Going for the Ph.D. . . . Anyway (Part 2)

On this hand, I agree with the general advice that the Ph.D. demands too much time and money to pursue it unless you have a job in mind that requires it, namely, an academic post.

On the other hand, other jobs can be had for which the Ph.D. is a big plus. And nowadays, with MBAs and lawyers and even medical specialists being un- or underemployed, all most good degrees can do is give you “a big plus” rather than a guarantee of lifetime, lucrative, and likable employment.

Here are some other employment sectors, then, in which a Ph.D. can be an asset:

Editing: If you’ve actually written a book-length project (called a “dissertation”!) under the supervision of experts in your field, you learn what true expertise is, what it looks like, and how it is achieved. You’re thereby qualified significantly over the next person who is just as smart, but has only read books, not written one. Your opinions also carry more weight, which is useful when you are thrashing things out with your colleagues on when you are contending with recalcitrant writers.

Journalism: Journalists have to know how to do things a lot faster than scholars do. But they’re the same things scholars do: frame a significant question, marshal the right resources, plot an interpretive line through the information, and present a cogent case. If journalism is “history written on the fly,” then scholars in the humanities can be really good journalists–if, of course, they can shed some of the habits of the academy that impede journalism and pick up the ones necessary to work for news media, such as being ready to settle for a pretty good handle on something rather than exhaustive knowledge of it. They must also re-learn a “plain-speaking” vocabulary, rather than take refuge, as we academicians are wont to do, in circumlocution and periphrasis. (Ahem.)

Civil and Foreign Service: Policy makers have always needed people who can sort and present information efficiently and disinterestedly. Nowadays, that need is more acute than ever. Somebody has to pore over the relevant documents and other data (while expertly  discerning and setting aside the irrelevant ones) to help those in political office understand situations before they make their choices. And, yes, it would be swell if a few more people like this actually became those politicians. (It would be even better if major Christian organizations employed people like this to furnish their boards and presidents with a full range of data before they decided matters affecting many people, hours, and dollars.)

Activism: Leaders of groups concerned for social change need skills in both broad and deep analysis, in comprehending complex issues and resisting easy answers, and then boiling things down to a single thesis sentence that can motivate support and persuade those needing persuading. Ph.D. work can help you do that well. Furthermore, the Ph.D. still carries a lot of social prestige, and it is a lifelong advantage to whatever cause you represent to be able to walk into a room and be introduced as “Dr. So-and-so.” It maybe shouldn’t be such an advantage, but it is.

Campus Christian Work: You like teaching young adults? You like the university world? You like connecting Christianity with current events and issues? Then get the training necessary to do it well and join up with IVCF or a similar organization that can put you on a university campus as perhaps the only  Christian most students will encounter with that training. Yes, the cultures of some of these organizations can be discouraging to the life of the mind, ironically enough, as they sometimes overemphasize relationships and feelings and spirituality and activity rather than what the university itself is about: thinking. But I’ve met a number of very sharp staff workers with Ph.D.’s over the years who have made decisive differences in the lives of young people. And they have particularly been qualified to deal with the thoughtful, marginalized inquirers who rarely find adequate answers in churches and so circle off into libraries and book clubs and various special interest groups in which their questions are welcomed and answered on an appropriate level. You could lead a campus group that also welcomes such people, not just the “spiritual kindergarten” that so many campus groups are.

Pastoring: If there are too many qualified people for the academic jobs available, there surely aren’t too many qualified people for the pastoral jobs available. As higher education becomes more and more the norm in North America and related societies, are churchgoers going to want less-educated pastors? Aren’t we going to need more-educated pastors, people who know how to find things out–not just quickly (anyone can use Wikipedia) but reliably–and put them together so as to help congregations wrestle successfully with the Big Issues of our day? If you’re smart enough and serious enough and self-controlled enough to consider an academic career, consider taking the Ph.D. and then becoming, instead, the pastor you wish you had.

Here’s hoping, in fact, that more qualified people take the Ph.D. in order to improve the work in each of these vital sectors. (Note: Regent College doesn’t offer the Ph.D., so I have no ulterior motive in saying so!) Yes, you have to be very careful about the time and money involved. But if you are preparing for a demanding and interesting career, then prepare. And the doctorate may well constitute a crucial part of that preparation.

4 Responses to “Going for the Ph.D. . . . Anyway (Part 2)”

  1. Darcy Gullacher

    You alluded to another academic department where the Ph.D. can be of great benefit, but didn’t mention it outright: librarians.

    The MLIS degree is still the “gateway” into librarianship, but a Ph.D. on top of that opens a lot of doors in academic library administration and academic subject-speciality librarian positions. Assuming, of course, that subject-speciality librarians still exist in ten to twenty years.

  2. Kessia Reyne

    I read your advice appreciatively,

    and I will now live completely contrary to it and start my PhD next semester without a definite career goal in mind. Ha! #hoshana :)

  3. Jeff

    This is really great advice — thanks, Prof. Stackhouse! For some reason, it brought to mind an idea that was recently raised elsewhere on the Web: thinking of the PhD as just one job among many that one might hold over a lifetime (http://www.hookandeye.ca/2011/11/degree-is-job-modest-proposal-for-phd.html). Assuming one gets funding, four or five years as a PhD could prove a very rewarding experience as well as providing great, flexible hours for other pursuits (my wife and I have had four kids over the course of my MA and PhD). Coming out on the other side into an unknown future can be quite stressful, but I suppose that mystery is always there whether we think we’ve got our plans laid out properly or not (Prov. 16:9; Is. 50:10-11). Your post reminds me that, on the one hand, there are a number of ways to be faithful and, on the other, that careerism is perhaps sometimes a difficult mode in which to pursue such faithfulness. Maybe the lack of jobs in academia can help to disrupt that narrow focus somewhat in a positive way?

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