Navigating a portfolio career amid multiple crises

A lot can be said about labelling something a “crisis”. A crisis can be personal — a breakup, bereavement or terrible illness, for example — or it can describe something more structural or systemic, such as the crisis of climate change or the global Covid pandemic. It’s important to acknowledge this complexity, but there are also lessons here for emerging scholars who are finding their feet amid multiple crises.

Throughout 2019, I was already experiencing multiple personal crises, which were exacerbated when the UK finally went into lockdown in March 2020. The irony is that, since then, I have gradually managed to find meaning, purpose and job security through my portfolio career at the intersections of religion and social justice. Here are three lessons from my training as a sociologist of religion that helped me get to where I am now.

Lesson #1: It’s not about you, but it’s also not not about you

Hindsight is everything. I was awarded my PhD in August 2015, and I spent the next few months trying to secure an academic post. I applied for more than 40 jobs in the three months after I was awarded my doctorate. I carefully identified and went for jobs that I did qualify for, and tailored each application meticulously and painstakingly.

Within those three months, I got shortlisted for only one post but failed to secure even that at the interview. After that experience, I got more desperate — here I was, with a doctoral degree I was immensely proud of, yet saddled with a mountain of post-doctoral debt and seemingly zero job prospects. Several job rejections later, I fell into depression.

Ironically, what got me out of depression was not only therapy, but a key insight from a sociological classic I read early in my PhD. In The Sociological Imagination, C Wright Mills (1967: 5, 8) wrote: “Perhaps the most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure’.” In other words, we need to understand “the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals”.

What was the historical setting of academia that shaped the course of my PhD? A British Academy report in 2019 provided one compelling answer — that Theology and Religious Studies was on the brink of “disappearing” from British universities. In other words, I had entered an academic field that had scarce prospects for postgraduate posts. But this problem wasn’t universal in academia. In the arts and humanities, for example, we were told that the Classics had successfully managed to reverse their fortunes as a discipline.

It’s beyond the scope of this blog to lay out the reasons for this. The point is that my inability to secure an academic post after getting my PhD was not a personal failure — there were deep historical and structural forces at work that constrained the opportunities and choices for many, many TRS PhD holders.

Yet it is not this insight alone that changed my trajectory. Another sociological rejoinder, by Mitchell Duneier (1994: 149) in his sensitive monograph Slim’s Table, also gave me realistic but solid encouragement — sociologists should not let our bread-and-butter perspectives on structural constraints deny “the possibility for an autonomous human being”. My joblessness was therefore not my fault, but this did not mean that I lacked the ability to take charge of the aspects of the situation that I did have control over.

Lesson #2: Any act that is consciously intended to transform your surroundings is an act of design

The insights from Lesson #1 enabled me to apply some important things I learnt as an ethnographer in a new way. I started treating the job market as a field. I used snowball sampling techniques to ask sympathetic contacts out for coffee and a chat about the state of the job market in activist and academic sectors.

I started with friendly faces I’d personally met whilst doing my PhD, who were now thrilled that I had finally passed. They then put me in touch with other interesting people who were receptive to quick 30-minute chats — especially if I was the one buying coffee whenever I could afford it. I’d make my own scratch notes later which, as an ethnographer in my new fieldwork “project”, I’d code for myself.

I didn’t see any of this as a waste of time — by this point, I’d already written enough futile job applications to not see personal journaling as counterproductive. Talking to other people and engaging in constructive self-talk were thus conscious acts of design to transform my situation realistically.

Lesson #3: Know your enemy, know the terrain, and know yourself

The triple formula — know your enemy, know the terrain, know yourself — might be familiar to those who have read Sun-Tzu’s Art of War. I’ll be honest — I haven’t. I came across this framework during my training as a social justice activist in Malaysia, years before pursuing my PhD. During the dark and difficult months in 2019 and 2020, I found resonances between this formula and the lesson of reflexivity as an ethnographer.

In other words, it wasn’t enough to do an external audit of the landscape of opportunities — or the lack of them — before me in the UK. I also needed to understand my own strengths and weaknesses, and my dreams, hopes and values. I devoured multiple self-help books. And I finally decided to get therapy after my traumatic family experiences in 2019. All of this helped. A lot.

I can’t pretend that luck and coincidence did not play a huge part in where I am now. But, as a sociologist of religion, I am now finally finding my full potential not through a traditional academic pathway. Rather, I am harnessing all my skills — as a journalist, musician, activist and playwright in Malaysia prior to my PhD, and as an academic scholar of religion in the UK — to work on climate justice, alternative Islamic Studies, online teaching in Religious Studies, and sociological research into minority religions and alternative spiritualities. At the moment, this combination of projects is my dream come true.

Shanon Shah is the Director of Faith for the Climate, Senior Deputy Editor of Critical Muslim (the flagship quarterly publication of the London-based Muslim Institute), Tutor in Interfaith Religions at the University of London’s Divinity programme, and a researcher at the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements (INFORM).

References:

Books:

Mitchell Duneier, 1994, Slim’s Table: Race, Respectability and Masculinity, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

C Wright Mills, 1967, The Sociological Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Websites:

The British Academy report on the state of TRS: https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/news/theology-and-religious-studies-risk-disappearing-our-universities-says-british-academy/

Critical Muslim: https://criticalmuslim.com/

Faith for the Climate: https://faithfortheclimate.org.uk/

INFORM: https://inform.ac/

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