Today I was out for lunch with a friend who is a professor in the religion department at a well known Christian university in the United States. He mentioned that he’d been on search committees in the past so I asked him how many applicants the school would tend to get for each position advertised. His answer: on average, the school would receive 150-180 applications for every teaching position. Of those, perhaps 50 would be live candidates by the measure of the search committees, and about 20 would be outstanding candidates. As he put it, any one of those top twenty individuals could ably fulfill the position.
Those are not good odds.
Right now I know several postgraduate students that are undertaking PhD studies with the hope of landing a teaching position, preferably in North America. The sobering fact is that after years of hard labor and tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, many will find themselves scrounging to pick up an adjunct course here or there, working long hours at subsistence wages with zero benefits or job security.
And things are not going to get better. The long term projections are that religion departments, and indeed the humanities as a whole, will continue to shrink. And the positions that remain will grow increasingly unattractive through the curtailing of benefits and the privatization of higher education.
So here’s my advice. If you ever consider pursuing a PhD in the humanities (particularly in philosophy and religion, the areas I know best), you better be ready for the possibility that you could one day be the most intelligent barista at the local coffee shop.