Mark Tonelli

Assistant Professor of Music at Millikin University

Job-Market Diaries: A Religious Studies Professor

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Here is the latest column in our series of Job-Market Diaries, in which Mark Tonelli, himself an assistant professor, interviews new faculty members about how they found their full-time teaching job. This month he talks with a scholar in religious studies.

  • Name: Laura E. Alexander
  • Institution: University of Nebraska at Omaha
  • Position: assistant professor of religious studies, and the Goldstein Family Community Chair in Human Rights
  • Responsibilities: Research and teaching in the area of religion and human rights, specializing in religious ethical thinking and issues of human rights, just war, immigration, and the nation-state.
  • Start date: August 2017

Describe your background.

Alexander: I went to the University of Virginia for my doctoral studies, having completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in religion, as well as having taught overseas and worked in refugee resettlement through two “service year” programs. I strongly recommend service years to students who can do them — they provide excellent job experience and, in my case, significantly shaped my academic and humanitarian commitments.

At UVA, I completed a Ph.D. in religious ethics with a dissertation on religious ethics, just war thinking, and the principle of “responsibility to protect.” During my doctoral studies, I taught and TA’ed courses and interned at two administrative offices. I also gave birth to two children, which slowed my progress somewhat, but also helped me focus my time (i.e., I had to get work done during the work day or it wasn’t getting done at all).

After earning my Ph.D., I worked at the university in two administrative positions, as a senior academic adviser and lecturer, and then as a career adviser.

What types of things did you do to prepare to teach full-time in academia?

Alexander: UVA provides an excellent balance of teaching and research for doctoral students. Those who are coming out of the program are well-prepared to teach at R1 universities, non-R1 state institutions, liberal-arts colleges, or community colleges. I’m grateful for that. I did the usual teaching and research expected of a grad student, and I sought out some special teaching opportunities in areas of my particular interest.

Within the first year or two of my doctoral program, I got involved with a book-project seminar related to religious thinking about immigration, which has met for years at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting. That involvement has borne fruit in a lot of ways: It inspired some of my own research, gave me a chance to co-chair the seminar (service to the profession), and, most recently, I agreed to serve as one of the editors for a second edited volume based on papers written for the seminar.

In my case at least, the administrative work I did at UVA also proved important. It gave me a varied set of skills and experiences so that I felt I would be able to find fulfilling work in higher education, even if I didn’t end up on the tenure track. Because of the somewhat-unique nature of the position I’ve just been hired for, it also proved to be an asset in my tenure-track search — rather than the liability I assumed it would be.

Between holding administrative posts and having children in daycare, I’ve had to get much better than I was — as an early graduate student — at keeping a calendar with clearly delineated times for research, course planning, meetings, and so on. That may not work for everyone, but it has been helpful for me as I prepare for a faculty job with multiple responsibilities.

What would you have done differently to prepare?

Alexander: I would have read more broadly in the field if I could have managed it. It’s easy as a graduate student to get bogged down in literature in your particular area of study, and to some extent that’s unavoidable. But now I’m keeping up more with book reviews in major journals in my field, arguments over methodology in the area of religious (especially comparative religious) ethics, and discussions of pedagogy and research practices. There’s only so much any one person can do, but I wish I’d been engaged more in discipline-wide debates and conversations as a graduate student. That kind of reading helps a job seeker, I think, to be able to present oneself as a fellow scholar, not as a desperate or naïve student.

I did have excellent preparation as a teacher from various sources, and I would encourage graduate students and other job candidates to seek help from your university’s teaching or faculty-development center — both to improve your teaching skills and to figure out how to develop and articulate a teaching philosophy. The Center for Teaching Excellence at UVA was a wonderful resource for research-based best practices in pedagogy. And the center employed me as a graduate associate for a year, so I really got the benefit of their work and knowledge.

What do you think helped you get your current job?

Alexander: My research and teaching record must have been acceptable to the search committee. But what’s different in some ways about my job search is that the administrative work I’d done also helped my application. The University of Nebraska at Omaha has a unique type of faculty position called a “community chair,” and I'll be holding the Goldstein Family Community Chair in Human Rights. The work that I’ll do for that part of the position requires significant community outreach and connection. It helped to be able to show that I know how to manage a calendar, interact with university leadership, bring people together around innovative projects, reach out to alumni and community members, and connect students to academic and career opportunities. I was also able to demonstrate that I had kept up, at least to an extent, with research and teaching while doing full-time administrative work, which I think helped show that I could handle the demands of the job — though I'll still have to prove myself over the next few years!

I also followed the “rules” for job applications: I worked extremely hard on my application materials, checked everything carefully for typos, developed well-written (I hope!) teaching and research statements, researched the departments and universities I was applying to, etc.

The very first question the search committee asked me during my on-campus interview was, “What do you know about our university and department?” They quite explicitly wanted to check that candidates had done their due diligence. In an academic job market like this one, following the rules is not going to get every candidate a job. I’m obviously very lucky that this particular job came up at this particular time. But following the rules does help.

What advice do you have for academic job candidates?

Alexander: Besides the above, the best advice I can give is to prioritize — not just in the job market but in life. Especially having a young family, I had to make decisions all along the way about how to balance my academic interests and my hope for a faculty job with my commitment to my spouse and children. I can trace the beginning of my seeking out opportunities in administration to the birth of my first child, because I realized then that I wasn't going to be able to (or perhaps didn’t want to) prioritize getting the tenure-track job above everything else. I didn’t want to move 4 or 5 times, never be at home, etc.

So I began to develop administrative skills in order to have an option other than the tenure track, if that didn't happen or if, for instance, it required too many geographical moves.

I even turned down an offer for a postdoc that I would gladly have taken if it didn't mean moving at least twice (for the postdoc and then the next opportunity). I only applied for jobs in areas/cities where my spouse could reasonably find a job. I did hope for a tenure-track job and feel both very lucky and very excited about my new role, but I was also prepared to find ways to do fulfilling work on the administrative side.

For those whose highest priority is getting a faculty job, I say go for it. If you have other competing priorities, having a plan and finding some different options is really helpful. Alt-ac positions can be interesting if you want to stay in higher ed, or you might have opportunities in your field outside the university. Whatever it is, it’s good to think about these things during graduate school, before the intense pressure of the academic job search hits.

It’s also possible to network in a way that helps your job search without feeling icky about it. The Chronicle has had some helpful articles on this topic recently. I didn't fully realize it at the time, but going to that first meeting of the immigration seminar at AAR and being willing to get involved with that group was a means of networking that has done a lot for both the quality and the quantity of my work.

Reading other scholars’ work and responding to it — whether through an article, a book review, or an email — is a form of networking. I got one of my graduate internships simply by showing up to an event and talking with someone who then turned out to be hiring. Plus, I really do enjoy connecting people with other people, so it feels good when I can introduce one of my friends to someone I think they may find interesting, and that builds up goodwill among all of us.

Academic work is already a conversation among scholars — which means that networking can be just another way to continue that conversation, and enrich it, through verbal, in-person, and online exchanges. I find it enhances both my scholarly work and my career to think of myself as always involved in such conversations and to welcome them.

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