Four Takeaways from the AAR / SBL Jobs Report

The American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature released a new report about the job market based on data drawn from the AAR/SBL job listings for the 2013-2014 academic year. The report builds on previous data that dates back to January 2001.

Graduate programs in religious studies and theology should hand this report to their incoming students. They should email it to everyone in their program. They should have a seminar on it for their first-year students. Make it required reading and spend an hour discussing it. Have the conversation.

Here four takeaways I got from the report.

1. We must redefine what success looks like for a Ph.D. graduate.


Generally speaking, success for a Ph.D. graduate meant a tenure-track job. On one level, that view is backed up in the report. 80% of the jobs listed in the SBL/AAR listings were tenured or tenure track positions.But when you look at who got the jobs, the numbers have an interesting ambivalence.

First off 90% of appointees completed their degree before they started their job. But what does that mean?

The first group of appointees to complete their degrees immediately prior to their start dates comprise almost one third of all appointees (32.7%). The typical candidate in this group would have interviewed in November of 2012, completed their degree in May of 2013, and started their appointment in July or August of 2013. Another 17.1% of appointees interviewed in the year that they completed their degrees, and 11.1% of appointees interviewed the year after they completed their degrees. Finally, the remaining third (34.3%) of appointees interviewed two years or more after they completed their degrees.

So, only about a third of the jobs went to people fresh out of grad school. The others all spent at least a year doing something else-either outside the academy or in some sort of “contingent” position.

This is the new normal. Most Ph.D.s will spend time bouncing around various positions before they land that tenure-track job. If you don’t get a job right out of grad school you have a better chance of getting one two years or more after you graduate. Success isn’t a tenure-track job, success is a job period. And we might not even be able to measure success until you’ve been out of grad school for 5 years. Why is this?

2. Teaching experience really matters.


The organizations have gathered data on the skills and/or experiences desired or required by hiring institutions since the 2001-2002 AY (Table 17), though unfortunately data are missing for the 2008-2009, 2009-2010, and 2010-2011 academic years. Holding a Ph.D., prior teaching experience, and interdisciplinary teaching or research abilities continue to be ranked highest among the twelve options.6 A majority of institutions required (59.5%) or desired (10.6%) candidates to hold a Ph.D. Almost half of hiring institutions required (29.9%) or desired (18.1%) prior teaching experience, while over one fifth required (9.7%) or desired (12.2%) interdisciplinary teaching or research abilities.

One reason for that 34% of appointees who had been out of grad school for two years or more may be the desire for teaching experience among hiring departments. Those years between graduation and tenure-track appointment are often filled with contingent teaching. Ph.D. departments that want to produce competitive candidates should be intentionally building constructive teaching experiences and pedagogical development into their programs. This does not mean that graduate students should be overloaded with teaching a ton of courses on their own from the very beginning. “Teaching experience” can be an excuse to dump heavy teaching loads on under-prepared and over-worked graduate students. Rather, it means that teaching will be part of a broader professionalization of graduate students.

The data on “interdisciplinary research” is a red herring. As the footnote in the report smartly notes, “the date include no clear definition of ‘interdisciplinary, so the meaning may vary widely.” Indeed, “interdisciplinary” has become a vacuous buzzword in many settings. The takeaway here is not that candidates should be more “interdisciplinary” but that departments should stop putting “interdisciplinary” in their job ads as a meaningless place holder or a euphemism for “we don’t really know what we want.” Candidates should just do interesting and cutting-edge research.

3. You better be able to work in a public institution.


Two of the key findings of the study:

  • The number and share of positions at private not-for-profit (private) institutions in the U.S. has steadily abated since the 2010-2011 AY, while the number at public institutions has remained steady during the same period.
  • Mid-size, private research institutions and the smallest special focus institutions are the locus of declines, whereas the number of positions at private and public Master’s institutions has risen for the past two years.

Mid-size private research institutions, like Emory, are often the places with the best programs in religious studies. Yet, their students are more likely to end up in a public institution, like Alabama. If this trend continues and the number of positions in public institutions continue to grow while private institutions hire less, it could have important repercussions for how we do religious studies. What I do here at Alabama, for instance, looks very different from what many of my colleagues do at private seminaries and religious colleges. More jobs at public institutions means that candidates who approach religious studies as an academic discipline within the secular public university will have better chance at a job. That will have an impact on what directions our field goes methodological and theoretically.

