looks exactly like this:

Them: So you’re new here. Is your husband in the seminary?
Me: No, I am. I’m working on my master’s.
Them: Wonderful! So what do you think of our counseling program?
Me: I’m not in the counseling program, I’m in the theology program.
Them: (physically take a step back). Oh…Well…Isn’t that…nice?

D. Not so much related to gender, as to my introverted nature, I haven’t found a professor that I can turn to in a mentoring capacity. This probably isn’t a serious issue this year, but as I get closer to my thesis I may need a little help finding my specific area of research, and definitely need some encouragement through that whole thesis-writing process.

At the end of the panel discussion, we were to offer some practical advice. Here were my suggestions, as related to seminary programs:

1. Do your research. Research the school, the programs, the classes and the professors.
2. Many seminaries will let you take one or two classes without actually enrolling in a specific program. This is a great way to test-drive the school, and yourself, to see if you and graduate studies are suited to each other.
3. Find a program that has a schedule that works for your lifestyle. Some programs are standard classes: 5 days a week, 5 classes a semester. Others are run in modular format with a week-long intensive class, followed by 6-8 weeks of time for you to do the post-course assignments. Both models have pros and cons.
4. Just because a school accepts and affirms women in graduate studies/women in ministry, does not mean that they have a large female student population. This isn’t a good or bad thing, just something to be aware of, especially since it may be lonely being the only female in one or more classes.

  • Erin

    That’s funny they assume you’re a counseling student. Strikes me as a bit odd when I’ve known women here studying all kinds of things. But yeah, the majority of female seminary students likely are counseling students–it was the same at the seminary where I got my degree (in counseling!).

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  • Kathy McFarland

    I would love to have attended this panel discussion! Wish I could have heard the responses around how academic work is an expression of one’s Christian calling or discipleship. As a fellow Briercrest Seminary student in OT studies (and from Ontario to boot), I found your observations insightful and reassuring. When I tell people that I’m studying at a seminary the question I get asked most frequently is “What are you going to do with a Master’s degree?” My knee jerk response is to wonder why I have “to do ” something with a degree. Is it not possible for academic studies to be a vehicle for Christian growth or in some senses an act of devotion or worship…or is that being too idealistic?
    Thanks for sharing…we’ll have to chat sometime.

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