Earlier this year I wrote a blog post entitled, “A Crisis in Higher Education.”
This is a follow-up blog which contains advice that I give my students when they say they ask me about going for a Ph.D. in theology. Some of this is “insider” information that no admissions counselor will tell you, so hopefully this will be helpful!
-First, you must read this article called “My Credentials Gap” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, this article called “The Unending Horror of the Humanities Job Market” in Slate, and this article called “The Disposable Academic” in The Economist. They are eye-opening.
The rest is my own personal advice:
-Does where I get my Ph.D. matter?
In light of the article cited above, yes. Initially. To get your foot in the door. Because if you have no publications, then all you have is the name of your school to go off of. However, once you get your foot in the door, then no, the name of your school does not matter as much. If you’ve published a lot of well-respected stuff, nobody will care where you did your degree(s). But until that point, how “big” your school’s name is counts for a lot because that’s all you have.
Keep in mind when schools will be hiring you, the hiring committee will have a huge pile of applications on their desk. Hundreds. How will they weed through them? Take anyone who does not have a Ph.D. (D.Min. doesn’t count, see below) or equivalent terminal degree, and chuck out their application. Take anyone who does not have a big-enough school name and dump their application in the trash. The hiring committee will do whatever is expedient to narrow that pool of applicants down to a handful, and if you don’t look impressive at first glance, you won’t get a second chance. (See this article “Why We Said No” for an insider’s view into the hiring process). It is a cruel world, and Christian institutions are beholden to the same criteria as the secular world, unfortunately.
Also, I remember being at the last Urbana missions conference and someone from the Christian Emerging Scholars’ Network gave a seminar. He put up these schools on the screen: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Northwestern.
He asked, “What binds all these schools together?”
The answer: this is where all the nine Supreme Court justices went to Law School.
There are about 200 accredited Law Schools in the U.S. and almost to a T (the lone exception being Northwestern), the Supreme Court justices all hailed from three Law Schools, and all are top-five schools. This seminar leader lamented, “I really hate saying this, because as Christians we’re not supposed to care about things like how big of a name your university is, but the name of your school matters. It really does.” (Incidentally, the one justice who went to Northwestern, John Paul Stevens, retired and Elena Kagan, a Harvard graduate, took his place—thus unequivocally solidifying the Law School Triumvirate’s [Harvard/Yale/Stanford] hegemony on the Supreme Court). Also, do you think it’s a coincidence that 26 British prime ministers attended Oxford?
-If I were choosing between a well-known dissertation advisor at a no-name school vs. a no-name advisor at a well-known school, which way should I go?
The latter. Though it might be great to say, “I studied with [insert big-name advisor here],” honestly unless your listener is immersed in the field of theology, he or she probably has never heard of your big-name advisor. But they certainly know the name of your school, and whether it is famous or not. And it is the name of the school that will open more doors.
-How do you know if you are called to seminary/ministry?
My former pastor gave me this advice, he said that there are three ways to tell if you’re “called”. He said that he has seen far too many young people go straight from college into seminary without a clear call, and it is a waste of their time and money. So he told me to take a year and be a pastoral intern. And it will help to confirm these three things:
- Peace—after prayer and reflection, do you still feel that God is calling you to this?
- Affirmation of others—do people say, “Yes, I can see you in full-time ministry (pastor, missionary, campus staff worker, etc.)?”
- Bearing fruit—are you producing good fruit in doing ministry?
My year of deferring my seminary education was an immensely helpful one, and gave me a lot of discernment, especially regarding #2 and #3. My pastor certainly gave me great advice!
-What’s the difference between an M.A. and an M.Div.? What about a Th.M.?
An M.A. (Master of Arts) is a two-year academic degree. An M.Div. (Master of Divinity) is a three-year practical & academic degree. A Th.M. (Master of Theology) is a one-year addition to an M.Div. (where you write a thesis) to add academic credibility if you’re thinking of going on for a Ph.D. program. You can’t do a Th.M. unless you’ve already done an M.Div. (with a very few exceptions, like Regent College and Fuller Seminary).
-Why should you go for an M.Div. + Th.M. when that takes four years total, if you can just do a two-year M.A.?
Because a lot of Christian schools love the M.Div. since it is practical and academic, not just academic. All other things being equal, if you have an M.Div. + Th.M. + Ph.D. (or even just an M.Div. + Ph.D.), you’ll be hired over somebody who has an M.A. + Ph.D. However, if you don’t plan to teach in a Christian school, then by all means just do the M.A. But then don’t do your M.A. at a Christian school, do it at a secular school if you are planning on teaching at a secular school.
