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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

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

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

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 has been the late Larry Hurtado (pictured), who completed his career in 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.


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