On Finding Gainful Employment in Academia, PhD Program Decision, & the Status Quaestionis of Biblio-Academia, Pt 2
Before I progress into the heart of this post, let me explain why for me this is such a critical decision. Besides financial considerations, it has to do with my age. I’m no longer as naïve and inexperienced as I was in my 20’s. In that decade, and throughout much of my 30’s, I believed that with “only” a college degree, I could write my own destiny. Alas, though education is a necessary step, it takes a lot more to maximize your opportunities in this world. Moreover, I supposed that any academic achievement would guarantee me a place in the upper echelons of the academic, political, or corporate worlds. However, wisdom comes to those who live life for a while. I’m now in my 40’s, married for 23 years, have 3 children, and 1 grandchild. And, though I am currently a PhD student, I don’t possess the typical credulous conception of what future post-graduate life will be like; I have already lived a lot of life outside of the academy.
I did not begin my biblio-academic journey until I was in my mid 30’s. By this time, I had been married 15 years and already had 3 children. As it does for many students, this situation presented its own challenges in my academic quest. Moreover, if beginning this journey late was not enough, some valuable time was also wasted along the way. After, finishing a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology, I spent a considerable amount of time in the Master of Theological Studies program at Vanderbilt Divinity School. It was extremely rigorous, hard-hitting, and technical. Scholars such as: David Michelson, Amy-Jill Levine, Jack Sasson, and Douglas Knight (to name only a few) conveyed in their courses a commitment to both the critical and broad scholarship that is expected within our guild. Unfortunately, it was an inopportune time to attempt this course of study as my auspicious beginnings were met with a set of traumatic circumstances that were completely out of my control. In fact, so traumatic, that only a few of my closest friends and colleagues know about the situation to this day. Decisively, this unfortunate set of circumstances led to my eventual withdrawal from Vanderbilt’s program, followed by a subsequent temporary relocation to Florida. Of course, throughout much of this very distressing time, I wasn’t sure if I would progress forward with any academic pursuits. However, after an appropriate amount of time in reflection had passed, I enrolled in what might be considered a less-affluential university two hours north of Destin in Montgomery AL to finish a M.A. in Biblical Studies degree. Fast-forward, Vanderbilt has now invited me back to finish my M.T.S. degree; they have even provided me with a very generous scholarship. However, if I accept, it means that I will not finish a PhD until I am 50 years old. Yes, 50 years old!
Over the past 3 months, I have questioned numerous religion department chairs, deans, professors, and other related faculty. For obvious reasons, their names and institutions will remain cloaked in secrecy for the purposes of this article. Nevertheless, analogous to my previous post, all of those questioned painted an equally uninviting picture of biblio-academia. However, there were some surprising exceptions.
For example, as it concerns finding employment, most expressed that “participation in the guild” is usually the most influential factor in their hiring decision—NOT PEDIGREE. The consensus was a concern about whether or not a candidate has plowed through the necessary data—NOT the institution at which it was done (provided that it is accredited of course). The degree to which this was done will be evident in the candidate’s extant peer-reviewed published work. At this point, it must be evaluated to determine whether or not it exhibits the essential features of scholarly work. As it pertains to my personal academic journey, many of those questioned told me that I could unequivocally overcome receiving a PhD degree from a less-affluential school as long as I am robustly participating in peer-review publishing and presenting at ETS, SBL, or AAR.
Likewise, I was considering applying to a UK PhD by research program, but to my surprise, the majority of those I questioned repeatedly shot it down. One religion department dean expressed that he had experienced problems in getting UK research degree applicants sanctioned by SACS for teaching certain courses—as this degree evidently leaves one’s transcripts lacking in requisite credit hours to teach specific subjects. Nevertheless, there are a lot of UK PhDs out there teaching in the US, so I am unsure how widespread is this problem. One department chair went as far as to say that he thought many who get a UK research degree are lacking in requisite width and depth, and thus if he had to choose, he would rather hire someone from a less-affluential US school, who has put it the additional hours of course work. Of course, this was his personal opinion—we all know that it is more important to judge the quality of an individual’s scholarship. Nevertheless, a UK PhD—e.g. from a Birmingham and Durham—might or might not be regarded as more respected than some American programs. It depends largely upon your potential employer’s perspective.
The majority of those questioned told me that I would be better off to accept an offer from one of the two US programs in question, so I did. I accepted an offer from Amridge University, Turner School of Theology in Montgomery, AL. My PhD program will consist of an additional 60 hours of course work beyond my MA degree. That is, 30 hours in core requirements, 18 hours of specialization courses, and 12 hours of dissertation modules. Additionally, it will require the typical proficiency/competency exams in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, German, French, and Latin. Equally, the requisite qualifying exams, dissertation modules, and a defense will be necessary. Finally, the program has residency requirements, as a student must have a minimum of 30 credit hours in residency on campus. My dissertation will be conducted under Drs. Daniel H. Fletcher (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary), Michael Strickland (PhD, University of Birmingham, UK—a former student of our good friend Mark Goodacre), and Paul Watson (PhD, Yale University). Most importantly, this program will allow me to continue to serve my current employer (i.e., King University) while also working on my PhD. Given this and other factors that I have mentioned—in this post and the one previous—the majority of those I questioned expressed that I am emphatically on the wisest possible path.
In closing, I would like to express my thanks to Vanderbilt University Divinity School for inviting me back, but it just seems a bit foolish for me to earn a 2nd Masters given all I have said here and in my previous post.