“Is that enough of a reference for you?”

Bad magician performing a trick at a job interview

Justin Dearborn is a 2007 UA graduate of New College, with a Depth Study in “Religion, Social Structure, and Culture Studies,” who was a frequent member of REL seminars. He currently lives in Los Angeles and is the US National Sales Manager for an Icelandic Craft Brewery.

As I sit here on a Saturday afternoon, warm coffee in hand and enjoying the weekend, I find myself feeling both nostalgic and lucky. Nostalgic considering Dr. McCutcheon’s request for REL Grads to contribute to the REL Blog concerning Job Interview Questions that REL Grads may face after leaving the university and me remembering my time spent in Manly Hall. Lucky because after almost a decade removed from graduation and several years of hard work I’m finally getting to enjoy weekends these days vs. having to work them in years past. I’ve promised Dr. McCutcheon and tried to bang out one of these posts multiple times since serendipitously running into him at Dreamland in 2015 while in Tuscaloosa for work, and I always hit a wall considering what I want my message to be. Given this directive is more specific I should be able to stay on message.

To begin, I am not a true REL Grad in that I attended the University of Alabama as a New College major learning how the different disciplines of Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy, History and Religious Studies approach the study of Culture, Power, and specifically Religion in Culture as it relates to Power. It was fascinating to perceive the distinct differences in the traditional disciplines paradigmatic approach to the topic, while the REL Dept relied on source material from all of those disciplines to convey that Religion isn’t just dogmatic source texts, beliefs and actions as codified by participants nor is it the hierarchies assigned by colonialist scholars as outside observers. Instead, REL taught me specifically that through discourse meaning is collectively created and is directly relational to power and economies of power.

Without further elaborating on my theoretical takeaways (saving for a future blog post, of course) and sticking to the topic at hand, I wanted to provide some anecdotal examples of what I’ve personally experienced in the job market while listing “Religion, Social Structure, and Culture Studies” as my depth study on my resume. Of course there are always the typical questions related to participating in a particular faith, but in those oversimplified questions that contain preconceived notions of the value and applications of an REL degree there is an opportunity to express what I did learn in REL, how it’s applicable to the job world outside of academia, and why my degree specifically has prepared me to be a better candidate for open positions considering the remaining applicant field.

So were you going to be a preacher?

It’s the South, right? Your potential interviewer (if you choose to stay in the region) will likely be of an age where “Religion” specifically means Protestant Christianity, and to “study religion” means to them an academic track undergone by one who intends to be in a leadership position of a faith organization. There are two great silver linings to this question!

First, you get to explain the skills that you specifically learned in REL and how it applies to the position. In this interview for an inside sales position I was able to explain that I learned that people’s behavior can be influenced by language when you learn what motivates them. This likely did not come out as cerebral as I’ve typed here, but I was able to connect how a religious adherent like a preacher can get an entire congregation to behave a certain way by leveraging the language of that group and how in a sales position I could achieve the desired outcome (a sale) by speaking in and leveraging the language of potential customers. I explained I would use: sports metaphors for football fans, technical product knowledge for the gearheads, and aspirational affiliation (e.g. press, blogs, “influencers,” etc.) for those looking to connect the product and their potential purchase to their identity and concept of self (e.g. their personal or online “brand”).

The second great silver lining for this question is your opportunity to explain what a Religious Studies degree is in the 21st century. The hope is that collectively through a discursive process we can adapt the colloquial understanding of Religious Studies in the South to have a new meaning that furthers the idea that Manly Hall is not training preachers.

I see that you studied Religion, but this job is for Sales. How is your education relevant?

I love this one because it’s as if the Interviewer just walked into our trap. As an REL Major or Minor you will have the opportunity to explain that Religious Studies is first and foremost Interdisciplinary and has made you a well-rounded critical thinker. You could convey that in Religious Studies you learned that all questions and problems are nuanced, that direct causal relationships in human behavior are rarely provable, and to answer a question or solve a problem you’ve learned to dig deeper than what’s on the surface. I’ve touched on how that can be relative to sales above, and it will be your goal in the interview to relay what you’ve taken from your time in Manly from some of the best educators in the field and how it relates to the position you’re seeking. 

You “Liked” Siddhartha on Facebook and have a Religion degree, so I knew you had to be cool.

(Footnote: Before we go any further, if your Facebook account doesn’t have any type of Privacy Settings then everything is visible to all. Just remember that before you go applying for jobs.)

Not a question, I know, but an example of the 21st century job market. My current superior made this statement in an interview in 2014 for the position I hold today. I was able to tell her a tale of reading Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf in the late Dr. Murphy’s Existentialism class in college the same semester as I was taking a course on the narratives of the Bodhisattva with Dr. Schaeffer (who now works at UVa but who taught courses on Tibetan Buddhism when I was at UA), so the following summer I read Hesse’s Siddhartha. (Check transcript for continuity; dates may be off) Sometimes this quest for knowledge is admired in the non-academic world where so many applicants took a more calculated “career path” that never garnered true critical thinking.

A lot of Interview Questions can be a gauge of your personality. Employers aren’t always looking for specific competencies or skills you’ve learned in undergrad. They want to see those skills in action in a competent, manageable candidate that’s got a great personality. I know this because I’ve hired multiple employees and interviewed numerous candidates since graduating in 2007. I’m always looking for specific examples from the past and how they relate to future scenarios in the position for which I’m hiring. Below are some examples from recent Interviews, in July, that reference the undergrad experience:

I see here you have [XYZ Degree/Certificate/Qualification], what made you decide to achieve this qualification/degree?

What’s an example of your Lateral Thinking either in your current/past position, in college, or in your personal life? (Lateral Thinking is a problem solving skill that uses imaginative and creative ways to approaching problems, ideas, or outcomes. Think of it as a resourcefulness indicator.) 

How do you manage your time and/or prioritize tasks? (This can be either in your job, university, or personal life. Wherever it’s hectic, how do you manage multiple situations?)

Hopefully this helps in preparing you to A) expect certain questions relative to preconceived notions of Religious Studies, B) explain how Religious Studies can apply to the job world outside of academia, and C) be another successful student of the University of Alabama that chose to pursue an education in the Liberal Arts and Religious Studies, even though you may not have long-term goals in academia, because you understand that the job market is accepting of all types of degree earners with strong critical thinking skills.

“What Do I Talk About At the Job Interview?”

Photo of a job interview

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? Continue reading