Theological Education Bubble III: Just because you got a PhD from … does not mean that you must be paid a livable wage for doing what you have chosen to do

Are you thinking about a PhD in evangelical theology?  I want to share part of a message that a seminary dean once sent to me.  Now pretend that you are the recipient and that you had just been wondering if your employer is ever planning to offer you full-time employment.  The date of the message was 1998 (emphasis mine):

Just because you got a PhD from [insert name of well-respected university] does not mean you must be paid a livable wage for doing what you have chosen to do. There is simply no correlation economically between the level of education and what people end up getting paid. This is certainly true in the case of the academic community, where there are literally thousands of people who do PhD’s in the humanities (including theology) and who simply cannot find a job working full-time in the area for which they were educated. For at least a decade, there have been fewer and fewer full-time academic teaching positions ([Insert name of large, well-known institution] Seminary, for example, has said that no more than 60% of faculty positions will be tenure track positions, and they have really not added anybody net in recent years) open each year, matched with an increase in more and more PhD graduates each year. The trend will be more and more people teaching as adjuncts, regardless of the number of courses that they teach (many such teachers teach a much larger than traditional full-time load). This is not some plot by the administration of such schools, but it is the only possible way for any but the very rich schools to survive (and the very rich schools are also moving into this direction).

If anything, the bubble in sacred and secular institutions alike has become more bloated since 1998.  Now one can ask why this man, who had taught one of my master’s level seminars, would not have warned me seven years earlier when he saw that I was on the way to do a PhD.  Does he not bear some responsibility for what I later became, an unemployed holder of a PhD?  I ask this not because I hold any rancour towards him.  Not at all.  But it is really a question of asking those who are handing out PhDs whether they are acting in their own interests or in the interests of the candidates.  Theological education, like all education (“The media is the message”), has become self-sustaining and self-justifying; producing more graduates employs staff and faculty and sustains the enterprise itself.  It doesn’t really have a purpose that is easy to see, because there are few jobs available where a PhD in theology is not a luxury rather than a necessity.  When you have 8000 people with PhD’s working as waiters and waitresses, then there is a serious problem.

Don’t get me wrong.  While I’m shrugging, I am not bitter nor do I regret my studies. My PhD was a luxury that my family could afford.  My dad and an inheritance from grandfather paid my full education and all my student loans by 1996, the year I graduated. But the situation in education is alarming–even those who have full-time jobs have little security as schools begin to downsize as a result of the economy.  One of my friends, a high-level administrator, is suffering from just such a downsize despite his PhD in science.  Actually, since I’ve become a DIY investor and financially independent as a result, perhaps I’ve been spared the pain that some of my friends with full-time academic jobs will soon face.