Milestones and Musings by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religionMy first doctoral student defended his dissertation this week. It was a milestone for him and for me. Colleagues – those who participated in the defense and those present when we emerged from our conclave – congratulated us both. One said, only somewhat jokingly, “Congratulations, mom.” I knew exactly what she meant.

This defense, out of sync with the usual spate of May and August completions, overlapped with admissions season and the tail end of next fall’s hiring. I’ve been immersed in applications from potential MA and PhD students. And just this week I’ve fielded emails and calls from three former students (other programs, other primary advisors) now interviewing, more and less successfully, for faculty jobs. 

I’ve had many chances to repeat to them and others the wisdom a mentor shared with me a decade ago when I was in their shoes: hiring is a fickle process. (I’ve said the same to students about doctoral admissions.)  Skill of course plays a part, as does having good advice and support. But it’s helpful to keep in mind the role of random luck: who serves on any given search committee, what order they read files in, whether they know (and either respect or can’t stand) the recommenders who wrote on one’s behalf, who is on leave when the department votes to make a job offer, who else is on the market that year, and so on.

But it’s not just chance.

Hiring patterns are not simply a matter of too few tenure-track jobs for too many good applicants. Prejudice matters.  Academia remains deeply, through unevenly, patriarchal, heterosexist, and racist, just like the society we live in. Advantages compound. Graduating from a prestigious undergraduate college makes getting into a top graduate program easier. Having a doctorate from a big name makes getting a tenure-track job more likely. Racial and class privilege smooth the way. On the flip side, doing scholarship that challenges the status-quo – politically, disciplinarily – makes things tougher.

For all these reasons, getting a doctorate in the humanities is not necessarily a good career strategy. I think about this when vetting doctoral applications. I think about it when undergraduates ask me about academic life. I think about it when increasingly panicky emails arrive: I’ve been on three campus interviews but no offers. What now? What indeed.

My student – now former student – starts a tenure-track job in September. His work, on a marginalized group and dealing seriously with gender and embodiment, is first rate. I’m proud of him – I meant every superlative in my recommendation letters – and pleased for him. At the same time, I’m concerned about others, both those who’ve finished and are getting nowhere and those whose admissions dossiers my colleagues and I will deliberate over soon.

What to do? Worry. Give candid advice when asked. And – this week at least – celebrate.

Kecia Ali is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). She lives in the Boston area with her family.

Categories: Academy, General


9 replies

  1. I often told students who told me they wanted to follow in my footsteps not to bother, as the academy would not reward their work if they did. I wonder if I should have been more encouraging. Sadly, my pessimism has been proved right.


  2. I applaud your achievement and strength, Kecia, to hold on in Academe and never doubt what you are up against. It makes your posts here all the more important. Perhaps there is no better place to teach the radical than on the Net. For one thing, you can engage students of all ages and walks of life from around the whole world, not just the privileged few who can pay those humongous university tuition fees.


  3. Brava to you and bravo to your student. While I was writing my dissertation on the plays about Cleopatra written between 1592 and 1898, I held a post-doc in a deanery. Among other things, I did a small salary survey for them. The lowliest male instructor earned more than the most august female full professor. Not much has changed, alas, in 40 years. Even though I left the academy, I’m still really glad I earned my Ph.D. in English, and I salute you and the guidance you give to your students. Teach them well!


  4. Honest but depressing. Thanks for writing this and for acknowledging serendipity. I have a friend who always says, “Success,” which, to him means accomplishing a lofty, concrete goal like writing a book or getting a doctorate, “comes from hard work, but wealth is the result of luck.” I look at job placement these days in many fields, but especially ones that are undervalued and that are hostile to women and minorities, the same way. But I still have to either do something beyond my bachelor’s degree or learn to be content with feeling like an underachiever when I compare myself to the peers I graduated with. Or stop comparing.

    Anyway, the tough job market for PhDs has had me reconsidering the value of education for years. There’s much out there I just want to know; working on a college campus and supervising grad assistants but not always knowing what they’re talking about has reinforced this desire. But the knowledge has a price tag–and I’m in debt for my BA as it is. The prospect of having all that knowledge, all that debt, and no better income than I had as a freelance writer is terrifying. I see only two ways to make it better: 1) stop the grade inflation and other coddling practices mentioned in the link (not necessarily a good career strategy), and 2) value the arts and humanities as a society. I don’t count on either happening anyway soon.


    • Thanks for all of these comments.

      Mariam, I wish you well in your decision-making. The one piece of advice I routinely pass on to potential doctoral students in the humanities is this: never pay to get a PhD. If someone won’t pay your tuition and a semi-livable stipend for five years, find something else to do. Now, there may be compelling reasons for someone to ignore this advice but I believe it is closer to universally valid than any other counsel I’ve heard. (Though I’m also partial to “Omit needless words.”)


  5. I do agree with you Kecia about not taking out loans, however, no major PhD program will be funding students to do work too far out of its comfort zone and my students at CIIS mostly are taking out loans to do work in Women’s Spirituality because they feel they need to do the kind of work that is not being done in other PhD programs.I’m not sure I would make the decisions they are making, but more power to ’em!!!!


    • Agreed, Carol – and here’s hoping that once they have doctorates, they will be able to find positions that both enable them to do their important work and to change things so that future scholars in their specializations will have more welcoming institutional homes.


  6. I am so sympathetic to the issues you describe here. On the one hand, there is no question that getting a PhD in the humanities is not, for most, a wise career choice. Yet there is so much work to be done, good and important work! And I worry that in our increasing focus on the job market and the necessities of professionalization – and I encourage students very strongly to consider these aspects in their decision-making and training – we are increasingly giving in to the logic of scarcity, performance, and success that we might want to reject in other areas of life. How to speak with a balanced, rather than a forked, tongue on these issues is a live question for me.


  7. This thought-provoking essay from the Chronicle of Higher Ed makes a different sort of case about race and graduate school:


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