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Why do you want to study religion? Concerns about economic security, etc.


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As results begin to come in I for one have been doing a lot of thinking about whether or not this course of study is the right one for me. There is no doubt in my mind that I am fascinated about what I'm thinking about studying (the interaction/dialogue between religious belief, scientific knowledge, and philosophy), but I don't how I'll feel about it after MA, PhD, and a career as a professor and if I'll become jaded by a lack of concrete answers to metaphysical questions. I don't think I will because I enjoy learning about how people answer these questions for themselves and justify their answers. In addition, I know I'll enjoy being a professor since I enjoy teaching (through my limited experience in study groups and tutoring), thinking about pedagogy, and helping people develop more precision in their thoughts and communication (undoubtedly a big goal of a college education, especially in the humanities). Yet, the path requires so much commitment of time and money with no guarantee that half a decade, or more, of education beyond college while scraping by financially will result in any economic security or at least the opportunity to put what we have learned to use in a career. With this in mind, and I haven't heard much different from current professors, do you guys ever consider pursuing something with more economic security and promise? For example, I have considered enrolling in a post-bacc program in computer science instead of pursuing graduate school in the humanities, but my passion for studying existential questions keeps me going--much to the confusion of some family and many friends.

 

I know you guys have probably been berated by these doubts and thoughts by people who don't understand and maybe even by yourself like I have so I'm sorry if this is trite and annoying for some of you, but, for me at least, having a reasoned discussion with people who understand the passion and the risks and who are about to make a similar leap of faith into this next stage of our lives is incredibly important.

 

Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

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tsgriffey,

 

Your questions are pertinent ones, and good questions to be asking at this stage (I see that you are in the midst of an application season yourself).  You've probably already seen the very well-known blog posts, and articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education online, arguing the issue from multiple angles. 

 

So let me address your comments from the perspective of someone who has been working as a Civil Engineer while also pursuing an MA in Biblical Studies/OT and now applying to PhD programmes in the same field (OT).  It pays to go into the PhD route in the Humanities with eyes wide open, knowing the potential risks and the difficulties of the job market.  Know that skill and knowledge and determination will only get you halfway; the other half is blind luck (providence?) and who you happen to meet at SBL that liked your tie/haircut/joke you told.

 

But no field of work/study is immune to the vagaries of the working world.  In 2009 and 2010, even well-respected and well-paid civil engineers were being laid off on a daily basis, and *no one* was hiring.  Friends of mine had a job Monday morning, and were looking for work Monday afternoon. My father, who was a mechanical engineer for almost 25 years, "aged out" of his job (i.e. laid off) and never did find another despite repeated efforts; he now has started his own business as an entrepreneur...in the humanities.

 

As I have searched for my own answers to the same questions you pose, I have come to understand that it must be a personal decision to accept the risks and take the jump into the unknown.  I want the chance to teach Old Testament, Hebrew, theology, and the wisdom of life to those that want to learn such things.  I can't do that as an engineer, at least on a consistent basis.  I have decided it is worth the risk to try, and to take a huge adjustment in lifestyle and income as part of the consequence of that decision.  If I end up eating out of a dumpster broke and on the street because I can't get a tenure-track job, I'll know that I tried and went into the process with eyes open.  And I'm only kind of joking about the dumpster thing.

 

Know the placement rates of the institutions you're applying to (esp. if you're going for a PhD).  If they don't publish those numbers, keep asking.  Find out specific names of past graduates that actually have jobs, then call them or email them.  Ask them if they're adjuncting, if they're tenure track, what % of time they teach (if that's what you really want to be doing).  The odds aren't great, but people DO get hired, and many of them love what they do. 

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Thanks for the reply, very interesting and helpful insights!

 

Other thoughts would be appreciated!

 

I have another thought/question. Religious ministry aside, is the work that we are/will be doing as academics of the study of religion really doing anything to benefit (i.e. serve) others? I'm not talking about teaching, but the research we plan on doing. Sometimes it seems like research in religious studies can be incredibly esoteric, to the point where it just seems as if the academic is just over-analyzing an issue for the sake of over-analyzing it with no practical purpose. Yet, maybe I am being shortsighted and should realize that no matter how fringe a topic may seem it still contributes to the whole body of knowledge that serves to inform the world about the incredibly complex nature of religion as a phenomenon.

 

It's funny how much animosity seems to be directed at religious studies. Many people outside the field think that religion is b***sh** and that studying is a waste of time and that an academic is a crazy person for wanting to study it, often with the assumption that the academic is religious and that that person should get a "real job". I can't help but feel insecure often when I think of the stigma attached to those in RS programs. Obviously, such people are ignorant, but it still seems to be a prevalent stereotype. I know that contributing to the body of knowledge on a subject is a real job, but it almost seems to good to be true--hence why becoming an academic is a pipe-dream for many that either do not attempt to pursue it, or don't make it because there are so few academic positions.

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People tend to be dismissive of RS and related fields (e.g. Classics) not because they think our subject matter is 'stupid' or a 'waste of time'--quite the opposite, I think, as almost anyone you happen to run into thinks anything related to religion is very interesting--but because our job prospects are so limited. Not only do 'they' think we are limited in finding work (we are), but our prospective pay is very very low when you consider the total time put into our studies. 'We don't do it for money,' we respond. And that's true, we don't. But our position generally comes from a point of privilege not available for many people (or at least not imaginable). It makes people uncomfortable. 

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Here's an example:

http://chronicle.com/article/Average-Faculty-Salaries-by/126586/

 

It lists starting (tenure-track) new assistant professor at $52,270 a yr. (I have not checked their data).

 

NPR says 76% of higher ed teaching is done by part-time instructors:

http://www.npr.org/2014/02/03/268427156/part-time-professors-demand-higher-pay-will-colleges-listen

Their numbers (and methods for the study) come from:

http://www.aaup.org/report/heres-news-annual-report-economic-status-profession-2012-13

 

Another recent interesting read from NPR:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2015/02/27/388443923/a-glut-of-ph-d-s-means-long-odds-of-getting-jobs?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20150227

 

If you can land a tenure-track job, then, sure, you may be making okay money. Depending on how much school debt you have your quality of life may vary drastically. For the majority, however, things are looking pretty bleak (76%!!). I'm in a PhD program now in the field (top 5 program) and I can say that graduates out of our program are having a hard time finding full time work. A lot of people are doing rounds of post-doc positions until they can find something (2-4 yrs). And that 'something' at the end of the tunnel is more than likely a teaching gig at a small liberal arts school in North Dakota. :ph34r:  

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sacklunch,

 

Those are good links - I'd seen the first one but not the others.

 

There is also the most recent SBL report.  Unfortunately, it doesn't really go into depth with the contingent faculty issue the way the AAUP report does.

 

http://sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/AY13-14jobsReport.pdf

 

I'm curious - given the struggles of your fellow classmates now out on the job market, what is your motivation to remain in the field?  Are you hopeful of beating those odds, or are these dire statistics and observations compelling you to think of a path alternative to academia?

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  • 1 month later...

Bump. I'm more confused than ever. Found out today that I've been accepted to Oxford and deadlines are approaching. For the last month I've been planning on going into computer science, but going to grad school at Oxford would be so much fun!

Edited by tsgriffey
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Think very long and hard. Remember all those times you imagined something would be so awesome only to finally get there and realize it's not 'all that.'?

School names are misleading. Don't go because you want the 'experience' of being at Oxford--that elevated feeling will fade, leaving you only with your work. There are far cheaper ways to enjoy yourself. Computer science has enthusiasts, too!

Edited by sacklunch
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I hear ya. I'm dizzy with all the long and hard thinking I've been doing. It is actually the work and the program that I'd have tons of fun with.

In case I get a M* and then decide not to get a PhD, what would the job prospects look like (non-academic, that is)?

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I hear ya. I'm dizzy with all the long and hard thinking I've been doing. It is actually the work and the program that I'd have tons of fun with.

In case I get a M* and then decide not to get a PhD, what would the job prospects look like (non-academic, that is)?

 

I'm told the glory days of getting a good job just because you have a degree from a good school are over. My own experience, however limited, confirms this. What comes to mind is a friend who did his MTS at HDS and, after graduating (and deciding not to pursue a PhD), had to take a job at Home Depot stocking shelves (part-time, night shift). This is the reality for many, I suspect. Without a teaching certificate you cannot teach at many schools (including private depending on the state--though community college may be an option). I've heard working in the publishing world can also work. But, generally, those kind of jobs could be had without going into debt (with just a BA). I've found that if one has an M* humanities degree from a top school (such as Oxford or Chicago), employers could care less. They want to know what skills you actually have. And if you are 'forced' to work in the 'blue collar' sector, you will find that people simply do not know the difference between UChicago and Bob Jones University. They won't get it (nor should they). In fact, to some you will be thought to be 'too smug' such that you are above the work you are applying to do. Perhaps indicative of the wider job market I'll note a close friend's experience. He completed his MBA about 5 years ago and encountered this 'you are overqualified without enough experience' response a lot. After temping for 3 years he finally got a real full time job (one that only requires a BA/BS); he moved around the country to do this, too. My point is that times are tough for everyone, particularly for folks with 'only' an M* in the humanities. If those with practical degrees are having trouble securing work, I am terrified to think of what waits for me on the other side (with a PhD in hand no less).

 

On the other hand, I'll say that the abysmal job market has made me more optimistic. If our generation is to be forever in debt and forever poor, I might as well embrace my deepest passions. If my only options for secure employment are medical school, engineering, and the like, I think I'll take my chances in the dying humanities. Still, most of us in the subforum have spent too much time in the humanities to 'turn back'; you may have the luxury of going into another field (perhaps you have a double major, one being CS?).

 

Be strong my friend; you got this.

Edited by sacklunch
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@tsgriffey,

 

First, congrats on the Oxford admission!  Well done.

 

sacklunch's posts are most definitely spot-on here.  The school name by itself just isn't the commodity it used to be.  I have one friend who graduated with a M* ministry degree at HDS who is doing very well as a pastor in a church, and some former graduates of my (confessional) MA institution that have gone on to get PhDs in the UK who then were able to secure tenure-track positions here in the US and Canada.  So, it *does* happen.

 

But...I've known just as many, who have graduated with their PhDs in theology/biblical studies/etc. from Ivy League schools, even with the "right" advisors and the "right" dissertation topics and the "right" publications and conference presentations (you get the drift), who now rotate from one visiting professorship to the next, moving each year across the country hoping for that ever elusive tenure track entry. 

 

My biggest takeaway from looking into this question for myself...don't go into debt for a M* or PhD.  Be comfortable with the roll of the dice that this profession truly is in the modern job market, certainly in academia.  Outside of academia, by and large, sackluch is again spot-on.  No one cares about the degree or where you got it from, unless it helps you help them.

 

Life is full of decisions.  This is just one of them.

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Thanks for the thoughtful and helpful responses!

 

I also have been questioning the strength of my interest in RS - it honestly has been waning somewhat. I'm not sure if it's my frustration with the nature of philosophy of religion (it seems to me that once you get to a certain point in philosophical analysis, you realize epistemological barriers and accept things on faith and then the discussion ends (or should)) or that I've been out of undergrad for a while, but, either way, the financial and time commitment is not looking so good.

 

In case I turn down all offers of admission, which at this point is more than likely, do I face any barriers for readmission if I change my mind in several years?

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I highly doubt that these schools are going to feed your name into a secret database so that they can deny you entry a few years down the road.  ;)

Edited by Kuriakos
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I highly doubt that these schools are going to feed your name into a secret database so that they can deny you entry a few years down the road. ;)

Well, many applications ask "have you applied before?" I can see how a university may be less inclined to accept someone who turned down the same offer before.

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My biggest takeaway from looking into this question for myself...don't go into debt for a M* or PhD.

 

Of course for PhD, but paying one's way seems a lot more common for those pursuing M* degrees. Is this because there are more M* students in general?

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Well, many applications ask "have you applied before?" I can see how a university may be less inclined to accept someone who turned down the same offer before.

 

I can see that too. However, isn't that question included because some schools limit the amount of times you can apply (not to one or two, but being denied several times)?

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Of course for PhD, but paying one's way seems a lot more common for those pursuing M* degrees. Is this because there are more M* students in general?

 

Basically. The field is saturated. Many students interested in the study of religion (and naturally theology) have some level of practical ("ministerial") interest. This is just not the case with most M* degrees in the humanities. Since in this country (and the West, for the most part) Christianity reigns supreme, divinity schools can pump out thousands of graduates per year (with hopes, in theory, of finding employment rather easily...haha!). The consequence is that many are overqualified--in part because if one has academic interests that include their faith commitment, they usually require additional training, and also because those of who do not have such commitments must oftentimes compete with the longer training of the faithful (to whatever degree their training has conflated the practical and academic). In addition, many of our interests, at the M* level(s), are fairly accessible. Many divinity schools do not require that their applicants have any sort of background in religion, theology, philosophy, or even the arts in general. Many of us grow up hearing (some ad nauseum) sacred texts to the western tradition. They are fairly accessible to us. Head over to a philosophy, religion, classics, or archaeology department and count the number of M* students. The benefit of such smaller programs is they often come with fairly good funding (if not full) (e.g. classics MA's at WashU-STL, FSU, University of Arizona, and so on); the perk for many divinity schools is the huge resources a large student body brings (faculty, libraries, alum connections, and so on). /rant

