“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.

Aim High…?

jobtalkI was at one of the field’s doctoral schools a while back, to give a talk, and heard from a couple sources — both grad students repeating what they’d been told as well as from a faculty member — that the primary purpose for students to be enrolled in graduate school (or perhaps at that particular one) was “to write a field-changing dissertation.” Sure, being professionalized as a grad student, such as accumulated publications of your own and gaining teaching experience, can be important but, or so it was claimed, that can distract from your primary purpose: to write a field-changing dissertation.

I admit that I found this rationale a little odd. Even risky. Continue reading

Call for Participants “…But What Do You Study?”: A NAASR Workshop on Succeeding in the Job Market

dogMichael Graziano is an instructor of Religious Studies at the University of Northern Iowa.

If the phrase “academic job market” makes you feel like the picture above you’re not alone. There’s no shortage of posts, essays, tweets, and columns dispensing advice on the job market: what to study, how to shape a CV, and what to say in a cover letter. The rules—both written and unwritten—can seem inscrutable. That’s in part why, for the second year in a row, NAASR will be hosting a no-cost workshop addressing the employment concerns of early career scholars as part of its 2016 Annual Meeting alongside the AAR/SBL in San Antonio. Continue reading

Historic Artifact? An Open Letter to Department Search Committees from 1997


The following (co-written with my then co-editor at the now defunct Bulletin of the Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, the late Tim Murphy), first appeared as an open letter in our inaugural issue (26/1 [1997]) and was then reproduced as the appendix to chapter 6 of The Discipline of Religion (2003).  Though many things about the academic labor market may have changed over the past 20 years (e.g., many universities have moved to online application systems, complete with PDF uploads and automated emails to applicants, making the mention of self-addressed postcards an historical relic), it is re-posted here in its original form since, in large measure, the topics it addressed have — sadly — not changed much at all.

Given the characteristics of the current North American job market in the humanities and social sciences, where each year the number of qualified candidates far exceeds the number of tenure track openings, search committees sometimes fail to follow reasonable advertising and hiring procedures. In so doing, they increase not only their own workload but the workloads of all those who apply for positions. Overly detailed application requirements, coupled with vaguely defined job advertisements, suggest that search committees often do not define their departments’ needs before venturing into the job market. A casual survey of current job descriptions will suggest the manner in which candidates are sometimes confronted by virtual wish lists that few, if any, actual applicants could ever satisfy. Continue reading

Come One, Come All?

gonefishingsignOccasionally I see a job ad, in our field, that has an open rank, stating that people at different career stages/ranks are invited to apply, or an ad so general that I’m not sure what the search committee is wanting.

These ads strike me as rather problematic, for a few reasons. Continue reading

Scholars or Colleagues?

craftI had the good fortune the other day to go up to the University of Chicago to lead a workshop in their Divinity School’s The Craft of Teaching series. While there I met with some old friends, schemed on a project tor two, and presented a paper and participated in a discussion with about 25 people on teaching the introductory course (almost all of whom were current MA or PhD students). Of course I had to eat too and so I went out to some nice dinners with a couple different groups of people and it was there that some of the really interesting conversations took place.

Among the questions that I was asked one evening was one concerning whether early career scholars, who are about the go onto the job market, should have an active social media presence, whether that means being on Twitter or blogging…?

I’ve been a Department chair for 10 years now and have been in on the hiring of many people, so I’ve seen lots of C.V.s over the years, and — like a lot of topics — I’ve got an opinion on that one. Continue reading

“Nobody’s Gonna Go Out With Me…”

onthecouchThis blog was started in our Department back in May 2012, anticipating the 2012-13 academic year’s lecture series that had four different guests all focus on the relevance of the Humanities — a national debate here in the US for decades but one that was obviously heightened in the face of the 2008 economic collapse both here and abroad. The Department, under then Chair Ted Trost, decided to tackle this head on. And so I started posting periodically on why I think the Humanities (or, more broadly, the Liberal Arts) remain relevant. Continue reading

The Practical Humanities


Did you see this recent post from the former CEO of Seagram Corporation entitled “Business and the Liberal Arts”? In it he advises students to pursue a major in the Liberal Arts rather than “pragmatically oriented majors” such as Business or Computer Science. He explains,

For all of the decisions young business leaders will be asked to make based on facts and figures, needs and wants, numbers and speculation, all of those choices will require one common skill: how to evaluate raw information, be it from people or a spreadsheet, and make reasoned and critical decisions. The ability to think clearly and critically — to understand what people mean rather than what they say — cannot be monetized, and in life should not be undervalued. In all the people who have worked for me over the years the ones who stood out the most were the people who were able to see beyond the facts and figures before them and understand what they mean in a larger context.

He further describes the adaptability that comes from “discovering how the world works” and emphasizes the need to adjust as technological innovation makes some training obsolete very quickly. Continue reading

“You Just Watch Me!”

My undergraduate degree was in what my university (Queen’s University) called Life Sciences–what others might have once called pre-med. Many of us wrote the MCAT (as I did) but not all of us got into medicine (as I didn’t, but as my roommate did). In our first year, we predictably took courses in Chemistry, Biology, Physics (each of which had its own three hour lab too, of course), Calculus, and Psychology–the last being an elective but everyone pretty much took it. In other years we enrolled in such courses as Organic Chemistry, Genetics, Biochemistry, Histology, Abnormal Psych, Anatomy, Statistics, Brain and Behavior, Physiology, etc. I would imagine that many of my classmates who, like the vast majority of us, didn’t get into medicine, have ended up in one of the many adjacent fields–such as going on to do a Master of Science degree in Microbiology (“micro” for the initiated), or eventually going into, say, Pharmacology–either to do research, work for a drug company’s marketing division (as one friend did after getting his Ph.D.), or owning your own pharmacy (the route taken by another good friend from my Life Sciences days). Continue reading