When Considering a Career in the Humanities, Think Globally

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Tenzan Eaghll received his Ph.D. from the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, in 2016. He is currently an English Instructor at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Bangkok. For his publication and contact information see https://utoronto.academia.edu/TenzanEaghll

Ecclesiastes 11 states, “Cast out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.” Like all biblical passages, this sentence can obviously be interpreted in many ways, but for me it contains a special insight about how to succeed in our contemporary global market: it suggests that it is best to scatter your talents and skills as far as possible, and to allow the winds of opportunity to take you where they may. Now, as a bit of a nihilist, I am not usually one to quote bible passages, but given the current economic situation of academia in the West this one seems helpful because it encourages you not to put all your proverbial eggs in one basket. In an odd way, it provides a glimmer of hope to the dire situation that Humanities graduates like myself find themselves in after completing their B.A.s, M.A.s, and Ph.D.s, and offers a simple piece of advice: when considering a career in the humanities, think globally.

I arrived at this sentiment slowly, after much deliberation and weighing of my employment options. Like any other graduate student and/or adjunct professor in North America, I was beset by a weekly barrage of blog posts, articles, and news stories about the lack of funding, opportunity, and dismal future of life in academia, all of which are very depressing. From the likes of prominent theorists like Terry Eagleton proclaiming the death of the university, to the constant stream of articles from Inside Higher Ed documenting the shrinking Ph.D. job market, I was repeatedly reminded of just how bad life will be post-graduation in North America and Europe.  I also heard stories from friends who went to job fairs at major conferences and found a saturated market where even low ranking universities and community colleges were fielding hundreds of applicants for a single position in my field, and from professors who sat on post-doctoral scholarship committees and reported that they received hundreds of applications for every available fellowship. All this led me to seek an alternate academic market to the one in North America and Europe; it led me to look for a place that was less saturated, dismal, and depressed, which in turn led me to look for work overseas, in Asia.

It needs to be said up front that I did not venture overseas because I was seeking some post-graduate shangri-la and my expectations were not that high. I simply believed that after fifteen years of education and passing through the fire-brigade of my dissertation defense, I ought to at least be able to live comfortably and have some semblance of job security. In North America and Europe, the market is so saturated that even when you spot a job advertisement in your area of specialty it is not encouraging because you know that you will be competing with several hundred other candidates. I received my doctorate from the University of Toronto and have several publications under my belt, so technically speaking I should be able to fair well in this competitive market, but in all honesty I didn’t even want to try. The idea of spending the next several years crafting cover letters and teaching philosophy statements to find a job in some small U.S. town in a country ruled by an orange Cheeto monster made my stomach churn. Moreover, since many of the positions advertised on HNET.com and Insidehighered.com are adjunct positions, finding a job is not guaranteed relief from the horrid hamster wheel of applications, job hunting, and high pressure interviews. By fleeing to Asia what I hoped to find was a job market more laid back and less saturated, and thus far I haven’t been disappointed. The job market here feels like a sellers rather than a buyers market, and appears to give the upper hand to applicants rather than employers. Of course, there are many English teachers over here with B.As, M.A.s, and other teaching qualifications, but very few native English speakers hold a Ph.D., so that places the cards in your favor.

I chose to come to Thailand to look for work over the many other options available overseas because I traveled here when I was writing my dissertation and I fell in love with the beaches, the people, and the food. However, I could have easily chosen to go to Korea, Singapore, or India, as there are many opportunities in Asia as a whole. Writing part of my dissertation in Thailand awakened me to the growing academic market in this part of the world and the benefits of living in a climate that isn’t -15° C for half of the year. It led me to imagine the possibility of mixing my academic aspirations with my holiday aspirations: what if I could work in the very countries I desired to travel too? Moreover, in my travels I learned that some of these big Asian cities like Bangkok have over twenty-five large universities and colleges, so I figured I could find employment somewhere if I applied myself and was willing to slowly work my way into the system.

