Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Earning Power of a Religious Studies/Theology Ph.D...is it Worth it Anymore?

While attending a college friend's wedding this past weekend, I sat next to one of our mutual (and now retired) professors from ye old Lewis & Clark College.  And among the many topics we chatted over while awaiting the beginning of the ceremony was the difficulty of newly-minted Ph.D.'s to get into the  full-time academic job market.

This is a topic that directly affects the livelihood of several good friends of mine who are working toward their own doctorates in graduate school right now.  They are intelligent, talented, and driven--and I want to be able to see them find work in their fields.  But I also want to  be able to see them do so at a proper wage, and I'll be honest: on both a micro and a macro level, that doesn't seem to be happening very often.  On a micro level, I see professorships be vacated by retirement and left unfilled--including, in some cases, endowed professorships.  On a macro level, I see pay being stagnant across many fields, but especially in my home field of religious studies and all that it entails: theology, ministry, and Biblical scholarship.

And even though I think to myself that I may one day return to school many years from now, it would not be to become a full-time professor.  Because...honestly, I'm not sure it is worth it for me.

A disclosure: the worry I am about to express should not be taken as any sort of anti-intellectualism on my part.  I appreciate the academy immensely for all it did for me, but I am also well aware of its limitations, especially in the current era of tightening budgets and vacillating enrollments.

But why isn't it worth it for me?  To answer that, let's try a (admittedly simple) experiment inspired by the 100 Reasons Not To Go To Grad School Blog.  Here, I am talking largely in utilitarian, dollars-and-cents terms because, let's be honest, student debt is going to get worse before it gets better.

Now, it took me three years of full-time study to earn my Master of Divinity, and I was extremely blessed to attend seminary on full scholarship (though I did go into debt for my living expenses):  I had 80% of my tuition waived by a scholarship from my alma mater, and my denomination covered the other 20%. Compare this to a hypothetical doctoral student. We’ll give this student some advantages that many graduate students do not often receive—we’ll assume that this doctoral student completes their doctorate seven years after I complete my master’s (according to the Washington Post, only 50% of humanities Ph.D. students complete their doctorates within ten years of completing their bachelors). 

We’ll also assume that this student receives a stipend for those entire seven years. Now, graduate student stipends vary widely from school to school and field to field, but humanities grad students tend to be some of the lowest paid. A quick Google search discovered full year (as opposed to academic year, which would be even less) minimum stipends ranging from $15,000 or so at Virginia Tech to over $26,000 at Yale. So let’s split the difference and say that this student’s stipend is $20,000 per year and that their tuition has been waived for each year that they are in the program, so that we are both on equal footing regarding student debt.

Finally, for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that both my current annual pay of cash salary, payroll tax offsets + housing allowance ($45,000 total) and this student’s $20,000 stipend are frozen during the seven years that the student is in school and I am in the workforce. Over those seven years, I will have earned $175,000 more than the grad student, and I will have had over $44,000 contributed to my church pension fund to boot.

Now, let’s imagine that the grad student miraculously avoids having to work as an adjunct for $3,000 per course and immediately after graduation, lands a post as a tenure-track assistant professor at Generic Theological Seminary. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average salary during the 2010-2011 academic term (the most recent term I could find easily accessible data for) for a tenure-track assistant professor in theology is $52,240, and the average starting salary is only $50,620. 

It generally takes roughly six years to earn tenure, during which time a professor holds the rank of assistant professor. Being generous and assigning the average overall salary of $52,240, rather than the $50,620 average starting salary, that student will earn $43,440 more than my frozen $45,000 salary during those six years (this assumes neither of our salaries are increased), bringing the long-term discrepancy between our pay down to $131,560.

 Our faithful graduate student then earns tenure after those six years and is promoted to associate professor. The average salary for an associate professor of theology or religious vocation is listed as roughly $59,600. So, let’s go through this exercise again. Assuming it takes our grad-student-turned-associate-professor another six years to make full professor, during those six years as an associate professor, the grad student will make $87,600 more than me, bringing the long-term discrepancy between our lifetime earnings down to $43,960.

 Finally, the rank of full professor entitles our student to the relatively big bucks of the field--an average salary of roughly $74,270, or $29,270 more than my salary. It will still take our student roughly 18 to finally be in the net positive in their lifetime earnings compared to mine—by which point we will both be in our mid-to-late 40’s, a full 20 years or more after I have finished my master's degree and have spent those 20 years accumulating experience in a vocation that I love: parish ministry.

So...is it really worth it?  For me, it really isn't.

Now, I get the simplistic nature of this thought experiment: it doesn't take into account huge lifestyle variables like family size, location and cost-of-living, etc.  And as academic gigs go, humanities and religious studies in particular tend to be low-paying, even though I presented a relatively optimistic scenario--ie, a candidate getting a tenure-track position without any adjuncting.

But this whole setup does affect me because I am talking about my friends, good people who will be tasked with the tremendous and necessary job of training the set of religious leaders and clerics who will replace me, and I want them to be able to do that great job without worry for their livelihood.

And I'm not sure that will truly be the case.

It concerns me.  And if you care at all about the future of your congregation or your denomination, or the body of Christ itself, it should concern you as well.

Yours in Christ,


  1. If you have to justify the return on investment (ROI), it probably isn't worth it, even if the ROI is positive. If the theology PhD allows you to obtain your dream job, then it is worth it as long as you can survive the interim finances. I've been fortunate to receive a decent salary for work I like to do (chemical engineer). Since my minimum economic needs were satisfied, I could seek jobs based on the work I wanted to do rather than the salary I could expect.

  2. Personally speaking, my current dream job is where I'm at right now: in parish ministry, serving a congregation I love. A Ph.D. would be the wrong move for me right now for many, many reasons. And while I could see myself returning to school at some point down the road, it's still really tough--I'm pretty frugal myself, but I still accumulated four digits of credit card debt during my time in seminary.

    On a more macro level though, I worry about folks like you and I becoming more and more rare--receiving a reasonable salary for doing work we like. And I worry, in part because of this new dimension to finances and student debt, that it will get worse before it gets better.

  3. Eric, we have not taken into consideration that A graduate school seminary advisor, knowing your ministerial interests, would discourage you from getting a PhD if your end goal was to become a pastor. PhD's, and even ThM's and are for those students that are seeking academia. And without these postgraduate degrees you won't be able to teach graduate-level courses. So your analysis of comparing the M.Div. and a PhD are not apples to apples. M.Div's are for ministry while PhD's are for teaching. So if your desire is to work in ministry then M.Div. is all that is needed, but if your desire is to teach then a PhD is what's required. It's two completely different routes and neither would be equipped to teach the others field.

    Best regards,

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