-What about a D.Min. (Doctor of Ministry)?
It is not an academic doctorate, it is a practical doctorate. It exists mainly as a cash cow for many Christian schools. You almost certainly will not be able to teach with a D.Min.
-How can I strengthen my CV?
Diversify your education. Don’t do all your schooling just at Christian schools. If you did a Christian undergrad degree, go to a secular school for your Masters otherwise you’re pigeonholing yourself. However, if you did not go to a Christian undergrad, then by all means do your M.Div. at a strongly evangelical Christian seminary! Only people with a strong Bible college background should even think of going to a “liberal” or “secular” seminary or divinity school, otherwise it is the kiss of death in terms of your faith. Also, try not to do more than one degree in the same school, it looks better if you went to a diversity of institutions otherwise you give off the impression that you can only think one way. So, even if you love Biola, it’s probably not good to have on your resume: B.A. Biola; M.Div. Biola; Ph.D. Biola.
-What’s the difference between a British vs. American philosophy of education?
In Britain, they have a pre-professional mentality. Thus, grad degrees are considered bad, because you should’ve learned your trade as an undergrad. If you are doing a grad degree, it means you did poorly as an undergrad.
In America, it’s just the opposite. The more degrees, the better. That’s because we have a concept of “liberal arts” as undergrads—you can study anything, and do anything else later on in life; your major has no necessary correlation with your future job. So it’s almost like Americans have to go on to grad school in order to learn their trade.
Also, in Britain, they consider education to be a right. In America, we consider it a privilege. So for us, we think it’s all right to pay $35,000 per year for an undergrad education, whereas in Britain, they complain if they have to pay “top-up fees” which, last time I checked, was £3000 (about $5000). They were protesting because £3000 was more than they ever had to pay before in their lives! All us American students looked at them complaining, and just shook our heads in disbelief.
-Difference between British & American degrees:
British degrees are much shorter than American ones. Three years for an undergrad degree as opposed to four. One year for a Masters instead of two. Three years for a Ph.D. instead of seven.
An American Ph.D. will require you to learn French & German (even if they have nothing to do with your thesis topic), take two years of classes before even starting your dissertation, take a series of comprehensive exams, T.A. classes, and then when you are ABD (“All But Dissertation”), then you can finally work on that beast. In Britain, you start off your degree as ABD! You can start writing that dissertation the day you start your program. The two requirements are so different from each other, it’s almost like they shouldn’t both be called PhDs. The American Ph.D. definitely has more worldwide acceptance, unless you do your Ph.D. at a top-flight British university.
-Why should you go to an American degree program, then?
Well, if you go to a major research university, your degree is free. Not only do you not have to pay tuition, but you get a stipend on top of that. Why? Because you are essentially an employee of the university, working as a T.A.
But, notice: this makes it all the harder to get into an American Ph.D. program. It’s so competitive, because it’s free. You have a much better chance of being accepted into a British program.
-Why you should not get a British degree:
Depends how good you are with independence. Someone once likened a British degree to being parachuted into the middle of a dark forest and you’re expected to find your way out. If you want guidance, do an American Ph.D. Your British supervisor will not be of much assistance.
Also, the job market: if you apply for a teaching post, all other things being equal, the person with an American Ph.D. will get the job over you. In other words, if you come armed with a British Ph.D. (say, from Oxford), and someone is applying for the same job (with a Ph.D. from, say, Harvard), and you two have the same amount of publications and the same everything, they will hire the Harvard person because they’ll say, “He or she has more teaching experience than you, more languages than you, and overall did a more rigorous Ph.D. than you.” And the hiring committee would be correct. Really, though America’s secondary system of education stinks, there’s no system of higher education in the world better than what the U.S. has to offer. American universities are the richest, strongest, and best in the world, in terms of research, teaching, and resources.
-Why you should get a British degree:
International exposure. You become a much better “world” scholar, and not just a narrow-minded parochial American scholar. That being said, unfortunately your international perspective is not very quantifiable, so even though it makes you a well-rounded person, it doesn’t necessarily help your CV.
Freedom & independence. You can run on your own without having your supervisor hold your hand all the way or keep you on a short leash.
The ability to write as a Christian. Even though Britain is only nominally Christian, they have no separation of church & state so everyone still thinks of themselves as Christian. Therefore you can write a Christian dissertation from a faith perspective without getting your hand slapped. It’s much harder to get away with that in an American secular university.