UPDATE: 11/18/14 12:27PM

A friend posted a smart critique of takeaways 1 and 3:

“I’m not comfortable with the way you’ve phrased takeaway #1 or #3: you continue to maintain the very unhelpful status quo idea of “success” as a teaching position. You revise expectations “downward,” I suppose, but you don’t look outside of teaching at the college level as any form of “success.” I think this expected outcome, and the way that graduate programs indoctrinate students into this form of reproduction, is one of the most myopic and harmful aspects of PhD programs in our discipline. We need an entirely different kind of subject formation that has a wider vision of “successful” outcomes.”

I agree that we have to broaden outcomes beyond just teaching positions. However, this report has nothing to say about that. One takeaway then, is that a report like this is too narrow to address the larger question of what counts as success for a Ph.D. graduate. 

4. Course load data is useless.


My biggest critique of the report is that it relies on course load data to measure the teaching work positions require.

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This course load data shows that contingent faculty are teaching more than their tenured and tenure-track peers but it doesn’t tell us how many students any of these groups are teaching. Rather than measure course load, it would be more useful to also measure credit hour production. Are those six courses taught by contingent faculty filled with 100 students, while the tenured have four and a half seminars of 15 students? We don’t know. Course load doesn’t tell us who is really making the donuts in the department. For example, I had a 4/4 course load last year as a contingent instructor but I only had a total of about 100 students. Meanwhile, one section of introduction to religious studies taught by a tenured faculty member had 150 students on its own. See, credit hours and enrollment matter.

I’m lucky.


My own personal takeaway from the report is that I am both lucky and typical. I am incredibly lucky to have gotten a job in a year when job listings were down. I am incredibly typical because it took a year of heavy teaching as a contingent faculty member to  gain teaching experience that made me a strong candidate.



A Response to My Call to Abolish Conference Interviews

AAR_LogoBelow is a response I received to my last post calling for an end to the conference interview and the Employment Center at the AAR Annual Meeting. It comes from Ryan Woods, a graduate school colleague of mine and currently the Associate Director of Employment Services at the AAR. I post it here with his permission.

Disclaimer: what follows represents my own opinions, and in no way represents any official positions adopted by AAR/SBL.

Dear Mike,

As the Associate Director of Employment Services at the American Academy of Religion, I read your post with great interest. As a veteran job seeker, I sympathize with many of complaints you ventilate. The onerous costs that candidates must assume to interview at the Annual Meetings represent a moral quandary. Your suggestions for reducing these burdens deserve careful consideration as AAR seeks more effective and equitable ways to serve our constituents. However, to make meaningful improvements, we need to disentangle problematic AAR policies from the larger landscape of employment practices in higher education. In particular, progress depends on distinguishing systemic issues from those specifically generated by Employment Services and recognizing the limits of reforming measures.

It is a travesty that, as you observe, “the constituency within the AAR with the least resources, the least funding, and the least institutional support is required to attend the annual meeting with no promise that it is even worth their while.” Indeed, I read an article just this morning that inventoried the high costs of attending the Annual Meetings, and the Chronicle recently ran a feature on how the exorbitant fees of attending a professional meeting of sociologists had deterred members from participating. Another blogger advanced a spirited proposition to abandon conference interviews altogether. Horror stories of unsupported graduate students and penniless adjuncts maxing out credit cards in the faint hope of securing a position on the tenure track have become staples in this literature. But their narratives no longer occupy the periphery; they have come to be emblematic of the bleak realities that a growing population of candidates faces.

I know these difficult circumstances from personal experience. Last year, I was on the market for a second year. Marginally employed, I was not planning to deliver a paper or participate in a panel at the Annual Meeting. Because I had defended my dissertation earlier that spring, I was no longer receiving institutional support to attend conferences. The later I waited to register and make travel reservations, the higher the prices climbed. Financial exigency finally made the cost prohibitive. Consequently, I decided against renewing my membership or registering for the Annual Meeting. Just three days before the Annual Meeting, an employer contacted me for an interview. I informed him that I was no longer planning to travel to Baltimore, but could arrange to meet on campus for a preliminary interview (fortunately, the campus was conveniently located less than an hour from my parents’ house). We convened shortly after Thanksgiving weekend on a windy, leaf-strewn Midwestern campus for a half-hour interview. A few months passed, and then the search chair rang again, this time to inform me that I was a finalist for the opening. In the end, I wasn’t offered the position. But in the process, I came to appreciate the sober calculations that many job seekers and institutions are making this time of year. Given these challenges, many rational actors – like myself – will select from among the products offered by the AAR based on both fiscal and practical considerations. An increasing number of both employers and candidates may choose to arrange interviews outside the Annual Meeting.

