Religious Studies Graduate Programs are Pyramid Schemes. Just Say No.

Blind leading the blind

I’m not saying that religious studies folks are blind to things that matter, I just thought it was a good depiction of the religious studies treadmill in general, and I kind of just like the picture. 

I have one of those Facebook friends who I’ve only met briefly once in real life (at Sunstone), but with whom I’ve had enough Facebook interactions with that it’s like we know each other in person. 

I’ve been privy to a tragic trajectory of his career that I’m seeing as becoming all too typical. He enjoys researching and talking about religion, so he bought the “pursue your passion” line that was ubiquitous in our generation, got a PhD in Mormon Studies (more or less, I don’t know the exact degree title) at Claremont (not afraid to say it out loud, they’re one of the worst offenders), and then gradually realized after the umpteenth rejection that, when people make it sound like the Mormon Studies academic job market is “tough,” as if with a little positive thinking and grit you can still get that job, what they should have said is that it is “non-existent.” He has since had to restart his professional life and seek retraining in middle age. 

Outside of BYU or the Church Office Building, I can only think of a handful of people who are full-time “Mormon Studies” scholars: Deidre Green at Berkeley, Patrick Mason at Utah State, Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp at the University of Virginia, and Benjamin Park at Sam Houston State University. There may be more that I can’t think of off-hand, but probably not many more, and if you want a job you basically have to either carve out a Mormon space in a (still rare) generic position like Park, or wait for one of the other three to retire and hope you get their spot.  

Within, say, the Maxwell Institute there are probably about another half dozen full-timers including the director, but those positions are already taken, and I suspect they’re not going to be expanding their payroll any time soon (although I might be wrong). BYU Rel-Ed is the other major source, but even there the positions are shared with CES professionals and, increasingly, social scientists. I’m not in the “in” in any of these worlds, but I suspect pure Religious Studies PhDs are also having a hard time there as well. The Church Office Building is another source for historian types, but from what little information I’ve gleaned, the competition for positions with living wages there is also quite intense. 

Anyway, the point I am making is that, given how vanishingly rare professional Mormon Studies-type positions outside the CES track are, it is clear that those very few who get the elusive TT religious studies job are training far more people for their own TT jobs than there are positions for. There is a term for such a business–a pyramid scheme.  (There is something to be said, a lot to be said actually, about this dynamic in a lot of PhD programs that produce way more PhDs than the market can absorb, but this is a Mormon blog so I’m limiting my observations to this particular niche). 

So just say no. Maybe if you’re okay being a single, childless hermit who lives off of sweet potatoes and rice in a camper you can live off of adjunct wages until you are anointed as a chosen one, or if you have family money (I’ve also seen that), a sugar mamma/daddy, or if you’ve already established yourself as a skilled underwater welder and have a skillset with demonstrable earning potential, but as a job that can support a family it has gotten to the point to where it is simply irresponsible to pursue a career in Mormon history and/or Mormon studies. Full stop. I’ve seen way too many people run out of rope halfway through their life, and it isn’t pretty.

40 comments for “Religious Studies Graduate Programs are Pyramid Schemes. Just Say No.

  1. It’s definitely rough. Doesn’t your employment rest on the benefaction of a wealthy Mormon donor? And your brother hasn’t found a spot in the academy either.

  2. PS: You also forgot Matthew Bowman.

    PPS: speaking of pyramid schemes, the church’s general Young Men’s president is a bigwig at NuSkin.

  3. Lol, if that’s the BH Roberts Foundation you’re referring to that occasional side gig maybe covers my utilities, if that.

  4. Yes, I am a freelance data scientist, so I do know what it’s like to “hustle.” I occasionally teach a class at Catholic U to break up my daily coding-heavy routine, but that’s not my main thing professionally. I’m not sure where all the personal asides are coming from and what they have to do with the OP, but no, “Mormon Studies” or academia is not paying my bills, at least in any substantive sense, and I stick by my point that it’s foolhardy to go into Mormon studies/Mormon history/religious studies under the premise that it will in fact pay one’s bills.

  5. Hey, I didn’t disagree that Mormon studies is a bad career path. I think you conflate religious studies with Mormon studies, which has slightly better options. But also, aren’t you a nonresident fellow at some sort of religious studies institute at Baylor? And also, have you ever applied to be faculty at a university, or was freelancing your plan from the start?

