Some Unasked for Advice on Whether an Evangelical Should Get a PhD in Biblical Studies

Some Unasked for Advice on Whether an Evangelical Should Get a PhD in Biblical Studies June 18, 2012

I’ve been fielding this question for 20 years, and my answer today is not what I was saying early on.

Let’s be practical, shall we? Here is my bottom line: Unless you can honestly say to yourself that you can’t imagine not getting a PhD in Biblical Studies, don’t do it.

The financial and personal challenges you go through in pursuing your degree–not to mention the job market once you enter it–will be unbearable unless you have a genuine, authentic, deep inner drive to spend the next 5-10 years in school.

Note, I am not asking whether you have a sense of calling. “Calling” can sometimes be Christianese to inflate the importance of what you want to do. At times it can even be used as an excuse for failing to do the proper amount of introspection. Don’t baptize a bad idea by getting God involved. God wants you to know yourself, to understand what makes you tick, which is often a good indication of how he made you.

If you are truly called to be a biblical scholar, you will find out soon enough. Others will let you know. Your first indication, however, is whether going forward gives you a true sense of joy and inner fulfillment–whether the thought of it makes you happy.

If you are doing it so others will think you are important, or because you are convinced God needs you to reform your denomination or the field of biblical studies, or because you worship the false god of intellectual prestige (that god doesn’t exist, by the way), don’t do it–for your sake and for the sake of everyone else, don’t do it.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are some of the issues I think you should keep in mind in thinking through whether this path is for you.

1. You won’t make very much money unless you are one of those who also writes a lot. Make sure you are fine with making as much as some recent college–or even high school–graduates. Know the salary expectations and be realistic.

And don’t assume you will do a lot of writing. Not everyone can pull it off, and the publishing world is a victim of the economic downturn as much as any industry. They may not be as willing to take risks on unknown authors as they were in previous years. Or if they are, the advance may be a few hundred dollars or so at best. Publishers have to make a living, too.

2. Repeat after me: adjunct faculty. The job market is ridiculously over-flooded. When I graduated with my PhD in 1994, there were about 30 advertised positions in “biblical studies and related fields” (NT, OT, Early Christianity, Second Temple Judaism). There were about 325 men and women graduating with PhDs in those fields. Do the math. And that figure didn’t include all those PhDs from the previous year or two who are still looking. The scenario today is worse, in large part because of the economic downturn.

Add to that another factor: many schools who hire Bible faculty have, understandably, denominational requirements, which eliminates a lot of contenders right off the bat. And if you went to an Evangelical seminary, you will likely not make the cut for jobs in research institutions. They don’t want to risk hiring a fundamentalist.

Schools are figuring out that they can hire adjuncts for about $3000/course with no benefits and no voting power. Students generally don’t care, or more likely are not tuned in to all of this. Schools are also moving toward increased online offerings, which are also commonly staffed by adjuncts.

To make matters worse, even the biggest schools are closing down searches for financial reasons or not filling positions when faculty retire.

The era of the tenure-track position will grind down to a crawl. Do not assume that the cushy conventional position your professors have, one that will pay the mortgage and put your children through school, will be a realistic goal in the coming years. You may find yourself supplementing your income some other way, or your spouse might have to be the main income provider.

PhDs are going to have to think out of the box more and more.

3. Go to a top-tier school and make sure you network. Students who get their PhD from a seminary are unhireable in the general job market. If your goal is to enter the general job market, you almost certainly have to go to a top-tier school. Think about it. If there is an opening at an Evangelical college or seminary and there are Evangelicals finishing up at high profile programs, they have an edge, to say the least. It looks good in the catalogue for attracting students.

What can help neutralize this factor is having connections. Search committees like seeing familiar names, known commodities. What will also help is if an opening is at a school that is leery of degrees from research universities. Some schools actually like hiring their own PhDs or PhDs from schools deemed “safe” to help insure doctrinal requirements remain secure. If that is for you, fine. Just know what you are getting yourself into.

Of course, some who pursue a PhD already have a job, or are not interested in seeking fulltime academic employment (they may plan on pastoring or serving on a church staff). If that’s for you, your options are wide open, and this post is not or you.

