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ACurlyShepherdLad

To Job or to PhD with Background in Arts & Humanities

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All,

That existential crisis has fallen upon me, and while I hope it's not familiar to you, I'm posting here because I'm thinking that chances are it is to many, and maybe some of you have successfully navigated out of it.

I've done an MFA and an MDiv and luckily found ways to bring literature, creative writing and religion together during both programs. Here's the thing: I'm in my early 30s and I'm tired. I've only been outside of higher ed for a bit between undergrad and now, doing church work and freelancing gigs. Both my degrees are considered "terminal." I loved teaching, I loved "academic freedom," I loved being supported if I wanted to go to conferences, I loved doing research and I loved writing (as a student). I didn't love bureaucracy, I didn't love job insecurity, I didn't love low wages, I didn't love my job taking up all my research/writing time (or not being done with work when I got home), I didn't love that my students were increasingly disinterested in doing work. I also missed what felt like more practical applications of my theological and ministerial studies in divinity school, particularly social justice ministries.

I feel like I'm at an impasse. I either need to decide to do a PhD while I'm still young (although early 30s feels fairly old when I consider the duration of a PhD and the long and winding road to tenure after) or I need to figure out a life for myself in the world outside higher ed. If I did apply to doctoral programs, I'd go the practical theology route and build off the problem I tackled in my MDiv thesis, a subject I remain passionate and curious about. But I'll admit: money is starting to be an issue for me. I'm getting older and I feel less ready to live off a meager student stipend than I was in my 20s. I'm willing to get the PhD if it would improve my opportunities and security, but I also feel woefully unfamiliar with the possibilities available to someone with terminal degrees in the arts and humanities outside of academe. Aside from higher ed instructor, I've briefly done university chaplaincy and gov't human rights agency work as part of my ministry experience. Are upward mobility, job security and livable wages possible for someone with this kind of background, or would a PhD secure those things in a way these master's can't? Also willing to look into nonprofit/corporatey certificates/licenses if that helps ease the transition out of academe/generate better income.

I think my gifts have been well-suited toward academe, but I don't know if it can or will ever give me back the support I need to keep my head above the water. Anyone else struggled with this same decision after their master's? What helped you decide to stay in higher ed or transition out? And, if you were transitioning out, how did you discern what path out was best for you?

Apologies for the murkiness of the question. It's probably a result of my present murky state.

TL;DR: Terminal literary arts and theological/ministerial degrees struggling to discern whether a PhD in practical/pastoral theology or transitioning out of academia would offer a more secure/stable future and, if the latter, how best to make that transition.

Edited by ACurlyShepherdLad

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Hi there,

Based on what you are telling here, I think you might benefit from being "outside" higher ed for a little while. Like you, I started my PhD in my early 30s and it's true, you begin to be more demanding? impatient? about money. (Eg: I ate organic and never, EVER from a can, but that had a cost). So, I understand the desire to wanting to dive into a career sooner rather than later. I began my PhD after 10 years of work experience so I tend to recommend people get "out" before getting "in". Of course, this is based on my experience, which doesn't make the only valid one. Yet, it sounds that you might benefit from that. 

On 7/19/2019 at 4:18 PM, ACurlyShepherdLad said:

 Are upward mobility, job security and livable wages possible for someone with this kind of background, or would a PhD secure those things in a way these master's can't?

I don't think so. I don't think degrees tend to be synonyms for job security any more nowadays. I have several friends who work at my university as directors of programs (diversity programs, English support programs, etc) and they are doing their PhDs at the same time in another institution (part time, obviously). Do you think this might be something you might look into? Ultimately, their job experience informed their career paths much more than the the research per se, if you know what I mean. 

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If I were you, I'd leave academia and find something else.

As was mentioned, a PhD doesn't provide job security and a road to financial security. Not in and of itself, and definitely not in the arts and humanities. Academia in those areas is really tight with a much larger supply than demand. And although you can definitely do things with a PhD in the arts and/or humanities outside of academia, those jobs are largely not made for nor exclusive to people with PhDs in those fields. You could probably do them with the degrees you currently have.

I am a non-academic industry researcher. I did finish my PhD (I had this crisis inside of graduate school, and ultimately decided to finish) but when I was having the crisis, I loved the same things you love and disliked the same thing you dislike. My current job, NOT in academia, offers me a lot of the things that I liked - just in different formats than what I expected. I don't "teach" in the traditional sense (and not college students), but I manage people and I have lots of opportunities for teaching and advising in different formats (career development for my direct reports, teaching seminars and sessions at work, teaching my client/partner teams about research and different topics areas). I am more than supported if I want to go to conferences - I turn down travel opportunities - and I spend a lot of time writing and doing research. I've found that there are lots of jobs outside of academia that allow you to do one or more of these things, if you broaden your definition - or already have a pretty broad one - of how to scratch those itches.

And if you like practical applications, to me that sounds like even more reason to look for non-academic work. You'll only miss that more in graduate school. I got my PhD in public health, and I sorely missed that all throughout - while I loved the research, I wanted to do more of the health education and promotion myself as well.

I think the question now is - what do you want to do? It's easier to narrow yourself down to a couple of areas than it is to open the floodgates. Check out Versatile PhD if you haven't already, and get some suggestions there for things that folks from the arts and humanities do after leaving academia (they do a LOT of different things!). Do you want to continue doing research/scholarship in the humanities, or are you willing (or wanting) to go completely different? Do you want nonprofit/NGO/government agency type work or would you be happy to work in the private sector too? (They're not mutually exclusive, but I knew a lot of academics who were reluctant to work at for-profit corporations post-grad school.)

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