Monday, September 18, 2006

To professionalize or not to professionalize - Is there really any question?


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Update: The conversation continues here and also over at JJC's place, in this thread, where In the Middle contributor Eileen Joy, in her usual awesome way, has given it a whole new "professionalization be damned" spin.

Last week Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, whose work and blog I love, said something that I disagreed with (the horror!). As chair of his department, he told the brand new crop of graduate students to stress less about “professionalization” and to get the most out the here and now of graduate school that they could. Actually, here are his own words:

Mostly, I urged them to take what they could from the experience of being in graduate school without obsessing to an extreme over what comes next (I believe too many graduate programs overemphasize professionalization, so that students become neurotic about conference papers and publication -- as if there were some magic checklist that when completed yields a first job).
I’m sure that Prof. Cohen, in the first overwhelming months of being his department’s new Chair, is especially nostalgic for an era when the only work he had to do – whether teaching or researching – was his own, and he didn’t have to try to herd cats on top of everything else. And being a brand new Director of Graduate Studies, whose office hours are suddenly jam-packed whereas I used to be able to hear the crickets chirp in them, I can appreciate to some extent the administrator’s nostalgia. And Prof. Cohen certainly isn’t the type to wave away the idea that graduate students are already part of an intellectual community and the scholarly conversation, and that their contribution to it matters – in fact, he said something along the lines of that in the rest of his post. He seems to me an exemplary mentor of graduate students, at least judging from how he treats the graduate student commenters on his blog. And he’ll be the first to tell those who start comments with “I’m just a grad student…” not to do so.

But I have two problems with what Prof. Cohen said. First, enjoyment of the experience and professionalization are not mutually exclusive terms. Second, graduate students have very good reasons to be worried about “professionalization” – largely a euphemism for publishing, but which also includes under its umbrella going to conferences, thinking ahead to the job market (even in the early stages), keeping up with the field, becoming active in professional associations, and largely being aware of how the profession works beyond the potentially narrow world of graduate student life – and their advisors and mentors should be thinking about these things with them as well.

Graduate school can be intensely and destructively infantilizing, depressing, and soul-crushing. Part of the responsibility for that environment comes from professors and from the world at large who, with good intentions or bad, think of grad students as merely students, of people who don’t yet have real jobs, who exist in some kind of preliminary, temporary stage of quasi-adult life without all the real pressures of being a prof, of being on the tenure track, of publishing or perishing, of herding cats in the department, the administration, the classroom, and the community. This is what allows universities to call TAs and instructors “apprentices” and what allows clueless family members to think a grad student’s time is endlessly flexible and not fully booked. (Of course, that little problem doesn’t end when you get the tenure-track job, let me tell you.) It also allows well meaning mentors, who would like to see graduate students less stressed-out, to suggest to them that they worry too much about professionalization.

That’s a bit like telling a farmer not to worry about his newly planted crops. Sure, they’ve just been planted, but they don’t get to be fully grown, ripe-for-the-picking, healthy crops on their own. And sure, there are forces beyond the farmer’s control that might wipe out his crop or make the market for it terrible, but if he wants any chance of selling those crops when they’re ready, he has to tend them from beginning to end. And that means he’s a farmer – an actual, real life, fully-blown, honest-to-god farmer – from day one. He’s not practicing to be a farmer while tending those crops and then only a real farmer once he sells them. He’s a farmer through and through.

Graduate students in Ph.D. programs are like that, too. Fine, they may be junior members of the profession – I’ll allow you that – but they are still members of the profession. (See Ancrene Wiseass’s much more deliciously rantful post here. I admit I can’t do beautiful and righteous anger the way she does.) In that sense “professionalization” isn’t something they must or mustn’t learn so they can use it down the road or because it could take away from the enjoyment of their salad days; rather, it’s an identity one should assume the minute one enters a graduate program. And what’s more, it's an identity and a way of thinking about oneself that could go a long ways toward relieving the feelings of infantilization, insecurity, and inadequacy that from which most graduate students suffer. If you think of yourself as a professional, you’re also more likely to be treated like one. (I know, not always. But more often.) If you think of a publishable article or two as a goal while in graduate school, you’ll make every seminar paper into part of that process, rather than mere hoops to jump through. If you think of your dissertation as the first draft of a book, you’ll use books as your models and have an easier time making that transition from dissertation to book. (Though there’s still a transition to be made and that’s a post for another time.) And if you start thinking that way in the beginning of graduate program, with you eyes on the goal not only of the degree but the reason for the degree – the tenure track job – my bet is you’ll be more likely to finish on time than take extra time. The students I’ve known who wallowed or who dropped out were the most abject cases of “only-students,” the ones who frequently started sentences with “If I ever get out of here…” or “When I have a real job…” Granted, there’s no “magic checklist,” as Prof. Cohen says, but being professional, contributing to the profession now, while one is a graduate student, and not later, as if one only enters into the profession with the conferral of the doctorate, is a way to combat the potential waywardness of graduate study.

