A Personal Note: My Academic Journey

It is interesting to look back at your life and reflect on everything you went through to get to the place you are now. In my case, it was a path with a clear line of sight. Since the first lecture in my history class when I was only 11 years old, I knew what I would like to do with my life. I didn’t have all things sorted out, but I was sure that I wanted to be a history professor. The spark of love for history happened primarily because of a great elementary teacher I had. His name was Darko. This guy incorporated everything you need to have to be an amazing teacher: knowledge, love, dedication, compassion, and everlasting patience. From that moment on, I decided I wanted to be a history teacher. Even during my high school years when I find out the meaning behind the words “rebellious”, and the concept of “skipping the class”, I never thought of doing something else with my life. When I finally enrolled at the Faculty of Croatian Studies, all of my assumptions were proven to be right. This is what I wanted to do.

Although I started off with the idea of becoming an expert in the totalitarian systems of the 20th century, during the course of my sophomore year, I became fascinated with the early Christian world. Paradoxically, a movie despised in church circles sparked my interest. It was Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code that made me fall in love with early Christianity. All that mystery, the life of Jesus and his disciples, alternative gospels that never made it into the New Testament, the spread of new religion across the Mediterranean; the violence between Christians and pagans; the development of early Christian creeds. After that movie, I began my journey that would eventually lead me to the place where I’m now. Understandably, my bachelor thesis was on the Historical Jesus. It wasn’t a paper to be too much proud of, but nothing is fabulous in the beginning – except maybe the girl you fall in love with!

Around that time, I found out there is a professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences who teaches courses on early Christian history. I was only 20 years old when I visited him asking if I could enroll in one of his courses. He agreed. At the graduate level, I chose the ancient and medieval world as the primary focus of my future research. As it turns out, most of the non-mandatory courses I took were held by this amazing professor. His name was Trpimir Vedriš and he later became my mentor and a friend. In 2016. I defended my master’s thesis on the relationship between Christianity and Gnosticism in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. At that point in my life, I was hoping to continue my education with a postgraduate study to really become an expert in early Christianity. That, of course, entails finding a mentor and a topic for my Ph.D. thesis. Naturally, I decided to ask Trpimir who agreed with the condition of finding a co-mentor who is an expert in patristics. Through an acquaintance, I found out about a great professor that teaches at the Faculty of Catholic Theology. His name was Ivan Bodrožić. I told him about my Master’s thesis asking if he would agree to mentor my progress at the post-graduate level. Fortunately, he consented. In the same year, I applied for post-graduate study at the Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences where I was officially accepted in December of that year. The head of studies was a well-known Croatian historian Neven Budak who heard my research interest and found it suitable for the program he had to offer. I have to point out that his professional attitude and approach made everything much easier as the program started. He brought in a lot of great scholars from all around the map giving us an opportunity to learn more about serious historical research. At the same time, he encouraged me to enroll in specific classes related to early Christian history at the Faculty of Catholic theology. More than that, he pushed me to learn Koine Greek – a language in which most of the early Christian texts (including the New Testament) were written. If you want to be a serious scholar one day, he told me, you have to know the language these documents were written in! I really enjoyed my first year at the post-graduate level. We were a small group (5-6 people) of intellectually inclined people who just loved history. Besides that, the program included several student trips which were quite amazing! Even the health difficulties that struck my personal life at that point couldn’t diminish the value and importance of my post-graduate work. Needless to say, in those troubled months (or years) one soon finds out who are his real friends. And without them, that period of my life would be unbearable.

