Theses on Professionalization: Aldea Mulhern

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In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Aldea Mulhern

Thesis # 17: National scholarly conferences and professional associations often host on-site job placement services and publish employment periodicals. Becoming thoroughly aware of such services and resources, long before actually being on the job market, may not only assist one’s decision-making when it comes time to select an area of expertise (i.e., judging national employment trends over time may shed light on areas likely to require staffing in the coming years) but also prepare one for the eventual time when one is on the market and seeking campus interviews.

“Too many graduate students seem unprepared for what awaits them once they complete their dissertations.” [1]

So opens Russell McCutcheon’s short work, featuring twenty-one theses that aim to redress the problem stated in the opening sentence: grad students who are looking for full-time academic employment don’t know what they’re in for. And in one sense, that’s a problem that we can’t fix. Applying for that first academic job is a process of imagining the sort of scholar that we aren’t yet, but that we can be, if given the institutional support necessary to take those next steps after earning the Ph.D. It is a process of persuading a department to invest its resources in us, and to ask them to believe that together we can have, and will have, a symbiotic and mutually productive relationship over perhaps thirty years or more: assuming that we candidates are in our mid-thirties, that the average age of retirement is around sixty-five, that the first job is tenure-track, and that the first job works out. These are optimistic assumptions. Even with the help of the theses, and the other forms of advice we get from across the Religious Studies spectrum, candidates are journeying into a particular kind of uncertainty: the relational kind, that asks us to stretch toward our future selves, to bring that future scholar into being, before the eyes of a search committee, before they eyes of a department of students as well as professional colleagues; before our own eyes.

Thesis 17, which inspires my reflection here, is where McCutcheon tells us that employment information exists, and tells us to look at it, early. We should look, and look early, it is written, because doing so may help us pick a specialization that will work for the market, and prepare us, in some way, for when we are going to interview. Surely, this is sound advice. How can it hurt, to look down the road and see what’s coming? Yet there is a tension in this advice, the same tension that runs through the job application process and the degree process itself, which merits discussion: we’re still busy becoming. The trick of becoming, I think, is reaching toward what we think will be required of us, and toward what we require. Academic jobs need us to fill the departmental niche their history has grown for them, but also need us to stand on our own talents, skills, and intellectual networks in order to do that. Similarly, we need our own centre of intellectual gravity, and we also need scholarly jousting, intellectual community, and institutional support inside which to conduct the work.

A few things should be acknowledged at this point. McCutcheon wrote his theses in 2007, and intended them to be a reality-check. In 2008, the academic job market, which had been declining since the 90s and perhaps earlier, crashed when the larger economy crashed. An unfavorable market became considerably more tenuous. The employment landscape has thus undergone important shifts since when McCutcheon was writing. The AAR/SBL employment services, for example, do not currently involve a job fair by any conventional understanding of the term. Instead, job applicants, who can outnumber the positions they apply for by two orders of magnitude, pay for access to employment listings, and upload their CVs to be viewed by prospective employers. [2] Those prospective employers pay to post job ads and to use the employment center to have rapid-fire interviews with potential candidates in a dedicated area during the annual meeting. The benefits and pitfalls of the AAR/SBL employment center have been discussed by other scholars, some of whom are already visible in the Bulletin community (e.g., here, here, here, and here). I will not reproduce what these commentators have said, but rather will confine myself to two observations about the employment center, speaking as one ABD Ph.D. candidate joining the job market, at whom the center and the advice is directed: on the one hand, the center’s usefulness is limited, the costs associated with participating in it are quite significant, and many of those costs accrue to a vulnerable population. [3] On the other hand, limited utility is still utility: although only few Canadian institutions use the AAR/SBL employment center, American institutions continue to attend and conduct interviews there, and there remains an expectation that engaged scholars will already be in attendance at the meeting and will be available to interview there.

I can respond to McCutcheon’s thesis 17 in one way simply, then, by saying that the Job Fair model ain’t what it used to be, but that we’re still using it, in a particular way. The 2013-14 AAR/SBL report shows that candidates who are more than one calendar year away from graduation don’t stand a chance of getting work (of course), and given the services offered, I find it doubtful that a very young scholar would learn much from participating in the current job service, except perhaps to worry (not worth the price tag) or to avoid the problem by dropping out to look for a different kind of job (possibly a substantial net saving). The job service is much less a showing, and much more a doing: an exercise in bureaucratization that imperfectly, but still usefully, connects prospective employees and prospective employers across an atomized, pressurized, and idiosyncratic landscape of too few jobs and too many applicants.

The core of McCutcheon’s advice, though, was not that job services are in all times and places key locations of information to which we are all otherwise oblivious. Rather, I take him and other scholars to be pushing graduate students to become more aware of the water they are swimming in, and the difficult choices they will be facing. That advice is good. However, anyone who’s had an advisor knows that very good advice is sometimes impossible to follow, until you’re on the threshold of the place where you no longer need it. When Rod Stewart sang “I wish that I knew what I know now/ when I was younger” the problem wasn’t that someone had failed to tell him. The problem remains that it’s un-simple to know what you don’t already know, and to use foresight to manifest courage and grace while you stumble around figuring things out.

