by Caleb Simmons
In this new feature 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 previous posts in this series, see here.
Thesis 4: Applying for full-time employment prior to being awarded the Ph.D. degree (i.e., when, after successfully completing comprehensive or general exams, one holds the status known as ABD [i.e., All But Dissertation]) is not uncommon; however, failure to gain employment at this stage must not undermine one’s confidence. Apart from extraordinary circumstances (e.g., the so-called “fit” between your expertise and a Department’s needs), the doctoral degree remains a necessary condition for entrance into the profession.
The Religious Studies job market can be daunting. According to the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion’s annual job advertisement data, there has been a steady decline of Religious Studies positions available since 2008 during which time there has been an increase in Ph.D. degrees awarded. Understandably, this can produce anxiety towards the end of graduate school as the whirlwind of writing and defending meet the flood of economic realities of unsecured income, student loans, etc. This begs the question, “when do I need to start applying for jobs?”
McCutcheon’s fourth thesis “the doctoral degree remains a necessary condition for entrance into the profession” remains accurate as “holding a Ph.D.” continues “to be ranked highest among skills and/or experiences desired or required by hiring institutions” in the field of Religious Studies. However, the numbers released by the SBL/AAR that covers 2005-2012 suggest that it is not uncommon for ABD job candidates to receive the job offer. According to the data released in the 2013-2014 SBL/AAR job data:
Less than five percent of hired candidates interviewed more than one year in advance of completing their Ph.D. 32.7% completed their Ph.D. the year after interviewing. 28.2% completed their Ph.D. during the year in which they interviewed or within one year prior to interviewing. 34.3% completed their Ph.D. two or more years prior to interviewing.
This data suggests that 37.5% of hires did not have their doctoral degree in hand when they started their position and another 17.1% were interviewing in the year when their degree was expected to be awarded. Therefore, the majority (54.6%) of candidates hired in Religious Studies from 2005-2012 were not Ph.D.s when they received their job offers.
There are, however, problems with putting too much stake in these numbers. The SBL/AAR report includes competing statistics with 81% of hiring institutions stating that the candidate that was hired had completed their Ph.D. Additionally, this report provides no data for the degree status of applicants for each position (though average number of applications is provided); so one cannot know how many ABDs or Ph.D.s were unsuccessful on the job market. The biggest risk for the ABD job candidate is adding the possible rejection of the job market into the tumultuous emotional field that accompanies the final stages of the doctoral process. As McCutcheon states, “failure to gain employment at this stage must not undermine one’s confidence.” That is the last thing one needs while walking into your dissertation defense.
There is another option, however. Part of graduate school that is often neglected in our focus on research is professional development. While some of us teach while in graduate school, many other aspects of our future careers are unknown and are learned “on the fly.” Unfortunately, for many of us the job application process is one of these overlooked components, even though at the end of the day it very well might be the most important. Testing the job market early in the doctoral process provides a way around this lacuna. With the help of trusted advisors, the green ABD can develop the professional skills required to write a good cover letter, prepare an efficient curriculum vita, and practice the academic interview. By engaging the market earlier than later, the candidate has the opportunity to learn from mistakes when the stakes are lower, knowing that there is still a year or two before the rubber really meets the road.
I entered the job market early. This was not with any sort of foresight regarding professional development, but through the process I have been convinced that these experiences helped me develop the skills to be successful when I was eventually a viable candidate further along. When I passed into doctoral candidacy, the joy of this rite of passage was short-lived as I realized that my life had become a complex balance of time and funding with the goal of gainful employment seemingly farther away than when I entered my Ph.D. program. Luckily, at the University of Florida my advisors were extremely upfront about the job market and the uphill battle that I might face coming from a school with a young doctoral program and lacking the “name-brand” in my field (South Asian Religions). With this in mind, they paid special attention to my professionalization, including teaching, publishing, presenting at conferences, etc. The last piece of the puzzle, however, was actually getting a job.
I had the great fortune of receiving a Visiting faculty position only a month after becoming ABD. I had applied because the position was close to my hometown and the call seemed like it was written exactly for my expertise. While this was a great opportunity both personally and professionally, it thrust me prematurely into the job market. I had had a taste of being a professor and didn’t want to go back. And for some reason, I thought I was ready for a tenure-track position. I wasn’t.
I was lucky again because my mentors could recognize that I felt like going back to UF would be a step backward, but they also knew that I was unprepared to compete for most jobs. Through our many discussions, we decided that I should apply for jobs that seemed like a perfect fit keeping in mind, however, that I was not ready. For the next two years while working on my dissertation, I applied selectively to several jobs receiving a few conference interviews each year, but without any real success. When I felt like an interview went well and heard nothing back (it is far too common that an interviewee never hears back from prospective employers), it hurt my ego. But that too became part of the professionalization process. Through this process I not only developed a sense of the interview process, I was able to get used to the inevitable rejection when the stakes were much lower (i.e. I still had time and funding to finish my Ph.D. program).
In 2013-14, I went back on the market with my dissertation research completed and the writing process nearly over. I was still ABD, but I was only months away from my defense and was a very different scholar than I had been when I accepted the VAP position three years earlier. Because of the accumulated experience of letters, c.v.s, and interviews I was thoroughly prepared for the job market in my final year of my doctoral program. I ended up accepting a position at an R-1 university. I can’t help but think that part of the reason for my success was my experience stumbling through interviews and marinating in anxiety that fills the bullpen at the SBL/AAR Employment Center. While it had led to periods of self-doubt, in the end just like the other aspects of professionalization for academia, the application process is a vital component for success within our profession.
 “Job Advertisement Data 2013-2014: Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion” https://www.aarweb.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/Career_Services/AARSBLJobsReport2013-2014.pdf , p. 3.
 “Job Advertisement Data 2013-2014: Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion,” pp. 3 & 35 (Table 29).
 “Job Advertisement Data 2013-2014: Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion,” p. 35 (Table 28).
Caleb Simmons is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Program at the University of Arizona. He research and teaching focuses on South Asian religions, particularly Hindu goddess traditions. He is currently working on a book project titled The Goddess and the King: Devotion, Genealogy, and King-fashioning in the Kingdom of Mysore in which he examines genealogical texts and devotional traditions of Woḍeyar kings of Mysore.