  6. Yes; I see Mormon studies as a subdiscipline within religious studies (maybe I’m missing something), so sure, if you broaden it to include religious studies that expands it a bit, but then I imagine it also expands the pool of competitors and the supply/demand just doesn’t work out.

    Yes, I have applied for TT jobs, I believe the last time I put in a serious application was maybe 6 years ago, but during my graduate training I made sure to develop my more marketable quantitative skillset because I had no delusions about the job market and yes, I have been blessed to be able to do side-things that abut with religious studies (although, I don’t see a lot of quantitative-oriented social scientists of religion operating in the formal “religious studies” space, which appears to be more theoretical and qualitative), but again that falls under the “you can do religious studies things if you’re a good underwater welder” condition that I outlined above.

  7. Stephen,
    I’m confused by the op. Set aside that no-one in RelEd is doing anything anyone outside of BYU considers Mormon Studies, I still don’t see the connection to pyramid schemes. The way a pyramid scheme works is that the founders use the fees from the late joiners to pay off the early adopters. It collapses quickly, because that isn’t sustainable. Now I agree with you and others that the current Mormon Studies landscape is the result of an overestimation of American interest in a particular sect during 2012 and that academia generally is being torn apart by a combination of social, economic, and political trends. So I’d describe it maybe as a bubble. But pyramid schemes are created by people who are trying to fleece others of their money. Who do you think is profiting?

  8. You had no delusions about the job market, meaning that it likely couldn’t sustain the number of PhDs it was producing, right? Maybe you’re not all that different from the people whom you’re warning about religious studies after all.

  9. @ John C: The tenured religious studies professors with minimal teaching loads are the top of the pyramid, the top distributor. Under their guidance they grant PhDs in those fields to people who are actually paying tuition at the worse or are acting as cheap labor at best (if the program is funded, which it often is not). This is done under the premise that they too can eventually reach the coveted tenured position (e.g. become the 1% of Nu Skin distributors that actually make money).

    The non-marketable graduate school/ponzi scheme comparison is not original to me, just google “graduate school” and “pyramid scheme” and you’ll see a lot more generalizable variations on this theme that expand outside of religious studies.

    @BHodges ? I’m not sure where you’re coming from, but if your point is that I’m a hypocrite because I applied to TT positions, I made a point in my letters to emphasize the marketable skills I could give students, and I purposefully did the dual-PhD in demography and sociology because the STEM fields can in fact sustain the numbers of PhDs they support. I do think there is a way that the social sciences and humanities could retool their curriculum to make it more directly connectable to marketable options, so they’re not scammy per se, but so far I just don’t see that happening.

  10. Not simply that you’re being hypocritical, but that you’re likely projecting, speaking too loosely, and that when we drill down to specifics you get tangled up in the problems you’re identifying in a field you’ve made overly generalized observations about.

  11. Stephen,
    That doesn’t make sense. How are those professors profiting from a flooded market? Having a tenure track position isn’t stealing from anyone. It seems like you could also say that the military is a ponzi scheme because most soldiers don’t become generals.

  12. @ BHodges: How am I getting tangled up in the problems? I made it clear that marketability was a key aspect of pedagogical philosophy (it still is for the class I occasionally teach). I’m not saying that involvement in religion-related research is bad per se (that would be hypocritical of me), just that treating it like a standard trade that one goes into and relies on isn’t warranted anymore.

    @John C. The military analogy isn’t apt because 1) most soldiers who aren’t professional class are not in it long-term, and it doesn’t require a decade of training to be a solider, 2) you actually can feed a family as a specialist or professional class military person (my ward is full of them). It would be like generals were the only ones with living wages.

  13. Stephen,
    Yes, it is possible to feed a family on an NCO’s pay, but that is partly because soldiers’ room, board, and health insurance and their kids’ education is subsidized by the state. It’s not like they are paid all that well. But that isn’t the point of the analogy in any case. Tenure-track professors do not directly benefit from having grad students in the way that a pyramid scheme’s founder does. Most of the money for tuition does not go to that professor. Or even a consortium of those professors; the AAR certainly doesn’t directly benefit from tuition. The academy may be a boogie man, but you should at least compare it to something it is actually like (a bubble, for instance, as I said before). No one is cheating anyone in academia (I have talked to a lot of academics and they have universally said that the market is bad and people shouldn’t pursue careers in it unless they are absolutely determined). A good job being hard to find does not make a field a pyramid scheme.

