Theological Education Bubble V: On the payment of adjuncts

Fourteen years ago, after finishing a PhD at Cambridge, I managed to land a part time job at a seminary as an adjunct instructor.  The pay was $2700 per course, and I taught a full-time equivalent load (6 courses) in the year that I was there.  The salary was thus about $16,200.  But as a first-year instructor, I had to work essentially full time, despite having no committees or other administrative responsibilities.  One of my students was making more working at MacDonalds, with benefits.

I left after realizing that the seminary had no plans to regularize my appointment.  I made known my complaints, which were actually more about working conditions than it was about pay.   Afterwards, I taught at an African seminary for eight years on short term mission trips for no pay at all–in fact, we paid out of our own pockets to make it happen.  It really was more about working conditions (no office, no email, no key to building, no parking spot, etc.)  and the lack of any real status or respect that there is for the poor guy who can’t manage to find full-time employment in a field with an extremely limited number of job prospects.  I’ve known other adjuncts who have felt exactly the same way.  And you can read about these people and their stories all over the internet and in such distinguished publications as the Chronicle of Higher Education.  But when you are going through the experience, you feel isolated and like you are going to go insane.

The former dean who hired me wrote to me in an e-mail the following comments:

You may feel that they have treated your poorly, but …  I, as former Dean … , certainly do not agree …. I was giving you an opportunity to teach in a graduate seminary. This was intended to open the door to you to find long-term employment in the area, eventually.

There are dozens and dozens of young and older men and a few women who have PhD’s in biblical and/or theological studies who would love to have had the opportunity that I gave you. You had an inside track because I knew you from [before]. The fact that you had a PhD from Cambridge was of marginal value in securing this opportunity. During my time at [as dean], six of your colleagues were willing to teach without any pay at all, and one of them continues to teach regularly without pay. And there were dozens of others who were in regular contact with me asking to teach who were willing to take whatever we had to offer, or even teach for free, whom I could not, or chose (for a variety of reasons) not to, invite.

You have every right to set whatever salary you would like for your gifts and skills, but each of these institutions has every right to offer you whatever it thinks it can afford to pay you. If you do not come to an agreement, then each will have to go its separate way. This is the way the world works economically (and this is also the way the church and the non-profit world, which has much more limited resources, works as well).

He very kindly warned me not to make such a protest when deciding to leave, because in doing so I would give myself a negative image in the Christian community.  He was undoubtedly correct.

I write because many people who might stumble across this post, even some whom I know, might be spared this agony.  The academy is a ruthless place for scholars–Thomas H. Benton compares graduate school to a cult.  If you don’t act just the right way, you become branded and since there are so many other candidates for any position you might be competing for, you may as well kiss your career good bye.

In this post and my previous posts, I describe the bubble in academics and theological education which is so bloated and out of control that it seems irresponsible for educators to continue down this destructive path.  And yet I think they will not heed these kinds warnings because every institution seeks to survive, and every employee to preserve his own position.  Education in general is a bubble:  students on average get little out of it, its costs are escalating out of proportion, and afterwards, graduates experience the pain of  inescapable debt with few job prospects.  The bubble is there but few employed in it can admit it, nor are they necessarily well positioned to determine how to address the problem.

Theological Education Bubble IV: Is a PhD a good investment?

Let’s consider the costs of doing a PhD:

(1) Tuition and living expenses:  My guess is this is going to be in the range of an average of about $55K per year for a family; 45K per year for a couple with one PhD student, and 35K for a single.


(2) Minimum of three years lost wages for British PhD; average of six years for North America.  The average salary is $40,000.

=$120,000-240,000 lost wages; but if the above numbers living expenses would have to paid for in any case, so let’s subtract 50% for living expenses and 25% for taxes = $30,000-60,000

(3) Interest costs on student loans.  Let’s say you need to borrow only $50K at 5% and payments start only after graduation.  This calculation counts only PhD debt and assumes that the Master’s level education is already covered.

The first monthly payment (interest only): = $200.  Let’s conservatively say that the cost of interest loan will be $8000 over the lifetime of the loan.

So now, let’s see where we are, adding up these expenses; realistically a PhD will cost between $140-370K.

Suppose you were about to do a PhD and you had that kind of money available to you.  So instead you invest it, and for argument’s sake you put it in an average TSX dividend stock that pays 4%.  You started your PhD in 2004 and you graduated in 2010: the TSX has gone from 8300 and 13400 = 60% gain.  So now those funds would be worth between $224,000 and $592,000, and they would have provided a modest investment income at 4% of between $5600 and 14,800 per annum.  So at the end of a six year PhD you start with a negative equity of $50,000 instead of positive equity of between $260,000 and $680,000.

