Humanities Graduate School: “Just don’t go”


A sobering article from The Chronicle of Higher Education advises readers who are contemplating going to graduate school in the humanities: “Just don’t go.”

Unless, the author says, you are independently wealthy, have sure job afterwards (and that is a sure job, not just a good shot at a job), have a spouse who already has a steady source of income,  or you are earning a credential for a position you already hold.

Though the advice given here may be a hard pill to swallow for students looking to go on for a PhD of some sort (including in theology, biblical studies, or religious studies), it is worth hearing. The competition for jobs is fierce. For example, I was on a search committee a couple years ago for a College post, and we had over 30 applicants, the majority of whom not only had PhD’s, but also had some teaching experience. And this for a job in the middle of Saskatchewan–not exactly a place where people are pining to move!

Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t consider a humanities or theological studies PhD, but if you are going for one, you may need to consider, up front, that you may need to think very creatively and laterally about where and how you plan to use that degree once you are done. Only a small minority get into university, college or seminary positions. If that is your primary objective–well, don’t count on it.

I don’t want to discourage anyone here, and I think the Church actually needs a lot more people with humanities and theological studies PhD’s willing to serve in ministries and vocations outside of the academy. But I would be irresponsible if I didn’t tell prospective grad students to consider the realities to which this author points.


14 thoughts on “Humanities Graduate School: “Just don’t go”

  1. We talk about this every so often at school, and it is depressing. But most often we (or at least I) come to the conclusion that this is the burden laid upon us, and we trust it will find a place in the church, and hope against hope that we can also somehow make a living AND be able to teach and write and study for the church. But mostly we just try not to think about it I think, now that we are here anyway! That said, it makes one take pause before totally breaking the bank. False hope isn’t a great investment. Eghad. Anyway, thanks for not breeding false hopes.

  2. Brad Penner

    That’s why I am thankful (amongst many other important things) for my wife who is a teacher. She can work just about anywhere and actually be the bread-winner in the family. I guess this could possibly give me the opprotunity to get a half-time, or adjunct position and work my way into a school while my wife’s vocation sustains all of us. Either way, I too fret about having spent so much money and time earning my academic wall-paper that I can’t get a job in the field I am trained for. Who knows, with a last name like mine, maybe Steinbach Bible College will take me. I wouldn’t fight back if they did.

  3. Dustin

    My colleagues in the department where I study discuss this a lot. The job market in the academy is awful.

    Your post makes me think of a couple of things…

    First, humanities education has always been somewhat (intentionally?) disconnected from the job market, especially in the last 50 years. The idea of getting a PhD to get a job is probably a bad idea anyway, one I am guilty of holding. Trying to think of one’s job prospects can utterly sabotage the benefit, motivation and progress of one’s research. For example, it would be a travesty to order one’s doctoral research to the job market. Writing a doctoral dissertation is hard enough, apart from the pressure of trying to write something that will fit with the current trends and job market demands. It is no wonder that we have so many people doing PhD’s in religious or theological ethics rather than doctrine; ethics sells better than doctrine in the marketplace.

    Second, isn’t it somewhat concerning that we have so many of our brightest and best seminary students going on for PhD’s with the express purpose of working in the academy rather than working in local churches? This is a problem with evangelical culture, which does not consider or value the importance of theological education, as well as a problem, if I may be so bold, with the egos of strong students, who want the esteem and luxury of academic posts rather than the burden of pastoral ministry. It may even be a problem with seminary education that is built on an academic model that implicitly aims at reproducing academics rather than training pastor-theologians. This is not to say that every student should become a pastor or missionary… certainly many should not! It is concerning, though, isn’t it? Sometimes I wonder if many of us in the academy have abandoned the local church as the primary theological location of theological ministry in favor of the academy… isn’t this a theological problem?

    I do not mean to suggest that anyone in particular, including myself, should not or should not have entered into doctoral studies. I just mean to raise some questions…

  4. Some of you reading Theommentary will remember what Bob Seale, a former professor of theology here at Briercrest College & Seminary, has often said. He pointed out the irony of how many evangelical Christians wouldn’t dare to go to a medical practitioner who didn’t have the advanced MD degree, but who nevertheless balk at the suggestion that their pastor should have an MDiv (or heaven forbid, a PhD!). In other words, we wouldn’t dare trust the care of our temporal bodies to anyone without a doctoral credential, but we are quite willing to listen to people who haven’t thought deeply and prepared extensively about the Bible, theology, church history, or even counselling and leadership and are ready to make pronouncements about divine, eternal affairs!

    Of course, a PhD does not a pastor make, and I have no problems acknowledging that being a pastor is as much about having the right spiritual giftedness and discernment of calling. But again, we wouldn’t question someone’s need to go to med school who said, “I am called to be a medical doctor.” The question is, Why are we increasingly suspicious about why pastors should spend so much time in formal preparation? It is as if the sense of the call is deemed sufficient to prepare them. But even the Apostle Paul appeared to have gone to the Arabian Desert Seminary!

    I realize this is a way more complex problem than I am putting it here. However, I just wanted to affirm some of the things you fellows have been saying. And if I am one of those professors who is trying to make students in my academic image, and have given some kind of impression that a PhD is the “end all, be all,” then perhaps I may also need to repent of some things.

  5. Eric

    Or be willing to teach overseas. There’s an OT post in Khartoum that hasn’t had a single applicant for two years.

  6. Dustin

    Of course, David, I don’t think too many of your students could charge you with trying to make them in your image! If I recall, there were more than enough opportunities in your classes to do things other than write the typical academic paper. Indeed, didn’t you recently include an assignment on humor in your introductory theology class? That is certainly un-academic of you, but certainly not untheological!

    Part of the difficulty with this discussion is that it strikes at people’s perception of their own calling, something that they may have quite literally “banked on.”

    I would point out, however, that I am somewhat uncomfortable with Bob’s analogy and the notion that a PhD is helpful equipment for the care of souls. At least in many a department of religious studies the sort of research that takes place, maybe even especially in biblical studies, is quite detrimental to Christian faith. While I’m sure that God can use even a PhD in religious studies with an emphasis in early Christianity and Western religious thought to encourage the faith of his church, he would be bordering on accomplishing a miracle! 🙂 … though I suppose Barth would say that ministry is a miracle in the ministry anyway…

    Besides, there are well-known branches of the church outside of evangelicalism that have many, many PhD’s among their clergy, but unfortunately these often seem to be worse off than relatively un-educated evangelical pastors! Is there a correlation? I tend to think that perhaps there is…

  7. Dustin

    Oops… that was supposed to read “though I suppose that Barth would say that ministry is always a miracle and a mystery anyway…”

    I should go back to school…

  8. In response particularly to Dustin’s #1 above, but the whole conversation, really:

    It is tough when vocation (as in calling in Christ common to all) collides with vocation (as in being in the realm of the kind of thing the church (rightly) pays people for). This is especially difficult because:

    a) Bob Seale rightly pointed out that a Masters or PhD IS an important qualification for the ministy “job”, and yet it seems like for most pastoral posts you would have a real uphill battle convincing anywone that this qualification (not just the degree but the work of being informed theologically with care and precision in attenton to Scripture and tradition and current discussion). I agree that it does not guarantee you are equipped for ministry if you have a degree like this. But too many think the other way, that you are equipped by good intentions and charisma and organizational savvy alone. Eghad.

    b) It costs so much. So so much. A cost not measured merely in dollars, but time, energy, sacrifice of family, input of teachers, institutions, donations, patience of teachers and mentors and friends and family, misunderstanding of family and friends, years and or days of struggle and confusion and self-doubt . . . . the list could go on. At the end of the day I think only a deep conviction akin to “calling” can sustain this. I suppose curiosity or an ego could sustain it, but you’d have to have the money or power to support such curiousity or ego else it would collapse before reaching its goal.

    I agree with Dustin that the goal of a position can not motivate the studies. If it did, we would wiselly just “not go”. But I don’t think God would provide a calling without providing a means. Perhaps I will use my degree in a way that is not paid. But where it is so tied to a commonly conceived “job”-vocation, I must ask myself whether I am equipping myself properly and also or perhaps even whether I need to consider whether I am misinterpreting God’s “call” because of a reliance on old and used up categories of ministry. I wonder if we have to ask ourselves over and over again whether we ought to have “gone” to school at all.

    After all, if the church doesn’t want theological teaching or leadership (or at least not as much as is available to it), why am I busting my butt to go and get trained for it?

  9. Dustin

    Just to be clear, Jon, my point is not that theological “education” and reflection and work are not useful or are unimportant to Christian ministry. I believe that they are indispensable to ministry and agree with Bob. However, I do stand by my question about the PhD or MA (especially as it takes place in the modern university) is the proper place or form for this “education” and reflection and work. That is to say, it is not that theological education is unimportant but that the PhD (especially as it takes place in certain contexts) is the proper medium for this education. It could be, but degrees that teach skills for students to thrive in academic positions are not necessarily the same skills of a theologian. They might overlap somewhat, but they are not the same. A PhD dissertation is not necessarily the same thing as theological ministry. It could be, but it is not necessarily so. I think it is important to note that many of the best and most creative theologians did not have earned PhDs. I wonder if part of their success is due to the fact that there early work was not determined by the categories of the academy.

  10. Yeah I’d have to agree with you there. The PhD process that I know of is not even trying to produce pastors. I’m not sure it is that interested in serving the church directly at all, but indirectly, via the route that it takes for these important discussions to filter to the churches. That said, I would love to see preaching pastors who have a pastoral and leadership knack, gift, or at least willingness who are first and foremost finely trained theologians. I wouldn’t mind being one, actually. Whether I do or not, churches could sure use ’em.

  11. Stephen M. Garrett

    Thanks for bringing this article to our attention. I often wonder if I would have finished my PhD if I would have considered these issues. My post is simply to voice my experience that echoes what the article says while affirming what many have said in these comment blocks regarding vocation (i.e., God’s calling).

    I recently graduated TEDS with my PhD in Theological Studies (ST) and thought that I would have a position at a divinity school or seminary some where. About a year or so from graduating I began to realize the difficulty of this endeavor and so broadened my search to Christian colleges and universities, all regardless of location.

    Nothing to date has panded out with any of those applications, despite several phone interviews (I even had one position where I knew trustees, board members, committee members, and even the admin assistant!). I do realize that the economy has much to do with the current situation but reading this article makes me wonder even more how I underestimated the difficulty of landing a position after graduation.

    I came across an organization last February, though, called the International Institute for Christian Studies ( that places Christian academics across a wide arrary of disciplines (including theology) in secular universities around the world, what could be termed as an academic-missionary. The process with IICS has not been easy either but it is an opportunity to look beyond the typical outlets for PhDs, something that I was completely unaware of until recently. I am currently preparing to teach two courses (i.e., “Christianity and Social Values” and “Christianity and Culture”) at Vilnius Pedagogical University in Vilnius, Lithuania in the Fall of 2010(Those interested in my experience or the organization, I’d be happy to discuss more).

    So, in essence, I have tried to stay true to God’s calling through this difficult road while broadening my perspective on how I might serve God in his kingdom. I know that I might sound like an infomercial but I simply want to make known something to which I was unaware. I hope that some might be encouraged even if the task of PhD studies is long, arduous, and seemingly unfruitful in the end for those us in biblical/theological studies or the humanities. The fruit can bear in unexpected ways, but as I learned through a difficult road not always in ways that we might expect.

    Thanks David for posting this article. It raises several important issues, when we consider its implications for theological education, that are already being discussed here (e.g., nature of theological education, vocation, pastor-theologian, the task of theology itself, etc.). It also raises the awareness of the sacrifice required in a way not often considered when we seek to follow God’s leading.


  12. Hi,

    If any of your readers are interested in what happens if “you do go,” my blog follows my decision to drop out of a Ph.D. and find a job. My story was recently covered by the Chronicle of Higher Ed in their article “Master’s in English: Will Mow Lawns.” Let me know what you think.

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