I often get asked if it is difficult to write a Ph.D. thesis. My answer is always straightforward: Yes and No! It really depends on the way you look at it. On the one hand, it is not that difficult because you already have a master’s thesis behind you which means you gained a certain amount of research experience. However, a Ph.D. thesis does come with different challenges and difficulties. It requires a higher level of analysis, research, and reasoning. Besides the ability to read sources in their original language, you have to get familiar with the secondary sources. In other words, you have to know what other scholars (before you) wrote about it. In other words, you are required to know at least one or two contemporary languages. I remember reading an article in German and translating it into English so I could understand it. Sooner than later, I was familiar enough with German that I could read articles and books related to my topic. It is hard to explain it, but if you are constantly involved with the translation of similar articles (e.g., Gnosticism or 2nd-century Christianity), eventually you’ll catch up with the basic terminology and vocabulary. Furthermore, I subscribed to the two most important early Christian journals in English and German: The Journal of Early Christian Studies and Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche. Consequently, I knew what the best scholars in the last 100 years wrote about Gnosticism and early Christian history – both in English and in German. I even translated several articles from French to English! Moreover, the post-graduate level implies your ability to write peer-reviewed articles (at least two per year) and participate in conferences where you would engage in discussion with other scholars who are experts in the field of Christian history. Another difficult aspect is that you need to defend the synopsis of your dissertation before you could even start writing it. That means you are obligated to present the synopsis of your further research in front of a committee consisting of three professors. If they find it unsatisfied you can’t continue on. Only after you pass that stage, you can work your way up to the mountain of sources, books, articles, and data. It takes a lot of hard work to push through all of that information and to establish the framework for your dissertation. It also entails reading scholarly work from related areas such as sociology, anthropology, and theology. When I was at the beginning of this process, several experienced colleagues told me that I would find myself dreaming about the various aspects of my dissertation more than once and that I would even have problems sleeping. My initial response was laughter! I would accuse them of making things up. How can that be? Why would I have trouble sleeping if I’m doing research about a topic that interests me? That’s impossible, right? Well, as it turns out, it is not impossible at all! It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t done this. If you read about the same themes and topics for years and spent days, weeks, and even months thinking about it, trying to figure out certain theories and arguments, eventually you’ll find yourself on the brink of insanity. All of this is, of course, totally unimaginable to people living in our society. I heard countless times that what we do isn’t actually work at all. For them, the work is only if you go somewhere every day and work from 9 to 5. Reading, researching, discussing, analyzing – that doesn’t count as work! Fortunately, I gave up explaining the pros and cons of this job to those kinds of people long ago.

I think that the brink of insanity comes with full force when you are near the end. The last few months of my Ph.D. were just crazy. First of all, bureaucracy is unbearably complex. Too many papers to fill. You have to go through the endless red tape of bureaucracy and administration. I remember traveling to Split by bus during the night so that I could get one signature from my mentor in the morning. Right after that, I had to go back to Zagreb to submit another pile of paperwork. Furthermore, after you finally submit your dissertation, you have to wait for an official report from the committee consisting (again) of three professors. Their job is to evaluate your thesis and decide whether you are ready to defend it or not. If they rejected it, it’s all over! You can’t complete your Ph.D. The president of that committee was a renowned historian Nenad Ivić whom I knew from my post-graduate studies. He was one of my professors at the beginning of the post-graduate program. Ivić is a well-known scholar with profound knowledge about the ancient world, especially late antiquity. Also, he was known as a strict and sharp-witted professor who would dissect every minor part of your work. Nevertheless, I wanted to hear his opinion. After two months official report was over. The committee has granted a positive evaluation that allowed me to proceed to the defense of the dissertation. Being self-critical as I always am, I asked professor Ivić to send me all of his commentaries and remarks that he made while reading my dissertation. He was happy to send it. His remarks only improved my work! Waiting for the day of the defense of my thesis, the nervousness reaches its absolute peak. I didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t socialize at all! I just wanted to get it over with. I would dream about numerous scenarios. I even dreamed that one of the members of the committee died and that everything had to be put on hold! The mind really plays strange tricks on us. But, finally, the day arrived. I had prepared a 30 minutes long presentation after which the members of the committee asked several questions instigating a debate that lasted well over an hour. I felt good and confident. After all, this was my turf! Following the debate, the committee asked me to leave the room so that they could make their final decision. I recall waiting outside for a couple of minutes that, of course, seemed to last several hours! Then, the moment came. They invited me inside and officially declared that I have successfully defended my Ph.D. thesis thus earning my Ph.D. title.

I began my college years back in 2010 as a young kid who grew up in a small town near Zagreb. The life of a person can change a lot in 12 years. But there are moments in time you will forever cherish. When you know that all those years of reading and learning were worth it. Needless to say, I wasn’t alone during my Ph.D. journey. There were a lot of people backstage and without their help and support who knows where I would end. A kind word. Useful advice. Even a friend who is ready to get drunk with you when you need to blow off steam and forget about everything for just a couple of hours! Everything counts! If you decide to take your own Ph.D. journey you have to be ready to sacrifice certain luxuries others take for granted. I recall the numerous times when I would have to stay at home during the weekend while my friends (who already had 9 to 5 jobs) would go out and have fun. But more than everything, you have to be passionate about it. You have to love research and curiosity. And you always have to be open to discussion and to be proven wrong! Self-pride is not a good companion. Without passion, open-mindedness, and curiosity, but also humility, and a self-critically oriented mind, your journey is doomed to be a failure.

3 thoughts on “A Personal Note: My Academic Journey”

  1. I am so proud of all the accomplishments you have acquired. I always knew you are a beautiful human been and your accomplishments make you more beautiful. All the happiness to you.

  2. Indeed, your hard work, intelligence, openness and humility would make any subject of your study quite interesting, in this case history (which intimidates me) and Christianity (which intrigues me to no end). Thank you for sharing your research in such palatable articles.

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