I hate watching game shows where people have already won a certain amount of money, and then they’re asked to risk it all for the chance to win even more. No matter the odds they always seem to go for it. Idiots. I find myself torn between the desire to yell at the TV or go find my daughters and explain things like logic, odds, and financial management. Usually I just turn off the TV and get a book.
Last month I posted some troubling statistics on the realities of the academic job market in the U.S. (see How Bad Is the Job Market for PhDs?). But those statistics covered doctoral programs across all fields of study. So, if you’re interested in the specifically Christian fields, those stats were a bit too broad.
Now I have better stats.
Last week I heard a presentation that included the most recent statistics from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). ATS represents 261 graduate theological schools in North America, including almost all of the largest programs. (Liberty and Wheaton are the notable exceptions.) So, although this data doesn’t cover every school, it should be fairly representative. And, if you’re thinking about pursuing a Ph.D., you should know at least two things:
1. Enrollment at theological schools has declined steadily since 2006
It should come as no surprise that hiring at theological schools depends entirely on enrollment. No new students, few new hires. So a steady decline is bad news for the job market. And ATS is expecting to see another 1-2% decline for the current academic year.
There’s always the chance that someone will die (please don’t pray for this; it’s not nice) or retire. But today’s faculty are waiting longer to retire and are more likely to continue working part time even after they retire. So that’s limiting the number of positions becoming available through attrition.
And adding to the challenge, today’s students take fewer credits on average than students in the past. So, even if a school reports that its overall enrollment has grown, it’s entirely possible that the actual number of credits taught has still gone down. That’s not good if you’re looking for a job.
2. Theological schools are hiring half the new faculty they were two years ago
In 2008 ATS schools hired 420 new faculty. In 2009 they hired 339. By 2010 the number was down to 226. That’s an almost 50% decrease in just two years.
That number, by the way, includes anyone who had previously worked at a non-ATS school, which would qualify as a “new hire” in ATS terms. So the actual number of new PhDs hired by ATS schools in 2010 is probably less than 200.
That becomes a problem when you consider the number of new PhDs produced every year. ATS schools alone graduate over 400 new doctoral students every year. Add in the students graduating from non-ATS schools (including all of the overseas programs) and you begin to see the shape of the market.
So what does this mean if you are considering a PhD or you’re already in a doctoral program?
1. There are jobs out there
226 isn’t a great number, but it’s better than nothing. And, if these stats are correct, it means that the PhD job market at theological schools is still probably better than the PhD job market overall (100,000 new doctoral degrees for 16,000 new professorships).
2. It will take you longer to find a job
Of course, this won’t be true for everyone. Some will cross into the promised land of higher education right away, sowing seeds of jealousy among their unemployed peers. But you must be prepared for your job search to take longer than in years past. That means you need to give some thought to how you’re going to sustain yourself in the meantime. And, if you’re determined to continue pursuing a job in higher education, you need a plan for staying current in your field so that you are still marketable two or three years down the road.
3. You’re less likely to land a full-time job.
Fewer students taking fewer credits. That’s a recipe for fewer full-time positions. I was actually a bit surprised to see that the ratio of full-time to part-time professors at ATS schools has stayed the same over the last decade. But I don’t expect that to hold for long. Higher education in general has shifted massively in the direction of hiring more part-time faculty, and I’ll be surprised if theological education doesn’t follow suit, though not to the same extent/
4. You should consider other avenues for teaching
You may not find a job in higher education. It’s as simple as that. But I always encourage my students to remember that teaching is the goal, location is the variable. So get creative and consider other ways of using your training (e.g. churches, parachurch organizations, overseas teaching, etc.).
5. Think long and hard before starting a doctoral program
This should be obvious, but I couldn’t end without saying it.