Ph.D. programs are advertised as four to five years long in North America, and they typically take longer than that to complete. When I arrived at the University of Toronto, Canada, a newly-minted M.A. in religion and culture who was (and is) keen for a Ph.D. in religious studies, looking at job ads offered me only the muddiest impression of what the work of a professor of religious studies might actually be. What formed me was not a sense of the job ads, things which I could hardly contextualize and which I could only view piecemeal, because the lists of job ads are multiple, and sometimes behind pay-walls, and staggered over months, and because they’re a function of the needs of independent departments and have a vexed relationship to the field as a whole. What formed me, and my project, was my network.

Above all, I was busy trying to grow into a quality academic. A Ph.D. is a credential, certainly, but it is also an opportunity to craft oneself, to practice thinking well and writing well on topics that fascinate us, and that’s why many of us undertake one. I did not come to this degree because I anticipated that San Diego would want a sociocultural anthropologist of Toronto religion to teach three classes about food politics. I came to it the same way many of us do. I had been inspired. I’d taken classes that opened me in some way. I’d read work that helped me understand the world around me in new light, and I’d met scholars who were open and erudite and who welcomed my thinking and my questions. I dimly saw that the training could sculpt me into a certain kind of person, like going to the gym for my mind. I thought I could test and grow what I was capable of, alongside people who were better than me at a craft I admired, and continue to be in dialogue with them. More than wanting a job, I wanted to become the person alongside whom members of that community would want to work.

When I selected my project, I tried hard to pick one that would work on the job market, as well as one that I would love to do. I tried to pick one that showed breadth, that would allow me to develop expertise that was demonstrable and translatable, that would allow me to go as deep as was necessary without driving me all the way into an enclave. But those goals were highly impressionistic, and impressed on me by mentors: by my committee and above all my supervisor, by my departmental directors, my upper-year colleagues and the community of advisors I’d collected from conferences, including the writer of the theses on professionalization that I read in my first year. My project came from my method and theory classes, from the books I loved and hated, from my clumsy early attempts to represent my goals to a persistently patient and faithful committee, and from their encouragement to check out the world and to do my homework, and to find a project where those two things intersected.

I am glad we talk about professionalization. It would be a waste, and cruel, not to, and it is central to the health of our discipline to mitigate the cruelty of current waste. But I am also hopeful that the discourse of professionalization doesn’t overreach the process of cultivating oneself as an academic, or as a person. [4] The need to plug in to the job market early is real, but that need is tied to a failure of the community, including graduate students, to imagine what an academic is: by definition, a member of a department and an institution of education. The job market can be read, by a novice, as asking a number of things of us (be a social scientist; be confessional; deconstruct religion as a category; reproduce religion as a category; abandon hope all ye who enter here). I think what McCutcheon and others want us to read in it is this: departments need academics who can be trusted to think responsibly, reliably, and well, who will carry out inquiry and share what they find usefully, who will cultivate learning in students and maintain productive relationships with colleagues and take care of their academic area and show up for meetings and be constructive.

By virtue of having achieved the credential, we have all demonstrated the necessary aptitude and skill. Now, the thing we’re selling is hope, specifically the hope of our future selves as scholar-colleagues. The job doesn’t go to the “best” human. The job goes to the best fit. So I think the root piece of advice to be found here is to think deeply, in an ongoing way and at every stage, about fit. Aim to be fit, look for a fit, show them the fit, and then, go where there’s a fit.

Aldea Mulhern is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. Aldea works at the intersection of food and religion, and her dissertation is a comparative ethnography of Jewish and Muslim communities’ involvement in Toronto’s food movement.

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[1] From the preamble to McCutcheon’s “Theses on Professionalization” as it appears on the website of The Religious Studies Project (February 29, 2012). http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/2012/02/29/russell-mccutcheon-theses-on-professionalization/

The theses first appeared without preamble in Mathieu E. Courville’s 2007 edited collection of essays, Next Step in Studying Religion: A Graduate’s Guide (London, UK: Continuum).

[2] The searchable CV-hosting service used to cost the applicant, and as of 2015 is now free to applicants, but see note 3.

[3] While the CV-hosting service is now free, and while the job listings are not behind a dedicated pay-wall, these facts are deceptive. It is not sufficient to be an active paid member of the AAR or SBL to access these services: one must be a member, and be registered and paid to attend the annual meeting. This means that job seekers must register and pay for the annual meeting in order to access the online job listings and to upload a CV, even if they have not been invited to interview at the meeting.

[4] Not all of us will get jobs in this field, but we will all be people. This fact is not missed by McCutcheon, but pervades his theses, and much other good advice from compassionate and responsible academics.

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