Let’s be practical, shall we? Here is my bottom line: Unless you can honestly say to yourself that you can’t imagine not getting a PhD in Biblical Studies, don’t do it.
The financial and personal challenges you go through in pursuing your degree–not to mention the job market once you enter it–will be unbearable unless you have a genuine, authentic, deep inner drive to spend the next 5-10 years in school.
Note, I am not asking whether you have a sense of calling. “Calling” can sometimes be Christianese to inflate the importance of what you want to do. At times it can even be used as an excuse for failing to do the proper amount of introspection. Don’t baptize a bad idea by getting God involved. God wants you to know yourself, to understand what makes you tick, which is often a good indication of how he made you.
If you are truly called to be a biblical scholar, you will find out soon enough. Others will let you know. Your first indication, however, is whether going forward gives you a true sense of joy and inner fulfillment–whether the thought of it makes you happy.
If you are doing it so others will think you are important, or because you are convinced God needs you to reform your denomination or the field of biblical studies, or because you worship the false god of intellectual prestige (that god doesn’t exist, by the way), don’t do it–for your sake and for the sake of everyone else, don’t do it.
Anyway, in no particular order, here are some of the issues I think you should keep in mind in thinking through whether this path is for you.
1. You won’t make very much money unless you are one of those who also writes a lot. Make sure you are fine with making as much as some recent college–or even high school–graduates. Know the salary expectations and be realistic.
And don’t assume you will do a lot of writing. Not everyone can pull it off, and the publishing world is a victim of the economic downturn as much as any industry. They may not be as willing to take risks on unknown authors as they were in previous years. Or if they are, the advance may be a few hundred dollars or so at best. Publishers have to make a living, too.
2. Repeat after me: adjunct faculty. The job market is ridiculously over-flooded. When I graduated with my PhD in 1994, there were about 30 advertised positions in “biblical studies and related fields” (NT, OT, Early Christianity, Second Temple Judaism). There were about 325 men and women graduating with PhDs in those fields. Do the math. And that figure didn’t include all those PhDs from the previous year or two who are still looking. The scenario today is worse, in large part because of the economic downturn.
Add to that another factor: many schools who hire Bible faculty have, understandably, denominational requirements, which eliminates a lot of contenders right off the bat. And if you went to an Evangelical seminary, you will likely not make the cut for jobs in research institutions. They don’t want to risk hiring a fundamentalist.
Schools are figuring out that they can hire adjuncts for about $3000/course with no benefits and no voting power. Students generally don’t care, or more likely are not tuned in to all of this. Schools are also moving toward increased online offerings, which are also commonly staffed by adjuncts.
To make matters worse, even the biggest schools are closing down searches for financial reasons or not filling positions when faculty retire.
The era of the tenure-track position will grind down to a crawl. Do not assume that the cushy conventional position your professors have, one that will pay the mortgage and put your children through school, will be a realistic goal in the coming years. You may find yourself supplementing your income some other way, or your spouse might have to be the main income provider.
PhDs are going to have to think out of the box more and more.
3. Go to a top-tier school and make sure you network. Students who get their PhD from a seminary are unhireable in the general job market. If your goal is to enter the general job market, you almost certainly have to go to a top-tier school. Think about it. If there is an opening at an Evangelical college or seminary and there are Evangelicals finishing up at high profile programs, they have an edge, to say the least. It looks good in the catalogue for attracting students.
What can help neutralize this factor is having connections. Search committees like seeing familiar names, known commodities. What will also help is if an opening is at a school that is leery of degrees from research universities. Some schools actually like hiring their own PhDs or PhDs from schools deemed “safe” to help insure doctrinal requirements remain secure. If that is for you, fine. Just know what you are getting yourself into.
Of course, some who pursue a PhD already have a job, or are not interested in seeking fulltime academic employment (they may plan on pastoring or serving on a church staff). If that’s for you, your options are wide open, and this post is not or you.
4. Think globally. The job market in “conventional” schools is miserable, but there are Christian institutions around the world who would give their right arm to have good, humble, and educated people teach them biblical studies. Of course, this is a very big shift in expectations for many earning PhDs in the west, but there is a need there.
5. Watch for the ever-present doctrinal issues. I talked about this in my last post, so no need to repeat myself. Just be aware that by getting a PhD you are alienating yourself from 99% of the educated western Christian world. Few people are tracking with you. Ideas you now consider fundamental and elementary may be strange and threatening, even to those with earned doctorates.
Also, in a growing climate of suspicion in Evangelicalism today, you may be scrutinized more than you might think. It does not matter whether you think you fit. It only counts whether the school’s decision makers do. You can be replaced (see #2 above).
There are other issues to keep in mind, too, and I am very interested in hearing some of your experiences and thoughts on the matter. What you say may wind up being very important to someone thinking through this.
In closing, remember what I said at the outset. If you know yourself and decide that you need to be a biblical scholar, go for it–just keep your eyes open along the way.