Now some have likened getting an academic job to winning the lottery.  The fact is that for the most part, most jobs, except academic jobs, a PhD is superfluous.  Of my friends that did PhDs while I was at Cambridge, only 50% landed jobs in academics.  Those jobs on average pay less well than if these men of considerable talent had applied themselves to some other professional occupation such as law [update:  well maybe not], medicine or engineering, and I don’t know anyone I would call well-off working in academics that wasn’t already well-endowed with family wealth.

Suppose I come to you and say I have a great investment idea.  You put up $150,000 dollars and at the end of six years you will have $50,000 in debt, and at the end of ten more years, you will get your money back–oh, but wait, there’s another catch: you have a 50% chance of losing the initial investment permanently .  Doing PhD degree would seem to have a very bad risk to reward ratio.

“Ah!” you say, “But you haven’t dealt with the intangible (non-renumerative) benefits.” Ok there are benefits, I agree.  But there also other intangible risks.

Intangible Benefits:

(1) Bragging rights:  with a PhD you have a great accomplishment behind your name and the right to brag and lord it over others who don’t have one.  People might even call you “doctor”.

(2) You may learn how to do research at a highly specialized level and to solve problems, for you get to spend three to six years researching a subject about which you are passionate. Of course, you might be in a bubble without realizing it.

(3) You remain attached to the academic world the whole time you are studying, meet some interesting people, perhaps learn a foreign language.

(4) If you are lucky, your marriage will survive, your children will love you, and you will write several books that will make you a household name throughout the world. But of course you don’t need a PhD to do this.

(5) If you do land that elusive job in academics, your self-esteem and future career will now be determined by 18-22 year olds who fill out teaching evaluations (oh, wait, that should perhaps be in the category below).

Intangible Risks:

(1) You may have to deal with the bitterness of failure if you don’t complete your dissertation or if after completion it is not accepted.  I knew one lady who went into a 25 year cycle of depression after failing her Oxford dissertation (due to no fault of her own).

(2) You may feel isolated and detached from society during your years of focussed research on a subject about which few people know and fewer still care.

(3) You may have to deal with resentment towards the academic community for letting you spend so much of your life and financial resources for a degree that doesn’t land you a viable job.  While you are waiting on tables during your day job, that resentment manifests itself in poor tips from your customers.

(4) You may end up in adjunct hell, i.e.,  the work of teaching post-secondary education for less than minimum wage without the respect that comes from being a real professor.

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.

Theological Education Bubble II: Driving an SUV could make you a goat, but an atheist advocate of abortion might be a sheep

Close to forty years ago Singer wrote a powerful paper in ethics on the culpability of rich people in allowing the poor of the world to die. And yet rather than read that paper and Singer’s other work on the plight of the world’s poor, self-righteous suburban evangelicals continue to drive their big fat SUVs, tithe 4% of their income (on average) and stand in judgment of his views on abortion. What damnable hypocrisy. Before you call Peter Singer evil try reading the parable of the sheep and goats half a dozen times whilst setting aside your self-righteous certainty that you’re a sheep and Singer is a goat.

Randal Rauser, Associate Professor of Historical Theology, Taylor Seminary, Edmonton

I live in literalville.  I suppose Prof. Randal Rauser could provide nuance for the above quote that is cited at Triablogue, or perhaps deny that he made it.  But I find it curious that he would prefer an atheist and an advocate of abortion–which is in my book the killing of youngest, poorest and most innocent human beings–over evangelicals who drive SUVs.  Given that  abortions in the last few decades number in the 100s of millions, it is a genocide of epic proportions.  Millions of Rauser’s own contemporaries have already been snuffed out  (as he was born circa 1975, after Roe vs. Wade).

I wonder also about the finances of Taylor Seminary.  I know that they recently went through a financial restructuring.  Hey, all you donors and friends of  Taylor Seminary and College. Do you live in a suburb?   Do you drive an SUV?  Perhaps you think that abortion is worse than driving a SUV.  Did you realize that your hard earned dollars were going to support a professor who thinks that your driving a SUV is damnable?  Perhaps it’s time you got on the phone with the president there.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before. As a donor to theological education, I don’t understand why I, a business man and an investor, have to donate to progressive education which is inimical to those who create wealth.  It’s a contradiction and an absurdity, when the livelihood of those who teach in theological education depends wholly on such people.  For if we let this sort of thing continue, we will end up with theological students like PoserorProphet, and it is a waste of our money to help him along his way so he can teach others to be anarcho-marxist-zealot Christians like himself.


