Many in the past decade have been warning students about the dangers of pursuing a PhD in theological or biblical studies.

What’s the Problem?

Simply put, there are few jobs, those jobs are disappearing, and PhD graduates are multiplying like wild rabbits. Some suggest that schools should stop offering PhDs, while others go so far as to say it’s immoral to offer PhDs when there are so few jobs available.

The Plight of the Adjunct

Moreover, we have seen the rise of the ‘plight of the adjunct’ (see: NPR, NYTimes, Atlantic, MSU, GPR, etc.). Recent PhDs find adjunct teaching positions, cobble together a few classes for slave wages, and work 2-3 part time jobs on the side to somehow pay rent. The professor has little to no time to prepare lectures or to research, which makes their teaching sub-par and their knowledge stagnant.

Their administrative support is lackluster since they are not full time faculty, and they generally get no TA’s for grading help, again leaving less time for class preparation and research. These factors lead to little or no time to publish or attend academic conferences to read papers and network, leaving the adjunct in eternal academic limbo. Some professors live like this for a decade, clinging to the hope of some day finding a full time teaching job.

Who’s at Fault?

For sure, both professors and students suffer in these scenarios. But who is at fault? Should institutions keep giving out PhDs when jobs are not available?

First of all, I don’t feel sorry for the adjunct who chases his dream for a decade. That’s his or her own fault for not realizing that it’s just not going to happen. They should get a different job and support themselves and their family and make scholarship a hobby, perhaps with the opportunity to break into the academy through networking in the future. (The internet has made this more possible than ever.)

Secondly, there is fault with institutions and PhD supervisors. Institutions and mentors should be transparent that teaching jobs are few and far between. They should explain that the pool of full time faculty positions is contracting. They should note that on-campus education is struggling (e.g., Moody just shut down their Spokane campus and their Chicago campus is downsizing; another school just laid off 40+ full time employees), while online education is soaring (Liberty has over 100,000 students, more than 80,000 online).

And why is online education on the rise? Because it’s more lucrative.

You can pay an adjunct a pittance to be a glorified grader, rack up tuition fees from students who require far less attention from a professor since their online platform is mostly automated, and avoid the costs associated with running a physical campus. Adjuncts often get trapped in the online teaching world, where they do not get to develop and deliver lectures, further stunting their academic growth. (Note: I’m not knocking any specific online programs, just explaining how it contributes to the plight of the adjunct.)

If institutions and PhD supervisors do not make this clear to their students, I do believe they are not acting in the best interest of the student. Thankfully, a professor of mine constantly told me, over and over, that I should not expect a job after my PhD, and that I should seek to get experience in school administration, which is expanding in contrast to the shrinking of faculty. I fully took this warning to heart and have not placed my hopes and dreams in a full-time faculty position in the states. I have constantly pursued training and preparation for the various options of pastoring, teaching overseas, or working in the marketplace. If some day the Lord allows me to teach full time on a campus, all the better, but I’m not planning on it.

Students can also be at fault for not landing a job. Even if they’re not warned by their institution or professor, they can think rather naively that once they have that PhD they will be so unique and useful that any school would love to have them! Honestly, though, at this point there are so many PhD graduates and students that students must actively and aggressively pursue career-building opportunities throughout their program. If they do not, they will likely not have any chance of beating out not only their peers, but all the other 20-year teaching veterans out there searching for a new full time position.

Steps toward Landing a Job

If students want to land a job, there are a number of requirements to start pursuing now.

  1. Pray. A lot. You won’t land a job unless the Lord wills it.
  2. Present at least one paper a year, and more if you can. Present at the regional or annual ETS and SBL meetings, and you can find other organizations in your region if you look for them.
  3. Get at least one article published in a top-tier journal before you graduate. Maybe you work on that article for four years alongside your PhD, hopefully something tangentially related.
  4. Get any teaching experience you can, preferably on campus. Professors often need a guest-lecturer while they attend conferences, so boldly ask a professor who likes you if you can lecture for them and demonstrate how prepared you could be. If you can teach a course during your studies, all the better! Teaching online is also at least something to have on a CV.
  5. Get grants or awards for research. Schools like professors who can bring in funds for research.
  6. If you want to teach at a seminary, serve on church staff or volunteer heavily in leadership positions in your local church. If you want to train pastors, hopefully you’ve done a good amount of pastoring, and seminaries look for that.
  7. Pick the right school. If you have an undergraduate, masters, and PhD all from Southern Seminary (just as an example), you’ve not only demonstrated your lack of exposure to different traditions and methodologies but you’ve pigeon-holed yourself to being a viable candidate to basically six SBC seminaries (and probably even less – you’re obviously a dirty Calvinist!).
  8. Write a dissertation that will get published. Make sure your supervisor pushes you to do the best research you can. Get PhD graduates to read chapters and provide feedback. Read your chapters at conferences. Getting that dissertation published will give your CV a large boost and demonstrate your ability to do high-caliber research.

If, as a PhD student, you’re not pursuing most or all of these during your program, then you are also to blame for not landing a full time faculty position. If you do pursue them all and pursue them with excellence, you probably still won’t get a job. You better have a plan B and be ok with it.

Where to Go from Here?

So where from here? The plight of the adjunct is what it is, and adjuncts only have themselves to blame if they allow themselves to get taken advantage of by the educational system. Institutions must be transparent with incoming students about the unlikelihood of getting a full time teaching position after graduation. Mentors should stress this with their students as well, and should guide their student toward preparing as best as possible for the job market. Students should not assume their degree will land them a job, but should actively and aggressively pursue the above steps to make themselves as marketable as possible.

Finally, all this does not mean that students should stop pursuing PhDs. There are a number of reasons to get a PhD besides full-time teaching, and we’ll cover those in another post.