Also, you may think, I don’t want to pay three years of tuition when I can get a free American program! But think about it this way: opportunity costs. If you can get done with your British Ph.D. in three years, you have four more years to generate full-time income, before your American friend even finishes his or her program! And meanwhile they’re making diddly-squat as a grad student (it’s a small stipend for which they’re busting their butt).
Also, if you plan on teaching in a Christian university/seminary, for some reason they love British PhDs. If you are planning on teaching in a secular school, stick with the American Ph.D.
-What can you study in seminary?
There are about ten subjects: New Testament, Old Testament, Systematic Theology, Church History, Ethics, Christian Education, Counseling, Spiritual Formation, Homiletics, Missions & Evangelism. Unfortunately, there is a Platonic dualistic relegation to “lower” status of the “practical” subjects as opposed to the “academic” subjects. The first half of the list are “academic” subjects and the last half are “practical.” This is unfortunate, because 1) there should not be a dichotomy, and 2) seminaries exist to train people for practical ministry! Yet the dichotomy exists. Someone once told me that the subject I study, missiology, is one of the “poor boy” subjects of seminary studies. Hmph.
-What implications does this have on what to study?
Here are the cold hard facts: Ph.D. programs crank out graduates in numbers far exceeding the number of jobs that are available. As such, you have to play the numbers game. Every seminary needs at least one professor in each of the above subjects. If you go for one of the “academic” subjects, your chances of getting a job are greatly decreased due to the competition. Why make life harder on yourself? The worst of them all is New Testament. The field is so saturated, that you will be fighting against literally hundreds of candidates for each professor position that you apply for. Old Testament is slightly better (people are daunted by the fact that you not only have to learn Hebrew, but also related Ancient Near Eastern languages like Ugaritic, Akkadian, Syriac, Coptic, etc.—in NT studies, you just have to know Greek), but still not easy. But go get a Ph.D. in homiletics, and seminaries will be beating down your door to hire you, because you’d be a rare commodity.
-How to choose a dissertation topic:
Your Ph.D. topic must be an original contribution to knowledge. I remember having a conversation with one of my fellow classmates in grad school, and we tongue-in-cheek came up with this list of how to choose the “easiest dissertation topic.” Though this list is not mean to be totally taken seriously, it has enough truth in it to be instructive nonetheless:
1) Pick a person to write on, not a topic. Topics are WAY too broad. Picking a person will keep it narrow, and specificity and narrow scope is a huge key to a successful doctoral dissertation topic. Also, don’t compare two people; that will only double your work load. Just pick one and stick with him/her.
2) Pick a person who has not been written on much. Forget writing on Barth or Calvin, because you will have to read every single dissertation ever written on them, in order to come up with an original contribution to knowledge that hasn’t been touched on before. That being said, don’t pick someone so obscure that nobody cares. They must have some significance.
3) Pick a person who has not written much. Again, avoid people like Barth (do you really want to read all of the Church Dogmatics?), or Aquinas (hello, Summa Theologica!). I’m not saying that you have to pick someone who has written only two books, because that will not be taken seriously, but you don’t have to unnecessarily swamp yourself. Don’t spend all your time reading and forget that you still have to write.
4) Pick a person who has not written in a foreign language. Or at least not a difficult foreign language! Spanish, French, fine. Don’t choose someone who has written extensively in Sanskrit or Arabic or Chinese (unless you already know those languages)!
-Advice for finishing your dissertation:
My Ph.D. supervisor gave me two wise words of advice: 1) Your dissertation is not your magnum opus. It is a credential for joining the guild of scholars, similar to how a lawyer needs to pass their bar exam. Just get the thing done so that you can join the academy, and then write your magnum opus later! 2) There are two kinds of dissertations: the perfect dissertation; and the finished dissertation. Again, just get it done.
P.S. Here are some differences in U.K. vs. U.S. terminology (after all, we are two countries divided by a common language!):
In America, “doctor” is higher than “professor,” because the former implies that you have a Ph.D. In Britain, it’s just the opposite—“doctor” means you merely have a Ph.D., whereas “professor” means you have tenure and/or an endowed chair. Don’t call a British professor “doctor” otherwise it’s considered highly insulting!
In America, we call a Masters research work a “thesis,” and a Ph.D. research work a “dissertation.” In Britain, the Ph.D. research is called “thesis.”