Full Interview with Dr. Edwin Chong

Academic Connections, International (ACI) conducted this interview with Dr. Edwin Chong via Skype and this edited transcript was produced from that recorded conversation and notes.

ACI: Would you describe your academic trajectory?

Dr. Edwin Chong: Well, I received my Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1991; I then joined Purdue University in the School of Electrical and
Computer Engineering and was on the faculty for ten years.  Then in 2001, I moved to Colorado State University and I am currently a Professor Electrical and Computer Engineering and Professor of Mathematics. 

ACI: Were you a full professor when you moved to Colorado State University?

EC: Yes.  As it turns out, I moved the year after I was promoted to full professorship. 

ACI: When you came in as an Assistant Professor at Purdue, did you have your eyes on the prize of becoming a full Professor?

EC: Yes, a part of my career plans included being promoted all the way to Full Professor sometime.  I guess most of my academic colleagues would have the same sort of plan.  I think without a plan it is difficult to succeed in academia because part of it is having your eyes on the prize, as you say. 

ACI: What are some lessons you have learned about charting your course of your career in the academy?

EC: One thing that I think I have learned is most people in academia who are eventually successful have in common that they have enough ambition and passion for their academic work to be successful in that environment.  Um, I want to quote from a very well known book that is called, A Mathematician’s Apology written by a mathematician named G. H. Hardy.  This is what Hardy says about why he thinks people enter academia and pursue research…actually I would like to quote from the book, which I’m reading now:

“There are many highly respected motives which may lead men to prosecute research, but three which are much more important than the rest. The first (without which the rest must come to nothing) is intellectual curiosity, the desire to know the truth. Then, professional pride, anxiety to be satisfied with one’s performance, the shame that overcomes any self-respecting craftsman when his work is unworthy of his talent.  Finally, ambition, desire for reputation, and the position, even the power or the money, which it brings. It may be fine to feel, when you have done your work, that you have added to the happiness or alleviated the sufferings of others, but that will not be why you did it. So if a mathematician, or a chemist, or even a physiologist, were to tell me that the driving force in his work had been the desired to benefit humanity, then I should not believe him (nor should I think the better of him if I did). His dominant motives have been those which I have stated, and in which, surely, there is nothing of which any decent man need be ashamed.” 

Editor’s Note: here is a link to that book in PDF format.

Yeah, so, one thing that I have found in my career is what Hardy says rings true for the vast majority of people and might even be a necessary condition for success in the Academy.  So, I think that unless one has the kind of passion and ambition…and curiosity, and so forth for the kind of work that they do, it’s difficult for them to succeed.

ACI: What are some of the spiritual lessons or insight that you think you have discovered in going through the process of going from Assistant Professor to Full Professor?

EC: Yeah, um, so looking back at Hardy’s comment one might question how a Christian academic should think about these things.  Is it valid for a Christian academic to say that his or her main motivations were those outlined by Hardy?  Should they not say that the main motivation is to please God or to be in academia for the glory of Christ?

Now I think if one is familiar with theological study you might find what Hardy had to say is not incompatible with the desire to please God and worship Him…and still be an academician with the kinds of motivation he talked about.  

Now surely there are spiritual pitfalls here and obsession with any of those things that Hardy talks about, such as [over] ambition or academic pride and so forth can end up becoming a spiritual hurdle and maybe a spiritual pitfall in one’s Christian walk.  However I think there is also such a thing as a healthy dose of those things and if Christian academics can learn to keep in balance their motivations of those kinds with their own Christian or spiritual values, then I think they can be successful in academia. 

ACI: So, what would you say is the main differences between what Hardy had to say and the spiritual lessons you have learned?

EC: Well I think that being a Christian requires you to think Christianly in everything you do. So I think there is such a thing as thinking or approaching Christianly the academic life, even in light of what Hardy says. So I think it is possible for a Christian, for example, to have the sort of intellectual curiosity—the desire to know truth that Hardy talks about—or to have or to strive for excellence in one’s performance and even to be driven by some kind of desire for, say, becoming a Full Professor.  The academic ambition to reach that goal or that level can still be in accordance with Christian values.  In fact, such desires can come from God.

So the challenge for Christian academics is how does a Christian academic do that?  How does one think about those things and I think that’s the main point that Christians have to grapple with and come to some point of understanding of how we can do these things in a Christian way.  I think this is ultimately the difference being a Christian academic and being a non-Christian academic. 

