A few years ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article aimed at those considering graduate programs in the humanities. It explored some of the difficulties of establishing an academic career, as well as some of the ways in which academia has changed over the last few decades. But the article’s advice can be summed up in its ominous title: “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.”
Around this time every year, thousands of students and seminarians ignore this advice and submit their applications to doctoral programs in theology. As anyone in the field can tell you, academic theology is neither an easy nor a lucrative career path. If, for whatever reason, you should decide to embark on this journey, you will likely spend at least seven years (I’m currently on year nine) in full-time postgraduate education, only to land a job with a mediocre salary — if you can find one.
The rewards of an academic career in theology, however, are many, which is why so many people choose to pursue one. Sure, there are plenty of reasons not to (there is even an entire blog dedicated to this topic). But the decision is ultimately up to you.
The purpose of this post is not to help you decide whether you should pursue a doctorate in theology. Several people with many more years of experience than I have written on this topic, and any advice I might have to offer would be superfluous. Furthermore, this decision requires a great deal of discernment, and it is almost impossible to generalize or come up with some set of universal criteria by which one could decide whether to apply. These kinds of things are best done in conversation with close friends and mentors who can help you discern whether pursuing a doctorate is right for you.
What I can offer, as someone nearing the end of his program, is my perspective thus far on what it is like to earn a doctorate in theology. Specifically, I’d like to share some points, or friendly warnings, that would have been helpful to me when I was first considering PhD programs. I should note that, while much of what I write is generalizable, my perspective mostly reflects programs in the United States. The length and requirements of programs in the U.K. and elsewhere can vary significantly. I also acknowledge that not everyone who earns a doctorate in theology plans to establish a career in academia. Caveats aside, I hope that these reflections will be helpful to anyone considering doctoral work in theology.
1. You will have doubts about your vocation.
This is inevitable. Even if you’re dead set on this career path, keep in mind that you will be in “academic limbo” for five years. You will wonder whether this was the right decision. You will watch from afar as your friends settle into careers and begin saving for retirement. You will start to have doubts that your research, which once seemed groundbreaking, will ever make a difference.
Once you get over the hurdle of “getting in” to a program, you will eventually face the even more daunting prospect of “getting out,” i.e., finding a job. During these five years, your hitherto unknown “transferable skills” will come into crystal-clear focus, and you’ll start to wonder why you never pursued a career in investment banking. These thoughts are completely normal, but you should be prepared for them. Just today, I caught a grad student walking through the library with a book titled Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001). Some do decide to abandon their academic aspirations, but this is rare and (one hopes) the result of much prayer and painful discernment.
2. You will get lonely.
This should come as no surprise. Many (if not most) academics are introverts and enjoy working independently, but even the most introverted among us will face bouts of loneliness during our course of study. To put things into perspective: it is not uncommon for me to spend an entire workday without a single human interaction. This isn’t by choice; it’s just the nature of doctoral research. Thankfully, I am greeted by my wonderful wife and three daughters every day when I get home. As a priest, I’m privileged to interact with my parishioners on a regular basis. Depending on the semester, I also have students to engage a few times per week.
On the whole, though, being an academic requires more solitude and less social interaction than many other vocations. Most disciplines in the humanities, including theology, reward individual accomplishments over collaborative research. These factors comprise a recipe for loneliness, and you need to be prepared to combat it. Friends, family, corporate worship, and movie nights are good for the soul.
3. Doctoral work in theology does not build a magical bridge between Church and academy.
This problem is unique to the discipline of theology, and if you are ordained, the problem is only exacerbated. If you think that your research is somehow going to build bridges between the Church and the academy, you will quickly realize that you are David facing Goliath. This is true even in more church-friendly programs such as the ThD. In most cases, the Church and the academy have little interest in one another. I’m grateful for the fine people and organizations (such as the Society of Scholar-Priests, of which I’m proud to be a member) doing excellent work in this area — but it is definitely work.
In a similar vein, you may be in for disappointment if you think that studying theology, by its very nature, will make you more holy. It can, yes, but again, it takes work. Reading a dense theological journal article is no substitute for the Daily Office. Spending an hour talking with your adviser (no matter how brilliant he or she is) is no substitute for going to Mass.
In fact, being a student of theology is often an impediment to reading the Bible for spiritual edification, because it is too easy to delude yourself into thinking that you already spend every waking hour thinking about God and all things theological. But spiritual growth does not happen by osmosis. Prayer and study can be integrated, but it does not happen automatically. (See Covenant’s three posts on PhD study and holiness, by Zachary Guiliano, Fr. Sam Keyes, and Elisabeth Kincaid.)
4. You will get tired of “faking it.”
Contrary to popular opinion, earning a doctorate in theology does not mean spending one’s days reading, thinking, and writing. As with most “normal” jobs in the corporate world, there are numerous mundane tasks: conference proposals to submit, expense reports to complete, CVs to cultivate, and endless meetings to attend. And, of course, there is the performance aspect. When you finally do present your research, whether in speaking or in writing, you will be forced to present yourself as if you have definitively solved whatever problem you are working on. When you apply for jobs and fellowships, you must make it clear that you are a cutting edge scholar who has it all together. But, of course, you don’t. You will have to learn the art of faking it while somehow maintaining your integrity. Good luck!
5. You will be forced to specialize.
Forget about earning a doctorate in order to become a “renaissance man” or “renaissance woman.” You will need to pick a topic early on and develop an expertise. You may be interested in a number of subjects, but most of them will have to be bracketed — until, well, you retire. For example, I have interests in patristics, biblical studies, philosophy of religion, Anglican history, legal theory, aesthetics, liturgy, sacred music, and many other areas. But my discipline is Christian ethics and, specifically, the moral theology of Thomas Aquinas. I happen to be quite content with this specialization, but I also have to recognize that, for the next several decades, I will likely have no more time to pursue these other interests than a non-academic would.
On the other hand, you will realize that “specialization” is not necessarily limited to your specific research agenda. As a moral theologian, I’ve had to develop a working knowledge of the basic “canons” of moral theology and Christian ethics, both historical and contemporary. This includes Catholic and Protestant approaches to ethics, the Just War tradition, Catholic social teaching, natural law and divine command theories, political theology, sexual ethics, feminist ethics, bioethics, and medical ethics, just to name a few. Whatever your field, you will need to be familiar with its basic canons, and these will all be covered in your preliminary exams. Regardless of whether you have an interest in all the related areas in your discipline, you will need to develop a working knowledge of them. The idea here is that you will be able to show competency over a broad range of topics, while still having a research agenda that sets you apart from everyone else in the field.
If all of this makes you think twice about applying to doctoral programs in theology, then I have done my job.
I’m not trying to dissuade anyone. After all, thinking twice is never a bad thing. Even though I have struggled with every one of the points I’ve listed, I would still choose to be where I am today. Frankly, I can’t imagine doing anything else. But there is much to consider when contemplating theology as a career, whether as an academic or as a scholar-priest.
Doctoral work in theology is (to borrow the language of our marriage rite) “not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately,” and with a realistic perspective.
Fr. Stewart Clem is assisting priest at St. Paul’s Church in Mishawaka, Indiana, and a doctoral candidate in moral theology and Christian ethics at the University of Notre Dame.