4. Think globally. The job market in “conventional” schools is miserable, but there are Christian institutions around the world who would give their right arm to have good, humble, and educated people teach them biblical studies. Of course, this is a very big shift in expectations for many earning PhDs in the west, but there is a need there.

5. Watch for the ever-present doctrinal issues. I talked about this in my last post, so no need to repeat myself. Just be aware that by getting a PhD you are alienating yourself from 99% of the educated western Christian world. Few people are tracking with you. Ideas you now consider fundamental and elementary may be strange and threatening, even to those with earned doctorates.

Also, in a growing climate of suspicion in Evangelicalism today, you may be scrutinized more than you might think. It does not matter whether you think you fit. It only counts whether the school’s decision makers do. You can be replaced (see #2 above).

There are other issues to keep in mind, too, and I am very interested in hearing some of your experiences and thoughts on the matter. What you say may wind up being very important to someone thinking through this.

In closing, remember what I said at the outset. If you know yourself and decide that you need to be a biblical scholar, go for it–just keep your eyes open along the way.


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  • Richard Wattenbarger

    Your advice holds in the humanities well. The risks and stresses, even if one lands a job, are tremendous as well. I can think of no other field in the U.S. that requires more education and more work for so little pay and, before tenure, so little security than that of a humanities or a seminary professor.

  • Besides the issue of who will hire you after a seminary PhD, you neglect to mention the problem that many seminaries don’t fund. And who wants to pay for their PhD? As much as I love my alma mater, for example, I can’t imagine why anyone in their right mind would want to go get a PhD from Fuller where they’re not guaranteed tuition coverage, much less a stipend.

  • David LaDow

    Thanks for this. I’d be curious as to your advice for someone who has no higher aspirations than to do adjunct work as a bi-vocation along with parish ministry. I’m operating on the assumption that such a person could get funding for a PhD program.

  • Don Johnson

    Makes me glad I am an amateur!

    • peteenns

      And don’t you forget it 🙂

    • Jason

      Makes me even more glad that I’m a Software Engineer. By the way, I love your writing Pete. I gobbled up “The Evolution of Adam” in a few days. You have helped me tremendously with my struggles between faith and science.

  • RJS

    Go to a top-tier school and make sure you network.
    Go to a top-tier school and make sure you network.
    Go to a top-tier school and make sure you network.
    It bears repeating. Most academic fields are, and have long been, quite competitive.

    Nice post, biblical studies is a field full of landmines … not one I’d want to stroll for a living although I find the topics interesting.

  • Pete, you have been bringing the heat in these past few posts! Thanks. I think your readers really need to hear these things. Reading this post makes me glad that I am done with the Ph.D. and already have a job. Still, what you said is true. I spent five years as an adjunct and three years in the job cycle, post-Ph.D. before I got a job (and that was with 8 preliminary interviews and several on-campus interviews).

  • byron g. curtis

    Your advice, Pete, is right on the mark, I fear. Even in 1983 when I entered the PhD program in Hebrew Bible at Duke U, the grad department of religion was telling people not to embark on such a venture in hope of employment; do it (official publications said) only if you have a compelling intellectual curiosity about the field that grad school can perhaps satisfy. I’d say the job market is worse today than in the 1980s-90s. I know some religion PhDs from top schools who are looking for jobs.

  • Matt

    Can you follow this up with: “If you’re in the middle of a Ph.D. in biblical studies, and you’re depressed after reading my last post, I was just kidding”? 😐

    • peteenns

      If you’re convinced this is where you need to be, it’s all good. 🙂

      • Matt

        I am. I was kidding. I know the realities.

  • This article is aimed at those pursuing biblical studies, but is the situation pretty much the same for those doing systematic theology, ethics, or church history?

    • peteenns


  • Sean

    Very interesting post! You mentioned 30 jobs when you entered the field. Was that estimate state-wide, regional or national?

    • peteenns

      All officially advertised positions in the US and UK (English speaking world).