I do want to say something more [regarding this question].  Bill Craig, in a talk he gave, probably more than a dozen years ago to Christian academics, gave what I consider to be very good advice to keep their spiritual life vital in the pressures of academia.  The first is to intellectually engage with your faith.  When I moved from Purdue to Colorado State University I decided it would be a good time at that point for me to enroll in a seminary type program—distance learning—which I did and it helped me tremendously to think about my own faith intellectually and engage with it in a much more meaningful way.

Another advice that Bill Craig gives is to be very mindful as we navigate our academic environment and lives because the academic world is so agonistic and can easily chip away at our psyche and hence, also, our spiritual lives.  This is something we need to be very mindful about and careful about so it does not overcome and overtake us. 

The fact is, for example, is that being denied for tenure is probably one of the most devastating experiences for people in academia.  I have seen repeatedly that even very strong people can end up in a dark place you would not want to go from being denied tenure.  So you have to be careful, after all it might be the case that God can call some people to that path as well.  One has to think about that possibility, as well.

ACI: How has fitting in with your colleagues played a role, positive or negative, in your journey?

EC: Well, being in an academic environment is being a part of a community of people and to thrive in the community, I think, one has to participate in that community and be a true member of that community.  So I think in some sense fitting in with my colleagues is a necessary condition for thriving in academia.  Many academics who have not been successful in academia have been people who have not fully participated in the academic community, for whatever reason.  So I think it has played a positive role in my journey to fit in.  Now of course, God has called us to be apart—to set us apart—from the world in some sense, so I guess there is some sense in which we don’t fit in the world.  However, I think for the most part participating in the academic community is something that can be done as a Christian in our own worship of God and glorification of Him.  So I don’t think there is particularly anything contrary to the Christian life to “fit in” in the academic community with our colleagues.  In any case, I think I have had a wonderful time with my colleagues all through my career.  I have had many meaningful and enjoyable relationships with my colleagues, I still do and I like spending time with them a lot.  We do many things together, both social and academic. 

ACI: Sometimes Christian professors do not feel like they quite fit into the academic world and, again, for certain reasons, do not feel like they quite fit into the religious community, either.

EC: Yeah, I do think that many Christian professors feel that tension where they don’t quite fit into some circles of academia and don't fit into the “regular” Christian community either.  And this can cause some problems for some people.  I think that one way to deal with that problem is to be a part of a vibrant Christian academic group. 

At Colorado State University, we started a Christian faculty network back in the early 2000s, not long after I joined CSU, and I think that has been a source of comfort and learning, and a way to help deal with this problem.  The Christian academic community [on campus] is one place where people share this problem and can learn from each other and provide support and comfort in light of this tension. 

I think we’ve had a great and thriving community here at CSU among Christian academics and I think many people have been helped by being part of that Christian community on campus. 

ACI: Besides the academic hurdles, do you have anything to say about the personal hurdles outside of academia that have affected you and what do you think you might have learned from that?

EC: H’m, yeah, during my career I have had to deal twice with serious and life-threatening medical issues.  I had cancer twice, once in 1994 and again in 2009.  When I had cancer in 1994 I was still an assistant professor trying to do all the things to get tenure, having cancer, and having to go through the treatment for my cancer was a great challenge.

I am thankful that my administrators and my colleagues were very understanding and supportive of me during that time.  I went through that treatment without it affecting my tenure process very much.  Again, in 2009, similarly I had very good support and understanding from my colleagues as well, but of course, in 2009 I was already a Full Professor.   There was not so much thinking about how it would affect tenure, but I did think about how it might affect my research and on my continuing vitality as a scholar and an academic. 

Nonetheless, even though those two events were big events in my life and led to continuing chronic issues in my life [issues with walking and so forth] that I continue to deal with now, I would say it has not affected my academic life very negatively. It did teach me a great deal about the Christian life and in particular developing an appropriate theology to be able to deal with and view afflictions like this appropriately so that we don’t just lose our faith in light of situations like this.  I think coming to a place where you have a healthy and appropriate view of God’s providence in the world is an important part of dealing with these kinds of afflictions.


Academic Connections, International wants to thank Edwin for his contribution to this informative interview.  We hope our readers will profit from such things.  We also want to encourage our readers to be sure to check out our next interview in this series of three interviews that looks at the process of reaching full professorship.  Our next interview is with Dr. Sharon Anderson, also of Colorado State University, and it will complete this three interview series.

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