As much as graduate school offers up the chance for one to delve deeply into a particular topic of interest and, in many regards, devote several years of one’s life to studying these interests; it is also a means to an end. In other words, success at graduate school (on the PhD level) entails not only producing a respectable dissertation, but also entails securing “good” employment after graduation. For most of those going into PhD programs in religious studies, this means landing a tenure track professorship.
One of the most important factors in deciding where to go for graduate school (either in applying or accepting an offer) is their placement record.
The American Academy of Religion (AAR) has over the past year put forth several resolutions concerning the “best practices” graduate programs should adhere to. The most recent resolution concerns the placement record. For more detail, visit the link. In short it calls for more transparency–listing on the departmental website information such as the number of students admitted in a given year, the number of graduates, the average completion time, the title of their dissertations and current employment. Few places, as of yet, follow these practices.
This should not, however, stop one from inquiring about some of these facts from prospective programs. The most important, of course, is where people are working that have graduated from the program. Odds are that one will secure an academic job similar to those obtained by others who have graduated from the same program. If one wants to teach at a research institution, but no one coming from this particular program has previously been hired at a research institution, the odds of getting a job at a research institution are quite small. One of the benefits of graduating from a highly-ranked program is the possibility of being hired at a larger number of institutions. These graduates, of course, are more likely to get the jobs at first tier institutions; and, given that these programs graduate so many students, they will probably get most of the jobs at second tier institutions as well. Graduating from an institution with a lower ranking most likely entails taking a tenure track job at a small college or a community college.
Other factors coming from a program’s placement record can also give one a better picture of post-graduation job opportunities. Princeton’s Department of Religion, for instance, posts the following statistics on their website: From 1992-2009 they graduated 77 PhDs with 71 seeking tenure track jobs. Of these 62 secured tenure track appointments.
I imagine that there were somewhere near 100 students that entered the program during this time (10/year admitted, but those in the last 6 or so years haven’t graduated, also 100 makes for easy math). This means that 3 in 4 actually finish the program, and 3 in 5 secure tenure track employment. This isn’t a bad mark on Princeton, per se. I’m sure this is similar to other highly-ranked programs.
All of this is to say that one should know the costs before jumping in. Besides the time, energy, and money it takes to finish the program; where do you want to go from there? Would you be happy teaching at The Middle-of-Nowhere State College? Or are you dead set on teaching at Research U? Obviously the answers to these questions change with time and experience, but one should be aware of the possibilities any given graduate program provides.