History or Religious Studies?



9 comments
BY JOHN FEA

I have been counseling several former students recently about graduate school. A few of them want to study American religious history but are unsure whether to pursue graduate work in Religion/Religious Studies or American History. I have tried to explain to them that they could write a dissertation on American religious history in either field (depending, of course, on the program and the availability of an advisor in this sub-field), but their coursework, comps, methodology, and job considerations would be quite different depending on which kind of program they choose to pursue. I have also tried to get them to envision what kind of introductory college-level course they would like to teach regularly--a U.S. History Survey course or an Intro to Religion course (or something comparable). Most of them love American Religious History and have not considered that broad training in their discipline is usually in order if they want to land a job.

I know that our readership (and our contributors) include scholars and graduate students in both History and Religious Studies who share a research interest in American Religious History. I am curious to hear if you were faced with the same dilemma that some of my students are now faced with. How did you decide to go with Religion over History or vice-versa?

9 comments:

deg at: December 13, 2007 at 8:38 AM said...

Great questions, John. I'd ask them if they want to study religious history and if they can see themselves doing that 10 or 20 years from now. To be sure, that's a tough question for anyone at the entry level to answer (especially 22 or 23 year olds), but it might provide some clarity. If they answer yes, then the religious studies route may be the best way to go. If they answer no, then history (with a focus on religion) might be better.

Luke at: December 13, 2007 at 9:41 AM said...

I was also in this position as an undergrad. It can be tough to figure out how to proceed.

I would agree with Darren and also echo the point about methodology, but more than anything I would underscore the importance of the advisor.

Perhaps the best advice I can give (from my own experience) is to apply broadly for grad programs, see where the student gets admitted, find out how those programs deal with American religious history (and where students traditionally get jobs), and make the decision that way. That's more of a pragmatic solution and it might not answer the bigger question about what sort of training a student should pursue, but it can take some of the anxiety and pressure out of choosing a particular track.

Art Remillard at: December 13, 2007 at 10:15 AM said...

Indeed, I suspect someone could get hired in either department no matter where he/she did a graduate program. But I have bumped into some who would cringe if I called myself a "historian." So I can't see these folks hiring someone out of a religion program. And I suspect it could go the other way too. So perhaps, and I hate to sound crass, they should go where the jobs are. I'm not completely sure which would be better.

In any case, John, make sure to send your students to my conference this year! Your duo last year did outstanding.

Kelly Baker at: December 13, 2007 at 12:11 PM said...

I might agree with the "cringe" response Art describes. As someone trained in a religion department, I could be comfortable in a history department, but I would rather find my home in religion. I would also add to Darren's questions: are you committed to doing history for the rest of your life or might you want to dip in toes in more, comparative or theoretical work in religious studies? I think the best idea is to get your students to sharpen what they like the most about American Religious History to make the final decision.

Russ R at: December 13, 2007 at 2:27 PM said...

I went through this dilemma, and in hindsight worried about it far too much. My MA is in history and my PhD is in religious studies, though I took several courses through the history department, and my adviser had a joint appointment in history and religious studies. My first job was in history, I've taught American history surveys more than church history surveys, and have never taught a comparative religions course. My answer is, apply to both and chose the one that seems to have a healthy department and offers the most money. The only caveats to that are: 1) Despite all that's happened in scholarship in the last few decades, some history departments still don't quite know what to do with religion; 2) There are a lot more openings for people to teach American history (with specialization open) than there are for Americanists in religious studies departments.

Christopher at: December 13, 2007 at 4:22 PM said...

Thanks for the post. I'm currently enrolled in a MA program in history, but am debating whether to continue in history for the PhD or to switch to Religious Studies. I appreciate the input from everyone.

Rebecca at: December 13, 2007 at 9:34 PM said...

Interesting conversation. I graduated with my MA in history this past spring and am currently in my first year of a history PhD program. While my interest clearly lies in religion, I chose history because it seemed more broadly marketable as I can teach history courses and some religion courses too. But can someone in religious studies teach a basic history class such as a US survey or Western Civ? In addition, I am working with a historian whose research also lies in religion, so the history route seemed the best decision.

Amy at: December 14, 2007 at 6:30 AM said...

Follow the faculty! If you think that you could work in either field, the most important issue is to find the faculty you want to work with and then figure out if the program will support your interests.

MJZ at: December 14, 2007 at 12:32 PM said...

I'd be interested to know about cross-over in the job-market. How often do history depts hire religion PhDs and vice-versa?
I chose to enter grad school in history because of the conversations I wanted to have. I'd rather talk about industrialization and probate wills than deconstructing Buddhist texts and the ritualized body. But how would I fair in a job search for a religious studies job?

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