Monday, November 5, 2012

Thinking about a career in biblical studies? You might want to reconsider

Every year I meet with students who want to earn a PhD. in biblical studies. By the time we are done with our 30 minute meeting I have talked most of them out the idea. It's not that I don't like my job. But the reality is that you will invest a lot of time and money to earn the degree and there is no guarantee you will get a job. There are a lot of people out there with a PhD who have never been able to find a job. (See my post from last year Thoughts on Applying for a PhD in Biblical and Theological Studies).

Confirming the rather bleak news about the job market is a recent study by the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. These are the two premier organizations in the field and if you are looking for a job chances are you will find it advertised on their web sites. The study is of jobs that were advertised over the last ten years. It shows that more and more positions are non-tenure track, require the ability to teach on a variety of topics, and usually require experience. In other words, there seems to be less hiring of "freshly minted" PhD's and more shifting around of those who are already working. 

A few more interesting points: Islamic studies is on the rise. New Testament and Early Christianity is hiring more than Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament. And if you are thinking about a job in a public institution your options are even fewer. Also, you might consider theology rather than biblical studies if you want a job.

It's not all bad news and at the moment the guild, along with the rest of higher education, is in flux. But if you are thinking about a career in this field, you should know the facts.

Below are the first ten points of the report. You can read the whole report here

Key Findings

1. The decade under consideration experienced significant fluctuation in the number of job advertisements. Sharp decline marked 2008 to 2009 (-45.8%) and ad numbers in 2010 were just below ad levels for 2001 (494 and 511 respectively).

2. In 2008 81.6% of positions listed were tenure track, but this figure decreased to 51.1% in 2009 and 61.0% in 2010. These findings may indicate that the job market for the 2009 academic year fundamentally changed, not only declining but reconfiguring with a greater emphasis on non-tenure-track employment.

3. Hiring for new positions and vacancies, as opposed to sabbatical and visiting position hires and cases in which a search was reopened, accounted for 85.1% of position listings.

4. For ads posted with SBL and AAR from 2001 through 2010, the three most important skills or experiences desired or required by employers were (in order) holding a Ph.D., prior teaching experience, and interdisciplinary teaching or research.

5. Data may suggest that demand for Ph.D. and M.A. instruction has increased with little correlative effect on the demand for B.A., M.Div., and Th.D. or D.Min. instruction.

6. Jobs posted with the organizations were almost exclusively full-time rather than part-time.

7. Fields of study for positions themselves were diverse but populated three major categories. Positions dealing with modern religions and their histories, including comparative and world religions, accounted for 31.6% of ads. Positions in biblical studies and related disciplines—including Ancient Near Eastern languages and literatures, Second Temple Judaism, and early 
Christianity—accounted for 29.0% of ads. Positions in theology, philosophy, philosophy of religion, and ethics accounted for 21.9% of ads.

8. Positions in Islam were the major driver for the growth of positions dealing with modern religions and their histories between 2008 and 2009, increasing fourfold and accounting for 32.9% of such positions in that period.

9. New Testament and early Christianity positions drove the rebound for positions focused on biblical studies, accounting for 39.5% of such positions in 2010.

10. Positions in theology have led growth among positions in theology, philosophy, philosophy of religion, and ethics, doubling from 2008 to 2010 and accounting for 61.0% of such positions in that period.


  1. John,

    Do you think it is time for more people to walk away from doctoral studies or do you think that they should pursue doctoral work with an eye toward educating in a local church context rather than landing an job in academia?

    1. Brian,

      I think that doctoral studies are still important, but I don't think they need it for working in the church. They are two different venues. The PhD prepares you for research and teaching, something that most churches are not able to provide space for.

      Perhaps we need something between a DMin and a PhD. A degree that gives serious attention to bible and theology in preparation for being a teaching pastor. I know when I first went to seminary that was my aspiration.

  2. Do you think Wheaton's PhD program w. its emphasis on the "pastor-scholar" and its hybrid US-UK structure is a model?

    1. I am not familiar enough with the Wheaton model to comment, but I do think that there needs to be more space in the church for resident scholars in some form.

  3. Thanks very much, it's a conundrum that there is a renaissance of evangelicals with doctorates, but so few positions.

    I have a PhD in New Testament. I taught 10 years in the States, but 15 years in Latin America, teaching in Spanish; the "market" is entirely different once one leaves the US borders. I urge students to consider service outside North America.