Tips on landing a job in religion, #2

Tips on landing a job in religion, #2 July 21, 2010

Next up, and perhaps the last for a while, is Taylor P.

He writes:

I received a ThD in New Testament and Early Christianity from a divinity school that works within a “religious studies” paradigm. I have been hired in a tenure-track position in a Religious Studies department at a private, secular, liberal arts college. The year that I went out on the market, there were two jobs in my immediate field at secular schools, and three at religiously-affiliated schools. I applied to those and a few more that were focused more broadly (e.g., anyone in “Christian Studies”), but overall it was a pretty terrible year and I am incredibly fortunate to have landed the job that I did. One thing that I will say is that there is no “formula” for securing a job. There are many different ways. I will sketch out my own experience and share the advice that I received and that seemed to work in my case. To any who are involved in this process, I wish you the best of luck!

1. Adviser: I mostly closely followed my adviser’s direction and actively sought out advice at every level of my program and job search. I asked at many stages how I could prepare to strengthen my candidacy, and then did it. There are obviously other models, but I would say for the most part that one should follow the direction of their adviser. Your adviser should be your greatest advocate. You will want to cultivate a good relationship by 1) meeting deadlines and demonstrating responsible behavior, 2) turning in quality work, 3) attending departmental events, 4) showing that you can work well with others, 5) listening to what they have to say, and 6) keeping in touch regularly (I sent a monthly update email to my entire committee during my dissertation phase). Because your adviser will write letters on your behalf, based not only on the quality of your work but on the quality of your professional relationship skills, you should make this relationship important. If you consistently refuse to follow their direction, your adviser will stop giving you good advice and may sour on you. Following your adviser’s counsel does not entail a slavish relationship, but rather a good working relationship where proper amounts of respect and deference are given to the person teaching you.

2. Dissertation: There are lots of kinds of dissertations, but we were instructed to write dissertations that treated a particular subject in depth, set in the framework of broader theoretical and methodological conversations. Most students don’t end up in departments where everyone knows the particulars of their field, yet you will be expected to have intelligent conversations. The way that conversations and intellectual engagement can occur between those in different fields is to participate in broader theoretical issues, either in the study of religion or the humanities more broadly. This may have to with topics like ritual, material culture, sexuality and gender, race and ethnicity, post-colonialism, to name few that are likely to have broad appeal. If your dissertation can appeal to a larger audience, you are going to attract more attention from more hiring committees. A second piece of advice that we got was not to write a dissertation, but write a book. By that, we understood that we should think of our projects as having a longer life than our graduate student career, setting up longer-term career goals. It also meant that really specific monographs might not get published because they weren’t marketable. All that said, if your adviser has strong opinions against this model, see #1 above.

3. Publications and Presentations: We were advised not to spend too much time on publications. Maybe one scholarly article during one’s graduate student years, but not much more was necessary. The most important thing was a good dissertation and all of one’s time should be devoted to that. The same was said about presentations. Having a few was important, but not too many. I had about four presentations at national conferences. Part of the reason for this relative lack of public exposure (I know students with far more presentations and publications) was that it was feared that we might underperform. Since the entire time you are a graduate student you are technically on the market, you should make sure that all of your public performances are top-notch, whether presentations or publications. If not, the line on your CV is not worth your damaged credibility. This is admittedly an extreme view, and I am not sure it should be universally practiced, but the core idea of quality over quantity is important to heed. In following this practice, I had relatively few presentations and publications, and was also not very well networked outside of my own institution (though admittedly was well networked within my larger department), compared to other students I’ve known. These things ended up being less important than I thought.

4. Teaching Experience: The opportunities that one has will be determined in large part by the institution one is at. Nevertheless, in my case I focused on getting a range of experience as a teaching fellow in a variety of courses in my field and in religious studies more broadly. I worked on getting experience teaching graduate students and undergraduates, on advising theses, designing syllabi, and leading discussions. Again, you will likely have to teach outside of your core specialty, and one way of demonstrating competence and interest to do this is to teach outside of your speciality while a graduate student. One great example is to teach a theory and methods course in religious studies.

5. Coursework and Languages: I took courses and languages that would credential me in my field, but I also took methodological courses in religious studies more broadly, and I took courses in other religious traditions than my area of emphasis so that I could have a broader base of knowledge in the field, in my future teaching, and for comparative purposes for my own projects. I think that this prepared me to situate my work in broader conversations, which I think is both intellectually and professionally productive.

6. Mormonness: There are two diametrically opposed schools of thought on this. 1) Mormonism should be avoided completely as a topic of research, presentation, and publication for graduate students in religion not working directly on Mormonism. 2) Mormonism is interesting and if it interests you and you shouldn’t try to hide it because it is in part why you may have joined this field, and because it can also make you unique. I tended toward the former, though I have seen people be successful in the academy with both models. Let me sketch out some general cautions on this that might chart a middle path. First, if you are in a field that is not Mormon studies, but would like to participate in Mormon studies conversation related to your field, at least try to balance your work between them. That is, if you publish or present on a Mormon topic, try to match it with something more immediately in your field so that your CV doesn’t look out of balance with things not relevant to your field. Second, in my limited understanding of the dynamics of the discipline of religious studies, apologetics in the traditional sense is treated with suspicion (this is true of all apologetics, perhaps especially Mormon apologetics if only for our relative strangeness). If you engage in this type of work, you should be aware that at least some potential hiring committees may by skeptical of you. Third, Mormonism is not necessarily something that you want to hide or be deceptive about. After all, you want to be at a place that wants you, including your Mormonness. If someplace is going to have a major problem with that, you don’t want to be there anyway. There is something to be said about getting to know you first as a scholar and a person in order to challenge perceptions of Mormonism once they find out later, though.

Summary: After rereading what I have written here, a few themes emerge. 1) Make an effort to situate your teaching and research in broader conversations than your narrow area of expertise. 2) Cultivate strong relationships with those who will later advocate for you in letters of recommendation. 3) Make sure that the work you present to the public is as strong as it can be. In a way, this is pretty generic, common sense advice. I’d add that there is a great deal to be said about “fit” in wherever you land. This is not just about personality, but about departmental needs, intellectual interests, etc. Not getting a job doesn’t necessarily say anything about your skills or potential, but is usually about what kinds of things the particular people in a particular department find interesting. There are many, many excellent candidates our there and getting chosen or not getting chosen for any particular job does not reflect your skills. The process can be extremely deflating, so keeping your confidence up and having a lot of patience are also necessary. Good luck!

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