  • Peter,
    This is the advice I’be been getting as well – mostly that if you don’t have a burning question – you don’t stand a chance. I recently met a Princeton PhD graduate who is heading to Ghana to oversee a PhD program at Trinity College. She told me pretty much all that you just wrote and I’m curious. I’ve never thought of getting a PhD as a path to a career. I have valorized that level of scholarship but also always just thought of it as something you did more as a cultural hero who was after a problem that needed fixing (and a lot of study). I guess, in a bit of a cocky way, that’s one aspect of how I’ve seen my approach to higher ed – as a cultural hero seeking to solve problems (a specific one) that no one else is paying enough attention to and needs the attention (and a lot of study).

    My plan was to work towards a PhD and then bring what I’ve learned to an overseas (India) location to be part of theologizing in a different context. I’m confused at this point because I don’t know if I do or don’t fit into the categories you described, but I do hear the first part loud and clear – make sure I’ve a got a burning question that will give me the stamina to finish.

    At this point, I’m taking that burning question into a ThM to because I don’t want to wait five or six years to do a PhD before we get to go to India. Anyways, your post is confirming and confusing for me, but then again, all of your work has done that for me.

  • Judy S-N

    “If you can possibly do anything else *other* than get a PhD (or the thing that requires the PhD like teaching at a college) and still be happy with your life, then DO THAT.” = Best advice I’ve ever heard on this topic.

    • seijitsu

      That is the same advice that I heard from the dean of the theology department at an evangelical school

  • Dale

    I know that patheos is probably responsible for this (as opposed to you)…but do you realize Liberty University is advertised on your web page? *shivers*

  • My professor dropped this knowledge on me about two years ago. I am still frustrated with this, but for whatever reason, I still want to go into biblical studies (historical Jesus, preferably). Pete, thanks for posting this.

  • Tyler Dunstan

    “Know the salary expectations and be realistic” – I am not pursuing a PhD to make a lot of money – I have been a missionary for the past 8 years and am fine with a minimal salary. But honestly I have had a hard time finding information about what salary I might expect – that is if I can get a job… the $3000 / adjunct course was a helpful, if not depressing, number. Pete – can you (or anyone else out there) give some examples of different positions that recent PhD grads are working in and the approx. salary they are making? Thanks for the post Pete – a good dose of sobriety and realism for a young aspiring scholar.

    • peteenns

      It depends on where in the country you are teaching and what rank. A tenure track entry level (assistant prof) position can be as little as low 30s. If you can start in the 40s, that is gold. Others can chime in. I’ve seen adjunct coures for as low as 1800 and as much as 4000. IF you can manage finding 4/semester plus 2 in the summer you might make 30K before taxes, and no health insurance.

      Just to be clear, no one should enter this line of work–teaching about God–for the money. Thankfully, there is no temptation in that regard. But, a more alluring temptation is power. That, unfortunately, runs rampant.

      • Tyler Dunstan

        Thanks Pete, this is helpful – I just did a little more searching and found some good info at the Chronicle of Higher Education site – searchable database of university pay –

        • peteenns

          Those numbers are ridiculously high for biblical and theological studies, esp. at seminaries. If you are a full prof. with tenure and 30 years under your belt, you will make about 80K on the low end, and maybe 100K on the high end–maybe–a lot depends on perks. Profs making 175K (!!!) are not on a scale that I have ever seen!!

          • Tyler Dunstan

            Sure, those numbers I linked to were for Duke – you can search other colleges as well – that is just the university I was looking at when I linked it on here. Not a lot of seminaries on here, Fuller is on there if you search for it, and here is the link to Seattle Pacific University

        • RJS

          Those numbers are also across disciplines – humanities, including biblical studies, would be on the low end; economics at the high end (for example). The numbers vary dramatically by discipline. At my institution new assistant profs in economics start around the university wide average for full profs. (But they still only get hired if they go to a top tier school and network). It is a market driven profession.

        • Tyler, if you plan on working for a Christian college of seminary it’s doubtful that your take-home pay after taxes will me more than $#3,000-4,000 per month. You will earn a higher salary teaching 1st grade in most public schools in a America. The Chronicle of Higher Ed numbers are misleading. Christian schools pay less than public schools. I’ve had a few professor friends at Christian schools approach divorce because of it. At my last seminary, the youth pastor at my church had a higher salary than I did. We’re not making this stuff up.

