Ryan M Armstrong
Dissertation Defended! A Lesson on being Genuine like Job
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
“For you have not spoken to me honestly, like my servant Job has.” -Job 42:7
Last week, I successfully defended my dissertation and became Dr. Armstrong! My dissertation is about the biblical book of Job. Job spoke his mind honestly, as if he had nothing to lose—because he had already lost everything.
I began the PhD program at Princeton Seminary in 2009, and it has been a long fight to get to the final boss battle. After a few years, I went through academic burnout. Like most PhD students, I started dancing all the time 😏 I trained as a competitive breaker and put effort into organizing events for the hip hop community. It worked! I came back to my dissertation refreshed and excited to get back to academia.
But just then, my father died. My advisor moved to another university. I had knee surgery. My funding ran out. Several other personal troubles came at me at the same time. I struggled to find a rhythm that allowed me to make rent and write a dissertation.
I was focused on meeting degree requirements. So I stapled a bunch of research together and handed it to my new advisor in 2019. I felt overwhelmed, and I hoped that my advisor would take a hands-on approach and guide me to shape it into a defensible dissertation.
Instead, my advisor said, “This is terrible. You have to rewrite it before I’ll even talk about it.”
The rejection hit me pretty hard. Like Job, I had been through a lot personally, but I didn’t have the fight that Job had. I had been looking for some handholding to get me through. Whereas Job was ready to take on the world (and heaven, too!) by himself, I felt like I needed someone else to do the heavy lifting for me.
My advisor’s rejection was not an insult. He simply expected excellence, regardless of what was happening in my personal life. He brought me into the PhD program because he saw potential in me to be a good scholar. As a scholar, I have a deep desire to express my thoughts about the book of Job. This should be my goal, rather than meeting degree requirements.
Instead of trying to meet requirements for getting a PhD, I decided to write the book that I want to write. I talked about Job the way I always talked about Job: with childish jokes, 80s movie references, and kids books! I freed myself from the constraints of writing for someone else, and I spoke my mind in my own voice.
That’s when my advisor dove into my work. He wanted to talk about my work as my colleague, not as a project manager. He wanted to hear my voice. He liked that I sprinkled in a bit of Loose Goose! I thought he wanted me to conform to expectations and write a standard dissertation. But he wanted me to learn from Job…and speak from the heart.
I wish my dad could have been there at my dissertation defense; I know he would’ve been proud. I was grateful to look over at my biggest fan, my Mom, who read multiple drafts of my dissertation and intently followed the discussion. It was amazing to see so many friends from all walks of life come to be a part of this moment of my life: current undergrads and alums in finance, English Lit, Jewish Ethics, and engineering were there. And my dance crew, the Dynamic Rockers, came to get my back during the battle! Of course, my family was there, from my cowboy Uncle Brad to my IG influencer sister. And we can’t forget my girlfriend, the best middle school teacher in the Bronx. It was wonderful to have a frank discussion about Job with my dissertation committee and the faculty at Princeton Seminary—who pushed me throughout my journey. Afterward I got down with my homies in Sympoh, the Princeton breaking crew. All of these people have been part of my story, and they all have helped me find my voice and be genuine to who I am.