  14. On the one hand: Shouldn’t adults be able to pursue the programs that they feel are the best way to complete their educations?

    On the other hand: Stephen isn’t exactly the first person to notice something’s going on. I’m not terribly persuaded by the argument that “ponzi scheme” isn’t the correct technical term for the type of scam.

    I don’t know that interest in Mormon Studies as a topic has changed, but the academic landscape has certainly changed since 2008, and a lot of programs have been reluctant to act: Lower-tier programs should cease operation, of course, but we’re a top 20 program in our field! (Every program thinks it’s a top 20 program.)

    Financially, the military is a great option for someone coming directly from high school. My NCO son’s net worth outstripped mine quite a while ago. I don’t see how “the job doesn’t pay that good, it just comes with extremely good benefits” is supposed to prove anything.

    So, Stephen got a PhD and is still academically active, and this proves what, exactly? I mean beyond the fact that adjuncts and other failed academics aren’t allowed to have opinions on academia?

  15. If it were a Ponzi scheme, those at the head of the program would have been sued a long time ago and those at the head of the program would have been arrested.
    I also think it’s a bubble, that there is no market for it unless you have a job in something related to religion like CES and can continue specializing in that.
    Since we do not have paid clergy like in other denominations, the truth is that it is not good business, unless someone is thinking of making their own variant of the Church of Jesus Christ (hahaha) or have very high skills in social networks, to manage a YouTube channel or something that is more massive and that pays the bills at the end of the month.
    I know people who want to be evangelical pastors because there is someone in their family who is a pastor.
    I would be interested in doing graduate studies in religion when I retire. I already have a doctorate in applied mathematics, but I would like to dedicate myself to studying religion when my working time ends, but with the goal of better understanding my faith. Today I can’t dedicate myself to that because I have to feed my family.

  16. Aren’t you supposed to be a data guy? Your claims here all seem supported by “examples I can think of off the top of my head.” Where are the numbers?

  17. When I was in high school, I went to a summer camp for people who were seriously preparing for careers as professional musicians. (I was not, but the concept of the camp was that it was a performing symphony orchestra, and they were desperate enough for violas that I was recruited and got a full-ride scholarship.) There were regular workshops on how to succeed as a professional musician, but they deliberately devoted one to “Should you really become a professional musician?” The consensus was “If you can live without doing music full-time, you shouldn’t do music full-time.”

    Seems to me that’s good advice for people interested in Mormon Studies, probably the humanities in general. Maybe the entire academy, as the recent realignment of our political parties along educational lines is a disaster for higher education–and it’s definitely not helped by the fact that both sides in the culture wars benefit from making the ideological extremists the face of universities.

    The critical element of a pyramid scheme or Ponzi scheme is deception. I can’t speak to what PhD students at Claremont are being told, but the humanities people I talk to are very well aware of the job market in their field. Should tenured professors do more to stomp on the dreams of young people with a passion for their field? Maybe, but they’re not villains for doing their best to help them succeed even though the odds are against them.

    Side note: in lab-based fields professors benefit from having poorly paid grad students to do the grunt work of research. That’s much less of a factor in the humanities and social sciences.

  18. John C: That’s true to a point. No religious studies professors are getting wealthy off of graduate students. However, the graduate students (and, occasionally, their tuition and fees) support the infrastructure that allows the tenured professors with minimal teaching responsibilities to have their relatively “posh” positions. I put posh in scare quotes because while, yes, they are not paid a lot, they also have very few occupational expectations once they have tenure, and this system is supported by a sweatshop underclass that are striving for those very positions. If undergraduates and graduate students all the sudden stopped taking religious studies classes (of course, that’s already happening, that would hollow out the base of the pyramid required for the tenured upperclass, although I suspect it’ll eventually get so bad that the only tenured people in those positions are endowed chair holders.

    Frank: I know several people in your boat, and they’re open to getting a PhD in religious studies, medieval poetry, or what have you after their more lucrative career, and I see no problem with that because the expectations hew more closely to reality. I’m not making the argument here to destroy all universities except for the accounting departments.

    GeorfLLC: Oh, the numbers about the scope of this problem (in general, I’m not aware of Mormon Studies numbers in particular) are already all over the place. For example, the link above connects to a Substack (out today, FWIW) by an economist that provides numbers.