In the light of these experiences, I think we should reframe the discussion. AAR and SBL are not so much “charging admission” (since one is not formally required to purchase any of their products) as offering a range of services from which students can select. To understand how and why students select from among these options, it is useful to distinguish the various services offered to employment candidates. There is membership, first of all, which entitles one to view employment listings. Because most tenure-track offerings in the field are advertised on the auxiliary employment website (although it is noteworthy that academic job wikis have eroded this monopoly to an extent), this is a valuable service for job seekers. Membership costs $55 for both graduate students and those who make less than $20,000. This is comparable to dues assessed by peer societies such as the American Philosophical Association or the American Historical Association. To interview onsite at the Annual Meeting, one has to be there. That means that candidates must register for the Annual Meeting, make travel plans, and reserve lodgings. These procedures are connected, since the AAR and SBL negotiate discounted hotel rates based on the number of registrations they have in hand. The size and timing of the registration cohort therefore determines cost. Consequently, the longer a candidate waits to register, the higher the charges rise, for the same reasons that hotel costs and flights tend to increase the longer one waits to make reservations. Finally, for a fee of $25, candidates may register with the Employment Center, which allows them to post their credentials online for employer review and communicate confidentially with employers. None of these services is required, and the first two services (membership and registration for the Annual Meeting) are not exclusively associated with the Employment Center. This invites selective consumption. One might become a member, for example, but choose not to attend the Annual Meeting, arranging for Skype interviews. Alternatively, a member might attend the Annual Meeting but choose not to register with the Employment Center. To be sure, each decision has consequences. Not renewing one’s membership means missing out on other membership benefits as well as potentially missing a job listing. Missing the Annual Meeting entails foregoing opportunities for networking and scholarly conversation as well as interviewing in person. A member who doesn’t register for the Employment Center forecloses on an avenue for exposure: a potential employer might review her credentials and request an interview onsite. As with deciding whether to attend a job fair in a distant city, these deliberations will always involve an aleatory element. Many calculations must be made well in advance of the meeting, with limited resources, and without assurance that these investments will pay dividends.

Given the costs associated with conference interviewing, one begins to wonder why constituents continue to pay for any of these services. If the logic is so irresistible – if “moving candidates to a central location is wasteful, foolish, unnecessary, and [sic] puts an undue burden on job seekers” – then why don’t more candidates and employers embargo the Annual Meetings? For that matter, why do employers at all learned societies continue to host interviews at their annual meetings and conferences in the age of Google Hangouts? In a time when universities are increasingly wary of their bottom lines, withdrawing from the Employment Center would seem an obvious means of saving money. Candidates could likewise circumvent the costs and game the system by cutting out the intermediaries and communicating directly with prospective employers. Although the inertia of tradition might influence the continued demand for centralized interviewing, it seems inadequate to explain why employers cling to pipe-and-drapes cubicles. Likewise, the observation that “hope springs eternal” seems not to cast much light on candidates’ behavior. Candidates are as aware as anyone of their meager prospects as they populate the flickering pixels of registration forms with their Visa card accounts.

The reason, I think, lies in the intangible benefits afforded by attendance and participation in the Annual Meetings. Employers and candidates prefer to exchange ideas and interview in person at a central location for the some of the same reasons they prefer to teach in person rather than online. Delivering a paper, networking with other candidates and employers, attending employment workshops – all these benefits are hard to communicate virtually. An employer can’t catch a candidate’s presentation if the candidate isn’t attending. Employment seekers like to ask colleagues at a university reception about departmental ethos or gossip about the search chair’s previous appointment with a recent acquaintance from a panel discussion. Most candidates and employers agree that viva voce interviews provide better venues for assessing the “fit” between institutional needs and candidate dispositions than mediated conversations. And as long as employers are attending the Annual Meetings on the university’s dime, it’s convenient for them. So long as those preferences exist, there will always be some demand for onsite interviews.

