"Should I Get a Theology PhD?"
The most common small talk among first-year M.Div. students is this: “So, I’m thinking I might get a Ph.D. after my M.Div. What about you?” Exactly 1% of people who say that ever put their money (and time) where their mouth is. But most seminary students want the Ph.D. If that is you, should you pursue it? How should you pursue it? Is it right for you?
Here, we will unpack the relevant diagnostic issues which determine whether you should pocket that $30,000 dollars you’re about to spend, or whether you should go all in on you, get the theology Ph.D., and be the next doctoral graduate managing a Starbucks in his hometown. Here are the relevant rules to your doctoral dreams:
1. If you’re a conservative, make sure you’re an ethnic male.
Not a joke. Many Christian universities have adopted affirmative action hiring policies that require empty positions specifically not go to white men. When I was an adjunct instructor at Moody, I was told by several colleagues and administrators: “You will never be a full-time professor here. You’re white.” I don’t resent them for telling me this—I was thankful.
Employment in Christian education is one of the worst job markets for seekers. Add to that an increasingly popular racial variable to the hiring game, and that can either work for you or against you in terms of employment opportunities. Just don’t be naïve enough to walk blindly into a career like theological higher education.
More than that, many conservative bible colleges are complementarian—this means they don’t hire females into full-time professorial positions. Therefore, the ideal prospective conservative theologian—perhaps the theologian of the future—is a male ethnic minority.
2. If you’re a liberal, make sure you’re an ethnic, gender, or sexual minority.
Be aware of the classification of your theological system in terms of conservative and liberal. It should affect your career preparation strategy and therefore the schools you need to target for doctoral work in order successfully transfer into full-time professorial employment.
If you are a liberal white male scholar, your chances of succeeding in the liberal field of religious studies and theology have drastically decreased over the past 10 years. The only white men who have employment prospects in Christian higher education are those who have already ascended the professional hierarchy—those who have already climbed the ladder.
In the liberal world, the race element is just as active—if not more so—than in conservative schools.
3. Try to attend a prestigious Ivy League or UK school.
This advice goes for all Ph.D. students for two reasons. First, evangelical seminaries alone produce hundreds of new Ph.D. graduates every single year, while there are each year less than a dozen professorial opportunities open to young scholars. Second, by getting a Ph.D. from an evangelical seminary, you limit your employment to evangelical schools. By getting your Ph.D. from an Ivy League or prestigious UK school, you not only open your employment opportunities to the liberal and secular space—that also places you at the top of the pile for evangelical Bible colleges and seminaries in their hiring search.
In the current job market of theological education, getting a full-time teaching position as a white male with a Ph.D. from an evangelical seminary is like winning the lottery. You might get lucky, or you benefit from nepotism somehow, but the greatest factor that will determine whether you get a job is blind luck. And that is a terrible career strategy—it certainly doesn’t reflect the call of God. In fact, it is quite foolish to go into debt for a seminary Ph.D.
When I was 28 years old, I had published 12 peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Philo, the Journal of Psychology & Theology, and had presented at the Evangelical Society Annual meeting 5 times, 2 of them invited by committee chairs. I was the first M.Div. student to publish a full-length article in the Westminster Theological Journal, and I had 3 years of teaching my own theology courses, which I wrote from scratch, at Moody Bible Institute. I had outpublished and outpresented many of my professors and colleagues who had full-time positions. But I had zero job prospects.
I did everything I could to achieve a top 1% status as a hiring option in terms of evangelical theological pedigree. But it wasn’t enough in the current marketplace. So make sure that when you pursue a Ph.D., you have real professional pedigree on your side by going to a prestigious institution.
4. If you’re a white male, make sure you’re already rich.
If you are financially unstable, and you have the affirmative action hiring strategies of evangelical administrations working against you, do not pursue your Ph.D. in theology. Learn to code. Become a pastor. Become an accountant. In lieu of receiving a full scholarship, which is entirely possible, the ethical weight of wisdom and responsibility leans heavily against the decision to pursue a Ph.D. in theology. Do not go into debt. You’re better off putting $30,000 into an employable degree.
When I graduated with my Ph.D., I sat next to seven other doctoral graduates in that ceremony—none of us had professorial jobs, and all of us had debt. Don’t put yourself in that position. You will regret it. You will cry. You will despair. And you will have shackled yourself to poverty for the foreseeable future because your vanity drove you to get a Ph.D. Do not pursue this course unless you are certain it will not destabilize your financial situation in any way. And even then, most Ph.D. programs take at least 5 years to complete. You will lose those 5 years during which you could have been advancing in a more lucrative career.
You can always study theology. You can become as competent as any Ph.D. in theology through self-study. Unless you have a job secured on the other side of the doctoral degree, a Ph.D. is simply a vanity pursuit. That’s not necessarily evil. It’s just very foolish for most people.
5. Two tips for increasing your chances at a Ph.D.
Here are the two pieces of advice that will transform your chances of being accepted and getting a scholarship when applying to a theology Ph.D. program. These pieces of advice are borne out of wisdom I learned through a cohort of guys I was friends with during my M.Div. at Westminster Theological Seminary.
We all drove each other to the same regional Evangelical Theological Society meetings to present. We all critiqued each other’s application essays and article submissions. And of our cohort, every single one of us were awarded full scholarships to our Ph.D. programs, which included Cambridge University, Edinburgh, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Wheaton College. All for doctoral work in theology. These two pieces of advice, we would all say, made the biggest difference.
First,, make personal contact with your prospective supervisor before you apply. I literally emailed Kevin Vanhoozer and said: “I’m going to be in Chicago for the entire month of November. When can you meet?” He told me: “I don’t have time until December.” So I said: “I’ll be in Chicago all of December as well.” So he gave me a time and a date to meet. So, I bought a plane ticket for that day, and flew out there to meet him, and flew back to Philadelphia the next day.
That in-person meeting at a Starbucks turned into a conversation, which turned into a story, that made its way into one of his books. Needless to say, I was not only accepted, but received a full-scholarship offer. My friends who received full scholarships did the same thing. Focused, undistracted in-person meetings are extremely important. When you meet with your prospective advisor, be sure to do two things: (1) print two copies of a one-page dissertation proposal that you can discuss together, including a thesis statement and a bibliography, and (2) show him you’re not a weirdo. The primary thing doctoral advisors want to know is that you’re self-motivated and you’re easy to get along with. They don’t want to have to kick you in the butt every six months in order to finish your doctorate, and they don’t want to supervise a weirdo.
When Kevin Vanhoozer emailed me after I finished my coursework, he said: “This is your friendly reminder to start working on your dissertation!” Because I was a self-motivated person, I was able to reply to him: “Thanks for this email. As it so happens, I’ve been working on my dissertation for the past year. Here it is, attached. I look forward to setting a date for the defense.” And I graduated that year. Doctoral advisors want to see that you’re that kind of candidate.
Second, get published by a reputable theological journal before you apply. When I applied to my doctoral program, I already had full-length articles in the Westminster Theological Journal, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and the secular philosophy publication Perdue University called Philo. I dominated that applicant pile, because I had the most prestigious professor on my side, and I towered over the other applicants in terms of my C.V.
If you do these two things—get a long in-person meeting with your prospective advisor, and publish articles and reviews in academic journals—you’re basically guaranteeing yourself acceptance and a full-scholarship. Most other applicants aren’t even thinking on that level.
Don’t pursue a Ph.D. out of vanity. Don’t pursue a Ph.D. without a solid job opportunity secured on the other side of the degree. Beware of the theological and intersectional forces that will either work for or against you in the hiring process, depending on your sex and ethnicity. If you hold yourself to any standard less than this, your Ph.D. will only be a sore wound which yields years of regret and financial instability.
If you can, and you most certainly can, do something else. Become an engineer. Become a teacher. Become a police officer. Learn Drupal and become a senior web developer. Become a petroleum engineer. Get a secure job with benefits and a pension. Read theology in your free time. Then, you can afford more books over the course of your life time. And if you must, you can retire early and get a Ph.D. when your pension kicks in.
Don’t be such an idealist that you allow yourself to think a Ph.D. will add anything to your value in front of a Christian higher education hiring committee. Functionally, it most likely will be a waste of your life, because you probably won’t get a job. Consider that before you pursue Ph.D. in theology.