are PhD programs in biblical studies ethical? a final thought from SBL

are PhD programs in biblical studies ethical? a final thought from SBL November 29, 2013

A few days ago I posted on my recent trip to the annual biblical scholars’ academic meeting, the Society of Biblical Literature, held this year in Baltimore’s “Inner Harbor.” (If you prefer outer harbors, you’ll have to go to Buffalo or Australia.)

One thing I didn’t mention there is something that weighs heavily on me (see here with links to other posts), and I am reminded of it each year at SBL: talented and promising scholars–who have much to offer, could potentially wind up being significant voices in the field, and have PhDs in hand–can’t get jobs.

Which makes me wonder, yet again, about the ethics of institutions accepting students to train them for jobs that don’t exist.

Schools have all sorts of reasons–overlapping and complex–for offering degrees in Biblical Studies (which normally includes related areas like ancient Near Eastern studies, early Judaism, early Christianity, and things like that).

  • The institution has a long tradition of granting such degrees.
  • Discontinuing PhD programs in Biblical Studies would put a lot of people out of work, and that’s an especially tricky business when endowed chairs are in the mix.
  • Biblical Studies is a valued field for that school’s mission and purpose.
  • Granting PhDs lends prestige to the school.
  • PhDs trained in a school’s ideology can further that school’s ideology.
  • PhD programs are potential sources of revenue.

These reasons are, in the abstract, neither right nor wrong. They just are what they are. But regardless, if jobs do not exist for a vast majority of those trained to fill them, something is broken and it needs to be fixed.

What further complicates the matter, and reduces job openings even more, is the move toward the use of adjuncts rather than hiring full time, tenure track professors.

I had several conversations this year at SBL with freshly minted, soon-to-be minted, and have-been-minted-for-quite-some-time-now-thank-you-very-much PhDs all highly competent and all elbowing for the same few, precious, underpaying jobs with heavy workloads. One recent opening received over 200 applicants. Schools with confessional commitments are more self-selecting in their applicant pools–one I know of got over 100.

Perhaps PhD programs should look at their track records over, say, the last ten years to see how many of their graduates found work either as they were completing their degrees or within 2 years of completing them. And by “work” I mean full time, gainful employment in the field of their choice–you know, a job–and not “settling” for teaching Bible at a private Christian high school, pastoring, or any other plan B.

If the average is, say, 2 per year, rather than admit the number of students needed to sustain the program (which I know from experience happens), admit 2 to 4 students and see how that goes for a few years. And be absolutely clear with the applicants, letting them know what the school’s track record is for graduates finding conventional work in the field. (Students who enter with non-conventional career aspirations–e.g., missionary work, pastoring, secondary school education–are not affected by these same market realities and comprise another category of applicant entirely.)

But the bottom line is let the applicants know what they are getting themselves into, what career paths are likely open to them. Applicants should do their homework before entering a PhD program, but they don’t. And often their college or seminary professors don’t think to sit their students down and give them the 4-1-1.

I am glad I no longer teach doctoral students for careers in Biblical Studies. I would feel dirty.

I’m not sure, practically speaking, what can be done about it. Perhaps if students simply stopped applying for doctoral programs for a few years, the institutional problem would take care of itself.


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  • sanctusivo

    If it’s any consolation, law schools are in the same dilemma: too many degrees for too few jobs, but there’s too much institutional ego to do something different.

    • Eric Kunkel

      Maybe there is a way to increase the supply side. IMHO Students are woefully under-educated in the Bible, which, a couple hundred years ago was a mainstay of a public university curriculum. (The same is true of the Classics, History, etc.) Just turn on the TV and watch the most educational expose out there: that is – go Jaywalking with Jay Leno, before it is too late.

      Maybe there is a way to shoehorn Biblical Studies back into the required courses to graduate as an undergrad or matriculate to any course of higher study. That is get Biblical Studies into the GRE, LSAT, etc., also.

      • Eric

        On these Admissions Tests to grad or professional schools, you start adding questions about the Bible, students will sign up for many, multiple sections and they will have to hire, many more professors. Current faculty could lobby test makers for this: more colleagues equals more collegiality.

        And more broad students, thinking about more topics than how to get their Ipad to sync their 18,000 song music library thru their car sound system, well that could not be bad.

