Religious Studies and the Church, Part III: Graduate Training as a Ponzi Scheme

The subject of education that does not pay financially is a sensitive one for me. Thankfully, my graduate training equipped me with enough marketable skills that I’m fine, but I’m close enough to people in other fields (sometimes adjacent to mine) that I’ve seen it not work out, and it can get very ugly. 

Somebody puts in years of their life, and sometimes takes out student loans, to only at the end find out that 1) the chance of you getting that R1 tenure track position for some fields is literally similar to your chance of making it in the NFL, and 2) hardly anybody outside of that field actually cares about all the skills picked up in graduate training (which aren’t as vaguely transferable as is often supposed by both faculty and students), so you need to somehow find a way to support your family on entry-level wages, sometimes while trying to pay off student debt. 

Admittedly, my perception of graduate training payoffs is anecdotal, but for undergraduates there is enough data to show that some majors really don’t pay for themselves, or at the very most give you a slightly marginal “generic college” salary benefit that is far from enough to live off of. (Tragically, some of these same fields intentionally try to recruit BIPOC students, seemingly unaware or not caring that they are perpetuating intergenerational inequality by doing so, but I digress). 

As can be seen in Census data, religious studies is particularly low in terms of payoff; one year out with a religious studies degree and you’re looking at Wal-Mart level wages. On one hand, bright young Latter-day Saint women or men might aspire to be religious scholars, on the other hand they run up against a strong religious imperative to have and be able to provide for a family (obviously things are socioculturally distinct for women in terms of “provide for the family” expectations in Latter-day Saint culture, but I believe they experience a similar dynamic here).

While in the past you could make provide-for-a-family wages with a non-marketable degree, we’re just not there anymore, which is why I now have a “just say no” attitude for members thinking about getting an advanced degree in religious studies at the beginning of their career (unless you’re already a skilled welder or coder, then do whatever you want). Yes, your professors might sing your praises and you might win all those awards, but at the end of the day you’re facing NFL draft level odds, and if you take your religious imperative to be able to provide for a family (or yourself, given the numbers involved) seriously it’s hard to justify playing those kinds of odds. 

8 comments for “Religious Studies and the Church, Part III: Graduate Training as a Ponzi Scheme

  1. Frankly, most college education is a ponzi scheme. Anything past the first 2 years is used so rarely (in most fields) as to be hopelessly outdated by the time you pull it out, if you pull it out. And the first two years could be taught in high school if we concentrated on education instead of social indoctrination.

  2. Stephen, I’ll disagree because you’re not accounting for the personal value of graduate education. If someone is in it for the money or career, then sure, it’s best to look elsewhere. But if someone is so deeply interested in a field that they will be dissatisfied in the long term without a chance to study it seriously, then spending 7 years in grad school followed by years earning what a typical college graduate makes doing something semi-related or unrelated isn’t actually a terrible outcome. The years in grad school aren’t a cost from this perspective, but the primary benefit, and you also get to spend the rest of your life somewhat qualified to work in and comment on the field you love.

    I don’t buy the argument “I’ll just study patristics in my own free time while I work in management” because there’s a whole foundation of knowledge you miss out on. Plus you don’t know any people in your field, you don’t get any experience teaching or researching in your field, and you miss a lot of the ways your field is connected to others.

    I agree it would be nice to be able to have both the fulfilling career and the intellectual engagement that the R1-tenure-track job promises, but it’s not the only option. If you really like your field, you can do quite a bit of useful research in non-R1 places and non-tenure-track jobs. I won’t argue too strenuously about transferable skills, but the global economy is larger than you can imagine and has lots of odd corners where all kinds of skills have value. I wouldn’t recommend aiming to take the path I followed, but I’ve done okay.

    I don’t know how healthy religious studies is in general these days, but there are real costs to the church of not having it and other humanities fields as viable career options. There are several areas where we coast by on the efforts of enthusiastic amateurs but really need the insights of fully qualified people who are fully engaged with their fields. There are some outstanding exceptions like Ardis Parshall, but there are others whose work just lacks perspective. Understandably, it makes sense in most cases to choose a path with a steady paycheck instead of one that lets you write high-quality footnotes. But someone needs to point out the value of good footnotes.

  3. @ Jonathan: If that’s the perspective graduate students have going in then I have no objection. You’ll need to get your training for your livelihood elsewhere, but you can train for several years to be an expert XYZ, but I think at the end of the day that’s kind of rare, most people only have the bandwidth for one set of higher education/livelihood training in addition to family and personal goals.

    I think it’s important to have formal religious studies (again, here I’m including fields adjacent to religious studies, not just formal religious studies) scholars in those fields (at least the ones with technical training, I’m not a fan of the turn to theory in a lot of fields, but that’s another issue), but I just think people going into those fields should go into it assuming that they won’t get the job and plan accordingly. If that is the attitude, then the number of graduate students will decrease; right now the market is glutted with wannabee Richard Bushmans.

  4. Oops, part 2 was the “Rabbis in the Marketplace, Celebrity-Scholars, and Firesides,” but I forgot to mark it as part of this series; just fixed it.

  5. Wannabe Richard Bushmans? If one wants the career of Richard Bushman, one needs to get the education of Richard Bushman (Harvard) write like Richard Bushman, and possess the talented mind of Richard Bushman. It likely wouldn’t hurt to marry someone like Claudia.

    And is Bushman who we think of when we think of religious studies? I think of him as a successful history professor who did some work in religious history. So even Bushman would have had an excellent career if he had never delved into Joseph Smith and the origins of Mormonism.

  6. I once went to a fairly serious summer music camp where there was a lot of discussion of music careers. (I wasn’t that serious, but they needed violas.) The main message was “If you can live without being a professional musician, then don’t be a professional musician.” It’s just not a smart career move–but people do it anyway because they love music.

    Seems to me that the same applies to getting a PhD in most of the humanities, not just religious studies.

  7. I think as adults, people need to consider and ponder their future. If everyone just pursued their passions the world as a whole would be in big trouble. I wouldn’t really call higher education a scheme of any sort because the information is out there on higher rates, growth of the field etc. People need to analyze their life choices before making some of them. Parents should discuss with their children this idea as well. I agree we still need people in these fields, but one should be responsible for their life choices. There are so many people now that have borrowed thousands of dollars to get drama degrees and are now begging for debt forgiveness.

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