The American Academy of Religion(AAR), its flagship professional society, has expanded tenfold in the past half century from a fledgling association of mainline Protestant divinity school professors and college chaplains to a current membership of over 9,000. The Society for Biblical Literature (SBL), its sister organization, has also grown substantially during the same period.
Furthermore, the inclusion of academic courses focused specifically on religion, or sophisticated topics centered on religion, is no longer the exception but the rule in state university systems, which out of concerns about church-state conflicts long resisted the trend.
In response, the number of PhD-seeking students as well as PhD-granting institutions of higher learning has increased slowly, but steadily during that time period. The events of September 11, 2001 not only sparked a surge of academic curiosity and curricular concentration concerning Islam, but also shook up the entrenched “secularist” mentality in higher education, leading indirectly to a renewed appreciation for scholarly expertise in all matters religious.
On the other hand, the brutal recession that befell America in the fall of 2008 had a negative impact on this growth trajectory (as it did for the majority of other specialties in the arts and humanities), while seeding a widespread perception that the bubble had burst once and for all. As one despondent ABD doctoral student put it to me not too long ago, “I know when I’m done there will be nowhere for me to go, because there aren’t any jobs any longer.”
As someone who was personally and intimately involved in the building, leadership, and development of the AAR from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s as well as graduate programs at my own institution, I was suspicious of this attitude. So I decided to examine this perception, matching it against any data I might find (the AAR/SBL’s excellent site compiling statistics on job placement is a good place to start) as well as a long train of anecdotes and observations about grad students I currently know, and have known over the years.
I discovered that the common plaint that “there are no jobs” is not only overstated, it is slightly misleading, especially when one compares today’s circumstances with previous years, or eras.
So I am here summarizing what may be considered common fallacies about the academic job market in religion and theology, which can be further highlighted by what seem like counterintuitive facts, observations, and opinions which I offer.
Fallacy No. 1 – “There Are No Jobs.” According to AAR data, during the hiring year 2012-13 there were actually 391 jobs listed with the society’s employment service. That compares to 385 jobs listed in 2005, indicating not only a slight increase over 10 years, but one that has nullified the effects of the recession. In addition, the same AAR data show that there were only 1.78 registered job-seekers for every position advertised – hardly a raw statistical mismatch.
Nevertheless, the number of jobs is down significantly from the “peak year” of 2007. The post-911 blip has faded, and job opportunities are for the most part comparable to where they were in the early part of the last decade.
Fallacy No. 2 – What Jobs There Are, Are Only Adjunct or Part-Time. Again, the AAR reports that virtually all of its listed positions are full-time, and the majority of them are tenure-track. The much ballyhooed “adjunctification” of higher education is quite real. American Association of University Professors (AAUP) polls indicate that three-quarters of all current teaching positions are so-called “contingent” ones (i.e., adjunct), but other data raises the possibility that the exploitation of part-time instructors, particularly by public institutions, is a long-term trendline, not a recent one.
Fallacy No. 3. You Have to Get an Ivy League Ph.D. to Get a Job. Although a breakdown of hiring as correlated with degree-granting institutions is not a category surveyed over the years by the AAR, anecdotal stories and testimony from a number of doctoral advisors suggests that is no longer the case, if it ever was. The largest complaint that departments that actually hire PhDs in the study of religion seem to have is that candidates are either over-specialized, or too idiosyncratic in their self-definnition, to be serious candidates for employment.
Most employers want people who are broadly trained with a well-articulated research and teaching specialty that comports with conventional curricular categories and rubrics. They also want candidates who are prepared and motivated to teach undergraduates. Whether they a doctorate from Harvard or Hoodat University is only relevant when everything else is equal.
Fallacy No. 4. Interdisciplinarity in Your Curriculum Vitae is a Major Plus. PhD-granting universities sometimes stress interdisciplinarity in the preparation of candidates, primarily to maximize available faculty resources, and students frequent choose a similar path, if allowed because of the “kid in the candy shop” effect when one arrives at a large research university. Since the higher education and “core curriculum” reforms in post-secondary learning a quarter century ago, interdisciplinarity has become the watchword.
