I was intrigued by a recent Inside Higher Ed article discussing a Boston College law student with an unusual proposal.
An anonymous Boston College law student has published an open letter asking his dean to let him leave the law school without a diploma this semester (two and a half years into the program) in return for getting his tuition money back. The student writes that he was convinced to go to law school by “empty promises of a fulfilling and remunerative career,” and that now he faces the likely prospect of huge debts and no decent job.
My initial reaction was to think that it’s really the student’s responsibility to check out the job market and understand whether the cost of the education is justified given the education received (which surely has at least some value by itself) and the vocational prospects.
But, as I reflected just bit further, I started to see it rather differently. I’m not sure how many people graduate every year with their PhDs in Bible or theology, but I do know that they far outstrip the number of teaching positions that are available to them. (That may change in the future with the impending retirements of a large percentage of Bible/theology faculty and the long hoped for economic recovery; but those changes may also be outweighed by technological advances and the changing economic models for many schools.) That means that there are quite a few doctoral programs out there who know full well that the job market cannot sustain the number of graduates that they’re producing. Yet, those same doctoral programs don’t seem to be reducing the number of applicants they accept as a result. Instead, these doctoral programs continue and new ones crop up with some regularity.
What do you think? Do schools have any obligation to adjust their admissions practices based on the likelihood that their graduates will find a job? Or, do they at least have an obligation to make the reality of the job market clear to prospects and/or make job-placement data publicly available? Or, is the responsibility entirely on the student?
For those of you interested in pursuing a doctoral degree eventually, Allen Yeh has offered some Advice for Applying for Grad School. I’d encourage you to take a look at it, but I would like to offer an alternate perspective on a couple of things.
First, I’d preface everything that Allen says by arguing that who you know is even more important than where you went to school. (I’ll be blogging on this again soon.) The name of your school is helpful if you’re having to cold sell yourself to a school. But, if you’ve networked effectively, your best job opportunities will come through the grapevine, where the name of your school is not as much of an issue. That doesn’t mean you can ignore this consideration, but it does mean you should pay attention to your networking opportunities now.
Second, much of what Allen says applies more to those who want to keep the possibility of teaching at a state school on the table. Let me be honest with you. If you are doing MA/MDiv/ThM work at a private Christian school, you are probably not going to be hired at a state school no matter where you do your doctoral work. There are a few exceptions to this, but that’s generally true. And, be honest with yourself, if you are the kind of person who is attracted to studying at a private Christian school, do you really want to teach at a state school? Do you want to operate in a context where your evangelical convictions will routinely be marginalized, your objectivity challenged, and your research plans questioned? If you are an evangelical, why not simply embrace that fact and teach at a school where you will be free to present and pursue your evangelical research? That doesn’t mean I think we should abandon the state schools. There are many evangelicals who are gifted and called to just that kind of environment. The question is, are you one of them? If not, don’t arrange your doctoral plans around the idea of keeping something on the table that maybe shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Third, Allen talks quite a bit about the academic superiority of the American Ph.D. over the British Ph.D. And basically he’s right. But, what he doesn’t take into account is the kind of work that a person may have done before their doctoral program. If you already have multiple degrees in your field, I would not hesitate for a second to encourage you toward a British program. You’ve probably had enough time already to get prepared in your field and you’re ready to work independently for a while. And, as Allen mentions, a British Ph.D. is not going to set you back at all with American seminaries. But, if you have not yet done enough coursework in your other programs, by all means go the American route.
Finally, his point about which subfield to specialize in is well worth considering. The statistics on applicants-per-position in New Testament and Systematic Theology are not good; Old Testament is not far behind. If those are your passions and you want to pursue those fields despite the odds, go for it. But, if you are open to pursuing a subfield of practical theology, that might set you up better for the future.