Russell T. McCutcheon
University of Alabama
Too many graduate students seem unprepared
for what awaits them once they complete their dissertations.
Sadly, in many cases their professors seem not to have considered
it to be their responsibility to provide them with some of
the tools necessary for navigating the job market and beginning
their careers. It is into this gap that the following twenty-one
thesis statements--which have benefited from the comments
of a variety of people at different career stages--are offered.
I do so with a deferential nod not only to Martin Luther's
ninety-five and Karl Marx's twenty-one, but also to the thirteen
offered more recently by Bruce Lincoln.
1. Academia is unlike other professions in that the
pre-professional period of training--which includes coursework,
dissertation research and writing, and teaching assistantships--is
not akin to an apprenticeship. Accordingly, there is no direct
linkage between the accumulation of credentials and admission
to the profession, no necessary relationship between feeling
oneself to be qualified and the ability to obtain full time
employment as a university professor.
2. A Ph.D. is awarded not only as a mark of intellectual
competence and disciplined method but also as a professional
credential that signals one's eligibility for employment as
a researcher and teacher within academia. Although these two
aspects of the degree can complement one another, they can
just as easily conflict, as in when one's research expertise
fails to overlap with ever changing employment needs.
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.
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.
5. Whether as an ABD or after having been awarded
the Ph.D., some candidates accept year-to-year work as a full-time
Instructor or Lecturer (sometimes also called a Sessional
position or a Part-time Temporary Instructor). Such positions
often entail teaching loads that are heavier than tenure-track
or tenured faculty members and, depending on the salary offered,
may necessitate supplemental teaching (e.g., evening or summer
courses) for one to earn sufficient income. Although the benefits
of teaching experience and an academic home can be invaluable
to an early career person, the costs such temporary employment
entails for one's ability to carry out research and writing
can be high. Navigating these costs/benefits is no easy task;
for instance, one might learn that, sometimes, time is more
valuable than money.
6. Although it is necessary, the doctoral degree alone
is hardly a sufficient credential for being admitted to academia
as a full-time employee because most of the other applicants
also possess this credential (i.e., it is the level playing
field onto which ABDs have yet to be admitted). There was
a time, prior to the early 1970s, when the job market was
such that merely possessing a Ph.D. would lead to multiple
tenure-track job offers; in the Humanities that time has long
7. For some of those who will be judging candidates'
credentials to determine their admission to the profession,
the reputation of the school from which they have earned their
Ph.D. plays a significant role in assessment of applicants'
skills and future promise as colleagues. Although one's alma
mater does communicate with whom one has trained and what
traditions of scholarship one may pursue, for yet others the
reputation of candidates' schools is secondary to the quality
of their current research, the places where they have published
their work, and the experience they have had in the classroom.
8. Like all institutions, academia provides a case
study in the complex relationship between structure and agency;
for, although there are a variety of things that one can do
to increase one's competitiveness, job candidates must recognize
that there are also a host of factors of which they are unaware
and which are therefore beyond their control (e.g., the unstated
needs, interests, goals, and even insecurities of the hiring
Department; the number of other candidates qualified at any
given time in your area of expertise; the impact of world
events on the perceived need for scholars in your subject
area, etc.). Success likely requires one to learn to live
with the latter while taking control of the former.
9. A structural element that must be taken into account
is that Departmental search committees often fail to entertain
the difficult questions in advance and, instead, go on "fishing
expeditions" by defining their open positions far too
broadly and vaguely, such as looking for "the best qualified"
applicant (without ever articulating what counts as "qualified").
Making explicit their implicit and often competing preferences
may strike members of a Department as being too costly an
exercise. It is into this mix of unstated disagreements and
longstanding rivalries that job applicants can be thrust,
affecting such things as how their letters of application
are read, their credentials judged, and their performance
during campus interviews measured. While one cannot control
such factors, when representing oneself one at least ought
to be aware of their potential presence and impact.
10. Whether working at a publicly or privately funded
institution, professors are comparable to self-employed entrepreneurs
inasmuch as they can increase their social capital (i.e.,
reputation) by seeking out new books to read and review, unique
topics on which to research and write, novel and timely courses
to develop and teach, and different professional service opportunities
to provide them with additional experience as well as new
national and international contacts. Graduate students are
in much the same position and the additional qualifications
that result from their entrepreneurial pre-professional activities
can serve to distinguish one job applicant from another. Documentation
from such activities, as recorded on one's c.v., communicate
to the hiring committee that one is already skilled at participating
in the many aspects of the profession that will surely be
required of a tenure-track Assistant Professor.
11. While higher education is organized so as to train
ever increasing specialists--a process that begins with surveys
and broad course work, examines candidates on their knowledge
in general areas, and then culminates in writing a dissertation
on a highly technical topic--eventual full-time employment
can just as easily depend upon one's ability to contribute
lower-level, so-called Core or General Education introductory
courses to a Department's curriculum. Because many Departments
of Religious Studies justify their existence not simply by
appealing to the number of their majors or graduates, but
also the number of Core or General Education courses that
they offer to students pursuing degrees in other areas of
the University, gaining early experience in such courses as
a Teaching Assistant is an important step toward being able
to persuade future employers of one's ability to be a colleague
who helps to teach their Department's "bread and butter"
12. Many doctoral students do not realize that finding
authors willing to write book notes, book reviews, etc., is
sometimes difficult for journal editors. As a first step in
professionalizing themselves, graduate students should become
aware of the journals in their field and write to their book
review editors, suggesting that the journal allow them to
write and submit a review (especially for books that they
are already reading for their courses or research, thereby
minimizing on work additional to their class and dissertation
research). Besides providing experience in writing and a much
needed line on one's c.v., one never knows who will read the
review or what other opportunities might follow upon it.
13. Because there is no direct relationship between
seniority and the quality of one's writing, one's familiarity
with the literature, or the novelty of one's ideas, graduate
students ought never to refrain from submitting their work
to a scholarly journal for possible peer review publication
simply because they understand themselves to be novices. Even
if rejected, the comments that result from the blind review
process will be of benefit to students who have so far only
received feedback from professors already familiar with their
14. Depending on the type of institution into which
one is hired (i.e., its teaching load, service obligations,
emphasis on research, sabbatical opportunities, etc.), the
dissertation may constitute one of the few, or quite possibly
even the last, opportunity a candidate has to devote an extended
period of time to one, focused project, free from the many
obligations routinely expected of an Assistant Professor.
Given the pressure to publish that, for some time, has attended
academic careers, graduate students would be wise to write
their dissertations while keeping in mind their eventual submission
for possible publication-whether as a monograph (which, depending
on a Department's "Tenure and Promotion" requirements, may
be preferable) or as separate peer review essays.
15. Having successfully defended the dissertation,
the manuscript does candidates no good in their desk drawer.
However, before making revisions (unless they are dissatisfied
with its argument or quality), graduates should create a prospectus
containing a brief cover letter, annotated table of contents,
and sample chapter (e.g., the Introduction) and submit it
to a select number of top tier publishers in their area of
expertise. Obtaining an outside experts' assessment of the
manuscript-a step often essential to a publisher's process
of evaluation-provides the best place to begin one's revisions
of a manuscript with which one is intimately familiar and,
perhaps, too closely tied.
16. Apart from professionalizing themselves through
research and publication, candidates should consider the cost
of regularly attending regional and national scholarly conferences
simply as the price of being a graduate student. Waiting until
one is on the job market is therefore too late to consider
attending and trying to participate in such conferences--especially
when one learns that being placed on the program of such annual
meetings often comes about gradually, over the course of several
(or more) years. Whereas regional meetings are often useful
places to try out one's research, become accustomed to speaking
in public, and learn the rituals of the question/answer sessions
that follow the presentation of papers (knowledge especially
important during on-campus interviews), national meetings
play a crucial role in efforts to integrate oneself into networks
of colleagues at other institutions who share one's interests.
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
18. Despite being the primary, and sometimes even
the exclusive, focus of candidates' attention during the last
years of their Ph.D., once hired into a tenure-track position
a variety of other just as time consuming tasks compete for
their attention. Learning to juggle many balls simultaneously--knowing
which will bounce if dropped and which will break--is therefore
an essential skill for early career professors who wish to
continue carrying out original research while also teaching
a full course load and serving the needs of their Departments
and the profession at large.
19. Although it can be intellectually stimulating,
developing new courses is time consuming. Depending on the
needs of their Department, teaching multiple sections of the
same course provides early career professors with fewer course
preparations, helps them to quickly establish their area of
expertise in the curriculum and among students, and allows
them to gain teaching competencies far quicker, thereby enabling
them to devote more time to their research and writing.
20. Despite what some maintain, teaching and research
are complementary activities, inasmuch as teaching, somewhat
like publication, constitutes the dissemination of information
gained by means of prior research. Based on one's strengths,
candidates can understandably emphasize one over the over,
but declining always to carry out both, integrating them together
when possible, is to shirk one's responsibilities as a scholar.
21. As with the effort to enter any profession, a
price must inevitably be paid--economic as well as social--in
terms of the other activities and goals one might instead
have worked toward and possibly attained. Candidates must
therefore not only be as deliberate as possible in determining
which costs they are willing to pay and which they are not,
but they must also learn to trust their own judgments when,
regardless how their job search turns out, they someday look
back on the decisions they once made.
a PDF version of the above theses
These theses appear as a chapter in Mathieu
E. Courville's edited collection of essays,
Next Step in Studying Religion: A Graduate's Guide
(London, UK: Continuum, 2007)
For further reflections on the study of
religion and/or the recent academic job market in the Humanities,
consider the following...
Charlotte Allen, "Is
Nothing Sacred? Casting Out the Gods from Religious Studies"
(published in Lingua Franca, 1996)
"Netting a Job in Religious Studies: Some Notes from
the Field" (posted at the Canadian Corporation for
Studies of Religion site)
Grant Greene, "On
the Market in Religious Studies" (posted at
The Chronicle of Higher Education's site)
Elka Jones, "Beyond
Supply and Demand: Assessing the Academic Job Market"
(PDF; (Occupational Outlook Quarterly, published by
the US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Russell T. McCutcheon,"Alienation,
Apprenticeship, and the Crisis of Academic Labor"
(PDF; from The
Discipline of Religion: Structure, Meaning, Rhetoric.
London: Routledge, 2003)
Harold Remus, "By
the Skin of Our Teeth: Surviving as a Scholar of Religion"
(posted at the Canadian Corporation for Studies of Religion
Ted Yuon, "The
Academic Job Market is Bad for All of Us"
(posted at Academe Online)
collection of articles from the Modern Language Association's
ADE [Association of Departments of English] Bulletin
Read Bruce Lincoln's "Theses