And the reality is, the job market is asking for more from job candidates. We all bemoan this, but the only people who can change it are the people with tenure. I can do a bit. I can tell my full professor colleague who thinks our just-recently-hooded job candidate’s two article publication record is “light” that I disagree (and I can mumble under my breath, “I bet you weren’t even done with the diss when you were hired”) and I will do my best to combat these things after I’m tenured. (For one thing, our older colleagues generally won’t consider a candidate who’s ABD; they prefer candidates who’ve lectured or been visiting asst. profs because they feel they can hit the ground running with our 3/2 load and research expectations. While this may be true, it also contributes to the system of instructor/adjunct/visitor exploitation. This is something I hope to change once I have a little more authority and if we ever get to hire again!) Certainly a grad student is in no position to change the state of things.

But here’s the silver lining. In his book Graduate Study for the 21st Century, Gregory Col√≥n Semenza argues that increased pressures to “professionalize” actually pushes the job market towards some semblance of meritocracy. (I know, and he knows, that there’s no such thing really, but let’s just go with the idea for a moment.) There was a time – and there are still old fogies around who reflect this time* – when a Ph.D. from Wisconsin or UCLA didn’t stand a chance against a Ph.D. from Yale or Columbia. Now they do. If the hiring committees are judging a candidate on their ability to meet tenure requirements in research, teaching, and service, and the Wisconsin candidate has two articles, a half dozen conference presentations, a competitively selected undergraduate honors seminar teaching experience alongside a slate of other teaching experiences, and a stint as the assistant organizer of a conference or as a graduate student representative, while the Yale candidate has fancy fellowships, light teaching, a brand-name degree, and a famous advisor, chances are, all other things like the quality of their work being equal, the Wisconsin candidate will get the job. At least at my university they’ll get the job. And jobs at my kind of university are much, much more plentiful than the R1 prestige jobs.

I came out of a program that started emphasizing professionalization at about the time I arrived there, and much of the impetus came from some very saavy graduate students. I saw their advice and the professionalization they were modeling as a kind of “add-on” option to my graduate career. Had I seen it as the sine qua non of graduate study, had I thought of myself as a professional and not as a student learning to professionalize so that when I was a professional I could do it, I might have shaved off a year of dithering and been much more able to claim my work as the work of a professional. And I would’ve been a lot less depressed in those final years, which means, ultimately, I would have enjoyed myself and my life more then. As it is, I am so glad to be out of graduate school. Although I’m busier now, I’m happier and more fulfilled, and I don’t want my friends and acquaintances and students in graduate school now to have to wait for that feeling. So my advice to them – aside from buying Semenza’s book, which I think is absolutely fantastic – is to assume that you are a professional right now, not just in the classes you teach, but in the classes you take, and in the work you produce. Banish the words “student” and “school” and “study” from your vocabulary; you are now an MA or Ph.D. candidate and a university instructor, and you work on research or produce scholarship in whatever field you’re in.

Welcome to the profession. It’s good to have you here.





*I heard through the grapevine that when I was a candidate for my job, one of my older colleagues went through the applications and sorted them only by the prestige of their degree-granting institution. I have a public university Ph.D., but an Ivy BA, and I got accidentally put in the Ivy pile. Of course, the less snobby members of the committee also deemed my application worthy. And as you know, all turned out well. I even get along with and frequently find myself agreeing with that old snob from time to time. Shocking!

34 comments:

Dr. Crazy said...

Amen, sister.

I actually was at a conference this summer at a panel about "young people who work on X" and what was most interesting to me was that what had been imagined as a panel at which the young people would talk about the state of things with each other, all of the Old Guard showed up. Many (not all) sounded a lot like the excerpt you quote - I remember a particular comment from a VIP - "Just do interesting work." The reality is that at most jobs, doing interesting work isn't really what people care most about (a) and that there is some reason to think about things like whether it makes sense to market yourself on the job market as somebody who only works on one author (b). I think there is a real gap between the way that some - and most often those who direct graduate students - think about this profession and the reality of the profession for most people in it (at non R1s, non prestigious SLACs, and CCs).

Flavia said...

A big AMEN to this!

I really don't understand why "professionalization" is considered such a dirty word--there CAN be bad things about overprofessionalizing, I suppose (taking only classes that seem to have some immediate relevance to one's future marketability; jumping on a diss topic that seems to be a part of a recent trend in hot published works), but I've never actually seen it play out that way.

When I entered the program at my own grad institution, our department had just started the process of really preparing graduate students for the profession in a conscious way, which meant that we had meetings once or twice a year about such things as choosing a dissertation topic; how to think about going to conferences; recognizing when a paper might be publishable; thinking more broadly about job opportunities (including 2-year colleges and nonteaching jobs in the private and nonprofit sectors)--and I found it incredibly helpful just to have a road map of where I might be going, and what sorts of things I should be thinking about doing at what stage.

