When I was in graduate school I learned a lot about how to be a scholar, but very little about how to envision a life in academia outside the corridors of the research university. Most of us teach, advise, sit on multiple committees, and perform other non-instructional tasks as part of our “loads.”
I was fortunate. I was taught to think differently about my career through two formative years in a post-doctoral program designed for this purpose. By the time I was ready to go on the job market I had a very different set of expectations about the kind of career I wanted to have. Did I want to do research and write books? Of course. But I also wanted to be part of an academic community that I believed in–a place where I could invest my time and energies. This decision meant that I would have to understand my vocation in a way that was fundamentally different from what I learned in graduate school. I would need to think differently about what counted as “success” in my career. I would have to reorient my ambitions. It has not been easy, but I would not want it any other way.
My friend Amy Bass recently called my attention to an essay by Leonard Cassuto in The Chronicle of Higher Education that calls for a new approach to preparing graduate students. Here is a taste:
Virtually all graduate students receive their Ph.D.’s from a research university. They get their first classroom experience there, and their dissertations are mainly guided by professors whose research occupies a prominent place in their work lives. We should hardly be surprised that dissertation advisers become the first role models for graduate students. Jack was no exception.
But most academic jobs aren’t at research universities, and those other jobs look jarringly different to graduate students than the positions held by their role models. That disjunction ought to be blindingly obvious (and some commentators have noticed it here and there), but I was years out of graduate school before its import registered on me.
It amounts to this: Graduate school is professional school, but most Ph.D programs badly neglect graduate students’ professional development. We spend years of their training ignoring that development, and then, only at the last moment when students are about to hit the job market, do we attend to their immediate professional needs. By neglecting their career goals, we allow their desires to coalesce from their immediate surroundings—the research university—and to harden over time.
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