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To clarify a bit, I should make the distinction between going into debt for a M* vs. paying (or partially paying) for an M* degree.  This is just for me personally - but I didn't want to go into debt for a M* degree in the humanities, and then have to carry that debt into a multi-year PhD programme just watching the interest balloon the whole time.  I did not receive full funding for my MA (which is a rare animal indeed), but was able to work while completing the degree and thus did not end up owing anything for it. 

 

It might be different for those students that get a ministerial degree like an M.Div with a job prospect lined up afterwards; it may be worth it to accumulate some debt in order to become a minister, etc. and enter their chosen profession in their case. 

 

I'm sure the argument could be successfully made that a modest amt. of debt for an MA in religious studies or related field, as a step towards the PhD, is a worthy "future investment" in oneself, I was just stating my personal conviction and one which has been expressed to me by those who have now come out the other side with PhD in hand.

Edited by LotzaCoffee
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I'm curious how many people can really get a PhD without going in to any debt.  That, obviously, would be an incredible opportunity and a brilliant idea, but I suspect it's only in the cards for single people or those whose partners are working.  And perhaps for many people going the PhD route, that's common.  I'm going fully funded and with a fellowship which will bring me about 24,000 a year in income as well as a 1,500 stipend for health insurance.  While that is truly amazing for me, I've got a wife and three children with a fourth on the way, so obviously it won't get me there.  But even with a family I'm probably only looking at around $100k for the duration of the degree.  I know lots of people who have done that and while of course the debt sucks, sometimes it's the only way to do it.

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It probably depends, but on the other side of the argument, I sometimes wonder how many of the "I am adjuncting and living on food stamps" stories stem from going into a lot of debt for a humanities degree.  If you have other marketable skills that you could translate into a different line of work when you (and I, and 90% of the people on this forum and elsewhere) don't get anything resembiing an academic job after taking out a small mortgage for education, then sure, why not give it a go.  Also, if this 100k were the only debt you'd incur from your education up until this point, then I guess you wouldn't be in too much worse shape than lots of other people with Bachelor's degrees. 

 

In the end, I, nor any other poster here has any real bearing on whether you are going to go ahead with this.  I would, however, at least ask about job outcomes in your specific area from FSU.  In my own program, we frankly don't have any for my area, so I can't really talk here - but in that I have zero debt right now, and will not incur any from my program, I figure getting to work the equivalent of a part-time job with health insurance, doing more or less what I am interested in for five years isn't that big of a waste if I end up doing nothing with it.

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All the good points that can be made here have been made. I basically think it's a gamble if you're in it just for academic work. Getting into a good masters is >50% chance, then getting into a TT PhD program is >5% chance. Then getting a job from there has been covered, though I'll additionally mention that it totally varies by institution. At my institution (Within the 5 TT) I believe all but one former student from the past 3 years has a tenure-track position.

 

If you're in the Christian tradition and open to pastoral ministry, then I think graduate work in religion/theology is a solid plan, even if you have to go into debt for it. It seems like all the mainline denominations have a guaranteed job at the end of the road, at least implicitly, provided you are doing well along their paths to ordination. Why is debt okay in this instance? Because of the IBR/PAYE plans which you can get forgiven in as little 10 years if 30+ hours of your work includes non-proselytizing, non-profit like work. The problem is the amount forgiven could count as income the year its forgiven, though we have yet to see whether that will actually be the case or not. I anticipate that there could be last-minute legislation on this that'll simply forgive the amount.

 

What if academics and pastoral ministry both don't work out / appeal to you? The possibilities are endless and limited only to your own entrepreneurship and openness to other possibilities. Publishing and writing could be a viable path for some. Non-profit work is the non-ecclesial route taken by many. You could do further graduate work in professional fields like law or business. All my artist friends stay afloat by working in the service industry while they do their artwork in their free time. And other stuff still could happen. For example, I'm taking a job offer to go into real estate research, which will help with living expenses while I take some time off prior to doctoral work.

Edited by GREman
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