One of the reasons that I was so depressed my first couple of years in grad school, I think, is the infantilization that you talk about. I loved taking whatever the hell classes I wanted to. . . but I felt that I had no identity other than as a student, and most normal people don't REALLY want to be back in college--back to feeling like they're 20 years old--when everyone else they know is getting married and buying houses and moving on with their careers. So I think that you're absolutely right when you say that being a professional:

[is] an identity and a way of thinking about oneself that could go a long ways toward relieving the feelings of infantilization, insecurity, and inadequacy that most graduate students suffer.

Dr. Virago said...

Lordy, I think we have a revival meeting here! :)

Dr. C -- I've been wondering for awhile: does anyone still work on only one author? (This though occurred to me when one of Bullock's colleagues asked if I knew long-retired so-and-so in my department and added, "He's a Thoreau scholar." She might have well have said "He's a phrenologist" it sounded so odd and old fashioned to me.) Maybe Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton can still sustain such careers, but I'd find even that surprising. In part its a theoretical shift (new historicism, re-writing the canon, feminism, post-structuralism, the death of the author, etc., etc.) but it's also a pragmatic, market-oriented shift. Hiring committees, especially at places like mine, don't want a generalist per se, but they want to know you can do things across the board in your own field at least (and with medievalists, that means Old and Middle English, at least on the undergrad level).

And Flavia -- I'm interested to hear that you were depressed in the *first* stages of your grad career (and very glad you made it through!). I remember having no idea what the hell I was doing, and being overwhelmed, but I think I was still too giddy (I got in! I got in! I have a fellowship! They're paying me to read and write!) in my first year and then too completely enmeshed in teaching and jumping through exam hoops in the following couple of years, to be really depressed or directionless. But then it hit me hard. And if I'd had more sense of a direction *prior* to that, in those giddy years, I might have avoided that depression. So it's helpful, I think, to hear from someone who felt adrift while still doing coursework, since the conventional story is about the isolation of the dissertation stage.

Meanwhile, you've made me realize that that sentence you quoted should say "from which graduate students suffer" instead of "that..." Argh. Must. Edit. Now.

Dr. Virago said...

Argh, and I also wrote "it's" as "its." I really must learn to proofread these things.

medieval woman said...

(Continuation of tent revival) Amen again! I also think that part of being a good "farmer" is the *kind* of cultivation and professionalization advice profs give their grad students. There's often this nameless, shapeless anxiety floating around depts. whispering "publish" and "present" all the time. And there's not much actual sitting down and having a serious discussion about *how* to go about doing this. There was a trend in the place I got my MA (big, but good, public school) about publishing. And our profs. would routinely comment on a good seminar paper and say "This is great! You should send it out to "High-Falutin' Field Journal" immediately. And some friends of mine did and got torn to shreds by the rabid wombat reviewers b/c they were sending in seminar papers (I never had the guts to do it) - it took them literally years to get back on the horse (one of them wrote on a friend's paper "the author must be completely tone-deaf not to hear their own tinny prose"). Maggie over at Professorial Confessions had a post in this recently. If a prof had spent a little time (or even had an un-official meeting) with students saying, "Ok, you have something you think might be publishable, let's talk about some basic steps toward getting to that goal" - it would have caused a lot less emotional and intellectual pain.

So, I agree, we should make professionalization a part of a grad experience - and show them the way to get there over time (rather than making it a last minute effort before the market) - if you start the process earlier, there's a greater chance of success.

Cats & Dogma said...

Preach it!

I hadn't a whiff of an ivy on my c.v., and a very profession-minded advisor who did give me an informal checklist: try to have three articles and at least five professional conferences, plus some voluntary service on a committee or two in the department.

When I first went out, I had two articles, seven conferences, five different course preps, and voluntary service out the wazoo. I got one offer from a 4/4 reqional where the department looked about to implode ( and recent gossip suggests I wasn't wrong).

When I got this job, I had three articles (with two more in circulation) and ten conferences, as well as two years teaching full-time in a contract position. Don't worry about professionalizing, my butt.

First, I agree that graduate students are professionals, even if paid and classified by institutions as apprentices. But even if you do believe that grads are pre-professionals, to tell them (particularly the PhD candidates) not to prepare actively for this job market strikes me as being actually unethical--as unethical as recommending undergrads willy-nilly for graduate study, just because they can hack it. Everyone I knew from grad school with a TT job actively pursued pre-professionalization on all three fronts, and given this market, I'm not sure that even an Ivy-stamped parchment is an exemption.

Dr. Crazy said...

Does anybody still work on one author? I don't think so, not really. Except that there are a lot of people who PRESENT themselves as an "X scholar" or, in terms of the couple of authors I'm thinking of, X-ians. Obviously the single-author dissertation is a dying or dead breed (and rightly so - I've got a friend who did one and it basically forced him out of the profession), but I think that there are many out there who dream of being single-author people, and who want others to want to be single-author people, and even advise them to do so. It's totally screwed up.

J J Cohen said...

