Religious Studies major Abby Matt sat down with the department’s first Ph.D. graduate, Jason BeDuhn (1995) to talk about what it is to be a professor of Religious Studies.
Abby: What led you to comparative studies of religion?
Jason: My interest in the comparative study of religions has been motivated from the beginning by an interest in human culture, and how religion is a component of culture that gives people an overall context of meaning and purpose within which other choices and circumstances are dealt with.
Abby: What do you know now that you wish you would have known earlier? How is your job as a professor different from what you previously expected?
Jason: College and university teaching involves all sorts of things besides teaching and discussing the things that really interest you. It involves lots of bureaucratic busy work, committee meetings, university projects, and an increasingly unsustainable workload. As a grad student, I looked forward to a profession that had three months off from daily responsibilities in the summer; I didn’t realize that you had to work pretty much around the clock, late into the night, during the school year. So, contrary to public perception, college professors work just as many hours a year as any 9-to-5 employee, but it’s all concentrated in a 9-month period. Finding time in all that for the research component of one’s profession is a real challenge.
Abby: What is the most satisfying aspect about being a professor or even just studying religion?
Jason: I’m in it for the research and get the most satisfaction from that. Teaching is what I do to fund the research, but it’s also good for research in crucial ways. Research can be very specialized, and no one will read it unless you connect it to broader questions in the field, and teaching helps you remember that larger context of your work. It helps you figure out how to connect and communicate what you know, and how to convey the importance of what you have discovered. And the questions and connections students bring forward help to stimulate my thinking and lead me to new ways to look at the material I work on.
Abby: Tell me about one of your greatest accomplishments regarding religious studies.
Jason: So far, what I think I’ve managed to do is get Manichaeism (a dualistic religious movement founded in Persia in the 3rd century c.e.) included at the table in discussions of the history of world religions and comparative studies of religion. It isn’t left out the way it was when I started.
Abby: What advice do you have to undergraduate religious studies students?
Jason: In terms of a career, religious studies is a relatively small, highly competitive field. Not every college or university has a religious studies program that might employ you; but they all have history programs and psychology programs, and so on. So, if you’re thinking about an academic career, double-up religious studies with another field. Get a master’s degree in something that nicely complements religious studies, and that gives you options for a Ph.D. that might incorporate both, which in turn gives you more career choices. But, of course, religious studies applies in all sorts of professions other than academics: in governmental and NGO work, in business, in journalism, in psychology and social work. The list goes on and on. You have lots of options for applying your religious studies B.A. and shouldn’t think that it’s academics or nothing.