PhD and Career Shifts

By L. Maren Wood:

You have perhaps heard this from me before. My concern is with those PhDs in Bible or Theology of History who are primarily focused on teaching in Bible, theology, religion and philosophy departments but who are struggling to find a job. A PhD in such a field needs to see her or his calling first to the church and in the church, and see academic work in such disciplines as discipleship in the church. That is, seeing the calling as a church vocation and not simply an academic calling divorced from the church. Hence, I would urge said PhDs to consider from the very beginning: (1) that an academic post is hard to come by, (2) that pastoral ministry and academic teaching are not opposites but need to be seen in similar terms, (3) that serving in a church along the way will help shape the academic toward the ecclesial, and (4) that closed doors at the academy might turn out to be open doors in the church.

Maybe we can think creatively: maybe more and more churches need to hire PhDs (i.e., see this as a vocation for the church and in the church) to teach the congregations — classes in the evening, weekends, develop some certificates…

L. Maren Woods writes about PhDs in History, their prospects for employment in the academy, and where they end up…

I recently went to dinner with six friends to talk careers. We all have Ph.D.’s in the humanities, but only one of us is working as a tenured professor.

Of the remaining five: One of us started in a tenure-track job but left to find more satisfying work and better pay as an international insurance consultant. Two others left academe upon graduation—one teaches courses in writing and computers at a law firm and the other is a gender specialist at a nonprofit agency. Having spent three years in pursuit of the illusive tenure-track job, I suspended my own search to work as a research consultant….

The problem we faced—how to leverage a humanities Ph.D. into a meaningful nonacademic career—is a fate shared by thousands of Ph.D.’s. For years, universities have been producing Ph.D.’s far in excess of tenure-track openings. As undergraduate enrollments have grown, universities have hired more and more faculty members in part-time, temporary, low-paying jobs rather than create permanent tenure-track positions to meet the demand. According to the American Association of University Professors, 70 percent of teaching jobs at U.S. institutions are now non-tenure-track posts, and nearly 50 percent are part-time….

The math is depressing enough if one assumes that only new Ph.D.’s are applying for those jobs, but of course that is not the case. A backlog of doctoral recipients are underemployed, unemployed, in temporary positions, or unhappy in their current jobs, and compete for any newly advertised tenure-track openings….

I entered all of that into spreadsheets listing each Ph.D. by name, year of graduation, job title, institution, and industry category. Among my results: Only 50.7 percent of doctoral graduates from those four top-tier programs ended up in tenure-track jobs. For those who graduated in 2008 and 2010, the average was even lower: 38.5 percent.

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  • Matthew D

    This post resonates with me because I have been wrestling with the possibility of pursuing a PhD but have felt overwhelmed by the landscape of future employment. I began my master’s perhaps like others: as an individual wanting to learn and grow in the faith but having to seek out that education in an institution rather than in the local church.

    If my local church offered opportunities for nerds like myself, I might not have pursued a graduate degree. Additionally, it would have the advantage that institutions might not have: an existing portfolio on my character. As such — and as I think about it, ideally — the local church would provide a balance in education that also addressed our growth in character. Since it is on my mind I submit a loose example: that the local church can provide a scholastic and monastic approach to education. Some will be satisfied with the instruction and some will pursue degrees but either way the church would hopefully benefit.

    But perhaps I should pursue a PhD, because I know that my desire for it is much like the father who goes out on a journey and brings back food to sustain a family. If I desire a PhD, it is for the benefit of the church, because it is too good to be kept to myself. That’s what I want: to serve the church. I am not more important to the church because of what I know if what I know does not expose my duty to love, to humility, and to the pursuit of the kingdom.

    Or something like that. As always, I could be wrong.

  • Phil Miller

    It’s not just in the humanities and liberal arts that PhD supply is exceeding demand. My wife has a PhD in Microbiology, and while she does have a good PhD level job, it isn’t necessarily what she’d like to or hoped to be doing. Ultimately she would like to get back into academia, but right now, that job market is very tight, and it seems as if it will be getting tighter for the foreseeable future. Also anecdotal evidence based on people I know with PhD’s tells me that it’s not necessarily a ticket to a dream job. Although, overall, it’s still true that the unemployment rate decreases for people with higher degrees. It’s just that it’s not an automatic thing that a person will be able to get in the lab or department they want to right away.

    As far as churches hiring PhD’s, I have mixed feelings. I’m all for more theological education in churches, but I wonder how realistic it is for churches to really support more professionals on their staffs. Perhaps churches in a community could work together and team up to hire people as something like adjuncts so one church wouldn’t be bearing the entire load. I don’t know. It’s a hard call. I have contemplated going to seminary as well. But as one of my friends who did says, it’s an advanced degree that actually lowers your earning potential in many cases.

  • RJS

    This is a good article, not overly pessimistic. The bit about tenure vs. not tenure track needs some real nuance, as does the part about <50% ...


    Academic jobs are very competitive. The "best" academic jobs are very, very competitive. Phil is right, it is not just the humanities.

    Do not get a Ph.D. unless you have a back-up plan.

    Understand the other career options. Most people wind up in them.

    A Ph.D. is not a professional degree, it is not a key to a profession, although it is a base requirement for some kinds of positions (esp. academic positions).

    All Ph.D.'s - even in the same discipline - are not created equal. Harvard and BGSU will not get the same response. This is an extreme example but the point must be made - quite awhile back Scot brought up a post like this and I did some looking ... the person who was complaining graduated from a department that ranked about 140th out of 150 programs nationwide. This matters. Now this isn't the case with the current article - Wood has looked at top departments. But the 50% number is kind of par for the course - see the note above. This is a competitive field.

    By the way - as a university we keep careful statistics on the career paths of our Ph.D. graduates. It is part of the way departments are evaluated.

  • Craig

    Having a PhD makes doing many things even harder, like janitorial service, flipping burgers, or preaching holy-ghost fueled sermons about Hell or the rapture. But every path has its risks.

  • PJ Anderson

    As a minister who has recently finished a PhD in theology, I had few illusions (well maybe a few at the start) that my track was to teach in an academic setting. Many of my peers in the seminars absolutely were desiring to teach full time. The attraction and allure of that kind of position is remarkable, but for most of them completely unrealistic. Even several years after our graduation (obviously at different paces) only three or four have gotten full time positions, and only one of those is tenure track. The others are languishing at schools without tenure who have rather oppressive work environments.

    On the other hand, I remained in vocational ministry (which I was serving during my degree) and am enjoying a wonderful life where I can research, teach, and preach on a regular basis. I even get to write and present papers. All the while still receiving a reasonable paycheck and having a good foundation for our family. More churches are open to PhDs are ministers or pastors. One of the important things is that these folks understand that nobody wants to hear an extended sermon on the fifth chapter of your dissertation. Previous ministry experience also helps.

    The job market for humanities PhDs is so terrible and not going to be getting any better. Why do we keep allowing these students to go after these degrees, loading them with debt, when we know their options are few and far between?

  • Keeping an open mind and open heart about among who and where (and what) will happen after completing the PhD keeps me, well, agile. Would I enjoy a tenure-track position? Yes. Would I be gratified with adjunct status in a variety of institutions? Most likely. Like PJ (5.), I’m thinking I’ll remain involved with campus ministry, having more than 15 years of service before starting my research. But I’m also realistic about how and what I’d like to do following my dissertation. And, I won’t be at all surprised if I’m serving within a congregation either, but I’m a few years off from any large changes.

    One last thought here: I was mildly surprised that no one stated up front that the PhD is a research degree. In other words, learning to ask focused questions, and learning what is involved with answering those questions, and even learning what questions you can’t answer is a huge part of earning the degree. PJ hinted at this, and I’d like to make it more explicit. While no one wants to hear that sermon on my dissertation chapter, my sense is that most people do want some missionaries and pastors to bring less slogans to bear upon the matters of life, worship, and mission, and little more clarity with compassion upon the same matters. Most PhD’s are uniquely prepared for those tasks: Except we need to do it with shorter sentences!!! 😉

  • Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

    Excellent post and the comments are right in line. What has not been discussed is the actual requirements for the religious academia versus the non-religious academia.

    Example use is related to my Masters, but not a PhD, but suspect that a similar problem exists.

    Most graduates from Seminary who graduate with a 3-year Master of Divinity may not be able to teach even on a Community College level due to the FACT that the degree does NOT say Master of Arts in History, English, etc., or the transcripts show it as a Minor. This is true for California. The MA in History is usually a 2 year degree. The Master of Divinity, depending on the Seminary, usually has 3 years of Greek, 1 year of Hebrew, OT History and Archaeology, NT History and Archaeology, Church History, Theology (all the separate divisions), English Bible, etc. See the problem. In my case, I had 5 years of Greek (+2 in undergraduate), 5 years of Hebrew, OTHA, NTHA, Church History, Bible Exegesis of OT & NT Books, OT Theology & Introduction, NT Theology & Introduction, LXX, Early Church History and Intertestamental History. BUT, since my degree does not state “History” I am not able to teach in that field. Now, all one has to do is fill in the blank for the PhD and the same problem will occur.

    I teach the Children’s Church, an Sunday School Adult Class, and Pulpit Supply. I am frequently reminded that the congregation, the sheep, need some one to feed and nourish them. Too often, the PhD will feed the more academically oriented person in the pew, but not the person below that level.