A suburban driver of a big fat SUV (but only when my wife lets me drive it), who “tithes” a mere 2.64% on average

Theological Education Bubble I : exegesis

As a visiting professor in an African school that taught to the Master’s level I was once confronted with student who plagiarized a paper and failed the class as a result.  The academic dean pleaded with me to give him a third chance after the student failed the mandatory remedial session with me.  Thus, I permitted the student to take an oral examination, but he gave the most absurd answers to the most rudimentary questions of biblical history, such as he could not tell me the order of the empires, Persians, Greeks and Romans.  Later, I was told that this student was a womanizer who spent as much time in the local neighborhood chasing skirt as he spent in class.  It was hardly any surprise that he couldn’t pass his course with me.  But to my chagrin, this student went on to defend his master’s thesis and graduated, while the course he had with me was pre-requisite to entering the final year at the master’s level–a course he never passed.  Now this man is apparently a Bible professor in the capital city of his country.

I present this anecdote only to say that sometimes the diploma from a school is a meaningless paper, inflated like so much fiat money that is printed endlessly to the point of being worth nothing.  Perhaps this story is a no-brainer.  What should we do with an incompetent womanizer?   Fail him of course.  He has no business having a theological degree.

But what if it is the case of an extremely brilliant but wrong-headed student?  I have become somewhat of a nemesis to PoserorProphet, a self-stylized biblical scholar who is finishing his Master’s degree at Regent College.  And yet he has serious problems in biblical interpretation.  But he is able to defend his point, albeit with subtle and specious arguments, with such brilliance that he could easily pass any academic program at a secular university.  So now it puts theological educators in an awkward position:  are we to serve the church and the Kingdom of God, or are we to serve secular academic standards?  If the student can put together a specious heretical argument for a position, does that mean he deserves to pass so that he can then serve his heresy to the world, but now bearing the recognition of a theological degree from a once reputable institution?  Or should the school risk legal sanction for failing a student who is brilliant, academically gifted and yet theological off-the-wall?  There is a great deal at stake here.  I don’t see that there is simple answer.  But as a teacher of exegesis and biblical interpretation I have some serious problems with what I see.

We have had lengthy discussions with this student, PoserorProphet, who though attending an evangelical school has openly advocated full equal rights to practicing homosexuals in the church; the acrobatics that it takes to get around the biblical prohibition against homosexuality is already reason to have grave concerns.  But this student, in his embrace of liberation theology, has also taken passages like “Thou shalt not steal” to mean something like, “Thou shalt not not share”, thus twisting the plain sense of the text.  But then he also has recently advocated vandalism, such as done by anarchist demonstrators, through the texts recounting Jesus’ cleansing the temple, Jesus’ allowing the demons called “Legion” to enter into and kill a herd of swines and Jesus’ tacit approval of the the digging up of the roof to lower the paralytic, thus doing property damage to the house.  The main difficulty is that the Bible isn’t teaching that it is ok for us to go out and vandalize to support a higher cause, i.e., the poor and marginalized.  It has another agenda about which PoserorProphet seems quite unconcerned.  Through his exegesis, the Bible serves his liberation agenda.  In a discussion over at the City of God, I said that his “exegesis” is like that of the Marxist in the Fiddler on the Roof:  He recounts how Laban cheated Jacob, causing him to marry Leah while the original contract gave Jacob the right to marry Rachel.  Now, Laban required Jacob to work another seven years to pay for Rachel.  The Marxist’s conclusion:  The Bible teaches us that you can never trust an employer!  See the clip at 1:07:

Even the milkman’s daughter can see through this Marxist interpretation.  It is a moment of light humor.  But PoserorProphet is not joking.  He’s serious.  And yet his interpretations are hardly less ridiculous.

As an undergraduate in Dr. Pecota’s Principles of Interpretation course, I was required to read James Sire’s Scripture Twisting: 20 ways cults misread the Bible (see this summary). Part of the art of biblical interpretation is knowing how not to do it.  So Sire’s book is a lesson in good interpretation by avoiding pitfalls.  PoserorProphet actually commits a fair number of these 20 ways of twisting Scripture:  I would mention: 11. Selective citing; 12. Inadequate evidence; 14. Ignoring alternate explanations; 18. Supplementing biblical authority (with such writers as Michel Foucault!); 19. Rejecting biblical authority; and 20. World-view confusion (confusing his anarchist views with the Bible).  Thus, a basic undergraduate course in theology already would provide the ability to see how PoserorProphet is twisting the Bible, and yet today, it is apparently ok for him to defend a Master’s thesis in biblical studies.  There is no questioning his brilliance.  It is his judgment that I challenge.  But is it the task of theological education to produce brilliant heretics?  Or are we rather to produce graduates who will serve the church and the Kingdom of God.  If we knowingly pass even one such student, does that not call into question the whole enterprise?

The recognition that a theological diploma establishes should not be considered lightly.  Since the early church, Christian heretics have sought recognition from authorities who stood in apostolic succession.  For example, according to Irenaeus, Marcion once approached Polycarp and made a request:  “Recognize me.”  Polycarp responded in a manner which I think was appropriate, “I recognize you; I recognize the first-born of Satan.”  Polycarp was following the example that Paul laid down (Tit. 3.10-11):

As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned.