by Shannon Trosper Schorey
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 3. Pursuing a Ph.D. purely for the “love of learning” is one among many legitimate reasons for graduate studies. Pursuing such studies for both intellectual stimulation and eventual employment requires candidates to be as intentional as possible about opportunities to increase their competitiveness on the job market.
Many who pursue a Ph.D. do so because they genuinely love their field of inquiry. Their passion and curiosity for their chosen subject is often offered as the explanatory device by which they endure years of long research and teaching hours, an extended period of meager pay and low (or no) benefits, family planning complicated by a variety of professional taboos and lack of resources, and the stress of an ultra competitive and unpredictable job market. As the adjuncting crisis seemingly looms larger than ever, more grads are accepting contingent positions to make ends meet as they struggle to land a tenure track position.
I read Thesis #3 to be a call away from this standard narrative of the relationship between graduate studies and the job market. While “love of learning” is a popular and widely accepted reason to pursue graduate studies, this phrasing often delimits our imagination of what “success” looks like after the Ph.D. With no guarantee for the higher education equivalent of the “American dream,” Thesis # 3 asks grads to be more reflective and self-directed in both their training and imagination of what may constitute the “job market.” While this may mean adopting a wide variety of strategies as one completes their training, I offer three reflections here:
Firstly, graduate departments would be well served by offering platforms (whether in the form of lectures, open table discussions, job fairs, conferences, etc.) for graduate students to engage a wider variety of career options and training for jobs outside of the academy. Most immediately this might mean paying attention to job opportunities that emphasize research, writing, and teaching skills more broadly. Some junior scholars have successfully made the transition from the academy to freelance journalism where their academic training has made them stand out as thinkers and writers capable of nuanced and provocative stories while also giving them a chance to reach audiences much wider than that of the average article or academic press monograph. While this is just one example of a non-academic career path, it does highlight that many of the things that graduate students find most compelling about the academy (e.g. “love of learning”) can be successfully found outside of the academy too.
Secondly, for grads to “be as intentional as possible about opportunities” they should weigh carefully the marketability of their chosen research areas with the very real political mechanisms by which the academy reproduces itself. The job market reflects contemporary trends of intellectual inquiry as much as it annually re-affirms the deep patterns of the field’s self-identification. Key terms serving at the heart of the field – ritual, text, world religions, etc. – are the most marketable because they are the most easily recognizable. Such terms are able to retain their social capital despite the important work deconstructing these categories precisely because they immediately orient one’s research into a wider pattern of comparative data and allow the “importance” of one’s research to be readily recognizable to university administration and students. It is a shorthand that attempts to collapse intellectual inquiry into niches that can be worked to identify what sort of scholar a department should hire. But over-reliance on keywords stresses the content of a person’s research – Hinduism, early Christianity, religion and science – over other sorts of criteria, thereby privileging certain and pervasive implicit assumptions about what kinds of content seem to essentially matter in the study of religion.
In practice this sort of shorthand makes sense, but grads must be willing to think critically about their own positionality and participation in the construction of our field’s peripheries and centers. I offer as an example the study of new religious movements – a subfield that, not long ago, was reserved for “playful” intellectual inquiry post-tenure. The implication was that these movements were neither serious nor important subjects of research, despite any potential methodological or theoretical framing. When, as an M.A. student, I announced that this was one of my chosen research areas I was strongly encouraged to work on classical texts or more readily identifiably “important” subjects instead so that I might land a position in a doctoral program and then a job. I am happy with my own decision to ignore this advice – a decision fueled by the important conversations about the canon of Religious Studies and its attendant colonial, political, and historical consequences (King, Masuzawa, McCutcheon, Styers, etc.). Yet at the same time I recognize that as a scholar I also have a duty to make my research relatable and part of a broader conversation that moves our field and re-makes it.
This leads me to my final reflection: “intentionality” here should be as much about the ways in which grads are able to translate their own professional identities as researchers, thinkers, and teachers as it should be about what kinds of opportunities and skill sets grads establish as they keep an eye on the job market(s). Grads should work closely with trusted advisors – both junior and senior – about how best to negotiate their interests with the contemporary job market. Grads should also recognize the enormous skill set that accompanies the completion of a Ph.D. What seems to be missing is not translatable skills but training and attention to how best wield that skill set in non-academic positions (this seems to me to also be part of our field’s struggle to identify what we offer undergraduate students as well). Unfortunately for many grads the work of finding alternative career paths is placed on them alone.
Shannon Trosper Schorey is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She studies the historical and cultural contexts in which information technologies and discourses of religion and religious rights have co-developed in the United States.