          • Tyler Dunstan

            Thanks guys for the perspective and insight.

      • seijitsu

        “a more alluring temptation is power. That, unfortunately, runs rampant.” <– So true!

        Keep in mind that if you are adjuncting at multiple schools, you need to devote quite a bit of time to commuting and pay for the gas to get to each one and back. That needs to be factored into how much of your stated pay you expect to have left for your other expenses. If you are single or married without kids where your spouse is also earning, that itinerant lifestyle can work.
        Is it really attractive enough, as compared to picking some other 9-5 career where you're more stable, and adjuncting one evening class a semester or teaching Bible as a hobby as an adult Sunday school or elective class at your local church (where you'll also be able to enjoy the feeling of power, being out there as the personal expert for a community of people who will never set foot into an academic Bible class), for fun rather than because you need it to live on?

  • James T. O’Brien

    The greatest danger to evangelicals is that they will fail to see the unbelief wrapped up in much of ‘top-tier’ scholarship. The pressures to conform, the desire for the approval of professors (the fear of being labelled an ignorant fundamentalist), the desire to get a Ph.D. after all your work (lots of professors will sink a conservative student’s candidacy), the brilliance of their professors, and the lack of recourse to conservative answers, can all work to challenge and change a young person’s views about Scripture. Of course, changing, they will justify their shift by claiming to now be more enlightened. This is very sad, but what is vastly worse is becoming a person who is willing to take vows to teach according to a school’s established orthodoxy and then undermine it because you think you know better. Here the heart is exposed, but self-deceit justifies one’s unbelief. Unless you are a person who knows yourself to be impervious to the question, “Did God really say? and whatever God says is true!…,” stay away from ‘top-tier” Biblical studies departments.

    • peteenns

      This is rather naive, not to mention insulting, for those who have lived through this. Though, this response is a common ploy to skirt the problem.

    • Steve Aldridge

      I’ve received graduate degrees from both “top-tier” school, as well as evangelical seminaries. The pressure to conform is much greater in the evangelical schools, than secular universities. My Christian idea were received and discussed in the university, whereas, in the evangelical seminaries I was shut down. Other than my Textual Criticism Professor, the other profs did not what to hear about the critical issues. It was all about apologetics.

      • peteenns

        My Harvard profs didn’t care what I believed. There was no witch hunt or, for the most part, implied expectation students will leave the life of faith. What was expected was commitment to learn. What they would not tolerate–and should not–was evangelical/fundamentalist apologetic grandstanding, i.e., students who came to class to teach rather than learn. (I remember once a Jewish professor going after a strident Jewish student and putting him in his place.)

  • J.S.


    What schools would you specifically say are “top tier”?

    I presume you might say Harvard, Yale, or UChicago? What about NYU, Berkeley, Notre Dame, UPenn, Princeton, Johns Hopkins? Others?

    Thanks for a stimulating conversation.

    Best wishes.

    • peteenns

      Top-tier schools shift overtime. The glamour schools have appeal to administrators even if they may not have the best programs. I also don’t think there are just 3 or 4 top-tier schools and one would need to account for strengths in sub-disciplines. Generally speaking ND, DUke Div., PTS, are certianly top-tier?

      • J.S.

        I was just curious as to your opinion about which schools you think are currently top tier.

      • seijitsu

        PTS does not have a strong placement rate for its PhD grads even though it has prestige from the word “Princeton” in its name.

  • Tony Springer

    I wish that I knew what I know now, When I was younger.
    1. Get a MA in Religion at a University (1-2 years)
    2. Get a MA in a cognate study (English, History, Philosophy, Sociology) (1-2 years)
    3. Teach Community College: Great students
    4. Work on a Ph.D. in Bible (or your choice) while teaching community college (5-7 years)
    5. PhD in Bible, 5+ years teaching experience, have a job, test the market.

