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Department for the Study of Religion helps doctoral students prepare for changing jobscape

Public and private sectors seek cultural and religious expertise

Nika Kuchuk, Khalidah Ali, Jonathan Peterson standing outside on campus wearing winter coats

PhD students Nika Kuchuk, Khalidah Ali and Jonathan Peterson. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

When opportunity knocks for PhD graduates in religious studies, it’s as likely to be organizations trying to understand conflicts abroad or lawmakers assessing domestic policy as it is a traditional academic career.

Globalization brings increasing demand in the public and private sector for people with cultural and religious expertise. To respond to these and other changes in the career marketplace the Department for the Study of Religion has taken steps to ensure graduate students are prepared for the opportunities ahead.

Graduate Spotlight

Read more about our graduate students and graduate education in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

It is now mandatory for all doctoral students to take a series of professional development seminars offered by the department, covering everything from writing grant applications to working on interview skills.

While the seminars still deliver the fundamentals needed for academic careers – teaching, research, publishing, securing grants and competing for faculty positions – it is also recognized that students could just as easily find opportunities with government agencies, NGOs or the private sector, working in areas as diverse as journalism, law and health care.

We want to give students an idea of what kind of options they have and all of the possibilities out there.

“There are more places to go as a graduate, and that’s why part of the focus of our seminars has been on the job market beyond the academy,” says Professor John Kloppenborg, chair of the Department for the Study of Religion.

“We want to give students an idea of what kind of options they have and all of the possibilities out there.”

In addition to seminars, the department offers hands-on opportunities for doctoral students to design and teach their own courses, team up with faculty mentors and organize events, such as a recent graduate conference on South Asian religions organized by PhD students Jonathan Peterson and Nika Kuchuk.

The conference brought together graduate students working on religion in South Asia in a variety of disciplines. The sessions included a professionalization lunch that addressed job market tips and advice on how to compete for grants and research funds, as well as the opportunity to network with senior colleagues. Furthermore, select conference papers will be published in the department journal – a crucial aspect of building an academic resume.

“I found that having conversations with students who are working in entirely different areas of South Asian religions, and being challenged on how your research fits, was by far the most useful thing about the conference,” says Peterson, who is currently leaning toward an academic career.

“The kind of conversations you have at these conferences spark ideas that eventually go into your work,” says Kuchuk. “And you have fabulous exchanges that will forge ties that last well beyond graduate school.”

“Alt-academic” options growing

Academic opportunities for graduates in religious studies are diversifying as well especially for those who want to work in different parts of the world, says PhD student Khalidah Ali who helped design and organize graduate seminars with Assistant Professor Laura Beth Bugg. An expansion in the field of Islamic studies, for example, is creating opportunities in unexpected places.

“I was recently in Turkey, and they are investing in Islamic studies, including offering scholarships and funding,” says Ali, who wants to become a professor and will be teaching her own course next semester. “It’s exciting to see them looking internationally for graduates to work there and support their programs.”

But with non-academic – or as many prefer “alt-academic” – options growing in importance, the department wants to ensure its graduate students have the skills to adapt.

“We do a disservice to our students if we don’t prepare them to work in a landscape that is rapidly changing,” says Bugg.

“We don’t expect everybody who graduates with a PhD is going to end up in an academic job.”

The professional development and career preparation initiatives in the Department for the Study of Religion are supported through the Milestones and Pathways program in the Faculty of Arts & Science.