Theology and more theology: The life of a PhD candidate

Most of us can probably remember our teenage years, feeling unsure of who or what we wanted to be. Not Jacob Kloess, though—since his teenage years, he’s wanted to be a theology professor. Now, he’s almost there.

The son of a pastor, Kloess considered parish ministry for his own career. After prayer and discernment, he determined that his natural abilities were better suited for an academic setting.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in theology from Valparaiso University in Indiana, he went an unconventional direction. Kloess attended a graduate school outside of his denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“I wanted to do things differently, in many ways,” Kloess said.

He drew on his theological foundation and worked toward a master’s degree from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, also in Indiana. His focus was peace studies, particularly war and genocide.

“For me, it was stopping people from killing each other in large numbers and learning about the church around the world. If I could somehow help with both, that would be great. It’s a conversation that I feel needs to be had,” he said.

Master’s degree in hand, Kloess next looked to earning his PhD. After looking at only a few schools, he settled on the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, saying, “I was ready to be Lutheran again.”

His chosen school offered a program combining the PhD with an initial master’s degree in theology, for a total of seven years of study. Kloess hopes to finish in five and a half.

Like any doctoral program, a PhD in theology typically requires many steps and rigorous evaluations. Kloess’ case was no different. Some of the application’s requirements included (but were not limited to) taking the GRE, submitting writing samples, and offering a general proposal on what he hoped to do if admitted to the program.

For those considering a PhD, Kloess recalls his own experience and recommends meeting with potential academic advisers ahead of applying to a school. This develops both valuable interpersonal relationships and possible direction for study.

Once Kloess received his acceptance letter from his chosen school, the intensity of his workload only increased. Several years in, he has nearly completed the first stages of the program, which mainly consist of classroom study. Now, he is in the midst of a series of qualifying exams that address his theological knowledge, proficiency in relevant languages like Koine Greek, and more.

If he is able to pass those tests, he will move on to the final leg of his PhD: the dissertation. Though he has not officially begun the writing process, he is heeding advice from other graduate students: treat everything you write in other settings as a potential dissertation chapter so you’re not writing more than is necessary. At an average of a few years, he says, the dissertation process takes long enough as it is without extra labor.

Though the PhD program can be intense, Kloess enjoys pursuing his dream that is so many years in the making. He is able to satisfy his desire to find his own answers to difficult theological questions.

“So much of what we do in the church is believing something because someone else told us, or society expects it of us. For me, it helps to ask why we believe these things—to keep asking questions and find out what is going on,” he said.

Though Kloess had planned on earning his PhD for a long time, a PhD can be a good fit for anyone who has or is willing to earn both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in a related field first. Though academic background opens the door to a PhD, Kloess says that success depends most on a willingness to keep going, even in the face of frustration.

“A former professor of mine said that what you need to know is that you’ll get frustrated and burned out, so you have to remember why you’re doing this and what interested you about it. Otherwise, you’ll leave,” Kloess said.

He is still going strong. By 2018, Kloess plans to finish his dissertation in world Christianity and church mission. He then intends to take on his next big challenge: teaching.