  19. Stephen,

    I’m deeply suspicious of the idea that tenure is the reason that universities are struggling financially or that adjuncts are underpaid and overworked. The wealthy upper class at universities are most often the administrators (and the sports coaches on occasion), not the academics even if they have tenure. It feels like you are railing against the notion of tenure (and, by extension, academic freedom itself), rather than some sort of poorly described advantage that professors gain from having students.

    That said, I agree that you are correct that when students stop being interested in a topic, the need for professors of it dwindles. But some of us (failed academics and successful academics) have been questioning in the need for so many Mormon studies chairs for a while. Hence the bubble, rather than the pyramid scheme.

  20. Apologies. In the first sentence I meant to say I’m suspicious of the notion that tenure is why adjuncts are so ill-treated. I worry that didn’t come across.

  21. I’m not staking any kind of a position on the tenure question. FWIW, I think it’s kind of a disaster but I have a hard time articulating a better alternative, so it may be the worst option besides all of the other options kind of thing.

    I think, like, RLD noted, one of the differentiators is deception. If, like Claremont, they are systematically accepting student loan money from graduate students that they know has a negligible chance of leading to a middle-class existence by itself, then that’s a pyramid scheme. If they are a couple years too late on information about the bubble and there is a temporary oversupply while things adjust, that’s something else, but as long as they have people willing to pay for the non-marketable degree *based on false expectations* universities are very willing to offer the degree. (Again, this is much bigger than Mormon Studies).

  22. I am LDS and am a professor of Religious Studies in one of the largest and oldest departments at a public institution in the US. I also happen to be the Director of Graduate Studies. This post is filled with mis-framed truths and betrays a silly ignorance that would be endearing if I hadn’t seen the author do this before.

    First, the author is unaware of how the job market works for Religious Studies (and Mormon Studies as a subfield). When someone asks, “What do you study?” the answer to that question is not as straightforward as it may seem. I wrote my dissertation on the topic of ritual failure in the Liji. Most people have no idea what this means. The Liji comes from Confucian material produced and edited between the 5th century and 2nd century BCE in places now known as China; so I study early Confucianism. Most people I speak with have no idea what this means either, so I usually say I study traditional Chinese thought, which in actuality includes a whole host of other traditions and time periods that I do not in fact research, but could teach about in the classroom. In my 15 years of following the job market, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a job ad even as narrow as traditional Chinese thought; I think I’ve seen 1 or 2 mention Confucianism. Most job ads will be for Chinese religion or Asian religion, which will allow the hiring committee to interview from a much larger pool. A history department might advertise for someone doing Chinese history in a particular time period (e.g., Early China, roughly the thousand year period before the 2nd century CE). Anyone studying Mormonism will likewise apply for job searches for Religion in America, Religion in the Americas, Global Christianity, etc. It is rare for the term “Mormonism” to show up in a job ad, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. I don’t know anyone in academia who has spoken otherwise.

    Second, the author is correct that the tenure track employment prospects are bleak. This is something regularly discussed with potential applicants (very much unlike a pyramid scheme). My default advice is in fact to say “no” or at the most to only go to a program with funding (tuition coverage, health insurance, and a monthly stipend) and with the attitude of “this is how I’d like to spend the next several years regardless if I get a tenure track job.” If you can’t muster that attitude, it’s not worth it. Any respectable program will publicly display its placement results. These are the kinds of jobs graduates are getting. Here are ours: Not perfect, but not as bad as the OP makes it seem.

    Third, in the comments, the author of the OP teases out the analogy of the pyramid scheme, which seems to be that there are a class of people at the top (professors training graduate students), benefiting greatly from “sweatshop”-like labor, promising that they can make it too. I’m not sure this meets a definition of a pyramid scheme, but it’s an inaccurate portrayal of things nonetheless. There are a number of benefits to having graduate students (and I don’t want to discount those), but there are also a number of responsibilities. Supervising a graduate student at the PhD level means a 5+ year long relationship through the program plus another 5+ year long responsibility as they begin their career. Each student comes with the responsibility of hundreds of letters of recommendation, reading through numerous drafts of a dissertation, countless meetings to prepare for exams, numerous advisory meetings, etc. I only have the assistance of a graduate student if I teach a class with more than 75 students, and the main benefit is that they do most of the grading. As far as the sweatshop-like conditions are concerned, which the author seems to think also applies to programs that provide funding, every faculty I know wishes graduate student stipends were higher. But “sweatshop” is unfair; even as hyperbole. Graduate students work part-time through the program, and receive a tuition waiver (~$35k), health insurance (~$3k), and a stipend ($23k). The stipends do need to be higher because students should not need to look for extra work on top of taking classes and teaching, but they do receive significant benefits. Any decent advisor does not see the advisor-advisee relationship as an economic one. The pyramid scheme analogy is just plain silly.