  • Steve Aldridge

    Thank you,
    I have a B.S. in Chemical Engineering (MSU), Masters in Theology (Biblical Languages) (Bethel U.) and currently defending my Thesis for a Masters in Molecular Biology (U of Minn). With 20 years of ministry experience, I am thinking about a PhD in Old Testament (I love Hebrew). But, because of my stance on evolution, origins and Genesis, I’m sure no evangelical school will hire me–I’ve already been shut out, as it is. Several professors from evangelical schools have given me the same advice that you are giving. It really too bad. Thousands of pastors each year are coming out of evangelical schools who are going to teach the multitudes what they have learned without the benefit of critical studies, and it’s not sustainable. When the truth is finally realized, in a hundred years or so, the evangelical church is going to have a major crisis.
    Maybe, I need to rethink my plans–I’m not saying no, I just want to go in with my eyes open.

    • Jack

      The evangelical church is in a crisis but they just do not know how big it is at this point.

  • $3000 a course for an adjunct? That means that if I get a PhD, my pay will almost double! I only get $1785 per course with a Master’s Degree in Biblical Studies!

    In all seriousness, though, I cannot imagine doing anything else. At the moment I am a stay-at-home dad while my wife is a United Methodist Pastor. I have a BA in Religion and Biblical Hebrew and a MA in Biblical Studies. I spend most of my current free time writing and reading (a lot of reviewing books, including your “The Evolution of Adam” at the moment for RRT!), and I recently got word that I will be presenting for the first time at SBL in the “Academic Teaching and Biblical Studies” section.

    I currently plan on applying for PhD programs within the next 2-4 years, depending on our situation with my wife’s work and our son. I honestly think that, if I did not pursue PhD work in Biblical Studies, my life would have a major hole in it. I’m sure that I could be happy as long as I had my wife and my son. I have my faith and I could find other ways of providing for my family. I would not feel … complete.

    I would argue that there is a sense of calling, although it is not something strictly emotional. Every time I am reading or writing I feel it. Every time I get up in front of my class to teach I feel it. It is just what I am supposed to do.

    Now, you just need to write a piece about how to get into PhD programs for those of us who were too stupid to take your advice in this column! Ha!

    • Good words! (this comment specifically) An encouragement to me at the moment.

  • Johl

    Pete and Anthony, would you say that this reality is the same for minorities (race and gender)? I have found that many of my PhD friends who are black, Asian, Hispanic and/or female, have had no problems finding jobs. Also I work for an online company that collects data on Christian Colleges. I was amazed at the sheer volume of employment opportunities listed on each colleges website. As of now I am only on 75 out of 435 colleges and I have collected over 137 jobs openings for PhD faculty and MA/MDiv Staff. We also expect the number to grow as I collect more data from the remaining schools. Unless the system works differently than what I am finding on each college’s website I’m uncertain of where the job shortage notion comes from.

  • Jesse

    “Of course, some who pursue a PhD already have a job, or are not interested in seeking fulltime academic employment . . . If that’s for you, your options are wide open, and this post is not for you.”

    Just a note, Pete. I think your prefatory remarks on finding fulfillment and questioning one’s motives is excellent advice and certainly applies to folks that find themselves in this odd situation of being both part-time PhD student and gainfully employed in their career field. I’m early in my program and have been thinking through a lot of these issues. So thanks for your post.

  • MK

    So true. My husband with an OT PhD is in this position and we have decided to head to another country (“think globally” as you put it) where there’s a huge need. I’m afraid, however, that the doctrinal issues you mention may be a problem for us in the future. For this position we’re joining a mission agency and raising our own support because most institutions in other countries don’t have the funds to hire. The support-raising has gone well but we feel like we are being somewhat dishonest at times as we struggle with our ideas and beliefs being threatening to those very people (in our conservative evangelical denomination) who are supporting us financially. Many of them, if they knew what we believed about some hot issues, would most definitely pull our support. So, we meet with churches and individuals, share the need, ask for support, and hope that they don’t ask any revealing questions. One unfortunate phone call placed to a few pastors in the area could put enough pressure on them to pull our support and send us packing. A hard place to be…

    • seijitsu

      MK, how about switching to applying to faculty positions in the religion department in a state school abroad, instead of support-raising from people who would feel betrayed by what you want to teach at a denominational school if they knew your real intent? “Think globally” is definitely the way to go, but let’s do it with integrity and freedom.

  • Thanks for the heads-up! It’s easy to just begin taking out student loans without thinking through the consequences at the start of any grad school program, but this is a nice dose of realism.

