6 Things I Learned About Life From Writing A Dissertation


If you are going to spend 6 years of your life on something, you better learn more from doing it than the information that you are researching. I think I’ve learned a few things from working on one project for so long. So here are 6 things that I learned during my 6 year project.

1. No one accomplishes anything great alone. Besides three mentors that helped me with my theological formation, I also had an amazingly supportive and patient wife, a boss and institution that made it possible to do the work, and a whole team of cheerleaders that encouraged me to keep going. Before that, my parents were instrumental in forming me into the kind of person that would desire education at the highest level. My church community formed me theologically, even when I thought I was just singing songs and going to the altar. And the U.S. Marine Corps instructors instilled perseverance in me. Speaking of perseverance…

2. Perseverance is the most important virtue necessary for great accomplishment. Every great accomplishment requires a different set of gifts, but this one is consistent. Why? Because it wouldn’t be a great accomplishment if it didn’t take a long time to do it. The next time you are frustrated that something isn’t coming as easy as you hoped, ask yourself if what you are hoping and working for is great. If it is, perseverance will be key.

3. Doing something great will make you more humble, not more arrogant. Working on this project for this long made me keenly aware of everything that I haven’t read and don’t know. Doing real research on a topic will do that to you. An honest deep dive into a subject will let you know that you don’t have it all figured out. If you think you do know a lot about something, do some real research. You will realize that you have only scratched the surface. That’s humbling. Gaining a real mastery of a subject also made me realize that my work isn’t that great. I’ve learned it is OK not to be the very best.

4. Deep thinking makes you more faithful to God. I happen to have done my dissertation on theology. So many people are convinced that real thinkers will not believe in God. Religious people reinforce the stereo-type when they say that people will lose their faith if they get an education. I have thought very deeply about the possibility of truth and knowledge about God and I’m more convinced that ever that Jesus is coming back to reconcile the world to himself. If you are a Christian, study theology as much as you are able. Your faith will be better for it.

5. The first version of something is rarely the best version. People that intuitively do their best work in Round 1 are like Yetis. Some people claim that they know one, but they don’t actually exist. Go ahead and trust your instincts. But then return to your work to revise, revise, revise. Get a second and third opinion, and then revise again.

6. If you don’t know the whole path, just take a few steps. There were days that I had no idea how I was going to get from point A to point B in an argument. But I just kept writing sentences. Some of those sentences ended up not making it in the final version. But usually the sentences that I deleted were really helpful in figuring out what I did want to say. This can be hard when you are leading an organization, because the people around you pay some of the cost of the failures. I believe if you create a culture around you that permits people to take steps without knowing the whole path, then they will be more gracious to you. When I was writing my dissertation I just had to remind myself of this truth.

I didn’t write this because I want to encourage you to write a dissertation. I wrote it so that you can learn from my journey. Do yourself a favor and take these for free.

If you have also finished a long project like this, share some of what you earned in the comments.

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Related Post: Some Closing Reflections



  1. RJR Fan says

    Had I known, going in, how much this project would cost me, would I have undertaken it? Or tried instead to find another way to forge ahead? We walk by faith and not by sight, and must be wary of presumption. I have to believe, though, that God has things in mind for me that require the shibboleth, the passkey, the password, of an honestly-earned PhD.

    • says

      I did mine for two reasons. I wanted the opportunities that would be open to me. Fortunately I actually got a job where I use it. But I was resolved that this would likely not happen.

      The second reason was a love for theology and wanting to see if I could make it. I did make it and I still love theology.

      I’ve learned that it does open some doors that would otherwise be closed. And I’m humbled for the opportunities that this might give me.

  2. Matt says

    Cannot more profoundly agree with #5. D. A. Carson told a professor of mine once that, “All good writing is rewriting.”

  3. RJR fan says

    I still have a schematic of Bushnell’s “Turtle” (18th century wooden submarine) tacked to the wall over my workstation. To write my dissertation, day after day I had to climb into my own little wooden submarine, close the lid, and start turning the crank.

    Another thing I did was compile a “board of advisers” — a handful of folks to serve as my sounding board and cheerleading team, to whom I sent at least one email per week.


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