Now, to be fair, I am writing this somewhat posthumously, as I only recently graduated and headed overseas seeking employment, yet I feel that I have enough experience thus far to at least vouch for the risk of the voyage. I defended my dissertation on August 24, 2016, left for Thailand one week later, and secured my first temporary academic position within twenty days. This first appointment is nothing fancy, as I have only been hired as an English and Reading Instructor at King Mongkut’s University of Technology in Bangkok, and my job is basically to teach writing and reading classes to grad students and profs in the Arts and Sciences, but it provides me with a work permit and allows me to guest lecture at other universities in my area of specialty. This is not a tenure track position, so I haven’t yet escaped from the wheel of uncertainty, and my pay is relative to most entry level positions in North America (respective to cost of living differences), yet I did manage to go directly from graduation to a contract position within a month, which is something that is very difficult in the Western market. Moreover, I have already been invited to give several special talks on my research at a couple of the big philosophy and religion departments in Bangkok, so I am hopeful that I will begin teaching classes related to my area of specialty by next semester or in the summer. When I first arrived in Bangkok, I was told that faculties don’t really advertise positions over here so it is better to physically take your CV to departments and introduce yourself to the head of the department. Since then I have learned that this is actually incorrect and that there are several “inside” Thai university job websites, but taking my CV around definitely helped at the beginning. My immediate goal over the next year is to secure a dual appointment in both an English and a Philosophy department, and judging by the reception I have received thus far I think this is a very reasonable goal.

One of the real advantages of venturing to a non-English country like Thailand is that your basic language skills become a real employment asset. In North America or Europe, everyone speaks English so your academic employ-ability boils down to your university experience, pedigree, and publication record, but over here your native English reading and writing skills, as well as your international status, gives you an immediate advantage for most academic positions. It also reminds you that reading and writing is really the core of the humanities and the sciences, and that as a humanities graduate you hold a very special talent that many people in the world lack: the ability to present and defend your ideas in clear prose. Another advantage of venturing to a non-English country is that it provides an alternate route to tenure besides teaching an endless series of introductory classes in your field, as is the general path to secure employment in the West. When I worked at the University of Toronto as an adjunct last year, I taught the same introductory level religious studies class three times in one year, and it became very apparent that even if I was lucky enough to secure a tenure position somewhere in North America or Europe, this would be my fate for years to come―a possibility that I kind of dreaded. As an alternate possibility to this traditional route to secure employment, my first position in Asia is largely a matter of helping grad students with their reading, writing, and presentation skills, and is much closer to a graduate supervisory position than an introductory instructor position. Moreover, as noted, I am in talks with one of the Bangkok philosophy departments to teach a graduate class on “Philosophy and Religion” next semester, so I might be able to avoid the heavy course load that plagues many professors in the West all together, and land a dual position where I can teach English composition skills to earn my bread and butter, and more advanced philosophy classes to higher level students that reflect my publications and research.

Of course, one of the risks of venturing out like this is leaving behind the specialized academic market in the West. Most of the humanities related positions advertised overseas are quite general, and if you spent the last five years writing your dissertation on Second Temple Judaic literature you probably won’t be to eager to go to a part of the world where no one is hiring for that topic. My area of specialty is French Continental philosophy, so I don’t feel like I am losing much by lecturing on philosophy of religion more generally, as the topics are so interrelated.  But no matter what your area of specialty is you can probably find some other place in the world where people are interested in your work that is less saturated than the North American or European job market. For instance, there was a graduate student from my cohort at the University of Toronto who studied the rise of Pentecostalism in South America, so she traveled to Columbia and got a job as a visiting lecturer while she was writing her dissertation. I think this is a very smart way to approach the humanities and to build a career in today’s academic market: don’t restrain your academic aspirations to the West; think globally.

In a nutshell, I view my current position and country of residence as a short-term solution with long term possibilities. Short term, it provides an immediate academic position post-graduation as I work on publishing my dissertation and a couple articles. It allows me to avoid endlessly applying for post-doctoral positions from the limited purview of my mother’s basement or working as an adjunct at some small American community college. Moreover, it allows me to do this in a tropical country. Long term, it allows me to build my CV, global academic connections, and may provide direct route to tenure. In addition to positions in Thailand, I am also currently applying for positions in Singapore and Hong Kong, as I have noticed some lucrative tenure track positions on international job websites. And who knows, in the long term I may even end up returning to North America or Europe after a couple of years to take a position there. Ultimately, I view this as a stepping-stone towards greater things, not as a once and for all decision that determines my fate in some singular sense. Moving overseas for academic work does not mean that you stop participating in academic blogs, attending important conferences, or working on future publications.

My overall point here is simple: it is important to remember that there are thousands of universities around the world and all of them need qualified humanities instructors in various topics, so don’t allow your future to be determined by the market in the West. At the very least, thinking globally will allow you to use your degrees to travel, see the world, and build your CV. What is more, it may provide a passport to a whole new world of opportunity. So don’t be afraid to “Cast out your bread upon the waters”…, you never know what might come back to you.

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