    What I’d be curious to hear you post more about… how do those few PhDs who get jobs do it? What makes them stand out above the rest in a competitive field?

  • Julie Mills

    Thanks, Pete, for a fantastic post. I’ve finally come to the realization that I can’t not do a PhD in OT. I’m blessed to have a supportive husband who doesn’t mind me being in school forever, but it’s been a tough journey so far.

    Quick question–what is your take on doing coursework at an american evangelical school then heading off to a top-notch UK school to finish up a PhD? That seems to be the best of both worlds in terms of networking while in the states and getting solid credentials.

    • peteenns

      I think that’s a great idea. I think regular coursework is huge. You can’t hide.

    • Hi Julie, two years out, I’m wondering how this plan is working. Looking into PhD myself (after husband completes his PsyD and postdoc requirements soon). A prof recommended going to the UK, and so I’m wondering what this might look like for you.

  • Lindsey Trozzo

    First, I really appreciate your realism and honest survey of the academic climate. I would have to add, however, that our field is especially in need of non-white and female voices – even more so in evangelical circles. This imbalance validates the pursuit of PhD’s by capable female and non-white scholars, and I would suggest that these scholars be encouraged to press on despite the bleak climate.

    Second, it seems to me that the changing face of teaching positions can be embraced by those willing to be flexible in their job expectations. I wholeheartedly agree that PhD’s should think outside the box more and more. As a current doctoral student, I am trying to do the same.

    Third, although I’m not wholly objective, I would list Baylor as one of the “on the rise” departments of religion. Great stuff coming out of there these days.

    • peteenns

      I agree on all three counts, Lindsey. On the third, I was not giving an exhaustive list earlier.

      • Pete (and Lindsey),

        How much do you think this advice is changed by being a woman? Does it make things marginally better or change the ballgame entirely? I’m toying with PhD options for the future, but really do want to be realistic. (In any event, I’m determined that if I do get a PhD I won’t be paying for it, so that will limit my options dramatically in the programs I seek.) Thanks for any advice or insight, though I know you are both very busy.

  • Adam

    Pete, I like what you say in your introductory comments re: calling and essentially baptizing our image of ourselves. While I do have some friends who have done the right thing by pursuing their PhD in biblical studies / theology, I’ve also seen way too many would-be pastors with all sorts of gifts for parish ministry ignore those gifts so that they could get a piece a paper with their name on it and a few fancy acronyms to boot. An instructive anecdote – if I remember the story correctly – is that Calvin was on his way to undertake some rather academic pursuits at Strasbourg when William Farrell stopped him in Geneva and convinced him to undertake the gospel ministry there. The rest is history, as they say.

  • As a pastor who has pursued advanced theological education aware of these realities, I wish I could force every undergraduate who has a Bible/Theo major and every person who’s thinking about seminary to read this article! If the pragmatic reasons aren’t enough, I think there are plenty of theological reasons for calling our inherited models of theological education into question. Thanks for a clear voice from someone on the “inside” Pete.

    • seijitsu

      On theological reasons to not do a PhD, read “Non-Professional Missionaries” and “The Case for Voluntary Clergy” by Roland Allen in his book “The Ministry of the Spirit: Selected Writings of Roland Allen,” 135-189. London: World Dominion Press, 1960.
      If you are thinking about whether or not to do a PhD but won’t make the small amount of effort to go check that book out of your theological library – though I strongly suggest that you do, since this is about the theology on the whole course of your adult life – something quicker to access on the same topic is Lesslie Newbigin’s article online: “Theological Education in a World Perspective,” Churchman 93, no. 2 (1979): 105-115.:
      I was planning to do a PhD in OT, and then switched interest to doing one in Church History, but after considering Allen’s arguments, I have decided against it. My husband is writing the last chapter of his dissertation now, but said that if he had to do it over again, that is, if he were deciding whether to start a doctoral program at this point, that he would not do it. Not because he doesn’t greatly enjoy it, but because of its impediments for effective ministry.