  23. “If, like Claremont, they are systematically accepting student loan money from graduate students that they know has a negligible chance of leading to a middle-class existence by itself, then that’s a pyramid scheme.”

    I continue to disagree with your use of pyramid scheme here, but that’s been overdiscussed. But, again, I’m skeptical that the professors are largely responsible for the assumed deception. When I was becoming an AbD, my mentors were very clear about what was needed to succeed and the odds. If I was worried about deception in academic advertising, I would, again, sets my sights on the administration.

  24. Since Stephen C agreed that deception is an essential component of a pyramid scheme, let me be clear that none of the humanities graduate students I have known were deceived about their job prospects. Thus I reject the proposition that they had been tricked into a pyramid scheme, and I’m pretty confident they would too.

    For what it’s worth, a greater than negligible number of them went on to get tenure track positions–most relevant to this post would be Spencer Fluhman. But it’s definitely tough.

    As I said, I can’t speak for Claremont, but “systematically accepting student loan money from graduate students that they know has a negligible chance of leading to a middle-class existence by itself” is not evidence of a pyramid scheme unless they are also deceiving their students. And that’s a serious charge that should not be made lightly. (But I would second MDKI’s advice to only do a PhD program that will fund you, so if they’re mostly expecting people to fund their PhD with loans that would make me suspicious.)

  25. I don’t think it’s unethical to teach and confer degrees in a largely unmarketable niche. If it were, we’d have to shut down most graduate programs at most universities. But I agree that students should be much more aware of their likely career prospects and universities should be much more transparent about where their students have landed (in a way that not enough are).

  26. “I don’t think it’s unethical to teach and confer degrees in a largely unmarketable niche. If it were, we’d have to shut down most graduate programs at most universities.”

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

    As an English PhD, I can say – I fail to see any downside. “Shut down most graduate programs at most universities” is goals, not something to avoid.

  27. I’m not in academia, but I understand the point of the OP. All the quibbling in the comments notwithstanding, I think there is a valid point in the OP.

    I am certain the church’s Young Men general president would take umbrage from hearing NuSkin described as a pyramid scheme, and I don’t know if there is a particular legal definition of pyramid scheme, but I think we can all agree that, in the vernacular, NuSkin is a pyramid scheme.

  28. With the latest hiring at the Chair of Mormon Studies at U Virginia they did specifically ask for Mormon Studies background (I know because relatives kept sending the ad to me before I convinced them that that’s not what I do). Yes, such specificity is rare, but as I note in the OP, that speaks to my point, and scoping out to calls for religious studies more generally just invites more competition, so I’m not sure how much more that would help one’s prospects.

    I am sure that many individual professors give sound advice, but the fact remains that there are far more positions in graduate programs than there are tenure track positions available. The graph in the linked article bears this out–while openings are typically correlated with graduating class size, since about 2008 there’s been a huge gap that’s opened up in history at least between the number of positions and the number of PhDs, which bears out my point about the systematic overproduction. Sure, it makes sense that many of the beneficiaries of this are in administration and I’m sure that many faculty are giving sound advice, but at the core the powers-that-be are systematically overproducing PhDs when they have to know that there is a surplus and that the vast majority will not land stable middle-class TT jobs. Maybe these are all retired lawyers that want to do Act 2 as a life of the mind, in which case good on them, but there are enough people who are still under the illusion that it’s a viable professional track that this is a problem. That’s the main point.

  29. MDKI, your list of placements you linked to is one of the things that’s wrong with academia today. I’ve spent a good amount of time looking at similar lists, and I’m irritated by their obfuscation. It’s a perfectly fine list of schools, but:

    What’s a “placement”? Tenure track? VAP? Part-time adjunct teaching? I’ve seen it all on lists of placements. And does someone who gets hired for 2 VAPs and then a TT job show up as three placements?

    The list covers a decade (at the time it was posted). So that’s an average of 3.1 placements per year. How does that compare to the number of degrees granted during the same period? And are these all PhD placements, or does it also include MA students who end up in teaching jobs?

