I’ve written a number of blog posts over the years about the skills that students in the academic study of religion acquire. It’s worth thinking about because too many people seem focused only on the content of an undergrad degree, assuming that the thing that you study is the thing that you’ll do.
It’s an effect of the longstanding professionalization of the university, of course (whereby specialties once reserved for separate, two-year colleges or tech schools moved into the university and became degree programs, thereby lending undergrad the feel of job training), with a big dollop of the 2008 financial/housing/job market collapse thrown in for good measure. Add to this declining state support for public universities (whereby a significant portion of the costs of higher ed have been transferred from state coffers to individuals’/families’ bank accounts) and you understandably arrive at a situation where many have trouble understanding doing an undergrad degree in some wide or general topic that might not have many obvious or direct paths to a steady pay check.
But this isn’t just a problem for Religious Studies, for one would be naive to think that all those English majors become English teachers, right? And it’s not like History majors all become historians — whether that means going on to graduate studies to become history professors or getting jobs with historical preservation societies or wherever else an historian might work.
But it’s still worth being an English or History major, right?
For while focusing on the content of their courses, to be sure, and learning the names or rivers and dates of events, people all across the Humanities and Social Sciences are also being taught skills that are widely relevant and useful in any number of contexts and futures. The trouble is, though, that students (and parents) often don’t recognize this, what with today’s over-powering focus on subject matter, i.e., people study accountancy to become an accountant and nursing to become a nurse, no?
So what does a religious studies major do?
Sure, some declare the major because the topic fascinates them, for whatever reason. Maybe they want to apply to grad school and, like their own professors, earn a living working in the field itself. But then others, no less interested on the subject matter itself, aim for a life as a ritual specialist of some sort, believing the degree will assist them in their later studies in, say, divinity school. And to be sure there are yet others, though not going the route of working in a religious institution, still wish to put to good use the knowledge of Buddhism or Judaism that they gained in our classes. But looking back over the grads from our BA program who I’ve known since 2001, the vast majority enter careers that have absolutely nothing to do with the study of religion — if, that is, you judge the relevance of the degree by how well its content fits what you end up doing with your life.
In other words, why study Hinduism if you don’t end up talking about Hinduism for a career…, right?
Well, no; not right.
For the relevance of the degree — as indicated at the start of this post — might, instead, be all about the tools that students acquire; for although they at first might have used them to help understand, say, the history of Christianity or identity formation in a diaspora setting, they come to realize that these skills may have far wider applications. And also that it’s just up to them to learn to put them to use and to be able to talk plainly and clearly to other people about how they can use them.
With all this in mind, we started a series called Grad Tales a few years ago, where we’d invite back some grads each year — people who, as we find all throughout the Humanities, have all ended up doing a wide variety of really quite interesting things after their BA graduation, from going to medical school and law school to starting their own businesses or becoming school teachers, counselors, etc. The series aimed to plant a few seeds in our students’ heads, especially 100-level students who often come to university not knowing what direction to take but having plenty of people in their lives who each tell them what they ought to be doing. Sure, some arrive wanting to do, say, business or engineering, and many steam right ahead and eventually go into business or become an engineer. But in my experience the majority don’t. They change their minds, they take an elective and discover areas they’d never heard of back in high school and then get hooked, and they end up declaring double majors or swapping majors entirely.
Knowing that this is the situation in which many of our students find themselves, with a new group confronting it each year — for they’ve discovered the study of religion, are fascinated by it, but wonder what they’ll say at a job interview, when sitting across the desk from someone who assumes Religious Studies is all about being religious or only about studying ancient myths and rituals, and thus hardly relevant for the task at hand… — well, what advice might you offer them? For I know that this blog is read by some of those very grads who I have in mind — the people who already answered those very questions — as well as by people at other schools or in a variety of lines of work — people who have all had to think through this issue and tackle, each in their own way.
So I’m hoping that you’ll send me an email, suggest a blog post, and then write-up a guest post here on our Department blog where you address head on the “What do I talk about at the job interview?” question that students in our field, let alone a variety of others, inevitably have whenever they venture further afield than the academic study of religion.