  • Dave B

    Thanks for these sober words of advice. I find it a bit perplexing that in #3 you would recommend going to a top-tiered school given your previous post on the problems facing Evangelical biblical scholars (by top-tiered I guess I’m assuming you mean Harvard, Yale, etc.). Is it really surprising that Evangelicals are feeling this tension you discuss in that post when they are being formed by folks that have very different (well in fact some cases antithetical) presuppositions from the ones they hold? Of course the issues are complex and I’m not at all saying the answer is to get a PhD from a seminary, but I can’t help but think this advice is far too pragmatic. Am I being unfair?

    • peteenns

      The irony, Dave, is that Evangelical schools like hiring professors with Ivy League degrees (which puts them at an advantage)–as long as some of those ideas that went into earning that degree don’t creep in.

  • I am a doctoral student at Duke and agree with everything Pete writes here. This goes for church history, biblical studies, systematic theology, and practical theology. While my friends from Princeton Theological Seminary, Duke and Harvard have generally gotten jobs after a couple years of searching, they have usually had 1 job offer–not multiple ones. And as Pete says, the mood is generally very dark in the academic world with regard to jobs: “Ph.D. = Please hire. Desperate.” or “Pizza Hut Driver.” See—what-phd-really-stands-for.html or

    I have just recently heard reports from people with Ph.D.’s from Emory, Aberdeen, Baylor, Durham, and Yale having significant trouble finding positions and those are very fine schools. Even here at Duke, which is famously one of the happiest places to get a doctorate in the theological disciplines: people are getting divorced, taking out loans, working side jobs, and on WIC and Medicaid and food stamps.

    I especially like to encourage people who are already pastoring to consider continuing to exercise their writing, teaching, and reading interests as pastors–that being a professor is not massively more fulfilling–that they may already be in a very good “profession.” (Though I realize of course some people with an interest in a Ph.D. who might be effective professors cannot see themselves pastoring).

    John Stackhouse of Regent College has quite a bit of similar advice:

    And I have put together some advice too:

    • peteenns

      Extremely helpful, Andy. Thank you.

  • Fernando Gouvea

    “Unless you can honestly say to yourself that you can’t imagine not getting a PhD in Biblical Studies, don’t do it.” That’s exactly what I tell my students about getting a PhD in mathematics.

    Much of the dynamic you describe is universal. A PhD from a state university often won’t get you a job at that university, for example. It’s sad, however, so see the evangelical schools behaving this way.

    Perhaps the problem is that since we don’t have a formal magisterium, we tend to create an informal one…

  • Jason

    I just got my acceptance letter to Seminary today. After reading this, I now really don’t know what to do. I’ve been encouraged by my professors to keep going in my studies. I really don’t feel I have the requisite gifting to be a Pastor or counselor and teaching has been all I have ever wanted to do. Wow, what an eye opener.

  • A New Testament prof of mine (Emory PhD) has been at the same small Christian Liberal Arts school for 20+ years makes $46K. I made more than him my first year in full-time ministry. So definitely don’t do the PhD for the money if you want to teach in a Christian/Bible College.

  • Jesse

    I can’t believe that the word ‘debt’ has not appeared here. It’s an enormous factor and huge burden.

    • peteenns

      That is true, Jesse. What I have told people that any doctoral program worth the name will award a tuition stipend. With the better programs, if they can’t afford to do so, they don’t accept you. Smaller schools and seminaries sometimes expect PhD programs to be income generating, which is a problem: not only do you have debt, but you will be less likely to find a job from getting a PhD from such a school.

      • Bill Schniedewind

        Thanks Peter for a wise and sobering account of doctoral studies. I don’t think it’s quite as bleak as you make it out, but it’s better to have a sober view of doctoral studies. I would second your point that aspiring students should be looking for programs in research universities if they want to be competitive for jobs and avoid massive debt. A good research university program should be offering students tuition and some form of additional support for living expenses. Our students typically get tuition plus $17-25K support per year. I’d feel guilty if I were graduating students into this dismal market with heavy debt. That said, it’s very competitive to get into these programs and there are many more qualified applicants than openings for prospective PhD students. Students should have a burning passion for their studies, and they shouldn’t be taking on lots of debt to get a PhD in the Humanities.

        • peteenns

          Thanks for commenting, Bill. You’ve got much experience in this.