    So these lists of placements end up revealing very little about how well a department’s graduates are really doing. You could be much more transparent about how many students start and finish a grad program, if they’re leaving after 1 year because they discover grad school isn’t for them, or after 7 years of almost passing qualifying exams, and what percentage of PhD students have full-time academic positions or TT jobs after, say, 5 years post-PhD. You stated that you’re responsible for this information for your department. So do better.

  30. If the title and content of the post was just about the slim chances of landing a tt job, I would have just kept walking by; but the title calls Religious Studies a pyramid scheme and the lead picture is the blind leading the blind, which is silly if not pernicious. But now that Ivan and Jonathan have showed up (both of whom have legitimate gripes with academia), I understand the point of this post–a pity party. So… I’m just going to show myself out; besides, I’ve got placement pages to fix.

  31. I am a recently tenured English PhD and former long-term adjunct, who had to compete against over 100 applicants for my current position at a junior college, so I feel qualified to weigh in here. I’m fond of telling my students that half of all good writing is simply stating the obvious, so allow me to state the obvious here: the current terrible academic job market has nothing to do with the glut in grad students, and everything to do with college administrators spending the past 50+ years systematically replacing tenure-track positions with poverty-waged adjuncts.

    Over two-thirds of college instruction nationwide, at all levels—including at universities with multi-billion dollar endowments—is now done by poorly paid adjuncts and lecturers. If that ratio were reversed, there would be a shortage of PhD candidates, not a glut. Administrators were not forced to do this, they have more than enough money (just look at all their vanity building projects, high salaries, and bloated bureaucracy); they chose to do this. It is an artificially created glut.

    To blame the grad students who still chose to “seek not for riches but for wisdom” in this desiccated job market, is to blame the victim; to let the administrators off the hook (who, again, could totally afford to hire more full time professors if they chose to, but don’t) is to side with the oppressor.

    Because that’s what replacing tenured professors with adjuncts is: oppression. That is the word used by both Malachi and Jesus Christ himself in 3 Nephi 26 (since we’re discussing religious studies here): “those that oppress the hireling in his wages”. Other English translations of Malachi 3:5 are even more explicit: “those who defraud laborers of their wages,” “those who cheat employees of their wages,” “those who oppress the wage earner in his wages,” and etc. Against all these the Lord will come as a swift witness.

    So again I repeat: to blame the grad students and professors for the sins of the administrators is to side with the oppressor. We do not actually need near so many over-salaried administrators. We self-evidently need teachers and researchers, and should pay them as such.

  32. Synthesizing the comments, it seems that nearly everyone from academia here agrees that the humanities PhD applicants are going in apprised that there aren’t nearly enough jobs to sustain the number of students. Honest question: If that’s the case, and we assume that these applicants are very bright people, why are they still applying? That is, why hasn’t the system collapsed upon itself already? Is it all explained by the “follow your passion” ethic?

  33. Jimbob, one way to answer the question is: What are the alternatives? If you’re the kind of student who really prefers a particular kind of academic pursuit, it’s often hard to see anything else that will let you do what you want. Going for a graduate degree might let you get 5-10 years of it in a semi-sustainable way, plus 2-3 spins of the wheel to get an academic job, and you might get a temporary position after that and a few more spins.

    And the other thing – and this might be a rejoinder to Stephen’s post – is that PhDs are generally bright people, and their rate of unemployment is low, and they usually end up finding something or other. The economy is bigger and more varied than we can imagine, and people end up doing all kinds of crazy things for money, and in many cases that seemingly useless PhD that didn’t lead to a tenure-track job turns out to be an asset. So the degree also gives you a chance to keep spinning a different wheel to figure out how to fit into something like that, where you’re using your degree and have a chance to stay active in your field to a certain extent. Maybe it’s not the ivory tower you dreamed of, but neither is the ivory tower (have you seen the hours that faculty spend on writing assessment reports these days? it’s awful) and it pays the bills. But getting there can be a drawn-out process full of uncertainty, and you never know when your workable solution will disappear.

  34. Is Stephen going to mention that zero holders of a Mormon Studies chair got a degree in Mormon Studies? Send relevant to the point about Confucianism made above.

  35. “He enjoys researching and talking about religion, so he bought the “pursue your passion” line that was ubiquitous in our generation, got a PhD in Mormon Studies (more or less, I don’t know the exact degree title) at Claremont.”

