Providential Blessings of the Declining PhD Job Market: Reflections of a PhD Student

Graph DeclineThe job market for PhD’s isn’t good, and it’s only getting worse. The recent article “Ph.D. Job Woes” (from Inside Higher Ed) reports that PhD jobs in the humanities show the most severe decline. For the record, I’m a PhD student — in the humanities (Bible). I hope to teach the Bible in an academic setting — and my chances are getting slimmer by the year.

In academic circles, this decline is widely hailed as a Bad Thing. I mostly agree with this estimation. I don’t see the widespread shifts from full-time professors to adjuncts and from residential to distance models as good things. Higher education is facing a perfect storm, and most of the concerns are well-founded.

However, in the area of biblical studies, I see several blessings that may come from this decline of academic teaching posts in the West. So far I’ve only seen negative commentary from Christian professors regarding this trend, but I wonder what blessings God may rain down through the storm.

1. Sharp minds will be redirected to the local church.

Brain drain from the church to the academy is too common. Many bright young Christians launch out from their home churches and continue rising into the rarefied stratosphere of Christian academia. Once they breath this air, they sometimes are less inclined to plant themselves back in the local church with a strong sense of vision, passion, and contentment. I certainly don’t believe that academic pursuits and church ministry are opposed, and I recognize that each individual has his or her God-given calling. It’s also my conviction that the best Christian academicians stay engaged in their local churches. So my point is not that by pursuing high-level academics, Christian thinkers are automatically abandoning the local church. My point is that ecclesial-to-academic brain drain does exist, and that the decreasing opportunities in academics may signal a rising opportunity for the local church to reclaim some of her gifted young minds.

The church doesn’t need sharp condescending minds or sharp tactless minds or sharp antisocial minds or sharp impractical minds. But the church does need sharp wise minds and sharp virtuous minds and sharp loving minds and sharp practical minds. Her ministries of leadership, preaching, teaching, writing, mentoring, discipleship, counseling, apologetics, and discernment need such minds in order for those ministries to operate at their highest potential. Perhaps the decline in post-PhD opportunities in the academy will play a small role in redirecting sharp minds toward the local church.

2. Selfish ambition will be challenged.

Anyone with a soul who spends any substantial time in academia will sense the enculturated temptation toward selfish ambition. The perils abound. We can easily get caught up in our resumes, reputations, networks, and publishing accomplishments (or dreams). Pride, division, and shell games can take a thousand mutating forms in the academic biosphere. Granted, the inability (or projected inability) to find an academic job will not purify anyone’s heart. But those seeking advanced degrees for the status, the reputation, and the career advancement may see the writing on the wall and perhaps be humbled toward other ventures. Or the insecurity of academic employment may cause high-level students to refresh their better motivations for academic pursuits.

I would never underestimate the power of selfish ambition to press through challenges, but perhaps in God’s providence some will be protected from themselves and their self-consumed desires. Peter Enns certainly hopes so:

If you are doing [a PhD] so others will think you are important, or because you are convinced God needs you to reform your denomination or the field of biblical studies, or because you worship the false god of intellectual prestige (that god doesn’t exist, by the way), don’t do it — for your sake and for the sake of everyone else, don’t do it. — “Some Unasked for Advice on Whether an Evangelical Should Get a PhD in Biblical Studies

My prayer is that the brightest, wisest, humblest, most Christ-oriented men and women will be the ones who sense divine calling toward high-level academic training. I pray that these Christians might pursue such training for the sake of personal virtue and gospel advancement, but that those seeking to climb the ladder of academic respectability would be turned away from the endeavor.

3. Healthy intellectual desire will be promoted.

The love of learning is a wonderful gift often adulterated on the altar of degree-seeking and reputation-mongering. In God’s providence, the fact that fewer PhD’s can find actual PhD-oriented jobs may remind upper-level students that degrees should be pursued primarily out of healthy intellectual desire. Yes, the terminal degree opens doors. Yes, the PhD is a necessary technical qualification for academic positions. Yes, the PhD improves publishing potential. There’s nothing inherently wrong with pursuing these and other effects. But when one’s mental orientation begins slipping imperceptibly toward personal accomplishments and pragmatic values, it’s all too easy to veer from the noble quest for knowledge, wisdom, and virtue. The decreasing likelihood of gaining academic employment may end up promoting the purity of this quest.

4. International needs will be highlighted.

As academic positions in the West decrease, those rightly passionate about studying, teaching, and writing for the good of the church, the advance of the truth, and the blessing of society will be channeled toward more diverse needs. Of course, I hope these very same “rightly passionate” thinkers also saturate the traditional western academy in years to come so that our educational system comes to embody full-orbed Christianity. However, the dearth of in-country positions may turn our eyes toward international needs and opportunities currently off the radar. Perhaps the famine of academic positions in our own land will pull our eyes toward the global harvest. If it doesn’t, we’ll all need to ask some harsh questions about why exactly we’re pursuing these degrees in the first place.


One thought on “Providential Blessings of the Declining PhD Job Market: Reflections of a PhD Student

  1. “Perhaps the famine of academic positions in our own land will pull our eyes toward the global harvest. If it doesn’t, we’ll all need to ask some harsh questions about why exactly we’re pursuing these degrees in the first place.”

    I was about to go here, but you ended up taking the words out of my mouth! There is 1 formally trained church leader for every 450,000 people outside the US (http://trainingleadersinternational.org), and yet when I was applying for jobs back in 2007 (when the market was…cough, cough…”good”), every position had 120+ applicants all with Ph.D.

    We need to funnel our Ph.D students overseas and siphon off some of the rich fat of American Evangelical wealth to fund it.

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