The Perils of Doing a Ph.D.: Be Forewarned

I saw this on Facebook via my friend Nathan Smith. It’s a graphic about those who do Adjunct teaching as a vocation to earn a living. It’s a disaster especially in the field of theology and ministry. It’s from this post on Progressive Geographies.


The takeaway for me is:

a.) do a Ph.D. only if it’s paid for, and if it’s part of a vocational goal that is not full time teaching. Ph.D.’s can be helpful to those in various fields – writing – research – editing – publishing etc. One can even pursue ministry while teaching in a University/seminary as a side hobby (but not the means to earn a full time salary).

b.) In ministry, after one has sufficient practical experience, engaged in serious theological reflection, writing and publishing, full-time teaching opportunities may emerge. You didn’t necessarily plan on this. It happened and it does happen. In fact I would say practicioner/scholars is the wave of the future in the seminaries. But one should not see a Ph.D. as direct one-way ticket to a job in teaching.

Any other opinions on Ph.D. careerism out there? What’s your experience?

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20 comments on “The Perils of Doing a Ph.D.: Be Forewarned
  1. Yeah… and then there is the ethics of marketing our PhD and Masters theology programs to students knowing that there are simply few teaching jobs out there in at least in the N. America, Europe and Australasia.

  2. I just met with my advisor a few weeks ago to go over my first two chapters. Ultimately, the work that is still needed for those two chapters is probably equal to the first draft of the last two. I am not sure, but I think that puts me closer to completion in the fall of next year rather than the spring- adding of course a semester’s worth of tuition to an already extended program.

    That coupled with the stress and deconstruction that takes place in the course of doing a PhD makes me wonder if I would do it over again if I had the chance.

    The theological academy is in a world of hurt. The competition for money and attention is such that it is almost nearly expected that a candidate have two masters degrees. As faculty age, they are less likely to leave tenured slots. So the market place of newly minted PhDs is flooded. Even then, this prospect of limited employment cause many ABD’s to drop out of the process all together.

    Something has to give….

  3. JR Rozko says:

    And this is only the practical side. There remains the theological issue of the degree to which standard approaches to advanced levels of theological education are actually designed to produce the kinds of leaders that a missional ecclesiology calls for. And I don’t just mean vocational pastors, I mean Christian leaders of all stripes.

  4. steve says:

    I find this graphic disturbing and distorting.

    It assumes that you do a PHD for vocational reasons. But that’s not what it was created for. It was designed around apprenticeship and the pursuit of innovation.

    You do a PhD for the love of knowing. You do it in practical theology in order to bring rigour and depth into ministry.

    steve taylor

    • JR Rozko says:

      That’s a bit of an over simplification isn’t it Steve. I don’t know anyone, Christian or not, who would invest the better part of a decade and tens of thousands of dollars merely for the “love of knowing.”

      Or, let’s suppose you are right and the premise of the graphic is off the mark. Does that not make the point even more sharply – namely, that we’ve invented an entire system of theological education that people DO look to for vocational preparation.

      In the first scenario, the system is failing us. In the second, it’s broken from the start. Either way you slice it, it seems that we’re in a bad way, no?

  5. Scott Holland says:

    Yes, and in addition to the comments already offered, as I move in professional circles in the church and broader culture, it seems the academic language of theology is becoming obsolete, a rather dead language spoken only by marginal specialists. I don’t cheer this death of reflective, historical God-talk. I do have a PhD in the field, but many of us are now asking, “What comes after the death of theology?”

  6. steve says:

    Sure the system is broken. Broken because people, church included, have seen the PHD has a way to teach ie vocational. So we’ve let ourselves be sucked into the narratives of pragmatism.

    I’m reading about the history of Gladzor gospels, 13th century Aremenia. The monks – who gave their lives to live simply in community forming leaders – would scratch their heads at the graphic and the notion of phds and adjuncts forming disciples.

    I praise God for the glut because it makes more likely a future in which PHDs are in churches not seminaries and we mentor more phds alongside reading Scripture and planting churches. The context is base ecclesial Christian community.

    steve taylor

  7. Jon Coutts says:

    Having done a PhD and then looked for ministry work, there is obviously and sadly a lot that rings true here. But since in my case the PhD was in systematics with a practical/ecclesial bent I can speak quite fondly of what I gained from that further study on a vocational level, even if it will probably go mainly unrecognized and unpaid for. For instance, I can say for certain that I’d never have had such an accountable learning experience if I’d done the Masters and then went forward on experience and casual reading alone. The critical thinking, intensive peer review, and responsibility to historical, biblical, systematic and practical theology which I was forced to learn in PhD studies was, to my mind, irreplaceable. No matter how depressingly stupid a career move it was in today’s pragmatics-first climate.

  8. I think certainly the pursuit of a theology PhD is a matter of vocation- in the sense of calling. So certainly the idea that we go through this process for a sweet pay check isn’t really a matter of the equation.

    But there is a reason that the example above is of monks working at a project. 1) it was a calling and 2) their way of life was conducive to the obsession, the life’s time of learning and work that is involved. Our current model of graduate work is based on Asceticism, or more specifically an assumption of a monastic vocation. First, the pursuit of a PhD today has not adjusted to the economic realities of our day. And second it has not adjusted to the the needs and realities of the church itself.

    I certainly assume that my studies are for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. However, I also do not see that as an individual enterprise. This exploration is not for the love of knowledge, but the love of Christ and a vocation for the church. However, the current academic structure is not so much oriented to the church but to the academic pursuits and its well being (either for the guild or the university).

  9. Branson says:

    As a recent Ph.D. grad who has a full-time tenure-track position, I read this with survivor guilt. But it also prompts questions about how the Christian academy has become so divorced from the church and how we can re-integrate them. Does the difference between church and world really make a difference when it comes to our approach to graduate studies? I’m not sure it does.

    It seems ironic (or just sad?) that we have more Ph.D.’s than ever in biblical and theological studies, while at the same time average church-goers are probably less biblically and theologically literate than they’ve ever been. It seems like we need a Spirit-filled imagination to think about new possibilities that could utilize the gifts and abilities of Ph.D.’s for the sake of equipping the entire church.

  10. Jon Weatherly says:

    The comments here are among the best that I’ve seen on this issue. Whatever the career prospects of PhDs in theological disciplines, it’s clear that they know how to think. Or at least you who have commented do.

    I’m struck that for the academy at large, the growth in the use of cheap adjuncts is a rational response to the reality of the marketplace: PhDs are in oversupply. It might be noble to pay them more, but every extra dollar spent is a dollar that can’t be spent on something else. Yes, there’s enormous waste in higher ed on administrative overhead, luxurious facilities, inane social-engineering initiatives. But right now, the people who make the budgets are feeling the pressure of a public that has awakened to the problem of value for money in higher ed. A mob with pitchforks and torches is storming the castle, and they’re not interested in adjuncts’ miserable salaries. They want their own money back, thank you very much.

    It is, of course, the academy that has produced that oversupply, by admitting far more research students than the number of positions for them when they complete. But I doubt that this was a deliberate economic move. I think instead that institutions and faculty members want the cachet of a PhD program and lots of students in it. And theological students are so earnest, so in love with their discipline, so admiring of their own professors that they take the offer of a place, even if they must self-finance, in what now looks like reckless pursuit of an impossible dream. There’s a co-dependency here that’s sinister or tragic. I can’t decide which.

    For those with PhDs who are now focused on and dedicated to work in the church, I commend you. And I pray that you prove the truth of the dictum to which most give only lip service: that the parish is where the best theology is done.

  11. Zach says:

    I read a recent journal article that urged new PhD’s to consider working and teaching in other areas across the globe where Christianity is growing (e.g. Asia, Africa, South America) and there is great need for with those with advanced training to train and teach church leaders and pastors, and at the same to help encourage/develop academic work in these areas. Additionally, this could be a unique career missions opportunity for some.


    • JR Rozko says:

      Zach, I’ve had several friends encourage the same thing. Can you reference the journal article you came across?

      • Zach says:

        The article is titled “The American Evangelical Academy and the World: A Challenge to Practice More Globally” by D. Keith Cambell. It was an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Volume 56.2

  12. Micah Brake says:

    I stopped pursuing this path a year and a half ago. This chart is among the most compelling reasons why I’m no longer pursuing a theological Ph.D., Alan. I didn’t want to take a five year gamble when my odds were 8%. Add to that fact that I would be a conservative theologian, teaching things like the Bible is inerrant, and my prospects further diminish. I taught 6 hours adjunctively last year and made 4k For the semester. Couldn’t stomach that career drudgery on the front end of a PhD program. The ministry/family goals I have (adoption/foster care) are highly unlikely to be met through a PhD in liberal arts, unfortunately. While my first love is and always will be the academy, I am unwilling to gamble my family’s livelihood on that decision. I think that folks who managed to get in ten years ago were lucky. My age folks–not so much.

  13. PJH says:

    The first graduate school was in the Garden of Eden–and it was forbidden territory.

    If we shut down every graduate program in theology for the next 100 years–do you think the amount of learning, leadership development, innovation, and advance in innovation would inccrease?

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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