“What Do I Do With My Degree in Religion?”: Finding a Job in National and International Development
A degree in religion opens many opportunities for jobs outside or parallel to academia, especially in a field like national and international development. While searching for such jobs—let alone securing one—can seem a daunting process, I come bearing good news: a student of religion is a great fit for the development field. These employers value the fact that religious studies is multidisciplinary—incorporating fields like history, literature, political science, and anthropology. Graduates have a solid understanding of the pluralistic and multicultural world we live in, not to mention the diverse groups present within our nation itself. Religious studies also teaches strong critical thinking, reading, and writing skills—essential tools for managing programs, writing grant proposals, and working with a wide range of clients.
I do not make these statements out of hand. These views stem from my own experience, both inside the academic world, where I recently finished a PhD in Islamic studies, and outside it, as I have six years of experience working in international development. In fact, my path has repeatedly swung between these two worlds. After receiving my BA, I spent two years in the Peace Corps, eager to contribute my skills to the developing world, but also planning to pursue graduate studies in the future. When I finished an MA in Middle Eastern studies in 2006, I immediately moved to Washington, DC, to look for work in the development sector. I secured a position at the Academy for Educational Development (AED, but now called FHI-360) working on a Saudi scholarship program, writing grants for USAID and State Department programs, and helping run a website on global education. My position brought me in touch with many other organizations as well, including educational nonprofits, the World Bank, for-profit development groups like Chemonics, and government branches such as the Department of Education and the State Department.
Positions within these different organizations are well within the reach of students of religion. Based on my experience, here are a few tricks and strategies for finding such jobs and hopefully landing one of your own.
1) Build Your Skills Both Inside and Outside the Classroom
In addition to the valuable skills gained in the classroom, there are many ways to supplement this education and make yourself more attractive for development work. First, service opportunities like tutoring, reading to children, participating in an environmental project, or building homes for the needy serve as an easy entry point into the field of development. Each of these examples contributes directly to the community, either by supporting individuals or the community as a whole. Second, joining teams and clubs on campus is not only an important recreational and extracurricular activity, but also an opportunity to take leadership roles, apply for funding, manage money, and coordinate events. These skills are all highly valued in development work, which incorporates teamwork, grant writing, budgeting, and project management. Third, if possible, study abroad or learn another language. Whatever your language proficiency and whether you travel near or far, for a few weeks or an academic year, that experience broadens your understanding of the world and demonstrates your willingness to explore new environments and cultures.
2) Tailor Your Resume
The most important step when applying to development jobs (or any job, in my opinion) is to tailor your resume and cover letter accordingly. Show what you have done with your degree in religion, and how it relates to the position at hand. For instance, comment on your writing and research skills, highlight your leadership roles (however large or small), and explain why development is important to you. Discuss any grants or scholarships you have received, especially if you received one based on an essay or written proposal, as this can mirror the grant writing process. If relevant, note your language skills and your international or cross-cultural experience. Your goal, after carefully reading the job announcement, is to clearly demonstrate how your skills and experience match that particular job opening.
3) Know Where to Apply
When considering where to apply for jobs in national or international development, so much depends on your own personal interests. That said, let me offer some examples that can get you going and also lead you to other websites and organizations. Career websites like Indeed.com and Idealist.org provide access to a broad range of positions in the field of national and international development. In addition, individual organizations that specialize in development include, but are certainly not limited to: Chemonics, DAI, FHI-360, the Institute of International Education (IIE), IREX, Mercy Corps, Save the Children, the World Bank, and World Vision. Check out their websites and job openings to see what looks interesting to you. And if the job hunt goes slowly, do not be afraid to consider an internship with one of these organizations as well. While it is not the best option financially in the short run, I know many people (myself included!) who have gotten full-time jobs through their internships.
In terms of the federal government, USAjobs.gov is the largest site for job openings, while career.state.gov offers opportunities for student internships with the State Department in DC and at embassies abroad. If you are particularly interested in international development, consider a job at USAID or volunteering through the Peace Corps, a two-year commitment. The US Foreign Service, the corps of American diplomats at the Department of State and at US embassies around the world, also permits one to directly engage in international issues, including politics, economics, public diplomacy, and more. Entry into the Service requires an application and also passing a test.
Your degree in religion can lead to a wealth of positions, both inside and outside academia, and this article focuses on the latter. Fields like national and international development value your diverse skills and experience, and present a wide range of organizations and positions. If working in development interests you, continue to build your skills, look at different companies’ programs and projects, and then tailor your resume to the openings that interest you. Best of luck in the job search!
Tuve Floden is an independent scholar and writer, who currently resides in Algiers, Algeria. He has a PhD in Islamic studies from Georgetown University and can be reached through his website tuvefloden.com.