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January 23, 2021Higher Education

PhDs: Who Needs Them?

How to decide if you should pursue a PhD.
PhDs: Who Needs Them?

Recently my colleague and friend Ed Stetzer tweeted the following:

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but doing a PhD is probably not what you need unless you plan to be a professor.

And, I don’t know who needs to hear THIS, there are a LOT of people getting PhD and very few professor jobs.

By Twitter standards, the responses probably don’t constitute a firestorm, but maybe they lit a candle—which can shed light on a few vocational pathways.

The question, “PhDs: Who needs them?” can be asked with a sarcastic tone; indeed, that is how it sounds in my head. But the question must also be asked sincerely.

Some critics have been calling evangelical institutions immoral for maintaining PhD programs, at least if they charge tuition; correspondingly the cost-benefit analysis seems so prohibitive that almost no individual students should consider pursuing the degree.

Lest Ed’s legitimate point be absorbed into that critical chorus, I will speak plainly about both the institutional and individual questions at stake. I have no intention of sugarcoating the challenges even as I argue that some institutions and individuals should continue to invest in PhD education.

Institutional Questions

I have spent most of my last decade directing Wheaton’s small PhD program, and I have been mentoring PhD students since 2008—a financially momentous year that intensified broad challenges for higher education and catalyzed particular changes in graduate theological education.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is pressing down the accelerator—hard—on both those challenges and those changes. Quite apart from the pandemic, for years I have been sending a message to individual applicants that is fairly similar to Ed’s—both in written advice on our website and in countless conversations. To be consistent with that individual message, I have had to think institutionally about the PhD’s future as well.

Twenty years ago, Wheaton only started a PhD program after it secured funding to provide all students with free tuition and a decent fellowship stipend. Other institutions may not have the financial luxury to take the same approach, and consciences may differ. But all of our evangelical PhD programs should undertake some soul-searching in the days ahead, since even Wheaton’s financial support for students has not kept pace with inflation, and students correspondingly struggle to keep focused on full-time study and finish on time.

Hence, in early 2019, I wrote an internal memo urging that Wheaton think soberly about the future of its PhD program. As a result, “for my sins” as the saying goes, I was charged with leading an expedited self-study that produced 19 single-spaced pages plus 11 appendices containing survey and comparative data, and follow-up reports involving external assessors. (At Wheaton we are nothing if not thorough.)

Without belaboring the confidential details, our self-study reaffirmed our institutional commitment to offering the PhD in Biblical and Theological Studies. Despite the headwinds that PhD programs and students face, evangelical institutions have reasons to invest in developing a next generation of spiritual and intellectual leaders.

Admittedly, institutional consciences and industry consolidation should probably lead to smaller numbers of the strongest students from a diverse set of populations pursuing PhDs. While individuals are responsible to make wise choices about pursuing a PhD, institutions are responsible to assess whether they can offer an intellectually credible program, provide sufficient support for student and faculty flourishing, and justify any tuition charges in terms of informed consumers receiving appropriate value. In an ideal world, evangelical institutions would even ponder possibilities for cooperation that might make a virtue out of increasing necessity.

Individual Questions

To move from the institutional toward the individual questions, I must add my voice to a chorus of tweets affirming the more-than-academic value of a PhD. If testimony is a quintessential genre for us evangelicals, then let me say how glad I am—spiritually and intellectually, not just professionally—that I completed a PhD, and did so from a churchly institution like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School rather than an elite research university.

I would value my PhD highly even if, twenty years later, I were not employed as a professor—and even because of, not just despite, its difficulty. Perhaps my testimony will have more weight if I speak to three aspects of how individuals might ask (even with jaundiced eye), “PhDs: Who needs them?”

(1) Available academic openings.

Here I can give a “count the cost” speech with the best of them, especially to historically-privileged white males. Via the Wheaton website, you can obtain my earlier version of this speech; I have decided to write an altogether fresh essay here.

To be clear: No one should pursue a PhD, in either a churchly or a university program, if they will consider it a wasteful mistake unless the outcome is a traditional academic job. Even in a devastated market, however, teaching opportunities persist. They will become largely part-time or hybrid in character, but there will be occasional full-time openings due to retirements, targeted needs, and a few growing schools.

To pursue such openings, a strong university PhD can offer a credentialing advantage along with, sometimes, a profound intellectual opportunity. But evangelical schools hire for fit more than flair: They want to hire excellent teachers, mentors, and institutional citizens, for which a strong churchly PhD can provide equal or better preparation along with meaningful scholarly development. Of course, the quality of doctoral supervision is variable in both types of institutions; anecdotally, though, PhD mentors may be more consistently available, attentive, and holistically helpful in church-focused institutions. I chose Trinity because I knew the mentor I wanted and the environment I needed; many students have chosen Wheaton and other evangelical programs for similar reasons.

(2) Increasing vocational variety.

While the PhD degree is historically oriented toward preparing professors, that is changing, as doctoral program cultures are learning to celebrate a range of vocational possibilities. Of the 7 Wheaton graduates that I have directly mentored, 3 hold traditional U.S. professorships (2 at colleges, 1 at a seminary), and 2 are missionary professors (one in Kenya; another, now also directing a PhD program, in the Philippines). Yet another graduate is a senior pastor of a sizable church, and still another is the head of a classical Christian school.

If we broaden this survey to include the 70+ alumni of Wheaton’s program, then we find plenty of faculty members in the U.S. and at least 15 other countries, but we also find pastors, school teachers, editors, campus ministers, and so on. While at least 3 graduates have still become U.S. professors in the last couple of years, the percentage of academic placement is decreasing while its difficulty is increasing.

Going forward, it will be institutionally strategic to invest even more in international students, “pastor-theologians,” and a diverse range of applicants. Accordingly, we have started asking hard questions about how to address professional development in a way that goes beyond traditional classroom pedagogy. Individually speaking, then, potential applicants should realize that in this broader vocational landscape the value of PhD credentials can be significant but the need, strictly speaking, is rare.

(3) Intellectual and spiritual depth.

If it is foolish to pursue a PhD primarily for the sake of an academic job, and PhD credentials can be useful but are not strictly necessary for a broader set of vocations, then who needs PhDs? The answer is that in the aggregate “the church” and “evangelicalism” need some individuals to gain PhDs, and those individuals should discern the wisdom of pursuing a PhD in terms of the formation—not primarily the credentials—that the degree can provide.

Some traditions value biblical and theological depth more than others, but evangelicalism generally needs to preserve and perpetuate such learning. Flawed as they are, PhDs are part of an institutional structure that helps to do so. We need PhDs to employ current professors, to equip future scholars, and to enrich the pastorate. As MDiv degrees shrink; as shorter, professionally-focused, graduate degrees proliferate; as most of us learn less about the Bible at home and in church—as such factors decrease biblical and theological depth, it may increasingly take a ThM or almost a PhD to equal a prior generation’s MDiv.

Some of our PhDs will need to come from and serve in universities, but not all. Meanwhile, the “pastor-theologian” movement has helpfully championed deep biblical-theological learning in a way that might improve continuing pastoral education while lowering some walls between the academy and church leaders.

At least in my view, though, we should be clear that a pastor does not need a PhD or a publication in order to be a theologian: All pastors (and parishioners) are inevitably theologians in one sense, and should be intentional theologians in another sense. We can welcome having more traffic between some PhD programs and some pastors, to the benefit of both church ministry and academic life—as long as this traffic is only one path to a broader destination.

For good and ill, a PhD requires more originality than Master’s-level study; at worst it can breed excessive specialization and speculation, competition, self-doubt, isolation, and depression. Who needs that? (I told you that I wouldn’t sugarcoat the challenges!) At best, though, maybe even more often, a PhD program involves close community, encourages humble confidence, and offers the joys of careful study. Indeed, even the potential dangers can be the occasion for deepening rather than destroying spiritual life. That was true in my own experience, and perhaps evangelical programs (in particular) can be healthy contexts for such growth.

While far from perfect, at Wheaton we pursue intellectual integration between biblical and theological studies as well as spiritual integration between our scholarship and our mentoring, peer, and other relationships. So do other evangelical programs, along with many Christian mentors in university programs.

* * * * * * *

True to the PhD type, I have written a lengthy response to Ed’s prompt. I am grateful for the opportunity—not only to speak for our program and sister programs but also to support my colleagues in their tireless work and to encourage our students about the value of what they are doing. Indeed, this opportunity has provided a fresh occasion to go before the Lord, seeking fresh strength and blessing for a seemingly fragile enterprise. Most people have no idea of how much institutional support, faculty effort, or student persistence is necessary to attain excellence in this enterprise.

When an individual asks, “PhDs: Who needs them?” Ed’s tweet-length answer is basically right. Probably an individual doesn’t need a PhD unless she or he plans to be a professor—and probably it’s unwise to plan on becoming a professor in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. Yet evangelicalism will need intellectual leadership, and thus some people and institutions with PhDs, in that future.

It would be tragic if we failed to sustain evangelical learning, despite its weaknesses, at just the point when it began to become more intellectually credible and communally inclusive. For the sake of the evangelical future, some individuals may be free—or even called—to go beyond need and to pursue joyfully, with eyes open, the depth of biblical and theological learning that only a PhD can provide.

Daniel J. Treier (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Gunther H Knoedler Professor of Theology at Wheaton College Graduate School in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author of Introducing Evangelical Theology, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and has coedited several books, including the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology and the award-winning Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible.

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PhDs: Who Needs Them?