Tuesday, November 3, 2015

On Supposed Tips for LDS Graduate Students

A recent blog post over on the ironically named "Faith Promoting Rumor" blog purports to give advice to prospective graduate students in "in Religious Studies (broadly conceived), the Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Early Christian Lit., Late Antique, Patristics, etc." This has caused some concern in certain quarters, though perhaps not for the reasons someone might think. I have a few comments to make in general and some on the specific recommendations made.

In the first place, the recommendations are made by someone who writes anonymously, apparently with no qualifications whatsoever. How would she know what a graduate school is looking for? Has she even been to graduate school? Anonymous recommendations on the internet should have no credibility. If someone is not willing to sign their real name to something, why should anyone trust it?

There are some clear indications that the author of the blog post does not know what she is talking about. Thus it is the product of some ignorant ideological biases.

I write this post as someone who successfully was admitted to graduate school, successfully completed graduate school and has successfully gotten a job in academia, who advises prospective graduate students, who has sat on graduate degree committees and on committees that award graduate school funding, and who has actually talks with people who are involved in graduate school admissions.

Committees are not monolithic entities. They are composed of individuals who come to the committee with their own ideas, qualifications, and biases. All it may take is one wrong person to change the entire committee. For example, I once sat on a committee where one individual insisted that money be given to a candidate who did not even meet the minimal qualifications for it. Sometimes success or failure is simply a matter of who is sitting on the committee.
  1. The first piece of advice is to avoid Studia Antiqua. Studia Antiqua is a student journal. The papers are usually suggested by professors who thought that the paper was promising. The papers are peer reviewed and authors work with a faculty mentor and a faculty editor to get the paper ready for publication. Our anonymous author thinks that this is a bad thing, saying: "I would avoid it." After all, who needs intensive help on your writing or experience with the academic publication process? I looked through the past issues of Studia Antiqua and see that many of the students who published in its pages in the past not only made it into graduate school but now have academic jobs. Obviously, this is the kind of thing that our anonymous author wants to avoid.

  2. The second and third pieces of advice deals with being a professor's research assistant or co-authoring a paper with a professor. "Avoid this," our anonymous author advises. I have not had many research assistants but half of them made it into top graduate programs. If that is a consequence that you want to avoid, please do so.

  3. See point two.

  4. The fourth piece of advice has to do with starting a personal blog. Don't do this. If you need any reasons not to do it, look no further than our anonymous blog author. I have seen many graduate students sink their careers with blogs.

  5. The fifth point advises students against working with FAIR or Interpreter. Our anonymous author advises: "DO NOT DO THIS." Actually, FAIR prefers to work with people who already have finished their schooling, like Michael Otterson, Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, and so on. Surely that must be disreputable company. The last graduate student I knew of to publish with Interpreter just got a tenure-track job. If you do not want that to happen to you, then by all means avoid Interpreter and FAIR. There are publications that will seriously damage your job prospects. I have known individuals whose involvement with Sunstone and Dialogue have cost them jobs that otherwise they would have gotten.

  6. The last piece of advice has to do with accepting jobs on academic projects. Our anonymous adviser says, "DO NOT DO THIS unless you really, really need the job." Well, yes, someday you probably will need the job. I am reminded of a certain non-Mormon academic who really, really needed the job. She took a job doing research on one of these Mormon projects. Later she got a job at a certain Ivy League school and now runs one of the top graduate programs in the country. Going to "work with [Mormon apologists] on their latest project on something that only deals with LDS matters" certainly hurt her job prospects.
So our anonymous author advises:
Listen, friends, we know that you want to help your faith community, we know that these various opportunities and venues are incredibly enticing (and let’s be honest, flattering), but if you are applying or will be applying to grad school, you simply must watch out for number one. You are number one. Not the big name apologist, not the security of your faith community (it will be just fine!), not anyone else but you.
There is a word for this attitude, and it is selfish. What does it profit someone if they gain their degree and lose their soul? If personal integrity and your covenants mean nothing to you, you can follow the advice of someone who not only will not even sign her own name to her opinions, but will not even take her own advice. This individual is well-meaning but not necessarily well-informed. Somehow people who don't follow her advice have managed to get into graduate school, to earn degrees, and get jobs, sometimes precisely because they did not follow her advice.