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Why I'm Not Getting a PhD in Religion

Thomas Whitley

UPDATE: I Actually am Getting a PhD in Religion
Last Fall I worked diligently preparing 14 applications for various PhD programs around the country. As of today, I have heard (officially) from 11 of these programs and have been rejected from all 11. From what I know of the other three programs I expect the same result from these three. I was using the "cast your net wide" approach along with incorporating all that I learned through my unsuccessful application round last year. I learned a lot and got some great advice from people "on the inside." My applications were stronger, including my teaching experience, conference presentations, years of language work, and much more carefully crafted and program-specific purpose statements. To be sure, I was not a "fit" for every program to which I applied, but I do believe I was a good fit for at least a handful of them.

Yet, I find myself in the same boat as I did last year, without a PhD program to attend in the Fall. I know that it takes many people numerous attempts to get into religion PhD programs, but I think this year is my last. I can no longer justify applying to programs for which I know I am qualified and during which I know I would succeed only to hear again, "Thanks, but no thanks." Further, the job market for religion professors is bleaker now than it has been in decades. This too weighs heavily on my decision. Can I really justify 5-7 years in a program living on less than minimum wage only to enter a job market that continues to shrink and that is already over-saturated?

I admit that I am still a bit bitter at the whole process. I know plenty of people who get accepted and never finish and plenty of others who are even better qualified and more capable than me that never get in. The PhD system is, in my opinion, broken.

On the other hand, I am a bit thankful. Not getting into a PhD program gives me at least 5 years of my life to move on with a new "career." Thus, I will be able to do many things I dream of doing with my life five years sooner. This is, of course, provided I can actually find a job and a new career to pursue.

At the end of the day, though, I am more disappointed than anything else. I've spent the better part of the last decade dreaming about and preparing for a PhD in religion only to find out that it isn't going to happen. I still remain genuinely interested in the academic study of religion, for much of who I am today is owed to this study. And yet, I also fully realize why parents and mentors question so seriously those who want to pursue religion academically. For many it is a fruitless endeavor, which leaves its pursuers with a wealth of knowledge that the rest of the world couldn't care less about and with no marketable skills to get into another career.

While my latent bitterness is surely coming through in this post I am intending it more as a reality check, for that is what the whole process has been for me. I am extremely happy and grateful for those that I know who have/are/will get a PhD in religion (or a related field) because they continue to advance a field about which I care so deeply. I am simply saddened to not be working alongside you.