You maintain that AAR should stop paywalling the advertisements, dismantle the Employment Center at the Annual Meetings, and – failing those two prescriptions – waive registration fees for students and recent graduates (within the past two years). The first proposal has been under discussion for a while. Some other learned societies (such as APA and MLA) do not make membership a prerequisite for viewing employment listings; others (such as AHA) do. To be clear, though, the question is more complicated than just freeing the advertisements. Membership confers privileges aside from access to employment listings. We think it is valuable for anyone in the field of religious studies – not just job seekers – to be affiliated with AAR/SBL, for reasons that transcend the search for employment. But we might be able to do more. A colleague recently floated the “drug dealer” model of membership for graduate students in their first year of studies: for this trial period, one’s membership is free, followed by the resumption of a normal fee structure. It might be useful to waive membership fees as a “graduation present” to newly minted PhDs. Perhaps AAR could further discount the student rate, and lower the corresponding dues for the lowest income bracket in our membership. Personally, I would consider jettisoning the Candidate Registration fee ($25) and make it a membership privilege. The other two prescriptions are less feasible. As long as employers and candidates prefer to attend annual meetings and interview in person, the Employment Center is here to stay. Moreover, there are some advantages to retaining a centralized apparatus with standardized policies and reserved spaces for interviewing. If you’re going to have onsite interviews, the best protection against intoxicated committee members questioning candidates in bedroom suites is to provide a public venue governed by a single code of conduct. Still, it might be worthwhile to consider levelling the playing field for virtual interviewers by providing Skype services in the interview booths. Suspending registration fees for the Annual Meeting is the least negotiable proposition. Because registrations for the Annual Meeting give the AAR bargaining power with hotels and convention centers, waiving these fees might end up costing candidates even more in the larger picture. Even here, though, perhaps we could consider adjusting the financial incentives to be less punitive or discounting registration rates to candidates. It would be worth scrutinizing.

Much of this depressing state of affairs lies beyond the scope of AAR’s purview and capacity to change. As you know well, an anemic job market is not unique to the field of religious studies. In fact, it is much worse in other disciplines. A disproportionate number of candidates vying for a dwindling number of full-time positions means intense competition. Institutional bureaucracy and sclerotic hiring procedures extend timelines for contacting candidates, disadvantaging them in the registration process. Employers sometimes insist on personal meetings, or treat virtual interviewers as second-class. Although AAR cannot turn back the tide of these changes in employment practices, we can listen to our constituents and continually reassess our services in view of their needs. Perhaps we can consider reducing some fees for candidates, or collapsing some services into others. We can offer more useful employment workshops. Maybe we can provide financial incentives to encourage institutions to contact candidates earlier, to assume some of the costs of candidates being onsite, or to offer greater consideration for those who cannot interview onsite. But we can only help to improve the experience of job seekers if members and institutions demand it and participate in the process of reform.

Thanks for opening the conversation with your article. It’s a timely issue to consider. But weighty problems are best discussed over drinks at an AAR reception. See you in San Diego, I hope.



Full Circle: Staying at the University of Alabama and Visiting the College of Charleston

They put a ring on it.

So, some big news (that I’ve already announced on Facebook and Twitter and that you might already know about). I have accepted a tenure track job as Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. I’m incredibly happy and excited about this position. As Russell McCutcheon wrote at the department blog:

Although he will certainly augment our current strengths in Asia and America, Prof. Altman will primarily be offering courses that fulfill the Religion in Conflict aspect of our curriculum, focusing on such topics as colonialism and cultural contact.

Please congratulate Dr. Altman when you see him and consider enrolling in his class this Fall

REL 370.002 “From Columbus to 9/11: Empire and the Construction of Religion”

The academic study of religion emerged during the age of European empire, instituted itself in the United States during the Vietnam era, and took on a new role in the wake of 9/11. This course will explore the role of colonial contact and the encounter between Europe and its others in the construction of religion as a category in the West. As a famous scholar once put it, “religion” is not a native category. So, whence religion? We will attempt an answer through a study of colonialism in America, Africa, and Asia.


I’ll be here in Tuscaloosa for the future, but next week I get to revisit the past. I’ll be giving a talk at my alma mater, the College of Charleston on April 8. It will be a great chance to catch up with the faculty that got me interested in the study of religion to begin with. Besides the public lecture, I’ll also get to talk with the students in the senior Capstone Colloquium taught by Zeff Bjerken. Prof. Bjerken taught the senior seminar course that really got me excited about going to grad school when I was at C of C. It was in that class that I first read the work of my now colleague and department chair, Russell McCutcheon, and it was the first course that got me started thinking about religion and conflict. Things have come full circle now in a very weird way and I can see how that course in that department paved the way to this job in this department.  I’ll also get to hang out with Elijah Siegler’s Asian religions in America class. It should be a full trip but a really fun one. I can’t wait.

charleston poster