The problem, however, is that while “ID” makes more and more sense for undergraduate learning, it is becoming less and less important for hiring, particularly in religious studies, even though virtually all schools claim to value it. While 30 percent of employers considered interdisciplinary teaching or research “desirable” in 2001, only 12 percent did so in 2013, with the figures declining virtually every year over the 12-year period.
As one of my colleagues in the field who had recently done hiring explained to me, “interdisciplinarity can be a red flag. It signals to the administration that you don’t necessarily fit in our department, and department identity is crucial in these times of tight budgets. We really want you to learn to be interdisciplinary after we hire you, not before.”
Ironically, the data tend to show that the more prestigious “research universities” want their candidates to be “interdisciplinary”. The typical four-year college or university is not that interested in interdisciplinary hiring. And it is in the latter bailiwick where most of the new postings appear.
Fallacy No. 5. You Are Much More Likely to Get A Job Offer If You Fit in An Affirmative Action Category. Actually, the statistics reveal the opposite. A recent employer survey shows that preference for candidates with “affirmative action eligibility” has declined from 26 percent in 2002 to 4 percent in the most recent academic year.
Fallacy No. 6. Most of the Jobs Are in Biblical and Islamic Studies. While these two key AAR job categories were dominant seven years ago, the number of positions advertised has declined significantly since then. Hebrew Bible and Religions of the Ancient Near East declined 39 percent, Islamic Studies 53 percent. and New Testament and Christian Origins a staggering 169 percent. That lined up with an overall decline of only 25 percent for all listings over the same interval.
Job offers in history of religion, another recent staple of the field, sank 64 percent. Meanwhile, traditional Christian subfields, long in eclipse, indicated the greatest relative gains. Listings in Christian Studies increased 157 percent, Systematic/Constructive Theology 57 percent., and Moral Theology 150 percent.
Fallacy No. 7. Academic Employers Care Most About Years of Teaching Experience. Candidates with significant teaching experience obviously are more competitive in the job search than those without it. However, that has always been the case in my forty years of experience in the field. What is different now is the emphasis the job selection process places on publications, even among so-called “teaching colleges” and non-research universities. In the most recent survey 90 percent of employers expected a minimum of 1 referreed article published, and 10 percent were looking for a book or monograph.
One question is why if the ratio of employment seekers to jobs available is not as great as many assume, why do so many PhD candidates not get academic jobs? No precise research has been undertaken to answer this specific question, but one can easily surmise from both the data and anecdoatal evidence.
The first conceivable answer is that many candidates have areas of specializations or professional profiles that are not easily “employable.” Even when I was going for my own doctorate many moons ago, I recall colleagues who were so enamoured with certain subjects or esoteric research preoccupations that they did not bother to ask whether such expertise mirrored any actual academic slots. The situation has not changed very much since that time.
A second supposition dovetails with what general studies of lifestyle preferences among millennials suggest, namely, that young men and women under 35 overwhelmingly refuse to live outside of major urban areas. This so-called “new urbanism”, favoring high-density cites on the East and West Coasts as well as certain new “cool” metro areas like Denver-Boulder, is at immediate loggerheads with where the jobs are located.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which tracks locations of jobs in all fields, the vast majority of available positions in religious studies are in regions that fail to meet millennial lifestyle expectations.
The BLS uses a mathematical algorithm known as “location quotient” to identify where the highest and lowest concentration of religious studies jobs can be found. The whole state of Kansas comes out on the high side.
The good news is that the “job drought” in religious studies is more of an urban legend that many realize. The bad news is that if you want a job, you are probably going to have to live somewhere you don’t particularly like.
And you are going to be a lot more strategic and “resume-conscious” if you don’t want to end up working after graduation at Pizza Hut.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. His detailed profile can be found on his personal website at www.carlraschke.com.