What I intended to convey (ineptly, I know; I'm always at my worst when I'm terse) is that if professionalization is overhyped as the be-all and end-all of a successful program of graduate training, it can become a Holy Grail as depicted in a Monty Python cartoon. Its celestial shimmer is so bright that graduate students told to keep their eyes upon it might not be encouraged to be colleagues in the here-and-now with their current professors. A relentless focus on the conferences at which you should be presenting and the journal articles you should be composing can foster a narrowing of interest. A message implicitly conveyed by the imperative to publish! and present! can be that it is far better to talk to specialists in your own field than to, say, attend a departmental colloquium on an author whose name is alien or on a time period distant from your own.

I wanted to stress that graduate school ideally has its own rewards as an intellectual space, rewards not necessarily related to following the advice in How to Have a Career as an Academic Star. Sometimes those satisfactions can be dimmed when it seems that all value derives from a luminous elsewhere, in the form of the reward system to which "professionalization" is the supposed doorway. Don't get me wrong, I do believe that graduate students should deliver conference papers and strive for publication. Good mentors must ensure that these opportunities are made available and demystified. But bad mentors can use "professionalization" as a way of alleviating their guilty conscience over the fact that so many bright PhDs don't get jobs: if it didn't work out, the problem is that student X didn't adequately professionalize, that student X is a failure - not that the field is extremely difficult to break into no matter how smart and well credentialed you are. I guess what I was arguing for is some notice that growing as an intellectual within a community sometimes means taking the "professionalize or perish" credo - especially when offered as if it were in itself unambiguous and a recipe for success - cum grano salis.

Dr. Virago said...

it can become a Holy Grail as depicted in a Monty Python cartoon

Cue celestial Ahhhhhh's! :) Seriously, I agree with you. In fact, I agree with everything you just wrote, including and especially this:

But bad mentors can use "professionalization" as a way of alleviating their guilty conscience over the fact that so many bright PhDs don't get jobs: if it didn't work out, the problem is that student X didn't adequately professionalize, that student X is a failure - not that the field is extremely difficult to break into no matter how smart and well credentialed you are.

BUT bad mentors can also use an anti-professionalization stance to alleviate a guilty conscience over the increasingly extreme expectations of the job market or who use it as some kind of working out of their own regrets and nostalgia. I think Dr. Crazy's comments above and the post at Ancrene Wiseass to which I linked in my post both speak to the existence of these kind of bad mentors.

(Btw, just so we're clear, *you* are nowhere in these lists of bad mentors. And I apologize for assuming you might have being nostalgic in your original post. It did seem a little wistful in tone, but nostalgia is a whole 'nuther kettle of fish.)

Perhaps what we -- and by we, I mean those of in positions to mentor grad students or undergrads who express interest in grad school -- perhaps what we need to strive for is that elusive middle ground, where we encourage students ("emergent professionals"? I've been reading Berube's Theory Tuesday too much...) to balance the richness of the now with the possibilities of the future. I took full advantage of the opportunities in my grad department for study and scholarship in my own field and, when I could, in other fields where I knew we were blessed with someone really cool or interesting in that field, even if it was far from my own specialities.

I still think a little more emphasis should be put on what's next, however, since, after all, students are there to get the degree that will get them a job. I'm pretty sure no one invests all those years and work just because they thought it would be nifty to have a Ph.D. Or rather, those students don't stick around very long. But *of course*, if they are professionals *now*, then they should also be active members of the scholarly community to which they belong *now*. And they shouldn't be so focused on their success in their specific area of study that they are blind to what everyone else is doing. They won't do very well on the job market if that's the case, either -- at least not in the jobs that are asking for, at the very least, proficiency in adjacent periods, and, more often that not, the ability to teach surveys and general introductions to literature across periods and genres.

But you know that. My major concern is with graduate student sanity and, dare I say it, self-actualization. My experience of graduate school was not as bad as some, but it had its long periods of depression and abjection. Had I simply oriented myself to think "this is it, I *am* a professional, this is the beginning of my career" rather than "this is the precursor to a career," I would have been much better off.

And Medieval Woman is right: doing that, being professional, requires some practical and concrete mentoring. What first-year grad student knows what they hell they're doing at all, let alone how to publish, etc. Many of us kind of figured it out on our own, through a kind of critical reading and imitation of journal articles (the way a poet might teach herself a new form), but that doesn't always dawn on every student. In other words, we need to *teach* the profession if we expect students to participate in it. And I still believe that if we do so, we might alleviate much of the abjection and alienation of being a grad student. (And for the record, I'm trying to institute such instruction in my own program.)

And now for something completely different, an anecdote: when I was a grad student and there was a job search going on, no matter *what* the field was, I went to the "grad students meet the candidate" breakfast and, if it didn't conflict with a class, to the job talks. At one such breakfast, the candidate had us all introduce ourselves and our fields. When I said I was a medievalist, I swear to god she looked at me as if to say, "Huh, what are you doing here?" Not antagonistically, but with suprise. I tell this story only to exhibit that grad students aren't the only ones (overly) focused on their fields. (Over-)specialization is, of course, the perennial sister-lament to (over-)professionalization.

