Should One Get a PhD in Biblical Studies?
It amazes me—though it probably shouldn’t—how often students express interest in a biblical studies PhD despite the numerous warnings about meager job prospects in the field, many of which have appeared online in blog posts and editorials. I saw it recently on Facebook in the SBL Student Members group. We all want to hear that our desire to pursue a PhD in Biblical Studies is justified.
This particular student on Facebook received advice I have heard many times before, indeed it was advice that I myself had received. While there is never one determining factor in answering this question, I have grown wary of one particular piece of advice that is regularly offered:
If you can see yourself doing anything else, pursue some other interest.
My problem with this advice is not so much what it says but with what it implies: If you can’t see yourself doing anything else, pursue the PhD! When stated outright, it usually comes with the appropriate qualifiers. Be realistic. It may not work out. It will cost lots of money. Etc. These caveats are appropriate, but they don’t mitigate the fundamental problem in the advice above:
If we only encourage students with a single-track education and narrow interests to pursue a PhD in biblical studies, we do a disservice to our discipline and to those whose education will not serve them well when they fail to land an academic career.
Our discipline does not need more people who see the discipline of biblical studies through the lens of a traditional biblical studies education. What we need are English and history majors, psychologists and political theorists. What we don’t need are more Bible majors! The Bible majors, more often than not, are the ones who cannot see themselves doing anything else. The Bible may be the only subject they have studied in college and graduate school. Those with majors outside of biblical studies have expertise and career opportunities that lie outside biblical studies. It is these people who we discourage when we offer the advice above, but these are precisely the kinds of people we should be attracting to the guild. As the academy continues to embrace interdisciplinary thinking and tenure boards expect innovative scholarly careers, we need to invite students with eclectic interests to pursue biblical studies PhDs, not students with a single-track focus on the Bible!
Furthermore, we must keep in mind the lives of those who will pursue a biblical studies PhD. We know that most of these students will not end up with a tenure track or relatively stable academic posting. Bible majors or those who can’t imagine doing anything else do not need to be encouraged to pursue an education that only further narrows their career opportunities. Certainly PhDs can find work in non-traditional roles, but shouldn’t students with a narrowly focused Bible education be encouraged to broaden their education, interests, and career opportunities rather than spend four, six, or eight more years studying the Bible? Moreover, if we attract students with a broader education to spend a few years working on a PhD in biblical studies, they can find careers in other fields (if the tenure track doesn’t work out) and help infuse their biblical studies expertise in other disciplines and careers.
It is well-meaning advice, but we should no longer counsel students to pursue a PhD in biblical studies only if they cannot see themselves doing anything else; rather, we should advise students to pursue a PhD in biblical studies only if they have eclectic interests and alternative career opportunities.