For Christians engaged in careers other than vocational ministrythat is, for most Christian adultsprofessional ambition is informed by two questions: how can I do what I do well? And, how can I do it for the Lord?
These days, graduate students in Christian colleges and universities are answering both questions in a growing number of fields, including education, business, music, creative writing, nursing, counseling, and clinical psychology.
"Our educational goal for graduate students is to help them develop both professional competence and personal character," says John Glancy, Director of Graduate Admissions and Marketing at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle. "To that end, professors in all disciplines seek to model both scholarship and service, and to inspire students to carry out the vision of SPU to engage the culture in order to change the world," he said. "A look at the post-graduation activities of our graduate alumni shows that they have heard the message and are carrying it into their homes, businesses, and communities at large."
Among SPU's recent graduates, Glancy offers two examples of this kind of impact. Dustin Robinson (MBA), a regional director of global strategy for the Boeing Corporation, puts his professional expertise to work both on the job and at his church, where he leads a service team, co-hosts (with his wife) a marriage and faith mentoring group, and has participated in formulating a strategy for long-term outreach. Stephanie Pickering (Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology) is serving in a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Washington's Center on Human Development and Disability, working with interdisciplinary teams to provide comprehensive assessments and accurate diagnoses for children with neurodevelopmental issues such as autism. These graduatesand many othersGlancy says, "are living out the University's vision of 'engaging the culture, changing the world.'"
Graduate schools commonly recognize that a meaningful career requires both depth of knowledge and effective application. "At the undergraduate level, classes focus on knowledge, analysis and some application of the cognitive learning," says Leroy VanWhy, Graduate Programs Admissions Counselor at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. "In the graduate programs, students are further expected to take that knowledge and understanding and, not only apply it, but be able to analyze and evaluate it at a higher level of process."
Opportunities for application within the context of graduate level preparation abound, with a variety of requirements and options even within a single degree program. "Dallas Baptist University uses many tools during and at the conclusion of our masters programs to prepare students for effective practice in their professions," says Denny Dowd, Vice President of Corporate and Graduate Affairs at the Dallas, Texas school. Each graduate program, he says, includes a service-learning component, "in which participating students are required to complete an assignment that involves providing a professional service to an organization under the direction of their instructors, in conjunction with the management of that organization." Depending on the program, students might complete an internship, prepare a comprehensive professional portfolio, prepare for state certification exams or professional licensure, and/or complete an integrative capstone course that brings together the various elements necessary for effective practice. Graduate schools also bring the field into the classroom through extensive use of case studies and guest lectures by current practitioners.
Many programs require the completion of a field-based internship or practicum, in which students work in an organizational setting for a specified number of hours. The establishment of mentoring relationships is another strategy for maximizing the benefits of graduate study. "Real-life applications of classroom knowledge offer graduate students the opportunity to practice their new skills. This is especially important for roles that are supervisory and evaluative in nature, such as a school principal or superintendent," says John Glancy, of Seattle Pacific. "These opportunities also offer students a time to learn from a mentor in real-life settings." He notes that mentor relationships are highly beneficial in business as well, and that students can sign up for multiple mentors throughout their courses of study. By developing relationships with practitioners in the field, he says, students gain "a valuable networking tool" as well as "insight into different sectors of business."
For students who want to take their present careers to the next level of expertise, opportunities for application can be seized right where they already work. "A good example of how a project can assist a graduate student comes from our MBA program. The students were asked to develop a strategy that would increase efficiency in an area of their actual employers," says Southeastern's VanWhy. One of the students, who presented her completed project recommendation to her employers, gained more than credit for her work: "The employer was so impressed with the proposal," he says, "they not only incorporated the recommendations, but the student was given a promotion!"
In the quest for effective and relevant preparation, graduate schools will also take the initiative to reach out to the professions and organizations their students will eventually serve. "DBU recognizes that the university must be aware of not only the needs of students but also of those companies, schools, agencies, and organizations that will employ them," Dowd says. "A continuing effort is made to identify the current and future needs of both sets of stakeholders" in order to "ascertain current needs, trends and improvements in curriculum."
The Greatbatch School of Music at Houghton College, in Houghton, New York, takes a unique approach to integrating professional-level musicianship, practical application to careers in music and Christian service in its masters programs, which include vocal and instrumental performance, composition, and conducting. In addition to professional performers, Greatbatch graduates also serve as music teachers at various education levels, vocal coaches for other professional performers, and instrument curators.
Ben R. King, Director and Associate Dean, says, "At Houghton, a hallmark of the graduate music program is the one year, four-hour graduate Music and Culture in Christian Perspective seminar. This interdisciplinary seminar seeks deliberately to connect a Christian walk with the calling of music, examining how those threads interact one with another and with human culture. So far as we are aware, this component is unique among graduate music programs." Greatbatch students also participate in a Monthly Graduate Forum in which candidates work together on "teaching strategies, syllabus- and course-building, resume and job resource examination," and other professional concerns.
"Houghton is a school that works diligently to blend outstanding work in professional music studies with an engaging, vital liberal arts context. In that milieu, Houghton has developed a graduate music program deliberately intended to remain small in size 15 to 25 students total," King says. "The opportunity to study in-depth, working closely with professor-mentors, is a special blessing in this program."
Every opportunity for hands-on learning offers students two further benefits. "Opportunities for real-life application enable not only the faculty but the students themselves to better evaluate how they will perform in their chosen field," says Southeastern's VanWhy. "Application will often either solidify one's calling to a particular field or confirm that another career path may be more desirable."
It is application with a safety net, said SPU's Glancy. "Internships and practicums offer graduate students the opportunity to evaluate their competency in a setting that reflects reality but, in fact, is not going to compromise either the student or the subjects involved," he says. "This puts graduate students in a position to positively impact the lives of individuals within the confines of the internship. Journaling one's experiences and reacting with other students and faculty allows the graduate student to reflect, evaluate his or her performance, and grow over time."
For Christian graduate schools, the cultivation of a sense of Christian vocation and service is just as importantin every fieldas professional expertise. Translating the desire to serve God into significant impact can take many forms, from specific courseworksuch as the Houghton Music and Culture in Christian Perspective seminarto open discussion of these issues in the classroom, to the examples of servant leadership set by faculty and professional mentors.
One of the challenges many individuals face, says VanWhy, is how to serve God on the job within the limits of a secular career or environment. "Effectively interjecting faith with vocation is a vital component of Southeastern's graduate programs. Every career field is considered not only a vocation but a ministry."
Kathy Furlong is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA.