This story has been repeated many times in the last two years: A newly minted Ph.D. in theology cobbles together an adjunct class here, part-time pastoring there. No benefits, but graduation means having to take whatever work is available. And those debt payments are looming large — perhaps $90,000 in student debt accrued during eight years of study in a doctoral program that did not make grants to its students. Tenure-track positions aren't even on the landscape.
And what about graduates of highly selective programs that fund doctoral study with stipends and tuition remission? Many are not faring much better. Some have not found jobs; others work in settings very different from where they feel called to serve.
The recent economic downturn has run headlong into the way doctorate-granting schools have been doing business. The resulting collision has broad implications for schools from admissions through placement, and even for faculty recruitment and retention.
In summer 2009, the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary investigated the impact of the downturn on the doctoral programs that prepare future faculty for theological schools in North America. Directors of 24 of these programs (which together supply about half of all full-time faculty in accredited theological schools) were interviewed by telephone and also agreed to provide the center with information about their admissions, financial support, and educational practices, as well as future plans.
The study brought to light a number of issues important to the next generation of theological school faculty. How do these findings affect the work of board members? And what are some of the questions boards should ask?
Know where faculty were trained
At most North American theological schools, at least half of faculty were trained at one of the programs involved in the study. These programs are not all alike! The key difference is financial support for students.
Thirteen of the programs provide tuition remission and, typically, an additional stipend to all admitted students. These programs tend to have large applicant pools and are highly selective; on average, just 10 percent of applicants are accepted, and of those, 80 percent accept the offer.
The other 11 programs offer limited funding to some applicants; most students are expected to fund the majority of their educational and living expenses. These programs have fewer applicants and much higher acceptance rates — often upwards of 50 percent. While few directors have any information on student finances, most admit that it is not unusual for graduates to leave school with more than $75,000 in student debt.
Not surprisingly, the ablest students are usually drawn to programs that offer extensive support; directors of all the tuition-driven programs say that they routinely lose top candidates for financial reasons. While they say they hope one day to offer funding to candidates, none of the tuition-driven schools has this as a strategic priority.
What does this mean for a board member? Find out where your own faculty were trained. Are they likely to have received support for their studies? If few of your faculty received funding, this should prompt further exploration. If you are convinced that you are indeed hiring the best and most appropriate faculty for your school, find out if your salaries support the level of student debt likely carried by new hires.
Know your program
One of the most surprising findings of the study was the disconnect among the admissions practices, training, and expectations for the programs. Each director expressed hope of producing great scholars, colleagues, and teachers, but they rarely get to know their applicants well enough to measure potential in these areas.
The paper application still drives the admissions process, with "academic excellence" as the primary criterion — high GRE scores and grade point averages and enthusiastic faculty recommendations. Only five of the programs in the study interview students before extending an offer, even if that offer includes generous financial support. And while nearly all the programs intend to produce excellent teachers, fewer than half offer teacher training, either mandatory or optional. As one director summarized, "We do a good job of training scholars, but not academics. Fifty to 60 percent of the academic job is about things other than research."
Doctoral programs could employ admissions procedures that focus on character and personal qualities, not just intellectual capacity. Educational practices and training could emphasize excellence in teaching, not just research and scholarship. But this is not happening.
Boards of schools that grant academic doctorates should ask if admissions and educational practices are realistic — whether they are aligned appropriately with the purposes and intent of the program's mission. Is it a part of the strategic plan to enroll the top candidates by offering competitive funding? And boards should ask how well new hires are prepared for the array of work required by their school.
Know where your graduates land
Across the board, doctoral programs give scant attention to the vocational discernment and placement of their students. Only a handful of programs give any kind of formal assistance in job placement; typically, it is left up to the student to seek out help or to the faculty advisor to promote individual students.
Even fewer help students navigate the differences in teaching at an undergraduate institution, a research university, or a seminary — three very different contexts with different missions. Rather, students typically ask mentors to "just get me a job." As one director said, "If someplace is willing to pay you to teach, then that's a good job."
Most programs do not prepare their students for particular employment, and neither do they know where their graduates end up in the long run. This is true even among programs that invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in their students through tuition remission and stipends.
At the same time, most directors are aware of the anxiety caused by the grim job market, since frozen faculty searches, delayed retirements, and budget cutbacks mean that even the most promising candidates find it hard to gain employment. None are predicting any improvement for the foreseeable future. Yet even in changing times, the practices and policies of academic doctoral education are basically the same as they were almost a century ago.
Boards of schools with doctoral programs should inquire about the placement rates and locations of recent graduates. What services are offered for the placement process? Does the program reflect the realities of the job market? Do new hires know what it will mean to participate in a particular setting — whether a small seminary or a university-affiliated divinity school?
Most importantly, boards should have frank discussions with senior administrators about the big picture: Does the school's mission and its practices take into account the current economy? Do programs deliver on their promise? What room is there for change?
Paradoxically, the current crisis in the economy and in the job market is fertile soil for change. With so many graduates unable to find conventional teaching positions, programs ought to pay attention to the gap between doctoral education and the conditions students encounter upon graduation.
In the best scenario, conversations will take place at every level around program purposes, practices, and outcomes. Boards can help a school fulfill its mission by asking these questions and encouraging these conversations. These issues are crucial for any institution's strategic and budgetary planning.
"Report on a Study of Doctoral Programs that Prepare Faculty for Teaching in Theological Schools" by Helen M. Blier and Barbara G. Wheeler (Auburn Theological Seminary, Center for the Study of Theological Education, 2010, 31 pp.).
The full report, including a listing of participating schools, is at www.auburnseminary.org/faculty.