Tips on landing a job in religion, #1

So you managed to get into a graduate program. Now what? As a continuation of the Tips on applying series, we’re asking recent PhDs and ThDs in religion and related disciplines to share their experience in preparing for and succesfully making the transition from student to faculty. We’ve posed a few questions, and you may have some of your own to ask. Perhaps our respondants will hang around to reply. No promises, though.

First up, Lincoln Blumell’s advice to LDS Graduate Students in Biblical Studies and cognate fields is as follows:

In this extremely difficult job market you will not get a job (permanent or tenure track) unless you have completed a PhD. Do not spend your time doing extra teaching in the spring or summer semesters but use those four months to finish a chapter in your dissertation. In the short term it will be more difficult but in the long term it will pay big dividends. Likewise, if you can go a semester or two without holding a Teaching Assistantship do it in order to get the dissertation completed. There are way too many people with ABD status that, to put it bluntly, will never land a good position until they complete the dissertation. Likewise, my advice is that you should not take more than 5 or 6 years to finish your PhD otherwise potential employers will want to know why you have taken so long to finish and they may have suspicions about whether you will be able to meet deadlines as an employee.

At the PhD level if you are not writing papers that are first presentable at a conference (i.e. AAR, NAPS, SBL, etc.) and then publishable in either peer-reviewed journals or a reputable volume of collected essays then you seriously need to ask yourself what you are doing. I strongly recommend that anyone serious about getting a job should have 3 or 4 conference presentations under their belt at the time they complete their PhD and at least 2 published articles. When I began applying for jobs in the fall 2008 (start of my last year of my PhD) I was fortunate to land a position. This only happened because my PhD was almost completed and I had about 6 or 7 articles published. In fact, many of the places I had applied to made me provide them with a PDF copy of what I had completed on my PhD to ensure that I was actually nearly finished. *FYI: Most job postings (permanent or tenure track) in Biblical Studies and cognate fields will usually get between 60 and 80 applications (sometimes over 100 applications!). So you have to do all that you can to make sure that you are marketable and attractive.

(3) LDS Publications and Apologetics:
If you want to do LDS apologetics or present or publish in LDS venues by all means do so. However, there is a potentially negative side to this. What I mean here is that the time you spend doing LDS things takes away from time that could have been spent on the dissertation or on articles that could have been presented/published elsewhere (remember, the dissertation should trump everything else as a graduate student). The reason this potentially could be a problem is because virtually everywhere except for a few places these publications will not be taken as seriously and will not be counted the same as other articles – say in JBL for example. If you only do LDS publications then you are only making yourself attractive/marketable to either BYU or CES. On the other hand, if you are publishing elsewhere you have a much wider appeal and are still attractive to BYU and CES. I am not trying to discourage graduates students from doing LDS scholarship; I just want graduate students to know that with the limited time you have you must make decisions that will make you the most attractive to a broad audience. There is only one BYU and there are potentially thousands of other institutions where you could work. Keep this in mind as you decide what projects you will take on as a graduate student. As a graduate student I focused exclusively on non-LDS related publications. This landed me a position at Tulane and now I am at BYU, so go figure.

(4) Should I try to hide the fact that I am LDS to potential employers?
In job interviews at most places I would personally recommend not disclosing that one is LDS (BYU excepted). This is not just because of potential biases against the LDS faith, which are certainly out there in academia, but because in job interviews you want the potential employer to focus exclusively on your scholarship, research, and teaching abilities and not be distracted by other things. In fact, if one were Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or otherwise I would give them the same advice, especially if they were interviewing at either a public university or a university with no religious affiliation. During job interviews I never made it a point to go out of my way to state that I was LDS. Having said that, if a potential employer would have asked if I was religious (which in most interviews would have been inappropriate) without reservation I would have let them know that I was LDS. At my previous job when people found out that I was LDS I could tell that there were a few raised eyebrows at the start but once they saw that I was a competent faculty member no one seemed to really care.

(5) How did your LDS background factor in when applying for jobs and landing your current job?
Initially my LDS background had no bearing in applying for jobs. I did not do any of my degrees at BYU and so although I was LDS I felt no great desire to teach at BYU. All the same, I certainly did not rule it out either. When I started to apply for jobs in the Fall 2008 there were only about 6 or 7 jobs in all of North America in the area of Early Christianity/New Testament that were permanent positions at research universities. I landed four interviews and fortunately in one of them I got the job (At the time BYU was in a hiring freeze so although I had been in touch with people at BYU there were no job openings). During my first year it came to my attention that BYU was able to hire and I applied for the position. It was a better position than the one I had (in terms of salary, research opportunities, etc.) and I now had a desire to teach in a LDS environment. I have been very happy with the position thus far and have really enjoyed my short time at BYU. I look forward to teaching in an LDS context but will continue to publish mostly in non LDS venues because of my research interests (i.e. Papyrology, Christian Egypt, Ancient Epistolography).