        Or anything to get them in a bricks and mortar library. How about some like:

        Jeremiah would not go into the temple, but sent Baruch instead, because:

        A. He may have been ceremonially unclean.
        B. Baruch was really just a symbol for blessings.
        C. Jeremiah had insulted the King with his prophesy.
        D. A & C

        Now shouldn’t all Wharton School of Business candidates have to take a stab at something like that? Who are we sending to Wall St.anyway!


        • Brian Bailey

          Thank you for putting this together. I was recently accepted to 2 doctoral programs for NT studies, I wanted to get your opinion on something. I was accepted to Regent University in Virginia Beach. It is a PhD in New Testament studies but it has Pentecostal bent to it (renewal studies). How do you think this will affect my academic potential when I finish the program? How do you think Regent stacks up against other programs?

          Also can you provide some links to PhD theses and outlines for examples? Thank you again for all you advice and help.

  • Taylor Weaver

    Sigh… I was just accepted into a pretty high ranked doctoral program at the University of Edinburgh. Even if one can’t find a teaching or research position at a university, there is the further problem of employers thinking a PhD is “overqualifed” for a job. I even ran into that recently while applying to places and I only have my Masters of Arts. Maybe McDonalds will take me; the turnover there is already high, so if I flake out it won’t distract their day to day operations.

  • Benj

    It’s the same problem across the board with degrees in the US: just too many. If formal schooling actually produced absolute educational value, we’d all be better off. But most schooling has little or no educational value (a bold claim, but I think demonstrable by rather damning studies that test students before and after college), at a high price (in addition to the price tag on higher ed, don’t forget about the opportunity cost of years lost in the workforce learning real-life skills). It’s mostly a costly signal. So, when everyone has a bachelor’s, I need a master’s to stand out. When everyone has a master’s (which was good enough to teach college a generation ago), I need a PhD. When everyone has a PhD…well, a friend said to me this weekend at SBL, “The postdoc is the new PhD.” What’s after postdoc?

    The only answer is to cut funding for the whole system. Get public funding out of higher ed completely, including subsidized loans. Force private funding sources to be more selective in their endowments. Ask yourself: how much academic research in the humanities does a society really need? Let’s funnel those smart folks into more productive/important jobs in industry or in high-school education. Most of them will end up working in industry anyway, and those that get jobs at community colleges are just teaching 19-year-olds what they should have learned in high school.

    (And, mind you: I’m saying this as one of the soon-to-be-minted biblical studies PhDs without a job. I have the most to lose if this happens.)

    • Guest

      The answer to “there are not enough jobs” is not “destroy ALL the jobs.” The answer to “there are not enough jobs” is exactly what the author suggests: Be honest with students about their prospects. If there is, in fact, a beast that needs to be starved, that beast is not our heritage of studying the humanities, its the market which requires all people bow to its (supply and) demand.

  • Taylor Weaver

    Something I wonder is how ubiquitous the problem is. I expect it in the US and the UK, but what about in Asian countries? Some countries like South Korea actually have quite a few seminaries and religious institutions. Is this all-pervasive, or can some of us brave new territory and perhaps find a burgeoning market in another part of the world?

    • Jdbar14

      There was an interesting article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society a few months back that addressed this from a confessional point of view. The author’s point was that confessional evangelical scholars need to spend less time competing over the shrinking number of positions in North America and start seriously considering taking their expertise to underserved parts of the globe.

      Not sure if the link will work…but here goes.

      • Taylor Weaver

        Thanks for that.

  • John Shakespeare

    As an example I see very large numbers of highly trained and very brilliant orchestral musicians emerging from conservatoires every year, with little hope of any work that uses their expertise. There’s a limit on the number of new orchestras and chamber ensembles that can survive commercially. I don’t know the answer.

    • Many of our traditional institutions are in complete freefall.

  • Steve Stutz

    I agree! When my parish closed back in 2010 I took it as an opportunity to de-stress from pastoral life and get that doctorate. I’ve been applying for university and seminary positions without luck for months. Most of the regrets letters/emails reference the extremely large number of applicants (sometimes in the hundreds) and it’s simply a buyers market out there. On the other hand, I’ve interviewed with private industry for positions with equally poor results. One manager in the oil & gas industry told me they simply don’t know how to handle someone who has theological training–it’s a big risk in their eyes that the person could turn out to be a religious wingnut who terrorized the workplace and is an HR nightmare.

  • This has been THE conversation at my PhD program for the last half decade. People are finding all kinds of reasons/rationales to get a PhD. No one has any illusions.

    • Eric

      How have completed PhDs faired in the job markets for that past half decade? And do any have luck being creative with their degrees? I teach undergrads, but about one a year will talk to me about PhD programs and the job market in religious studies, especially biblical studies. I try to be a blunt as I can about job prospects.

      • Which job market? It varies wildly. Academia? Not-for-profit sector? Ministry? At orientation two years ago they brought in successful grads who were doing everything from serving a congregation to teaching or running an NPO. One grad was teaching journalism and social justice. Interdisciplinarity is everything whether one is at GTU or at Cal Berkeley. This same conversation is happening in the Music Department at Cal, too.

        In general, the “placement rate” from GTU isn’t terrible given the general freefall for the humanities industries in general. The tech (STEM) sector has effectively “won” the industrialization war. That said, if your dissertation and related work is about the rape narratives in the OT, you may find your passion for violence against women leads you to working in an agency that supports victims and advocates for legal reform. Your PhD is evidence of a decade or more of serious thought and reflection from a faith perspective and gives one tools (critical thinking, research, project management) that cross-over well in most industries.

        All of that to say, it may be wise to ask your students “Are you looking for a job that looks a lot like what we do in class or are you looking for something else?” They need to be able to answer that question. Given the forthcoming “education bubble,” theological education may actually be on the cutting edge of responding to what is clearly a larger issue.

  • I’m in my third year of a PhD program in liturgics and ethnomusicology. I have no illusions about the job market. None of us at the school hold any illusion. So, we’re finding ways to get creative with our degrees.

  • Ann Gingrow Corbett

    The problem of using adjunct faculty instead of hiring full-time, tenure track positions is widespread. If you’re an adjunct and you’re so inclined, you can take part in this survey about working conditions.

  • Susan_G1

    Pete, are you sure you’re assigning responsibility to the proper recipient? Isn’t it much more likely that the message our culture is broadcasting (“follow your dreams/do what you love”) is the real problem?

    My common sense was absent when my son announced he wanted to change his major to Art. We paid the tuition. I think this was a foolish move on our part.

    People have a right to pursue a field they love; their ability to do so should not be hampered by closing programs (should my son’s college stop offering degrees in Art?) However, they also have a responsibility to themselves to choose wisely. I believe this has, for the most part, gone missing. How many college grads do you know who now work at Panera or Starbucks?

    • Leum

      No. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the job market for people with STEM degrees is not much fucking better, especially for the S and M slots. My BS in geology is just as valuable job-prospects-wise as my BA in religious studies, that is to say, neither is worth the paper they were printed on.

      • Susan_G1

        1) Are you assuming he was in a STEM program?
        2) No, what? (And I don’t mean, No, Ma’am.)
        3) Are you angry with me? Am I supposed to know what you said?
        4) Do you have some kind of impulse control disorder?

        • Leum

          I worded myself unclearly, I apologize. I find the very common argument that people who don’t have jobs and also have supposedly “usesless” degrees (such as art) don’t have jobs because their degree was useless and if they’d only been smart enough to get a job in a good (by which is usually meant STEM) field they’d be fine. Which is BS. The problem isn’t useless degrees, the problem is an economy that has been systematically restructured to ensure as high an unemployment rate as possible.

          • Susan_G1

            apology appreciated. I am very concerned about our economy, too. It’s a scary scenario being played out before us. What to do? The bureau of labor statistics puts out top 10 job field projections. My son chose to return to school (this time on his dime, but the tuition was reasonable) for the top spot: nursing. He has is degree now and a good job. It’s very sad that so few graduates are getting jobs in their fields. It wasn’t like this for us.

  • pennerm

    of course, legitimate concern over instutional disregard for students aside, this argument only works if both our ethics and our view of education are utilitarian…which mine aren’t. i still have great empathy for folks w/ phd’s & no academic jobs, tho (particularly as i’m one of them), and wonder on other grounds about Christian institutions treating education as a commodity.

  • Marcus

    I am very grateful that you and others write about this topic. It helped prevent me from making a probably disastrous decision (fortunately I studied a discipline with decent job prospects as an undergrad). While I may not be pursuing my first love, I am providing for my family and don’t hate my job. And at least I can still study on the side.