But then you know that, too. Anyway, I hope I haven't offended, Jeffrey. There's much to think about here.

Dr. Virago said...

Omigod, I really need to preview comments, too! argh!

Dr. Virago said...

C&D -- I wanted to reply to you, too. Clearly the difference in your two market experiences was either a)luck, b) your subsequent greater teaching experience and additional articles, or c) both a and b. The additional teaching is what would've made a difference for many people in my department and that really bothers me. I really, really don't want to see additional years in contract teaching *expected* of humanities PhDs the way a post-doc is expected of scientists. For god's sake, humanities PhDs already spend years in grad school with a ton of teaching. To the extent that I can stop it at my own university (and on the last search we did, we did actually interview ABDs! yay!) I make my own little effort to stop this trend. Contract teaching should be a stop-gap for those who haven't yet gotten the TT job -- not the expected route to a TT job.

And Dr. C -- X-ian made me laugh, especially since it's an abbreviation for Christian, and for some authors and their critics, a Christ-like eminence does seem to operate, especially in your field!

Rob Barrett said...

It's worth noting that publishing in grad school can come back to bite folks in the butt--as can presenting at conferences.

Once a candidate gets a job, the slate is wiped clean. All of those articles you published in grad school, all of those conferences you attended go "phfft." The refrain becomes instead "What have you done for us lately?" I've known of people who got their job on the basis of a book contract--and then found out years later that the published book wouldn't count toward tenure because it represented work done "before the hire."

So (grad students out there) be careful about what you publish prior to getting a job. Remember that you can at best publish 2 or 3 articles based on your book (presses don't like to publish books that are almost entirely available in print already--and for free). Remember that you can only present so much material from your dissertation/book before you start getting people rolling their eyes at hearing the same old arguments again.

Of course, this is precisely the sort of professionalization discourse that Dr. V. is discussing. :)

P. S. I don't recommend publishing outside of one's field (i.e., a medievalist who doesn't work on gender studies publishing a modified seminar paper on Virginia Woolf's Room of One's Own. An article on a topic or author completely unrelated to your dissertation/book is essentially a non-starter with hiring committees, IMO. You can save it if you can link it to your current interests--but you have to hope that the hiring committee will give you a chance to do this during the interview.

Dr. Virago said...

Rob -- all excellent caveats! The "what have you done for us lately" scenario is especially true of R1s, although I think it's totally unfair, since what they're *supposed* to be measuring is your contribution to the field and your building of a scholarly reputation. Fair or not, it is the case in some places. In my case, though, the two articles I went on the market with didn't come out until I was in my new position, and one of them came out after the hire (though it was accepted before) so I was even able to change the university affiliation on it. So it counts for tenure.

But for conferences, I don't even keep pre-hire conferences on my CV any more, and our annual reviews stress what happened in the last year, anyway (hence, why the publication of those first two articles could still count).

And yes, one should in general be somewhat parsimonious about what one publishes -- only what you truly feel expert on (i.e., your field) and not too much that it cannibalizes your book.

But learning that's part of professionalization, too, as you note, Rob.

Anonymous said...

I think your comments on "professionalization" are right on; but you might also spare a thought to mentoring your young visiting faculty, if you have such in your department. Finishing the Ph.D. doesn't mean you have publishing & presenting all figured out yet, and contract faculty don't have as easy access to their former graduate advisors.

Bardiac said...

Preach on!

Making grad school less infantalizing would be a huge step... but how to do it given the conservatism of the profession?

The people running R1 grad programs are the people who most benefit from infantalizing grad students.

Anonymous said...

As a mere grad student, I would say I would be most likely to feel like a professional if I was paid like one. My treatment by professors has varied (some are very nice, some are utterly degrading), but my treatment by administration has been pretty universally wretched. And not only because my salary is calculated with the formula "poverty line + $100"--I'm also required to teach a cirriculum that's useless to both my students and myself and take classes that I couldn't give a toss about (and I don't mean "not my period"; I mean "not my field"). In fairness, my program is probably one of the worst in the country in this regard, but I know other departments aren't too far off. In any case, a deep thanks for recognizin' the grad students. I had rather thought that faculty considered grad school a kind of hazing ritual that we all have to accept, and if you make it through with your soul intact (and/or a job offer), you win! Seriously, though, thank you. You've inspired me to send off something I've been sitting on for a while.

Flavia said...

What an excellent comment thread!

As for my own depression: I had a good but intensely stressful first year, and when my second year came around, and there was no more novelty to sustain me, I crashed HARD. I should also say that, despite the excellent professional advice that my department gave us, I myself didn't submit to or even attend a single conference until my 5th year of grad school because I was so lacking in confidence in my work. But suddenly, after writing two chapters, it was as though I'd woken up and become a real academic--and in the space of 13 months I presented at 5 different conferences and had 2 significant articles accepted.

So, the professionalization didn't really help me out in the early years, but at least I knew what I *should* have been doing, and I was aware that I had to make up for lost time in a big old hurry if I wanted to go on the market in Year 6. If professionalization is presented as a series of rough guidelines, then, I think it works well. If students are pushed to submit anything halfway decent, before they're ready, however, it really CAN explode in their faces, as several of your commenters have noted.

And as for single-author dissertations: it's quite common with Shakespeare, and it's a good professional bet, too: the whole reason there are so many Renaissance positions is because SOMEONE has to teach those Shakespeare classes semester in and semester out. I know relatively few people who have single-author disses on Milton or Chaucer, although again those are relatively safe choices.

However, thematic dissertations do present their own problems: what if your authors span the late 19th and the early 20th (or the 15th and 16th) centuries? What period do you fall into, then? Or what if the works you're looking at are relatively obscure, or at least unlikely ever to be taught to undergraduates? (This latter is the case with my own diss, and I'm sure it cost me interviews.)

Rob Barrett said...

Flavia,

My dissertation (on regional writing and performance in Cheshire) covered the years 1195-1656, and two of my four chapters were on texts I could guarantee almost no one else in the country had read.

I compensated for these "handicaps" by wearing them on my sleeve: my job materials stressed the importance of cross-period continuity (and the critique of traditional periodization schemes). I also argued for the need to put the canon in dialogue with non-canonical texts.

Doing it this way meant that I got to set the parameters of discussion in job interviews.

Best,

Rob

P. S. I do think that a dissertation needs some canonical material in it, precisely for the reasons you outline in your comment. Lucian's De laude Cestrie and Robert Amery's Chester's Triumph in Honor of Her Prince didn't hurt me on the market precisely because I also wrote on the Chester cycle and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. If a topic doesn't allow for the inclusion of such canonical texts, it's probably a good idea to stress your familiarity with said texts in your teaching (again, provided that you've had the opportunity to teach literature).

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Hear, hear! I haven't read the comments here yet, but I wanted to say I completely agree with your post. My grad program was very good at professionalization, and not coincidentally, I have come to find out that it was also significantly better at fostering a collegial atmosphere, treating students like adults, and creating a real intellectual community between faculty and students (which continues after we leave the program). The biggest issue with professionalization, I think, is that it doesn't really allow much space for people who go into Ph.D. programs for reasons other than being an academic. That being said, I don't see any reason to get a Ph.D. (in my field, anyway) unless you ARE planning to be an academic.

History Geek said...

At least thanks to a lot of you talking about issues like this, some of us will go in with our eyes a bit more open, so to speak.

*hides back under her undergrad rock*

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Having read the comments, I agree with JJ Cohen that one shouldn't do what one does *only* for the sake of professionalization. I think Dr. V is right that there is a mean that can be struck.

Something to consider, though: the amount of time that can be taken up by "professional" activities. I had a couple of publications and a bunch of conference presentations (as well as a ton of teaching) by the time I got my first TT job. But I also took *mumble*ten*mumble* years to finish my degree. Conversely, my program is currently really pushing people to finish in 6 years (Europeanists, at least), but according to some in that department, students are no longer coming out with CVs as full of the professionalization stuff. Whether this is helping or hurting, I have no idea - it's just something I wanted to point out. I know one woman who finished and went off to a GREAT TT job, and I know another who's been struggling. What can you do?

Oh, and as for the course of grad school: I fell into the black abyss of dissertating as well. Though I think I was never as exhausted as during my coursework! But what would really have helped me would have been to have a much better sense of the whole exam schedule (and what PhD exams look like) when I started grad school - I really didn't figure out what PhD exams were and how they worked until I'd been there 2 years (and that was only b/c I saw LDH go through his). Strangely enough, I was very clear on the importance of the diss and figuring out a topic quickly (not that it helped - I tried, but ended up finally settling on the topic in year FOUR), and could handle classes fine, but I had no idea how the whole PhD program fit together. Of course, this may well have just been my own idiocy. ;-)

Finally (to finish this, the Moby Dick of comments - long and dull!), I also completely agree that professionalization can be used to justify a meritocracy that doesn't really exist. And I fall into this trap myself - when someone I know doesn't get a job, I decide it has to be because they don't interview well or don't market themselves well in their cover letter, etc. Despite the fact that it's really because the job market is an UTTER crap shoot.

medieval woman said...

I just want to say that these comments are great - I wonder if there will come a time (perhaps one day soon) when we'll all be saying, "don't expect to get a t-t job until you've published your first book."

And I think that Rob Barrett's bits of advice in his first comment are exactly the kinds of things grad students would love to know - i.e., don't try to publish your whole dissertation as articles in order to get a job. And make sure you know what will get counted toward tenure if it's forthcoming. I was told (finally, at the 11th hour and my second time on the market) that you should aim for a couple of articles and some "irons in the fire" - i.e., in your job letter and interview, be able to talk about some other projects not directly part of your dissertation. The chair of my old SLAC dept. said that his greatest fear is hiring someone who's a "one hit wonder" - someone who will not be able to produce interesting new work consistently. This doesn't mean 5 articles a year, but it does mean a self-sustaining research agenda after the diss becomes a book. I don't think he expects people to know what their next 3 books are going to be about, but just to be able to show that you're thinking over the horizon.

Rob Barrett said...

For the record, I had no publications during my stint on the job market--but still managed to get a TT job.

This is not to blow my own horn, but to demonstrate just how arbitrary the market has become. Some schools will want to see publications; others will not. Every job on offer has a different set of criteria, some explicit, many implicit.

So in the end (and this is where I concur with JJC) you really just have to do your own work at your own pace. Do what feels right to you instead of trying to make yourself conform to some ideal template--because there's no guarantee in today's academic job market that said template will be universally successful.

Best,

Rob

Another Damned Medievalist said...

hmmmm ... I have really mixed comments about this whole thread. I went to an undergrad program where the grad students were very professionalized on a day-to-day basis, but entirely dependent upon patronage (and it's rumored that Big Name Advisor only wrote rec's for one student a year, so he had an almost perfect placement record), which is in itself an interesting way of doing things ...

My first year of grad school, I was terribly lost in terms of professionalization. But I knew the program. I knew how to be an apprentice and I learned a hell of a lot. I suppose it was infantalizing in some ways, but I felt very cared for, by the grad students ahead of me and by the faculty I workied with. And I've just realized why I'm having problems with this. There are different kinds of professionalization. I do wish I'd been encouraged more to in terms of conference papers and publications -- part of that was due to my having done most of my thesis from a distance, part from being clueless, but part because I think my advisor was more worried about me finishing. But I got incredibloe training and mentoring as a teacher. Grad students were very much encouraged to be part of the hiring process, and not discouraged (well, by my advisor -- other faculty forbade their students to serve in student government or serve on committees) from service, and to show up for prospectud defenses, even when they had nothing to do with us or our subfield. It was understood that we would show up for guest speakers and go to the receptions -- no one ever said, "this is a good idea," but that idea of community was modeled by my advisor. We attended city-wide seminars and were encouraged to give papers there. And my advisor was amazing in demonstrating what faculty do when not teaching or writing.

From what I understand from three hiring committees, my understanding of the service side of the job, the difficulties of achieving balance, and my teaching experience were instrumental for every job offer I've had (on top of the 'fitting in' part). And honestly, although I admit I ask for lots of mentoring from my more professionalized colleagues like NK, much of that is a matter of self-confidence. I know what I'm supposed to do, but I don't really know the ins and outs of doing it. the publishing and presenting part is not all that different from anything I did in grad school, though, except for the final step.

I guess where I'm seeing a problem is that I look around me and see people who are younger and who have been in more professionalized (so-called) programs. I know one person at a big R1 who has presented tons of conference papers, and even published a couple of articles -- and he is still not finished with his thesis! I know people at my present campus and at other places who came out of 'professionalized' programs, finished quickly with great CVs, publications, some teaching, presentations ... and they are dying under the heavy teaching and service loads that most first jobs require. These are people who are thrown onto committees and know nothing about academic politics, have never heard of accreditation or assessment, don't know about outside evaluations or accomodations per ADA, don't know how to get along on a small campus (no one ever taught them that you never piss off the admin, facilities, or IT).

I do think there are lots of important things about the "professional" side of our job that grad students need to learn. But there is also a different kind of professional socialization that can happen -- unfortunately it seems to be an either/or situation -- that shouldn't be overlooked.

Dr. Virago said...

OK, there are now too many comments for me to respond to each adequately (and now I have an idea for a job market thread in which we all tell our stories on the job market just to show how wide and varied the experiences and expectations are).

BUT, I wanted to say at least, that ADM's final paragraph, just above this comment, is *exactly* right. I was trying to get at a broader notion of "professionalization" in which the graduate student was thought of and though of herself as a professional already, adn thus expected to learn and taught some of these other things. I don't think "protecting" students from the horrors of service and academic politics does them any good. It doesn't even speed their time to degree. I still think graduate students with a better sense of purpose and *real* community will avoid a lot of the depression and alienation and thus be more productive.

But also, ADM, a lot of the missteps of first year Asst. Profs. could also be avoided by mentoring systems at the unis and colleges who hire them. Mine was supposed to have one, but no one ever assigened me one and I didn't find out about it until year two. Luckily I could fall back on what I learned about office politics working for lawyers before grad school!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Yeah, there's nothing official at SLAC, but one of the things I've always been good at is finding mentors, so not such a problem for me.

I guess what I'm having trouble with is that I am not convinced that the infantalizing is institutional. I wonder if this is because Grad U had a big Med School -- but then, so does AW's. But I just don't ever remember our faculty treating us as anything other than 'colleagues-to-be'. There were degrees -- and those degrees existed among the students (and I have seen them as junior faculty). Much of the coursework period, there was a feeling that people didn't want to invest everything in you, until they were sure you'd survive. But my experience was that I had all these mentors around me who treated me as a future colleague. The only thinkg I found infantalizing was when some faculty griped because I worked on top of my fellowship -- they thought I should be able to live on a lot less than I did, because I was a grad student.

Karl Steel said...

I've nothing to add except thanks. I've found it very instructive: speaking as someone who figured out his diss. topic in his FIFTH year, but who has tons of conferences and a publication or two coming out, but who's likely to finish in his EIGHTH year. We'll find out this Spring or even sooner if I've shot myself in the foot in what looks to be a very slim market this year.

Fast Fizzy said...

Now I need the Sparks Notes for these comments. You could put them on a CD and I could listen while I run. I'm doing 22 miles on Sunday if anyone wants to join me.

Dr. Virago said...

Fizzy -- I think your Nano and your music would be more interesting to you!

Karl -- If *you* don't get a job, there's something very wrong with the world of academe. And 8 years is totally normal for medievalists and the average for English PhDs in general. In fact, your whole schedule (finding a topic in the fifth year, etc.) sounds like the Dr. Virago plan. :)

Scott Kleinman said...

A slightly different take on the concept of "professionalisation". In my job, I'm only faced with the question of how far to inaugurate MA students into the life of the profession as a way of getting into good PhD progams. When students come to me expressing an interest in doing a PhD, it's pretty clear that their undergraduate and MA studies have not encouraged them to work systematically towards acquiring a broad and deep knowledge base in their period of interest (the medieval period in my case). At best, they've taken a couple of courses and done a little outside reading. "Professionalisation" for these students means not just beginning to think about conferences, publishing, and the job market, but also acquiring the intellectual apparatus of scholarship. Perhaps that's more of a given for students finishing their PhDs, but it could get lost if there is too much angst about qualifications for the job market. The two should work in tandem. Perhaps that's where it's possible to find a middle ground with Cohen's position--seeing a command of the field as a part of professionalisation.

Dr. Virago said...

Scott -- Yes! In fact, that's also the position I'm in -- getting MA students who say they're interested in PhD programs to realize what it means to be a scholar and to gain a command of the field. And I think as I was writing I was thinking in those terms, even if I seemed to be expressing it as "publishing, etc." I think if I can get my students to see published scholarship as a model and hazy, long-term goal, they might more confidently and thoroughly enter into the scholarly conversation represented by those publications.

Anonymous said...

I have to respectfully disagree:

>There was a time – and there are still old fogies >around who reflect this time* – when a Ph.D. from >Wisconsin or UCLA didn’t stand a chance against a >Ph.D. from Yale or Columbia. Now they do. If the >hiring committees are judging a candidate on >their ability to meet tenure requirements in >research, teaching, and service, and the Wisconsin >candidate has two articles, a half dozen >conference presentations, a competitively selected >undergraduate honors seminar teaching >experience alongside a slate of other teaching >experiences, and a stint as the assistant organizer >of a conference or as a graduate student >representative, while the Yale candidate has fancy >fellowships, light teaching, a brand-name degree, >and a famous advisor, chances are, all other >things like the quality of their work being equal, >the Wisconsin candidate will get the job.

You're assuming that "professionalization" is an advantage that only certain programs are offering, when in fact it is more apt to see it as part of an arms race. The Harvard and Yale grad students are _also_ getting professionalization advice and running conferences/publishing etc. but have more time to do it and think deeply about their field and project because they have the resource of _time_ i.e. their fellowships. So they still come in to searches looking stronger and have an advantage over us mid-tier folks. So I worry about finding the "meritocracy silver lining" in a very screwed-up system.

As for me, after being in undergrad and being encouraged to go to grad school with a completely unrealistic view of the competition to get in or to get a job on the other end, and an MA program where I was told to "professionalize" but not what that was, I arrived at my PhD program thorougly anxious about some vague nebulous thing that I was supposed to do but not ask what it was I was supposed to do. And since the other grads were just as confused and the profs not very helpful, I went ahead and instituted a series of workshops on the idea of professionalization, and invited faculty to speak. We got a lot of interesting advice, much of which has been repeated here, including the admonition that one should _think_ about publishing as soon as one starts reading and researching, and should research what publishing means in your field and how to do it, but not actually publish until near the end of your grad career when you are a better writer.

The single most helpful thing I had was the book _Getting What You Came For_ by Robert Peters. It's a guide to grad school (written from a biology perspective, yes) but the biggest lesson I learned from all the examples of bad advisors and people who are dropped from programs is that you must attempt to act like a professional and a colleague from day one.

Jane Dark said...

I am very late commenting, having only been referred here by your comment at Horace's blog, but this is a fantastic post -- thank you.

Anonymous said...

These knee-jerk reactions on the issue of how passe one author dissertations are is quite bemusing. Is anyone actually still interested in literature? (Titter). There's plenty of contrary evidence: Virginia Jackson's book on Dickinson, for instance, breaks all of these asinine rules. It's in the quality of the work.