Why Get a PhD in the Humanities?

In 2009 in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas H. Benton (the pen name of William Pannapacker, associate professor of English at Hope College) warned students against getting a PhD in the humanities. Just in case anyone missed his point, Benton’s first column was entitled Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go and his follow-up column, Just Don’t Go, Part 2. We recommend reading both articles, but here was a key passage from the first:

As things stand, I can only identify a few circumstances under which one might reasonably consider going to graduate school in the humanities:
  • You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
  • You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
  • You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
  • You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.
Those are the only people who can safely undertake doctoral education in the humanities. Everyone else who does so is taking an enormous personal risk, the full consequences of which they cannot assess because they do not understand how the academic-labor system works and will not listen to people who try to tell them.

We weren't satisfied with Benton’s advice, because we felt he left out important reasons why one should attempt a PhD in the Humanities. Rather than write a response ourselves, we contacted several Christian faculty in the humanities and asked them how they would respond to the question:

“From a Christian perspective, why should anyone pursue a doctorate in the humanities?”

Responses from seven faculty and postdocs are below. Two faculty wrote full essays in response: Carmen Acevedo Butcher of Shorter College and Brett Foster of Wheaton

C. John Sommerville
Professor Emeritus of History, University of Florida

There are no sure things in life these days, and most students know this. Professor Pannapacker (aka Benton) has heard from the disappointed. Those who teach in graduate programs naturally hear a different group of stories. Graduate students I talk to are exploring their fields and interests, the academic life more generally, and their options. Those who don’t “finish” may still find jobs for which their training was appropriate. The growth of private schools, for instance, creates an opportunity to raise the level of education for a new generation. Christian students have an added incentive, for there are now opportunities to take advantage of the obvious decline of secular ideologies. So their motivation seems measurably better than that of others, and this will likely give them some advantages.

(Note: Dr. Sommerville spoke at the 2009 Midwest Faculty Conference, New Opportunities in the Academy: A Mission Possible.)

Michael Murray
Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor in Humanities, Franklin & Marshall College. Note: Murray is now the Excecutive Vice President, Programs, John Templeton Foundation.

William Pannacker is right about a few things. Getting a job teaching in the Humanities is no easy task (and the economic crisis just made it a whole lot worse). He is also right that professors are sometimes too quick to counsel undergraduates to continue on to graduate study, and undergraduate students are wont to uncritically accept the encouragement. My advice to students in philosophy (Christian or not) has been to think twice about philosophy graduate training unless you can land a spot in one of the top twenty or so programs.

That said, it is also true that the opportunities for distinctively Christian contributions to work in the Humanities are probably as great as they have been in a century, matching the gravity of the challenges that require addressing. Following in the path of leading Christian figures such as Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, George Marsden and many, many others, distinctively Christian voices now have a firm (even if not always warmly embraced) place on the spectrum of defensible positions in many fields in the Humanities. This means the opportunity for growth, discovery, and impact are, at the present time, extraordinary. Just as importantly, as the Christian faith faces increasingly vocal challenges from many intellectual quarters, exploration and nourishment of distinctively Christian positions within the Humanities are as vital as they have ever been. For those with genuine and extraordinary talents in these fields, refusing to engage these talents for the Kingdom (hiding your light under a bushel) robs Jerusalem, Judea, and the uttermost parts of a precious divine gift.

Everett Hamner
Assistant Professor of English and Journalism, Western Illinois University

I read and discussed Bill Pannapacker’s articles with several of my students who are considering PhDs, of which a couple self-identify as Christians. While a little taken aback initially, we felt Pannapacker’s cautions are generally warranted as long as they can be balanced with appropriate encouragements. He is probably right to warn about the potentially-exploitative and impoverishing nature of PhD work—though a hard message, this needs to be heard, and he may have shouted a little too loudly to get at the hard-of-hearing, as Flannery O’Connor put it. At the same time, no one succeeds in this crazy profession in isolation, and mentor-friends and colleague-friends who offer regular pats on the back are critical, whether they are discovered via groups like Emerging Scholars or less intentionally. Lastly, another place I have sent Christian students particularly is John Stackhouse’s July 2008 blog entry, Thinking About a Ph.D.?. While I would adjust some of this advice for the case of humanities PhDs, I needed to ask and affirmatively answer most of the questions he presents.

Marc Baer
Chair of History Department, Hope College

As fate would have it, I completed my PhD in history in 1976, when the job market was the worst it had ever been, the result of an oversupply of graduates in history and an undersupply of college and university positions. After lots of interviews I couldn’t even land a one-year job, and so worked outside the academy for a year. At the end of that year I did get an offer for a one-year job, which did not, however, lead to a permanent position at that university but did provide experience; and the next year I obtained a tenure-track job. This generation is not the first to face tough times in the academy. But, of course, it was never about fate, nor was it about the notions my colleague Bill Pannapacker embedded in his otherwise helpful essays, safety and risk-aversion. Rather, it was and is about calling. And so, like Bill I urge potential humanities graduate students to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves: avoid incurring debt by steering clear of doctoral programs that don’t provide substantial financial support; consider alternatives to the academy even as one works to enter it; and before that, to think long and hard about an academic—or any vocation—preferably with a mentor. And never confuse dreaming, or the praise of professors, with a call from God.

(For additional thoughts from Dr. Baer about calling, read his article What is Calling?, adapted from his talk at Following Christ 2008.)

Brian C. Clark
Adjunct Faculty (History), Hartford Seminary

The ongoing collapse of the academic enterprise as a viable profession, especially in the humanities, is making academia feel more and more like a horribly overpopulated, rapidly-eroding island. Each year there are more inhabitants to compete for ever-scarcer fish, fields, and huts.

There is also a growing awareness that the actual diversity of human cultures, languages, and experiences is ill represented in the current faces and academic specializations of tenured faculty. This means that a great many programs, and a great many people at every level of academic life, face deep crises of legitimacy and relevance. The crisis is especially acute for scholars whose personal background and academic interests leave them without extensive familiarity with non-Western languages and cultures.

Only people in very special circumstances should pursue a PhD in the humanities. If someone wants to pursue a discipline that helps qualify them for the ministry, such as Theology or Church History, that can make sense, as long as they also make sure to take care of other qualifications for ministry along the way. If someone enjoys special access to future teaching positions at a school with a special relationship to a denomination, ethnic group, or foreign school, there are instances where they can pursue higher education under the wing of the sponsoring group, while being groomed for leadership positions in their particular context. There are also Christians whose life experience gives them special insight and qualifications for scholarship in an area with unusually strong hiring possibilities, for example, Near Eastern Studies or East Asian Languages and Cultures. Such people may well be justified in pursuing those studies, partly because the competencies they can gain through these specialist studies will lend themselves to a variety of kinds of work.

Finally, I believe that there are times when a few Christians hear from God unequivocally that they are to choose a course of life that appears to make no rational sense. If one perceives a call to higher education with that degree of clarity, then what else can one do? But for most of us, the choice to spend the better part of a decade pursuing a humanities PhD is an extremely risky, even foolhardy, thing to do with one’s life.

Glenn Peoples
2008 Doctoral Recipient (Philosophy), University of Otago

I think it’s true that of those seeking postgrad degrees in the humanities with dreams of lecturing in philosophy or cultural studies, many and perhaps even most of them should not. Simple supply and demand tells us with absolute certainty that most of these dreams will never be realized, and many should simply remove themselves from the game and make the playing field much clearer to those in positions of making selections.

Given this indisputable state of affairs, is there anything at all that should motivate a Christian, specifically, to pursue a PhD in the humanities? I think that there is, and I think that the reason is one that explains the inevitability of the doomed masses pursuing that which most of them can’t possibly obtain. Most humanities graduates will never make a difference in any noticeable way, but nonetheless, in the history of ideas about politics, human rights, morality, relationships, sexuality, God, and probably a few other things that matter a lot to Christians, those who have made differences are humanities graduates (from Peter Singer to Beverley Harrison to John Rawls).

The humanities are a field of study uniquely saturated in human values, and the knowledge that only a few will ever actually fight their way into the club of those who teach and have influence is a natural impetus for a feeding frenzy. Christians know only too well that there really is a war of ideas when it comes to human values, and they fool themselves if they imagine that those who do fight their way into positions of influence have any less of a moral agenda than they. Think of it as an exercise in philanthropy and a fight fought for the benefit of future generations.

Alan Jacobs
Professor of English, Wheaton College

I have to say that I have a good deal of sympathy for Pannapacker’s point of view — we do have too many people going to graduate school with little sense of what they’re getting into and what the costs are (financial and human). But it’s also the case that God really and truly does call people to this line of work, and that we desperately need intellectually and spiritually serious Christians in the academy.

So, all that said, there is really one and only one reason to get a PhD in the humanities, and this is it: after a great deal of prayer and consultation with wise Christian friends and mentors, you believe that God is calling you to do it. Some people are too readily inclined to jump in, and need restraints; others are too diffident and need encouragement. But everyone with the gifts to pursue serious and deep study of the humanities needs to be faithful in prayer and humbly attentive to wise counsel.

Photo credit: Friendly Joe


From 2006 till 2012 Micheal was the Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). Tom Grosh recommends that, if you haven't already done so, please be sure to check out his phenomenal "Best Christian Book of All Time" Series!

Micheal graduated summa cum laude from the University of Louisville with a BA in English, and completed a Masters of Christian Studies, concentrating in Christianity and the Arts, at Regent College. His poetry has been published in The New Pantagruel and Uprooted. Having become convinced of the importance of local community, Micheal and Elizabeth returned to Kentucky after their time in Vancouver in order to build community among her family and the local church while raising their three children.

The Emerging Scholars Network is especially important to Micheal, because he wishes something like ESN had existed when he was graduating from Louisville. With the idea of getting a PhD in literature, he contacted a number of Christian English professors to ask them where he could earn a PhD that integrated his love for Christ with his love for literature. After several discouraging responses, the last professor suggested that he do a theology degree first, to provide a foundation for later integration. While his degree at Regent turned out to be a perfect fit for Micheal, he hopes that ESN will provide a more encouraging path for students who want to serve God in the university. Micheal blogs at MikeHickerson.com.

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