(6) Final Thoughts:
As BYU is gradually lifting the hiring freeze there will be a number of job openings in the future in Biblical Studies and cognate fields. In fact, I suspect that there is going to be significant turnover of faculty in the Depart of Ancient Scripture within the next 5 to 10 years as nearly half the faculty is approaching retirement. A number of people reading this entry will probably be interested in the positions. To put yourself in a competitive position (academically speaking) for these openings get your dissertation completed and get your research out in the open though publications.

Good luck with graduate school and as I was warned at the start of my graduate studies at Oxford: “Don’t fritter away your time!” Make the most of your graduate experience and focus on those things that will get you a JOB!

11 Replies to “Tips on landing a job in religion, #1”

  1. Hi Lincoln. Thanks for this. If I understand correctly, you’re in the Ancient Scripture Department at BYU. Is that right? If so, would you mind commenting on how publications are valued in the department. My sense is that teaching is the primary focus, and while a publication or two might be helpful for continuing status or promotion, what’s done in the classroom is on the forefront of people’s minds.

    Likewise, my advice is that you should not take more than 5 or 6 years to finish your PhD otherwise potential employers will want to know why you have taken so long to finish and they may have suspicions about whether you will be able to meet deadlines as an employee.

    Part of this may vary by institution or department. In the departments I’m familiar with, for instance, I don’t know anyone who finished in less than 6 years. I think I read an AAR publication a little while back claiming an average of 7 years according to their calculations. In any case, I think the general point is well taken–taking too long to finish up can look bad when on the market.

  2. In response to the question about publishing in the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU I would say that it is becoming increasingly valued. As part of my hire I was given the distinct impression that I needed to pursue a research agenda measured by publications, which by the way I am anxious to do. To back this up BYU has been very supportive thus far with providing funding so that I can present papers at scholarly venues. I will be presenting in Geneva next month at the Congress of Papyrology and in Atlanta in November at the SBL. However, having said that, I have found a very strong emphasis on teaching in the Department. While I would say (based on my limited experience to date) that teaching is the most important, there is definitely a move toward more emphasis on publishing though not to the determent of teaching. Also, as part of this move my impression is that there also appears to be a push to publish outside of just LDS venues.

  3. Thank you for responding. It’s good to know that Religious Education is so supportive.

    I also want to pose a question I know many LDS graduate students have thought about. Perhaps you have some insight on this.

    The recent hires at RelEd have been trained academically in disciplines more relevant to religion. This seems to be a trend likely to continue. How do you think this new generation will change the identity of RelEd?

  4. Many thanks for sharing your experience and advice, Lincoln.

    I often fantasize of getting something published in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. I see that you have several pieces there. Besides producing solid MSS that they would want to publish, did you do anything special to accomplish that? Or did you just send in your work cold?

  5. Lincoln or others, I would like to second g. wesley’s question. I publish a lot in LDS journals, but like g. I have sometimes fantasized about publishing in a non-LDS journal. What is the process like? Does not having an academic affiliation matter? What have your peer review experiences been like?

    Actually, I would think this is an important enough question that someone at FPR (or a guest) should make it a separate post. I know I would be very interested.

  6. Yes, Kevin. Someone should take this up in a post. It would be nice to hear from those who have been through the peer review process in Biblical and related studies.

    My sense is that the basic process is not really all that different from, say, Journal of Mormon History. The journals do not make it a point of asking for academic credentials. Though it is no doubt generally assumed that a potential author has them. During the review process, as I understand it, manuscripts are judged strictly on their own merits by ‘blind’ peers. To get to that point, however, I think the manuscript is first screened by someone like the general editor of the journal. That person would have the author’s contact info, of course, and could find out and/or infer (from glancing at the submission) whether the author is credentialled or equivalent. It can’t hurt to know (someone who has a connection with) that person.

  7. Thanks, Lincoln, for sharing your experience.

    I have heard that the Religious Ed college is only giving out one-years these days to try people out before giving them BYU’s version of a “tenure”-track appointment. Did you receive a CFS (“tenure-track”) appointment, or did they make you go through the one-year process too? Either way, can you comment on whether or not this seems to be the (troubling) way of the future?

  8. With regards to the publishing issue, I should say that there is some discussion about “quantity” vs. “quality”. Some schools want 2-3 published pieces in top tier journals and a monograph in order for an assistant prof to be a series contender for tenure. Others want several published pieces in respected places, but are less concerned about where they appear. “Top tier”, of course, depends on one’s field (or subfield), but usually these journals have acceptance rates of 15% or less and are blind peer reviewed. At some universities, so I’ve heard, contributions to edited volumes or published articles in second tier journals won’t even be counted toward tenure.

    Since tenure packets are due at the beginning of the 5th year, this might mean publishing 1 or 2 articles based off the dissertation during the first couple of years on the job; turning the dissertation into a book during the first 3 years with the book coming out in year 4 or 5; and doing another article or 2 (on a new topic) during year 4 and 5.

    This is, admittedly, a practical approach with tenure in mind.

    There are other issues, though, that relate to the quantity vs. quality debate. The argument for quality is that people are busy and might only give you 1 chance. If you publish something that isn’t quite ready or good, others in the field might not read things you come to write in the future.

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