    From the OP, nothing on this hinges on whether it’s a formal Mormon Studies PhD or a history PhD that segues into Mormon Studies.

  36. I thought I better say something in this conversation, given that I am one of those suckers referred to in this article. I am not the specific individual Stephen mentions in the original post, but I’m sure I know them, whoever they are. I probably attended classes with them. I completed a PhD from Claremont Graduate University in 2019. There is no “Mormon Studies” track; it is the History of Christianity and Religions of North America. But I definitely took a lot of courses about Latter-day Saints.

    At Claremont, I had only fantastic interactions with my professors. My dissertation committee gave me tons of time and attention. I was fortunate to work with some great people. I don’t think faculty members want to deceive students about their odds of attaining a job. When asked, they all raised their eyebrows and said things like “the competition is tough. Make sure you have a backup plan.” I think this was honest and helpful.

    I am not stellar in any academic sense. I finished my PhD, presented at conferences, published a few articles, and even managed to publish my dissertation as a book in 2023 (shameless plug – The Full Gospel in Zion published through the University of Utah Press). Maybe I could have published the book through a more prominent press, but I had to navigate the publishing world on my own and spend my evenings and weekends writing it as I went to my non-academic job for the federal government. I tried to get an academic job. I had interviews for tenure track positions, and I worked adjunct gigs. But a combination of the Pandemic (ugh, who’s idea was that?) and stiff competition left me searching for work elsewhere.

    I loved what I learned in graduate school. I think a deeper struggle and engagement with religion has strengthened my religious commitments, despite not getting a job after graduation. I don’t regret the decision to go. But I do believe Stephen Cranney is pointing fingers in the right direction.

    I wrote a long article as I thought through this post, but then I scaled it back. And here is the point: Academia has some serious legitimacy problems, and I think everyone is at fault to some extent. Administrators, faculty, adjuncts, students. I don’t know that I would call it a pyramid scheme, but it does feel at times a little like a massive snake oil business.

    Figuring out how to legitimize education in a capitalist environment focused on profit is complicated. Sure, I could have gone to law school and sold my soul to the devil, but instead I chose to get a degree in religious studies. That was my choice, and I didn’t earn any money from it. Stephen is not wrong. There are no jobs for the numbers of graduates that come out of these programs. For a few years, I applied for almost every religious studies job that was posted. Due to my average credentials and accolades, I didn’t get one of the few jobs. So I moved on.

    We just need to stop advertising higher education as something that provides you with money and opportunity. Everyone knows that in America, money and opportunity will always be hoarded by those that already have money and opportunity. In the end, Academia is just a microcosm of this problem. Certainly there are exceptions, but on the whole my experience seems to reinforce this conclusion.

  37. People accept lower pay and less job security in exchange for doing something they love all the time. People also demand higher pay for work that is unpleasant, or dangerous. Economists call these “compensating differentials.” (My training is in economics, though my career is in data a bit like Stephen C.) I don’t see anything more than that going on in the market for humanities professors, though it’s a pretty extreme case due to the high ratio of people who want to be humanities professors to the number of humanities professors society thinks it needs. On the other hand, the differential is measured from the baseline of what these very bright and well-educated people could get doing something else.

    I’m hardly a free-market absolutist or libertarian, but I’m not ready to say “That’s such a dumb choice that we should prevent people from making it no matter how much they want to” or to call people who meet the demand for graduate-level training in the humanities villains. We don’t even do that consistently for the choice to consume alcohol, or cigarettes.

    On the other hand, I’m not one to say that any outcome driven by market forces is just. If we’re charged with grinding the faces of the poor on judgement day, “the market let me do it” won’t be much of a defense. So I’m with JB on adjunct faculty–employers should create decent jobs for their employees. Nor do I believe we’re anything near the conditions that would give our “market” outcomes the kind of efficiency Adam Smith had in mind. One reason for all those high-salary administrators is business leaders’ 50-year campaign to convince everyone the key to success for any organization is to give its leaders lots of money. (In a world where HR has instant access to “market data” and bases all compensation decisions on it, they don’t even have to buy into the philosophy to be affected by it. But HR leaders are leaders too.) So I have a good bit of sympathy for Alan J Clark’s conclusion on opportunity hoarding, though people with higher education continue to, on average, have a good bit more money and opportunity than those who don’t.

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