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Prepping for jobs in unexpected places: graduate students in religious studies

From left: PhD students Jonathan Peterson, Khalidah Ali and Nika Kuchuk have organized seminars and conferences for fellow graduate students (photo by Diana Tyszko)

Public and private sectors seek cultural and religious expertise

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.

That's why all doctoral students in the University of Toronto's department for the study of religion must now take a series of professional development seminars offered by their department.

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

With globalization bringing increasing demand in the public and private sectors for people with cultural and religious expertise, Kloppenborg said the department wanted to ensure graduate students are prepared for the opportunities ahead. The seminars cover everything from writing grant applications to working on interview skills. While the sessions 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.

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 offered job market tips and advice on how to compete for grants and research funds, as well as the opportunity to network with senior colleagues.

Select conference papers will also 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.”

Academic opportunities for graduates in religious studies are diversifying, 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.