  • My husband is currently completing his PhD in Systematic Theology, and one thing we’ve thought a lot about is whether he should serve as a pastor when he’s done. I think this is a much overlooked but much needed use of the PhD (and historically, was much more common). The local church could really use pastors with doctoral level training, so I see this as a potential benefit for the theology of local churches, if we would just encourage more doctoral candidates to consider that route.

    • peteenns

      I think this is a viable option, Sharon, though one potential problem (there’s always a potential problem) is that the PhD pastor may run too far ahead of the congregation theologically, thus causing some tensions, or he/she may get frustrated for not being able to bring certain conversations to the church. Sometimes these pastors can become scholar/pastors who write a lot of books, but then the challenge is to remain connected to the people.

      • I completely agree. Of course, this brings up a whole other conversation about the disconnect between seminaries and the local church. When I was at Duke Div, a number of my profs had served as pastors, and their experience shaped their teaching in some important ways. While not all Bible scholars have the call or gifts to serve in both the church and the academy, seminaries (and seminarians) would certainly benefit from hiring faculty with experience in and a love for the local church.

        But anyway, I’m not going to hijack this thread. Just some thoughts from where we’re sitting right now. 🙂

        • Chaprich

          Sharon, I like your thinking. I’m Presbyterian, so we don’t have an appointment system like the UMC, but I would love to see our local governing bodies (districts, presbyteries, etc.) appoint/call Ph.D ministers, who would serve a congregation and also be a renumerated educational resource for that governing body.

    • Steve Turnbull

      Sharon, thanks for posting this. I have a Ph.D in NT, and I serve as the lead pastor in my congregation. I’m in an evangelically minded, Lutheran congregation, and my academic training is a real asset in my ability to teach and lead here. I’m sure it would be possible to “run too far ahead” as Pete says so well, but that’s far from inevitable. In my view, it would be great to have more people with advanced education leading in congregational settings, and maybe even mentoring the next generation of leaders who can combine thoughtful reflection with pastoral practice. – If your husband would like a conversation partner with whom to consider this kind of option, I’d be glad to share my experience.

    • Will Baker

      If your husband wants to be a pastor and is ambitious he should get his PHD. In my denomination (Cooperative Baptist) a PHD is required (though no one would ever say this) to be hired at pastor at many of the larger churches.

  • Mark

    The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough jobs. There are plenty of jobs. However, those jobs are going to adjuncts or administrators instead of full time faculty lines. In any metropolitan area, a Phd can easily cobble together 4 – 5 courses a semester; there are plenty of courses that need teaching.

    There is actually an easy solution to the adjunctification problem: every accrediting body has a standard for an “adequate number of full time faculty.” If CHEA would define “adequate” as, say, 70% (it’s about 30% right now), then schools would be forced to re-tool, which might include eliminating administrative positions, rethinking the relationship between research and teaching, rethinking how tenure is conceived and rewarded, etc. But doing so would make classroom instruction better, improve retention, and eliminate the rather embarrassing situation in which a university can have an adjunct who teaches the equivalent of a full time load while qualifying for food stamps.

  • Darren

    There are plenty of jobs overseas. PhD students just are not interested.

    • peteenns

      Some are. My point here is that these opportunities should be presented to students at the outset as a much more viable career path than joining the overcrowded tenure track pool in the west

    • jospeek

      Darren, can you give an example or two of these jobs that are ‘overseas’? What are the financial and social conditions of their employment, and the long-term sustainability of those conditions? Must support be raised and sustained? Will an equally trained citizen of the country be bumped to employ a citizen from elsewhere? Are these employers working with the same curriucular and pedagocial models that have proven inadequate in the West? There are so many differences here that to compare one job in the West to another job overseas is misleading. Let’s not send our PhD’s elsewhere, and if we are going to do that, let’s solve our pedagogical and curricular problems first. The West in general, and the church in particular, has a long history of exporting its problems ‘overseas’. Let’s do everyone a favor and not start booking flights right away.

  • Yeah, thankfully I’ve had this discussion with my pastor (who has his D.Min) and a few seminary professors. I know my pastor struggles because he’s educated himself beyond the congregation and often longs for more academic and thoughtful discussion. These have been my struggles for considering further education beyond my M.Div. I know you sort of educate yourself into a corner

    • cw

      Educated himself beyond his congregation…I so wish our pastor would offer an opportunity for deeper thought and discussion. I’m a middle aged female who reads blogs and stacks of books and goes to church and listens to shallow sermons by a D.Min pastor. Come on academics, Maybe there are outlets for your education you’re overlooking.

      • I think it’s just the nature of our congregation. He has brought some deeper thought and discussion in his sermons and bible studies, but he still wished for the more regular discussion that a seminary class or cohort provided. I think the tough part is a lot of people in the pews aren’t coming for an academic education but for some spiritual enlightenment once a week or twice a week at best. It’s tough balance to be sure, especially when those who are of a like-minded focus are in the minority (at least at my church).

      • bibleapplier

        the question is, after reading all the blogs and books, are you “doing the ministry”. Remember, Jesus said that his food was to do the will of the Father. Maybe we focus so much on wanting to be “fed” with deeper truths that we are missing out on the fact that real maturity, and real feeding is doing God’s will, not sitting around with other intellectuals trying to figure out whether Adam is real or not. At least that is the argument I hear from my pastor. With a world going to hell, are we spending too much time in our Christian bubbles, rather than with the sinners and publicans that are around us?

  • dangjin

    So all schools should stop teaching students simply because there are no jobs? What about the student’s growth? Desire to learn? I guess for you to be honest, public schools should stop teaching students because of the high unemployment rate or the bad economy.

    your type of thinking is not right

    • Bryan

      You seem to be all over the place here. This is discussing, specifically, the field of Biblical Studies. Therefore, the public school analogy does not work at all. There is a very high demand for science and math teachers but that is a non sequitur here. When someone has racked up over a hundred grand in loan debt, no amount of “desire to learn” will satisfy the rigorous process of paying back that debt…without a job.

    • Ronald Doss

      If one is only interested in acquiring more advanced knowledge in a rather esoteric subject, then there should be programs for adult education that leads to no degree. But obtaining a doctorate entitles you to be called “Doctor,” so there’s obviously some desire for a level of prestige. And what does a doctorate in biblical studies qualify you for? There is a lady writer in Florida who calls herself “Dr.” but she only has a doctorate in biblical literature or so she claims. What is biblical literature? Just the canon of the Old and New Testaments? Anything taught in these fields is strictly speculation, since even the authors of most books in the Bible are unknown, as well as the dates they were written. Why strive to get a Phd. in a field that’s almost entirely speculative?

  • slufi

    This assumes that the purpose for higher education is preparation for a job. Perhaps it is simply to further one as a person. That is a decision for students to make.

    Enns teaches at a school that grants many, many degrees that don’t lead into a plethora of job openings – is it ethical for him to teach there?

    • peteenns

      As i said in my post, I don’t teach PhD students, which is what this discussion is about.

      • slufi

        I’m suggesting that whatever justification you find helpful for teaching students at an expensive private school where most recruited students are told about the great return on investment of private college should also, graciously, be extended to those who teach Ph.D. students under the same pretense. The discussions are closely related – it is not seemly to throw stones at those who are doing what you used to do while you continue to do something that is very, very similar.

        If anything, Ph.D. programs are more justified since their students should have the critical thinking and research skills necessary to make an informed decision.

        To be clear, I think there is great value in higher education, even in fields where gainful employment is questionable. I’m working on my MTS thesis at Palmer – fulling knowing that it is not likely to increase my earning potential. I love the study, I like the focus of Eastern, and I enjoy the opportunities it affords to be in conversation with others.

        I will reiterate, that it is hypocritical at best to question the ethics of those who teach Ph.D. studies in Bible while working at an institution that recruits students less able to think critically into programs funded by high debt. A guy named Jesus tells a story about beams and specks that might be helpful.

  • Ken M. Penner

    Education was not invented so that people could get jobs.

    • Bryan

      Education in industrialized societies are occupied by those in “jobs”. What is specific to this post is the lack of availability of jobs, again, specifically for Biblical Studies PhDs who hope to find a job on the other side. It is nonsensical to train someone for a position in underwater basket weaving if no such job exists on the other side of the educational chasm. It is almost as nonsensical to train someone in Biblical Studies. This post is generating an honest and very much needed question.

      • Ken M. Penner

        I see a difference between training someone “for a position in” underwater basket weaving and training someone to weave baskets underwater. I see a further difference between teaching a technique (e.g., to weave baskets underwater) and increasing understanding of a subject. I admit, the name “philosophiae DOCTOR” implies PhD programs in biblical studies are/were supposed to train for a TEACHING position. But also note the “philosophiae.” Education is more about pursuing ideas than training for techniques.

        • peteenns

          Ken, I think you are not hearing what Bryan is saying. Your last sentence esp. seems to be off base. We are not talking about “education.” You can stay home and read books for that or attend seminars in local venues. We are talking about entering years of doctoral work–often with family in tow–to earn a degree that prepares you for some paying vocation, normally teaching, which then allows you do do some research and writing. It’s not about pursuing “training for techniques.” Am I correct in assuming you do not have an earned doctorate and are not looking for work?

          • Ken M. Penner

            I earned a Ph.D. in Religious Studies (Biblical field), and am tenured.

          • Ken M. Penner

            Let me see if I understand what is being said.
            Pete, what I hear you saying is:
            1. For the purpose of this discussion “work” is defined as a tenure-track job in biblical studies.
            2. The vast majority of (including many talented) biblical studies PhDs can’t get “work”.
            3. The recent rise in the use of adjuncts reduces the amount of “work” available.
            4. The main reasons for degree programs in biblical studies are to benefit the institution, not the student.
            5. Institutions that accept vastly more students into biblical PhD programs than there is “work” available are taking advantage of their students’ ignorance of “work” availability.
            6. It is wrong to take advantage of students for the benefit of the institution.
            7. It is wrong to teach in a biblical studies PhD program.
            8. The solution is to correct students’ ignorance of “work” availability.
            Although I am not comfortable with your definition of “work,” I can see that it is expedient for this discussion. Although I think your list of reasons for degrees in biblical studies is selective and uncharitable toward
            universities and those of us who work in them, and I don’t think it’s wrong to offer the PhD, I agree with you that it is wrong is to mislead the students into thinking there is more “work” than there actually is.
            Bryan, what I hear you saying is: It makes little sense to teach a biblical studies PhD student if there is little “work” available.
            Have I heard you both? If so, I agree with most of what you’re saying, Pete. The part with which I disagree is
            something I am inferring from both of you, and that is expressed explicitly in your reply, Pete, namely that the only (main?) reason for a doctoral degree is to get “work.”
            I would rather say that if you’re considering a PhD, in David Miller’s words, “Go for it, if you love it because you love it”
            (, i.e., because you want to learn, not because you’re counting on a tenure-track job in biblical studies.

          • Bryan

            yes to #5 and #8.

    • Marshall

      I was thinking more or less the same thing. Perhaps the problem is that low-level teaching or pastoring is settling for a plan B. Why don’t schools encourage more entrants with “non-conventional career aspirations”?

    • Kitiara Uth Matar

      Maybe so. But if that’s the operative thought in the mind of many educators, then it’s their responsibility to proclaim that, boldly and publicly, to anyone even *prospectively* interested in getting an education from them. It also might behoove them to price their product accordingly. At least, if that doesn’t happen all on its own once they start letting would-be students know about their refusal to claim any responsibility for helping their graduates get employed.

  • aujous08123

    Thanks for this Dr. Enns. Would you say more jobs within and without evangelicalism exist in the global south? By jobs, I mean undergraduate/graduate teaching posts at seminaries or universities. Also, are you speaking about denominational and interdenominationals undergraduate/graduate posts in the US or just the universities?

  • Hopaulius

    As you know, Pete, I earned my Th.D. in Hebrew Bible from an elite university. I had been told by a religion professor at my undergraduate university that I had the potential to be among the top scholars. Years later, when I tried to cash in that endorsement, the now-elderly professor emeritus didn’t even remember me. As several have suggested in the comments, when the job search turned up zeroes, I went into the pastorate. I was unsuited for the pastorate, and knew it, which is a major reason I pursued graduate work. It did not end well. Then I spent a year in the adjunct grind. I finally decided I was not going to work for nothing, and I walked away from academia. Looking back, I kick my self for my naiveté. I believed the professors who were my authority figures, who assured me that many retirements were coming soon, and that an elite degree would be the ticket to the job. The reality was that as a middle-aged white male I didn’t fit any affirmative action categories and didn’t match any search committee’s ideals of perfection. I should have researched the academic job market before I invested a decade of my life in a dead end.

    • Eric

      I sympathize with your plight, but this brought me up short:

      “The reality was that as a middle-aged white male I didn’t fit any
      affirmative action categories and didn’t match any search committee’s
      ideals of perfection.”


      • Ian

        Yeah, furrowed my brow too.

        But be careful of confusing group experience with individual experience.

        a) the majority of applicants are from one demographic,
        b) the majority of posts are currently filled by members of that demographic,
        c) the appointing committee rightly want better representation of diversity among their colleagues,
        then the individual members of that dominant demographic will find it harder than those outside the demographic to get a job. Even though, at the same time, most jobs will go to members of that demographic.

        A situation I’m more familiar with: it is *much* easier to get a job as a early years teacher around here if you’re male. Because most schools have no male teachers. As a consequence male graduate teachers have no problem finding a job, but many female teachers are individually suffering from the lack of opportunity. Even though, at the same time, the vast majority of jobs go to female teachers.

      • Chaprich

        I think Hopaulius speaks to a “Real Reality” that qualified white men are at a disadvantage because seminaries and divinity schools are predisposed to hire women and folks from ethnic minorities.

    • Scaramouche

      “The reality was that as a middle-aged white male I didn’t fit any affirmative action categories and didn’t match any search committee’s ideals of perfection.”

      Yeah. We non middle aged, minorities are hogging up all the PhD spots. Thank goodness affirmative action guarantees me tenure at that ivy league university I’m eye balling. If not, I’m sure any search committee will just trip over themselves to hire me.
      Thanks for perpetuating that cultural myth. Because we non middle aged, minorities love to hear “you guys” talk like that.

  • Tauratinzwe

    There’s one flaw here. It’s the assumption that education is only for the purpose of obtaining employment. For some of us, knowledge has value that surpasses the benefits of gainful employment. While we may earn our daily bread in one field, we still find joy and enrichment from the education we have acquired in other fields. One of the problems in society today is that education, people and objects are seen to have only the value of the monetary gains they bring. That is the result of confusing vocational training with education. To move along the path toward wisdom, we need both.

    • Bryan

      There’s no flaw here. Pete is “specifically” discussing 1) the ability to attain a teaching position 2) in Biblical Studies after 3) one has completed doctoral training. It is very rough in academia and perhaps rougher in the church. Nobody wants to take out over a hundred grand in loan debt for no other purpose than to get an “education”. People who pursue a PhD have a passion for a particular field and after their education is complete, want to serve in a job that is rewarding for both them and their students. If “education” was the only subject under discussion here then one could simply refer to Will Hunting’s apt quote, “You dropped a hundred grand on an education you could’ve got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”

  • Jeremy

    Apparently, I’ve written a blog post where I disagree with what you said here. Not sure what post people read since your post only spurred me to reflect on my PhD experience, and I concluded that practical concerns like my program not costing much and having a plan B for work helped me finish. I rather think that me suggesting students think about practical concerns meshes well with what you’ve said, but such is the silliness that is the internet. At any rate, if any of those pingbacks have come on your radar, please ignore. If not, all the better.

  • Perhaps there would be more jobs if more people thought that there is a lot to discover in biblical studies. The overall sentiment I get from theologians—thankfully you are an exception—is that just about everything about God that will be discovered has been discovered. Kind of like those pesky physicists who, immediately prior to the quantum revolution, told students to not study physics because it had pretty much all been figured out.

    I get that your message is more one of “Tell prospective students how likely this degree is to land them increased pay over not having the PhD”, but the thing that jumped out at me was that biblical studies is so undervalued that this is a problem. It reminds me of Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which you blogged about in January 2013.

    I came across this phenomenon in college, when students would happily (well, willingly) spend nine hours on a problem set, but spending that much time studying the Bible in a week (with as much concentration, and talking about it with friends and consulting resources) was out of the question. Until this changes, I doubt that Christians will sufficiently value biblical studies. To change this, I think the Bible must be made to come alive to people much more than it is now. I know it’s possible, for it was done for me.

  • TimEnns

    Higher education was not constructed to gain employment.

    • Leum

      Then restructure the way degrees are funded so that we don’t have to get high-paying jobs after graduation in order to justify the massive loans most of us have to take to get higher education.

  • Dan Ortiz

    Why is pastoring a secondary choice? Surely bridging the chasm between the classroom and the pew is a worthy pursuit.
    My tutor was honest with me saying that I will most likely not get an academic career after finishing the PhD programme… I’m cool with that, as I don’t see academia as a profession that promotes a healthy attitude towards the work-life balance. …. similar in that respect to being a stand-up comic.

    • Jdbar14

      It’s certainly not a secondary choice, but it does require a different skillset. If you have a heart to bridge that chasm, that’s wonderful and the church certainly needs more people with that call.

      My suspicion is, however, that most people in ph.d. programs want to make careers in the academy and many may not have the necessary people-skills and compassion to successfully serve in the day-to-day grind of pastoral ministry

  • erd

    Props for bringing this issue up Peter- I am ABD from a top
    tier institution in Theology, and due to the countless frustrating issues
    experienced by myself and my classmates, I have long ago given up the dream of
    teaching in a higher ed environment. Thankfully, I saw this coming, and keep up
    my I.T. skills, and was able to return to that field. However, I quickly
    learned that my Ph.D. candidacy was a liability on my resume, as was my M.A.
    > I was considered “overqualified” for many open positions. This made
    accounting for my years in school somewhat tricky, but I was eventually able
    overcome to overcome the obstacles of my education. I will finish my degree,
    but I have little expectation that this will lead to any employment in higher
    education- it MAY eventually be of some assistance in my professional career-
    but only as “proof” of critical thinking skills and ability to process new

    Here’s a hint: if your graduate education is in a non-STEM
    or non-business field, the real world couldn’t care less. It’s not just Biblical
    or theological fields- really all the humanities are in the same boat. I’ve
    learned to keep my M.A. and Ph.D. candidacy off my linkedIn profile and nobody
    at my current job knows I have a graduate education in the humanities.

    So my advice: if you have family wealth, a highly paid spouse, are bored, and
    don’t really “need” a job, a graduate education in the humanities is probably
    an o.k. choice. On the other hand, if you hope to be employed in the field, ask
    lots of questions, look long and hard at the conversations going on about the
    plight of humanities adjuncts.

    Furthermore, pay attention to the whole landscape- 1+ trillion dollars in
    student loan debt is unsustainable. We are beginning to see previously stable, financially
    solid institutions forced to cut tenured positions to make their budgets- due
    to declining enrollment in non-STEM fields- so the next blow will be the waves
    of experienced, published, previously tenured assistant professors competing
    for any open tenure-track positions available. Good luck competing with those
    folks for the few tenured positions opening up.

    We are only seeing the beginning tremors of the higher
    education financial tsunami…it’s going to be a difficult time for many.

    -thankful for my provision

  • Rob

    It’s odd that there are so many people interested in higher education in Biblical studies (and related fields too I suppose) and that there is so little real-world application for the degrees. What is the problem really? If there are that many people interested in education, why are there so few educator positions? I’m one of the people who never attempted to get a PhD, even though I have a very high interest in doing so, precisely because I understood that getting a job would be very difficult. Not that getting two masters degrees in Biblical Studies helped anything. But at least I’m in less debt. Still, I think that teaching at a seminary or university is not the ONLY legitimate application for a Biblical Studies PhD.

    • Jdbar14

      What others would you suggest? I can think of vocational ministry and that’s about it. Would love to know if there are other unturned stones.

  • Wally Morris

    I think that what is also unethical is to continue to teach at a school where you no longer believe what that school believes.

  • Ryan

    Salient post – however, Biblical Studies PhD programs should be compared to PhD programs in general as a control. There are plenty of doctoral studies that don’t make for a particularly directed career path.

  • Paul Stevenson

    While this discussion is about PH.D’s focused on tenured teaching positions the discusion should be broadened. Logically they have the greatest investment in money and time. However, the ethics of such degrees at the undergraduate and masters level are equally valid. Teaching such students (but not PH.D’s) is not some moral high ground. Reading school catalogues about employment with such degrees is like a trip down imagination lane. These programs lead to an advocation not a vocation. Instead of focusing on a tiny number of professor-class graduates who cannot get field employment we should ask what of the huge number of lower degree students they aspire to teach?