  • Jeff Y

    This is interesting and having been in ministry for almost 30 years as well as having gained an M.A. in Economics but not having a grad degree in religious studies …

    1. Bryant’s observation above about the lack of flexibility for teaching opportunities for those with an M.Div should be a wake up call to religious institutions to factor in an M.A. in History or rename the degree – if they care about their students. The reality is the M.Div is as much ‘classroom’ work as some PhD programs.

    2. I agree with Scott about those seeking PhD’s remaining involved in ministry with a local church. This helps keep one grounded (I have seen great benefit for this in several – including myself).

    3. Perhaps degrees in ANE history and other broader titled degrees should be offered & pursued (rather than more strictly religious degrees). This may broaden the opportunities for teaching (beyond other religious institutions).

    4. Academic freedom is an issue in all this. At the very least, a graduate degree may offer some extra security teaching opportunities beyond the local church. For myself, were I to broadcast my conclusions I think I would find it very difficult to find a job as a minister in my circle of churches (and these have nothing to do with questioning the integrity of Scripture or classical doctrinal perspectives from the creeds and church history). But, good PhDs are important. I have benefited greatly from the scholarship of NT Wright, Bauckham, Wenham, Walton, etc. (and prior generation scholars such as FF Bruce). And, churches need to be challenged to grow through being exposed to ideas from the Academy (A melding of the two – see below). Otherwise we revert to an unhealthy biblicism that ultimately, on the ground level, can result in a barrier to the gospel being accepted by many would-be believers. The lack of academic freedom is a deep problem, esp. on the ground level in churches, and though it is a problem at many religious institutions, the horizon of a.f. for those with PhD’s is broadened. This can be very healthy, imo.

    5. It is possible that the PhD may, as Bryant says, feed the academic oriented person but not others. But, that is not necessary nor does my experience with those who have graduate degrees necessarily demonstrate this as a problem. Sure, there are times, even for myself, that lessons are too academic. But, I think it requires flexibility in teaching venues as well as audience awareness. I think that one must bring to bear academic instruction into the life of the average ‘person in the pew’ – the two are not mutually exclusive. Ignorance (or the pooled ignorance of a church classroom) is never healthy. The book Narrative Reading, Narrative Preaching by Joel Green offers a useful illustration of the crossover from the academic to the practical and the importance of it (to some degree). I am presently engaged in multiple classes at homeless shelters, with individuals and groups, as well as classes in a local church and the pulpit on a weekly basis. I have been able to bring to bear many insights from the likes of Green (on Luke), Bauckham, Wright and many others into those classes in a very practical way that resonates with the “least” from an academic standpoint (many who don’t even have their GEDs). Insights that I have never heard from ministers or teachers in most any church setting.

  • Jeff Y

    One other follow-up point (a bit off the path): I recently heard a church teacher warn his class about “biblical scholars” – how dangerous they can be. Well, certainly, they can. At the same time so can the “chip-on-your-shoulder” anti-academic mentality. And, why should one privilege shepherds/elders or preachers as less dangerous to people? Or anyone who teaches or leads in a church setting? Or one’s own spouse (I’ve seen many led astray by their marriage relationship)? Or the collective, pooled conclusions of a single class study on the Scriptures (I’ve been in many where the “consensus” view was unhealthy, erroneous or failed to take into account all the relevant data). The reality is – there are equal dangers everywhere.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, it is true that many MDiv programs do some good work in the history of the ancient world, but that does not qualify one to teach History in a graduate school; for that one needs serious study in Historiography (philosophy and history of historiography) and demonstrated expertise in the historical method in light of that Historiography. An MDiv degree is the study of the fields classically connected to “Divinity” (Theology and Bible etc) and not directly focused on Historiography. I would say there is a big difference.

  • scotmcknight

    Jeff Y, I would argue that the class work of an MDiv, while it may have 100+ hours, is still not advanced work in a History degree. It’s not about hours but kind of hours and focus of hours.

  • Jim

    I understand that because one take lots and lots of classes to get and MDiv (at least I did), that on the surface, it should qualify a person to teach in an academic setting. However, an MDiv is a professional degree, not an academic one. That is the focus of the degree is one that (should) prepare a person for the rigors of ministry. Thus the content of the classes taken has a different emphasis than a degree that is focused on an academic career. I found my first couple of years at seminary to be easy compared to the work I had done as an undergrad (albeit I was a math major as an undergrad). I appreciate and value my MDiv for what it was. It gave me tools that to this day are helpful in ministerial roles. But having completed a PhD (in mathematics), the research expectations of such a degree are different than what I experienced obtaining an MDiv. Perhaps some of that can be explained by the differences in disciplines, but I don’t think all of it can be.

  • Jeff Y

    Scot – good point. I agree.

