Life After Religious Studies: An Interview with Nicholas Dion

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of interviews with former scholars of religion who have, for one or another reason, decided to leave the world of academia. In this series we hope to open up a conversation that can be of use to other scholars in pointing toward some of the pitfalls and alternative paths to life in the ivory tower, as well as to reflect upon on-going struggles to preserve and improve the humanities.

Could you discuss your academic training and what ultimately led to your decision to leave the world of academia.

Nicholas Dion: I completed my BA and my MA at McGill University in Montreal, and my PhD at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion. My academic interests always lay in the philosophy and psychology of religion, especially in psychoanalytic theory, but I also took a considerable interest in and did some work on issues related to immigration policy, multiculturalism, and the place of religion in a liberal democratic society. With the exception of a few months off between my MA defense and the beginning of my PhD, I went straight through my academic career without taking any breaks – I knew that I wanted to teach and do research at a university, and I never really stopped along the way to question that certainty or to explore other options.

The second part of your questions is considerably more complex, and a number of different threads ultimately informed my decision to leave academia. First, I came to know of the realities of the academic job market, including the rise in the hiring of sessional lectures and the decrease in the number of tenure track positions. The great opportunity that was supposed to present itself as older faculty members retired and vacated their seats for young blood never materialized, both because those older faculty members stayed on longer than expected and because universities realized that they could save money by contracting faculty instead. While I accepted that a period of contract employment was typical of many different career paths, especially early in one’s career, the academic reality seemed particularly troubling because this period of contract work often extended for several years and, in some cases, seemed to only delay the inevitable choice between perpetual contracts and non-academic work. I wasn’t willing to risk spending five or ten years on contract in the hopes of securing an elusive tenure track appointment.

Second, I got married to another graduate student, and we both came to terms with where we were and were not willing to move for work. We found the latter list to be considerably longer than the former. Third, and ultimately most importantly, I had fallen out of love with the academic study of religion. I found myself passionate about a small sub-discipline of the field that no one else seemed to care about, and I in turn had little interest neither in the questions that others in the field wanted to ask nor in the methods by which they sought these answers. My interests were completely out of sync with the field’s priorities. While I could still see myself as the surly old professor who comes to the office, does his research and leaves, bitter at the colleagues he avoids and ostracized at departmental activities, that didn’t seem like much of a life to me.

At the same time, I was excited at the option of choosing a new direction. I had a growing interest in politics and public policy and I was looking to explore them further. Maybe this was my chance? Without ruling out any options, I worked with the career centre and the various other resources available to me to coordinate a non-academic job search to parallel my academic one. While I had started out looking at non-academic options to hedge my bets against the terrible academic job market, when decision time came I eventually ended up declining two academic positions to pursue an opportunity as editor and researcher with the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), a government-funded advisory body and research agency that works on issues related to higher education policy. That was almost two years ago. My position now combines the best of both worlds, allowing me to expand my interest in public policy while still remaining close to the world I enjoy, that of the university. While I sometimes pick up a lectureship here and there to stay in touch with the students and to indulge my love for teaching, I am satisfied with my new direction.

Do you have any thoughts on how structural changes may have impacted your decision to leave? Specifically, how do you think on-going cutbacks and a general de-valuation of the humanities (e.g., in many institutions and on the level of society), and especially in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, have contributed to this state of affairs?

ND: Let me preface this by making clear that all opinions here are my own and may not reflect the thinking of my employer. HEQCO has done considerable work on this topic and on others closely related to it, publishing in the spring of 2013 two reports that look at the job prospects of students with graduate degrees, So You Want to Earn a PhD? and the labour market anxieties of graduate students at two major research universities in Ontario Beyond Labs and Libraries. I would refer the interested reader to those two publications.

As I said earlier, the poor academic job market played a major role in leading me to explore non-academic options in the first place. Whether this poor job market is a result of the 2008 downturn or larger systemic issues, I don’t know. I’ve spoken to some professors who were first hired into academia over twenty years ago and they claim to have faced similar sorts of challenges. But this might just be a tactic to minimize students’ concerns or a sign of ignorance of the current reality. I suspect that the limitations imposed by space have always been problematic to some extent for those like myself, who sought academic positions in Canada. Like it or not, there are considerably more universities in countries like the US than here in Canada, which makes it difficult for students who are unwilling and unable to move for work. The academic job market also isn’t uniform within a discipline – sub-discipline matters. I may not have seen many philosophy of religion positions when I was job hunting, but everyone seemed to want an Islamist or a specialist in southeast Asia. Academic job markets have their trends too, just like anywhere else.

I also think that it’s important to parse the job market – both academic and otherwise – carefully before jumping to conclusions. One could argue that the economic downturn also led to a rise in full-time contract work in certain non-academic industries, especially in entry-level positions, and has paralleled the ‘rise of the sessional’. The shift in academia is perhaps only more evident – from the inside, at least – because of the cultural currency of tenure. But if you’re looking to avoid contract work and find stable employment, leaving academia is no panacea.

