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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Bad News for Religion Ph.D.’s…and Yet…

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

Here’s some bad news that no one finishing a Ph.D. in religious studies will find as all that surprising: the job market isn’t improving.

At least, it’s not better in the US, but I have no reason to think it’s better in Canada or the U.K., and is likely worse—given the huge number of religious PSE institutions in the US, an enterprise that dwarfs anything similar in other countries.

Still: The chatter around AAR/SBL employment interview zones is scarier than it needs to be. In particular, there is the Big Numbers Scare. “Fifty people applied for that job.” “A hundred people applied for that job.” “A hundred and fifty people…” and so on.

So here’s a little something to remember. You’re never competing against all the other applicants. Not even against most of them. Why not?

1. Most of the applicants will take themselves out of the running at the first pass of the hiring committee. Trust me: Lots of people apply for jobs they couldn’t possibly get.

2. So of the 100 applicants for the job, maybe 20 are even plausible. Of those, 10 will disqualify themselves pretty early: They don’t have the PhD finished and aren’t even close. Their dissertation is in a subject unlikely to interest this committee. They haven’t published a thing. They are the wrong religious affiliation for the job. They have a good, but not great, academic pedigree (that is, by the standards of the hiring institution).

3. Now we’re down to 10. So do you, in fact, have a PhD in hand, or can you be sure to have it in hand when the job starts? Do you have a PhD with a fine school and/or an excellent advisor? Do you have a dissertation and, ideally, courses and comprehensive exams, that will position you to complement the department’s needs for both research and teaching? Have you at least one published article in a reputable journal? If those boxes are all ticked, then you’re probably on the short list.

4. And the rest is not really up to you. You can prepare and deliver a fine candidating lecture, and you certainly should: jobs large and small have depended on the presentations given by the candidates. (It really isn’t all about research, despite what you may think.) You can be wise, witty, and wonderful in conversation. (Ditto.)

But at the end of the day, it will come down to “fit”—that horrifyingly vague term for the complex chemical interaction that is departmental deliberation about job candidates.

And there’s nothing you can do about that. Just be yourself, don’t try to guess what strangers are thinking while you’re interviewing and then try to “game” them, and trust God to guide the process and you. (And, if you don’t believe in God . . . well, two out of three.)

So are you thinking about a PhD? Then keep thinking about it. Don’t be dismayed by the numbers, by the big numbers. You don’t need twenty jobs. You need just one. And to get that you need to emerge first out of, say, half a dozen. And that is thinkable, right?


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