  • Steve

    I happily took my History PhD and used it to join InterVarsity’s Grad and Faculty Ministries. The work of shepherding students through their own PhDs is more fulfilling for me than doing my own research and teaching, and I haven’t regretted my decision once in four years now. Perhaps a shameless plug for IVCF, but campus ministry or chaplaincy is another excellent option for PhDs who love the church and love the university, and InterVarsity in particular loves to hire PhDs for ministry at the grad and faculty level.

  • D. Foster

    Just a thought.

    While the prospects of a career in the academy are deteriorating, the reason is partly due to the distribution of knowledge via the internet. It is tremendously beneficial to be trained in an official Ph.D program: it is not essential to acquiring the knowledge itself. The knowledge is everywhere now for far cheaper than in a Ph.D program.

    In the past, knowledge was stored in the academy and you had access to that knowledge through its agents. Today, people have access to too much information and they need someone who can no one to sift through and organize it for them. The need for those people will increase in the future, and there may be a way to build a career around that independent of the academy.

    I’ve thought starting a layperson accredidation independent of the academy. That kind of thing may be the way of the future.


  • One of the reasons I am a pastor is my love for studying the Scriptures and then sharing with the congregation what I learn. I want my love for learning and my knowledge of the Scriptures to inspire the congregation to study the Scriptures for themselves, and together our knowledge will grow. And this implies that it is working knowledge of God – not just abstract stuff about the Bible. That what we learn in studying the Scriptures affects how we live and love. So it is this reason, as a pastor, that I’ve explored getting a Ph.D in Biblical studies. It’d be a great opportunity to drill down deeper on some pieces of knowledge. I’d like to think that it would help me as a Bible teacher in my church.

    But then I wonder: is the expense and work worth the knowledge for me, my family, and my congregation?

    It is rare to read an article like the one posted here about how Ph.D students should focus less on tenure-track and more on ministry in a local congregation. I’d like to read more about how congregations and scholars can better collaborate in ministry. Those kind of discussions will help me figure out what kind of degree to get. I’ve thought about getting a D.Min since it is more practical oriented. But it takes away from my core interest of better knowing the Scriptures, something that a Ph.D in New Testament studies would provide. Thanks for the post Scot.

  • Matt

    As busy as an M.Div. degree is, it is really not in the same category (rigour-wise) as a Ph.D. in biblical studies at a top-level university. Having just finished coursework, language requirements, comps, and now working on my dissertation, I have often asked myself, “am I crazy?” God’s grace has been sufficient at every point, but I am realistic: I may not find a tenure track position when I am finished. I have thought about teaching as an adjunct while pastoring, and if that is what presents itself, I will be glad.

    I think there is much to what Scot is saying. The Church needs women and men, in-house (i.e., on church staff), with top-level research degrees to challenge what is sometimes referred to as “radical” (far left-leaning) biblical scholarship, but perhaps more importantly, to challenge the neo-fundamentalist direction of large pockets of North American evangelicalism. That intelligent Christians allow the bully-pulpiteers of today to get away with their anti-intellectual, “my-way-or-the-highway” approach is troublesome — especially considering that it shipwrecks the faith of so many.

  • Terri

    Of course this idea presents challenges for those of us female PhD students in Biblical Studies. I might have a better shot at finding a tenure position than I would at finding a church that would hire me in the type of position to which we refer (pastor, or some other type of teaching/scholar in residence position). I recognize of course that part of this is of my own doing (degree from a rather conservative school, so I’m not as marketable to churches or schools that frequently hire females). I would certainly be happy upon graduation with part-time or adjunct positions and independent writing and research projects.

  • phil_style

    There is an interesting assumption underlying this discussion, it seems to be that education is considered a means to employment. Should we not view education as a good in its own right? Maybe employment exists so we can afford to educate ourselves?

    I have toyed with the idea of doing a theology related post graduate programme.
    However, at no point have I considered it for the purpose of new or better employment. It would be simply to educate myself. I would fully expect to return to my existing career after (or continue during) studies.

  • Terri

    @phil_style: While that may be a plausible purpose for some graduate degrees, a research Phd is an intense, time and energy consuming degree. At my school it can take anywhere between 5-8 years and involves in-depth study of a wide range of topics, grueling comprehensive exams, and 200-300 page dissertation (original work, thoroughly researched). While the knowledge and skills one gains from this experience is in itself a good thing, most go into that type of long term commitment with a specific goal in mind–usually one that involves employment and a certain career path that requires the degree. I’m not saying that your point is invalid for some Master’s level programs, just that it probably doesn’t apply to a research degree.

  • In response to Derek (comment 15), there are organizations working on an innovation to the education/accreditation systems presently available to consumers of information. This article is worth a look, for more info about the evolving “badge” system: