Going for the Ph.D. . . . Anyway (Part 1)

You have already read my page on considering Ph.D. studies here, right? Okay, then. Here’s some more to consider.

You can read lots of people telling you not to undertake Ph.D. studies. Some of them, paradoxically, go on to offer you plenty of good advice–notably the indefatigable Jamie Smith over at Calvin College–but I’m not sure they’re right about their initial waving-off.

One strand of the logic runs that only people with first-class pedigrees can get jobs at first-class institutions. That’s mostly true, but only mostly. Even in the seriously compromised “market” of higher education (which is a market wildly distorted by factors such as tenure–for which I am grateful in some respects, resentful in others), quality people can still get to quality places in time.

Among my friends are Larry Hurtado, recently retired from the Professorship of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh (a pretty good school) with a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University–a university with a fine reputation in some fields, but hardly a New Testament powerhouse.

Then there’s Harry Stout, the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Church History at Yale University (also a pretty good school) and sometime chair of the Department of Religious Studies there, whose Ph.D. is from Kent State University, a school famous mostly because some students were shot by National Guardsmen in an antiwar demonstration a generation ago.

I could go on to more instances, but I won’t. If you look at the elite schools, you will find that most of their hires are, indeed, graduates of elite schools. But not invariably. That’s all I want to say about that: Not invariably.

Most of us, however, do not have an “Ivy League or nothing” attitude toward an academic career. And for readers of this blog, there’s more good news than the sliver of hope I offered you so far in this post. Here it is: If you’re a Christian, as most of you are, you have double  the chances of being hired, because at least some of the networks of Christian colleges and universities are open to you.

To be sure, if you’re the “wrong” kind of Christian–a Roman Catholic applying to certain Baptist colleges (and most of them are pretty certain–just a little joke there, Baptist friends!) or a Wesleyan applying to particular Dutch Reformed schools (and most of them are…etc.)–you’re out of the running. But if you are the “right” sort of Christian, you have a decisive edge over the other 50 applicants for the position.

Of course, if your Ph.D. is simply from the wrong kind of school for a place–say, a Ph.D. from an evangelical school and you’re applying to State U.–then you do have only one network of schools in which you can compete for work. But if you have a reputable Ph.D. from a school that can be taken seriously both by non-confessional schools and confessional ones, your opportunities are thereby increased.

So don’t be cowed simply by the horrifying raw numbers of Ph.D.’s per job vacancy offered by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the American Academy of Religion, and the like. Yes, the job market is bad. But it has been really bad for my whole career (I finished in 1987), and it varies a lot depending, as I suggest, on the question of “fit.” If you fit someplace, you have dramatically better chances of getting the job, no matter the credentials of your competitors. And unless I’m forgetting someone, all of the recent Regent grads I know who have Ph.D.’s now have secured teaching jobs.

If you’ve got what it takes, good colleges and universities will see that and hire you. One last example? Villanova University is a fine place to get a doctorate, but it’s not Tier One. And yet you know who has a Ph.D. from there and has gotten hired by a very good school–to which he has brought lustre through his extraordinary publishing career?

You guessed it: Jamie Smith.

8 Responses to “Going for the Ph.D. . . . Anyway (Part 1)”

  1. William

    “If you fit someplace” and “If you’ve got what it takes…” For a career choice that requires individuals to sacrifice their potential for professional development in a more marketable field as young adults, this seems like a pair of major IFs. Indeed, it’s all very arbitrary. Plus, yes, certain kinds of Christians have an edge for certain kinds of jobs, but in my field (typically a large major) there are only a handful of openings at CCCU schools each year. With more and more evangelicals getting advanced degrees, departments can bypass the new Ph.D., and certainly the ABD, and pick up someone coming from a one-year position (perhaps not their first) and several publications (even a book) in hand.

    • John Stackhouse

      Yes, they ARE major conditions, Brother William. I’m not sure what other professions and business positions are like–is employment pretty much guaranteed for everyone with an MBA or business degree or . . . ? I don’t know, but what I hear leads me to think that’s not the case.

      But we also have to remember to compare like with like. Being a professor is an elite job. Elite. Regardless of the quality of the school, the job itself requires a very high degree of talent and training to do well. Yes, we’ve all had bad professors, but that only shows that we all agree on high standards. So in the nature of the case the job isn’t for just anyone who aspires to it–just like medicine, or being a CEO, or running your own restaurant successfully isn’t for everyone who wants to do it.

      And in a competitive market in which expertise and credentials both matter (note that I am not equating them), many, many PhD’s will not get work, or very good work, because one or the other or both is just not good enough. I’ve written in the foregoing as if all PhD’s are more or less the same, but of course they aren’t. And the ugly fact of the matter is that there are a LOT of PhD programs happy to take your money and eventually grant you a degree that is worth next to nothing on the job market. Normally (with the exceptions I’ve noted in mind), you do have to earn a degree from a school at least as good as the median quality of PhD’s in the sort of department in which you hope to be hired.

      On your last point, however, it doesn’t always work that way. I know of a young person who recently earned a PhD at a Top Tier school and was hired as an ABD in a tenure-track position. That’s exceptional, but it shows that if the person is extraordinary and the “fit” is judged to be right, head-to-head comparisons are not straightforwardly determinative.

      • William

        I tend to agree, but that’s why I’m a bit confused: if academic jobs require such high barriers to entry, why broadcast a general encouragement to pursue a PhD with academe as the goal? Already, more than enough people are applying to and entering doctoral programs (and I think you’re correct that many programs–and possibly whole disciplines–admit an unethical number of students). I notice that your Part 2 describes a few alternate career trajectories for PhD’s, so other options are available for those who turn out not to be elite. Still, entering the job market with a PhD but little management, administrative or similar types of experience is a major handicap.

        Overall, as I understand it, your advice is this: If you are in the exceptional minority who’s got what it takes and can get into at least a median-level PhD program, then go for it. For me, the troubling aspect here is that many people will waste their time and money finding out that they don’t have what it takes. I’m not saying other trajectories offer guaranteed employment, but they do offer better odds with fewer lost years of on-the-job professional development.

        Admittedly, this is all basically cost-benefit analysis. For many, the call and opportunity to pursue a PhD transcends that kind of analysis. As you point out, whether or not they secure an academic position is another question.

        • John Stackhouse

          I wrote my (long) page on “Thinking about a Ph.D.” precisely to help people avoid pursuing one if they oughtn’t. I don’t know of anyone who meets the criteria of that piece and hasn’t gotten work in the academy who wanted it. I don’t mean what I wrote is infallible, I’m just saying that, so far as I know, it’s reliable.

          Thanks for the comments–we need all the realism we can get in this conversation.

  2. knavis

    Can you make any predictions and/or observations regarding the disciplines that are going have a larger need for PhDs in them?

    I got a quintessentially interdisciplinary Peace Studies degree that I’m lucky to use in the “industry,” but I’m not interested in the same for a Master’s. So what disciplines might the perennially interested-in-everything person’s specialize in?

    • John Stackhouse

      The academy continues to be a pretty conservative place when it comes to interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity is not well understood, I have found, even when it is praised. And it certainly is not sought after for most teaching positions, which are instead generally described by discipline and field.

      So you need to figure out what your favorite angle of approach is to whatever you like to study the most, and pursue that to becoming credentialed and trained in this discipline and that field.

      I trained pretty broadly in the history of ideas, church history, and historical theology, and ended up teaching–you guessed it–mostly history for the first ten years of my career. As I began to teach and publish more and more in theology and ethics–themselves interdisciplinary pursuits–I qualified for a different kind of job, and got it here at Regent. Now I teach very little history, and I miss it, but I’m doing what the college needs me to do and mainly the sort of stuff that synergizes with what I feel called mostly to study and write about these days. But Regent is really unusual for being open to genuine interdisciplinarity, and even so most of us have a “main discipline” or maybe two, and a main field or two from which we have branched out.

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