I’m also hesitant to suggest that the poor labour market is a humanities-only issue. Yes, a particular form of societal anxiety surrounding students’ labour market outcomes has returned post-2008, which has in turn led some to question what universities in general, and the humanities in particular, are doing to produce workplace-ready citizens. This discourse feeds nicely into certain images of what the Canadian economy should look like, and the industries in which it should be grounded. But the number of dissenting voices outside the academy is greater than we sometimes think.

On the one hand, I can point to friends in kinesiology or other health science disciplines who have been inundated with offers of tenure track jobs right out of graduate school, while my humanities colleagues consider themselves lucky to find post-doc positions which, I hazard to say, were relatively rare in most humanities fields a decade ago and now function as holding cells for the masses of recent graduates waiting for more permanent positions to emerge. But I remain struck by one particular experience I had in the last year of my doctorate. A few months from graduation and in the clutches of uncertainty, I registered for a condensed MBA course offered through the university’s business school. I figured that, if anything was going to be useful in the “real world”, it was some basic level of business knowledge. Expecting to find myself surrounded by other humanities and social science PhDs similarly concerned about their prospects, I found myself in a class with 23 science PhDs and one engineer. And the more I talked to them, the more I came to learn that the anxiety some graduate students in the humanities experience is hardly unique to that discipline.

Can you speak to how you were able to transfer your skills to a different area outside of academia.

ND: First off, I think you’re right to emphasize skills. While academia focuses on knowledge – areas of study, periods of time, geographical regions – the non-academic market speaks the language of skills, which can be confusing and disorienting for recent graduates. It demands a complete shift in thinking. My experience here may be somewhat unique because I was interviewed and ultimately hired by a panel that contained several individuals with graduate school experience, so the task of ‘selling the value’ of my humanities degree was not as difficult as it could have been. Still, what served me best were not the skills that I developed as a direct result of my doctoral study – research, teaching, oral and written communication, critical thinking, etc. – but rather those skills that I had developed as a result of the other activities I pursued while in grad school, like sitting on administrative committees, coordinating and editing journals, and planning conferences. I applied to and was interviewed for a fairly generic entry-level position, only to find out at the interview that they were also thinking of hiring an editor if they came across the right candidate. My extensive editing experience is actually what got me the interview, much moreso that my abilities as a researcher. I think the trick here is to think as broadly as possible about the range of experiences that you have had and to reflect on a wide variety of skills that go beyond those that flow directly from the PhD.

It’s also helpful to keep in mind that the job hunt tends to look very different on the non-academic market. Academic positions are almost always advertised, to attract candidates with a wide range of backgrounds. On the contrary, many non-academic positions are never advertised but are rather filled through the employer’s existing network of contacts. As a result, networking and “meeting people” often plays a much bigger part in finding a non-academic position than does searching the Internet.

What challenges and/or solutions do you see for graduate programs addressing problems with employment that many Masters and PhD students face?

ND: First, I don’t really see academic hiring practices changing organically unless pressure is exerted from within the system. I think that faculty members, faculty associations, and departmental administrators who are unhappy with the current state of affairs have a responsibility to make their voices heard and, more importantly, to adjust their own hiring practices where appropriate. But – let’s be honest – tenure breeds complacency as much as it promotes freedom of thought. I’m not particularly optimistic. I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon on this one, and the current state of affairs is likely to become the new normal.

The opposite side of the issue is to suggest that departments could be doing more to prepare graduate students for non-academic positions. To some extent, I think that many of the difficulties recent graduates face on the labour market are due to the relative paucity of MAs and PhDs in non-academic positions. As more graduate students pursue non-academic careers, employers will come to understand the value of their credentials, in turn alleviating some of the translation work that students need to do.

Until then, at the very least students need to be made aware upon admission of the realities of the academic job market, and they need to be encouraged to develop other skills in graduate school. Yes, students should ultimately be expected to make their own decisions, to research graduate schools the way they would a new car, but that simply isn’t the reality for most. Until this changes, I would argue that departments have an ethical obligation to step in and fill this knowledge gap.

MA and PhD programs should no longer be treated as preparation for a tenure track job. Ideally, graduate degrees would be reinvented to be more than research degrees focused on the development of in-depth disciplinary knowledge. Stanford University’s idea of streaming PhDs into either academic or non-academic tracks highlights how this might be achieved, albeit in a way that is not without its own challenges. Ultimately, we’re asking faculty members who have known nothing but academia to think outside the walls of the university and redefine their primary responsibility to students. That’s not an easy thing to ask.

* For those in the Toronto area, check out the Next Steps Conference at the Career Centre at the University of Toronto.

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2 Responses to Life After Religious Studies: An Interview with Nicholas Dion

  1. Pingback: Life After Religious Studies: An Interview with Shelly Nixon | Bulletin for the Study of Religion

  2. Pingback: Stepping outside the Ivory Tower – Writing outside the Ivory Tower

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