Exploring Graduate Programs Outside the Field of Religious Studies

Are there fields of graduate study or graduate programs that could result in interesting jobs for an undergraduate RS major?

Most of us suffer from a lack of imagination when it comes to thinking about what we will do with our lives after college. RS majors are no exception. So the idea here is to introduce you to a few graduate school options that you might consider–chosen in part for their popularity, ease of cross-over from RS, and contiguous relationship to religious studies.

It goes without saying that any of these could result in college teaching careers. You might pursue a masters or PhD in one of these areas; or do an undergraduate double major in RS and one of these other areas with the idea of moving out of RS at the graduate level; or establish an undergraduate major/minor combination that set you up for specific careers later. Internships, or summer or part-time jobs in related sectors or geographical areas are worth thinking about as well.

Public Administration (PA)–couple an RS major with a major, minor, or master's in PA and move into not-for-profit (NFP) administration. Couple this with language study and some overseas work experience to really provide you with an interesting career and professional edge.

Anthropology–study cultural or physical anthropology or archeology and move into government positions (US/other), cultural research, UN work, NFP (e.g. National Geographic), public education, or teaching.

Sociology–study social work, sociology of religious movements. Move into government or NFP agencies, or teaching.

Political Science–study international relations, global issues, conflict resolution, language study, area studies--move into State Department, NFP agencies, UN, or corporate work in an international setting.

Psychology–study social or counseling psychology, counseling--move into psychology, counseling, marketing and research, counseling, or managing a counseling operation/NFP organization.

Literature (especially nonwestern/ethnic)–study regional literatures and languages--move into teaching, consulting, or writing on various traditions or cultures.

Library Sciences–a master's degree in library sciences is an excellent career choice in the present information-rich environment of education, business, and public affairs. Move into a career as a special collections manager (in particular language, cultural area, or subject), corporate information resources staff person, consultant to libraries, or instructor in research-related areas.

Journalism–interest in religion, ethnicity, and politics is growing after the recent wars in the Middle East and 9/11. The demand for individuals well-trained in religion and culture, coupled with significant abilities at the written word, internships, international experience, and free-lance experience continues to grow.

K-12 teaching–study social sciences, history, geography, English or any other language--move into a career as a teacher at any level (at the High School level you'd have a greater chance to capitalized on you specialized skills and RS background). Coupled with language competence, your options here and overseas really open up.

Law--public service law–work for NFP organizations, tackle church/sate issues, ethnic/gender issues in government and NFPs or with any number of national and international organizations.

Medicine–range of options–go into any number of specializations, but with an RS background your further study of sociology of medicine, comparative philosophies of medicine; medicine, religion and psychiatry; biomedical ethics; or law and medicine are particularly rich.

Public Health–excellent choices here, especially when linked to area studies in RS and travel/language study.

Environmental Studies–as an undergraduate pursue a range of specialized programs/area studies (Middle Eastern Studies, Tibetan Studies)-then, linked with a science-based Master's in Environmental Sciences or a non-science based Environmental Studies program, you can move into careers as varied as government consultant, director of public projects, environmental education.

Marketing/Business/Management–especially in developing nations-your RS major, coupled with language study and a few business courses or an MBA would give you leverage on a range of interesting jobs.

The take-home message here is that you need to think imaginatively and creatively about how to bring your training in RS together with your aspirations and needs for further education and concrete experience. Discuss this with friends, those who hold the types of careers to which you aspire, your instructors, and career counseling staff. Inevitably, success in these career paths is going to require further significant study beyond the BA in religious studies.

How will graduate programs in fields other than religious studies look on a BA in religious studies?

Most graduate programs in the above fields admit majors from many areas, but they want to see several things: 1) solid grades/recommendations; 2) exceptional writing and analytic abilities; 3) evidence that the person has thought about why they did an RS major, and why they now want to make a jump to another program; 4) some indication of an interest in the area in which they plan to pursue study; 5) personal initiative; 6) some experience with the subject of the graduate program--travel; reading, courses; 7) and a series of good arguments about why the student can make the leap to the new field, and what the field gets out of having an RS major in it. Justifications are very important here. Applicants must argue that the major in RS was more than a high form of piety, or personal quest. Unless the case can be made that it was an academic program with an intellectual base and with significant content.

What could a person do to strengthen her or his application for and chances of acceptance into these sorts of graduate program?

There are at least seven things you could do.

First, do well in the major. All things being equal, a solid major (composed of solid, intellectually respectable courses) with solid grades (3.5 and up) from a well-regarded school puts you in a fairly competitive position. We know this because majors who leave our program and meet this profile have gone on to do well in religious studies and in other graduate programs and career paths.

Second, if you have some idea early about graduate school programs or career options you'd like to pursue, tailor your courses and experiences as an undergraduate to that area of interest. Example: If you have a desire to work for multinationals in Brazil, you would be encouraged to take (in CSU, Chico's religious studies program, for example) RS 132 Church and State in Latin America; a Latin American Studies minor; and summer internship in Brazil; and several course in international business. Better yet: double-major in religious studies and business. Another example: If you want to work with not-for-profits overseas with an organization such as Save the Children Foundation, pursing a double major in religious studies, social work, international studies, or business, along with significant public service, some international living, language study, and an internship with the organization would be helpful. Or, finally: Interested in Hmong culture in California? Study local Laotian and California immigrant culture, immigrant challenges to social and cultural integration, and public health, literacy, and economic issues related to this population. Further, take a few courses on Southeast Asian cultural traditions; do a paper/project on the Hmong; do some travel to Laos; pursue language study (federal grants available); join Model UN and represent Laos; work with a public health service working in inoculation programs of public health education in the target culture for a summer.

Third, if you have some idea about graduate school programs or career options you'd like to pursue, minor or double major or take a few classes outside the major that are relevant. A double major or a major with a minor in the grad area you hope to pursue looks very good–it shows foresight and makes your justification for the discipline shift that much more impressive.

Fourth, spend some time around students (graduate or undergraduate) in the area that you think you might like to pursue. Join clubs and associations. Job interview thorough these programs for information and practice.

Fifth, travel. Short-term travel or long-term residency internationally adds cachet to your application for grad school.

Sixth, get seriously into some contemporary language study-on-campus courses, intensive summers, study programs in a country where that language is native.

Seventh, do a relevant national internship (DC on the Hill, White House, American Anthropological Association, Organization of American States, The Herd Museum, the Museum of the American Indian, a national newspaper, network, or book publisher etc).

Finally, take this seriously–it won't do to try to pull a coherent life and career out of your back pocket. You need to invest time planning and executing the plan. It will cost many thousands of dollars to do this right. Think of these expenses as an extension of your college experience.

Joel Zimbelman,
Department of Religious Studies
California State University, Chico
Rev. 5/03