Life After Religious Studies: An Interview with Shelly Nixon



Editor’s Note: This is the second 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 (of religion and in general) 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 and social sciences. For the first interview in this series, follow this link.


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

After a year of College I transferred to the University of Waterloo, (2001-2005) in Waterloo, Ontario, for a BA in Religious Studies and Psychology. I followed this with a MA in Religion from Queen’s University, (2005-2006) in Kingston Ontario, and a PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa (2006-2012).

By the 2nd-3rd year of my PhD, I knew something was wrong. I was unhappy, stressed about my job prospects, and not feeling at all fulfilled by my work. Research had become a burden, and I only finished projects because I had to. When I finally acknowledged that these feelings far exceeded the usual grad school stress, the decision not to become a professor after graduating was an easy one. With hindsight, I can point to two things that contributed to my unhappiness:

  1. When I was deciding what to do after my PhD, I saw a career counsellor and did the meyers-briggs, and scored extremely high on the extrovert scale. I remember the counsellor raising an eyebrow at me and saying “with this type of score, I would have strongly recommended against academics as a career for you.” I realise now that my personality is not designed for the extended solitude of a scholar.
  2. I found the attitude of SOME (not all) professors a little discouraging (my supervisor and committee at U of Ottawa, and at Queen’s were amazing). While talking to an established professor about the dismal job prospects, her attitude was “yeah, well it was hard for me too – deal with it.” I don’t think she, and others with whom I had these conversations, understood how much the market had changed in the past 20-30 years. In these same conversations there was an implied attitude about quitting academia that leaving meant “you couldn’t hack it.” This is quite toxic. While you will never love every single part of your job (trust me on this – I sit on a privacy committee at work), you deserve to not be miserable every day. I could have been a professor; I just knew it wouldn’t make me happy.

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 academic institutions and even on the level of society), and especially in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, have contributed to this state of affairs?

The move towards short-term contract positions in academia definitely influenced my decision. Finding a tenure-track job in Toronto is almost impossible and my husband has an excellent job here. It made no sense to leave his stable job to take a contract that might only pay $20,000 a year, and end up unemployed 4 months later. This much schooling left me with a lot of student debt, and I needed a well-paying job to help tackle it. This was definitely a reason I left, but not the only reason.

Personally, I have never felt like the social sciences or the humanities have been devalued.  Most people I talk to and work with acknowledge that the skills a humanities degree teaches you (writing, critical thinking, research, exposure to different ideas) are very important. However, the labour market seems to be reliant on specialised skills. This means an employer asks two questions: “what can you do for my company to either help us make money or fulfil our mandate?” and “will you be an enjoyable person to work with?” The onus is on the applicant to demonstrate that you have the skills and the work ethic to meet those needs. In my case, this meant specifically upgrading some of my skills to match those that are in-demand by employers. I did this by taking courses in statistics and economics, and finding a program to help me get work experience. Then, I had to develop the ability to sell myself and my skills to employers.

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

I am fortunate to have a lot of friends who work in sectors such as law, engineering, management, finance, consulting and government. Their degrees gave them experience and knowledge that I lacked. They helped me make a killer resume, identify my transferable skills, and coached me through mock interviews. They also taught me how to read a job description, and frame my resume to demonstrate that I had every skill required for the position.

Another important factor was my extensive volunteer experience. I sat on student councils, research committees and I worked with several community organizations. In these positions I developed skills in negotiation, problem solving, conflict resolution, budgeting, and stakeholder management. On your resume, it’s best if you can frame your skills by showing how you have used them in other circumstances. Volunteering gave me concrete examples and stories to discuss my skills with employers.

What challenges and/or solutions do you see for graduate programs addressing problems with employment that many Masters and PhD students face? Do you see any alternative avenues opening up for scholars trained in the study of religions in particular?

There is already a lot of great discussion on the challenges facing graduate students, so I would rather focus on some solutions.

For institutions:

  1. MBA programs, Law schools, Medical schools and public policy schools all have people dedicated to supporting you through the job search process. They teach you to network, set up recruitment events and push you to get out there, because it is in the best interest of the school to have you graduate and find work. My program wasn’t designed to help people find non-academic jobs, and I was lucky to have an amazing supervisor who supported my decision and acted as a reference for me. Not every graduate student has access to such resources, and this definitely needs to change.
  2. If they don’t already, graduate programs should have very clear statistics available for prospective students on how many graduates get tenure track jobs, how many people end up employed in non-academic jobs and what support systems are available for both groups. This would help students make more informed decisions.

For individual graduate students who are thinking of leaving academia:

  1. Try to take some statistics courses. During my undergrad I took 3 statistics courses, and a 4th year course on running large research studies and designing tests, and supplemented these with a graduate level statistics course at Ryerson University in Toronto. This has been mentioned in every interview I have ever given. Quantifiable performance measures are everywhere in the public and the private sector. You don’t need to be able to perform primary statistical research (though that helps), just be able to read a study and extract information from it. Don’t be intimidated by statistics, if you can figure out Foucault, Bourdieu and Lacan, you can figure out statistics.
  2. Volunteer experience shows that you are a well-rounded person with demonstrable skills. I gained almost all of the “relevant experience” on my resume from volunteering and sitting on committees. Also, we know we aren’t all curmudgeonly scholars (well most of us), but you have to prove to your future employer that you will work well in groups, and volunteering does that.
  3. Network like crazy and learn how to do an informational interview. Every job I’ve found has been through informational interviews. Your marketable skills mean nothing if you can’t get in touch with the employers.
  4. One awesome thing about a PhD in religious studies degree is it makes you stand out from the crowd. Every religion major has heard this phrase “You study religion? That’s really interesting!” People are fascinated by religion, and you can use it opportunity to show how interesting and intelligent you are. In interviews, I would talk about how my degree taught me to look at an issue from every angle. I think my religion degree is what makes me a great at stakeholder management as it helps me build relationships with diverse people.
  5. Religious Studies graduates have a lot to offer the working world. For me, my work on Aboriginal issues in school has resulted in being put on some very exciting files. Companies and organizations need people who speak multiple languages, and who can work with diverse groups to solve complicated problems. Religion majors are great at absorbing vast amounts of information, identifying themes, and creating culturally appropriate programs, because we are trained to view things from multiple perspectives. I truly believe these skills make us invaluable.
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