I returned a week ago from the annual academic sea-of-plaid-nerd-fest known as the AAR/SBL meeting—American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature—where I am a member of the latter.
Each year I return home refreshed with some new idea about this and that, but I also bring with me some cynicism (as hard as that is to believe) and even a sense of righteous indignation, as was the case this year.
I had several conversations with people who have had their PhDs for some time and who simply can’t find any teaching job or a financially viable one if they do. And so they are despondent and mourning their “first love,” a life of scholarship and teaching, and moving on to another career so they to support their families and reclaim some dignity.
Folks, there are TOO MANY people out there with earned doctorates in Bible and Theology. There will never be enough jobs to accommodate the numbers. Schools are cutting or downsizing programs, but the PhD conveyor belt keeps moving along at a steady clip as if everything is just peachy.
One problem in all this that needs to be addressed with some urgency is the moral irresponsibility of academic institutions who blissfully offer degrees in fields for which there are no jobs. I lay much of the blame on schools who boast of their top flight PhD programs (whether true or not) and continue to recruit students, but are apparently oblivious to the fact that their graduates won’t find work in what they think they are training for: tenure track positions in colleges, universities, or seminaries.
To be sure, let the buyer beware. People bent on getting a PhD should put their grey matter to work and figure out what they are getting themselves into. But the brunt of the blame goes to the schools.
Here is what I think should be done to restore a bit of sanity, in no particularly order.
1. Schools should publish statistics of how many of their graduates over the last 10 years currently have full time teaching positions (tenure track or not) and where.
2. Schools should be transparent at the outset with any prospective student about the realities of the job market. Tell them the truth.
3. Evangelical schools should not be in the PhD-granting business at all in a market like this. Their graduates will not be considered viable candidates for openings other than in conservative schools.
4. Some students are fine with #3, but they need to know they will be competing for those same jobs with other ideologically conservative students who are getting PhDs from top research universities. Having a PhD from Cambridge or Harvard (or even Yale) looks better in school catalogues than a PhD from a conservative seminary/university that offers a PhD.
5. Tell the students that they should have a solid Plan B and then tell them to make it their Plan A. Teaching overseas is a possibility. Pastoring, unfortunately, seems to be the default option, but they should get out of their heads the naive, idealistic fantasy of the scholar-pastor, delivering publishable sermons to an eager congregation. Don’t kid yourself: apart from rare cases, by pastoring you’re leaving scholarship behind, and woe to the frustrated PhD who tries to turn his/her church into an ersatz classroom.
Bottom line, I think PhD granting institutions that are graduating under or unemployed men and women need to take a look at what they are doing, communicate that honestly and effectively, and if need be consider closing down the program. This is a moral and justice issue.