Mapping Your Academic Career: From Security to Success

Burge, Mapping Your Academic CareerAs I wrote last Monday, my main goal for the second half of my fall sabbatical is to engage in some professional stock-taking. Having received tenure, been promoted to full professor, and just sent off the manuscript for my third project on Pietism, I’d like to step back and consider where I am in my academic career.

My guide for this process is Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life, a short book by New Testament scholar Gary Burge. Drawing on research and his own experience of teaching at three colleges, Burge suggests that professors

enter three discrete “cohorts” before retirement as we move through our careers. These cohorts have no relationship to the traditional three academic titles regularly used (assistant professor, associate professor, full professor). Instead, they reflect a person’s perception of his/her relationship to oneself, one’s career and the college he/she serves. They may also measure the college’s perception of how a faculty member is progressing and is valued as shown by recognition, task assignments, grants and promotion.

It’s pretty clear that I’ve entered Burge’s second cohort, and the third looks terrifying from initial reading, so I’ll skip that one for now. Instead, I’ll summarize the first two today, then dig deeper into Cohort 2 with a couple more posts next week.

Cohort 1

Fresh out of graduate school, members of Cohort 1 are energetic, highly skilled, and insecure. Their chief developmental task “is to learn the trade.” Not in their discipline — as researchers, their skills are sharper and their knowledge of the field more up-to-date as any older colleague’s. But in many crucial respects, they are still

traditional apprentices living out all the anxieties that necessarily come with a new trade. They must learn the skills of good teaching and develop the habits of a lifelong scholar. They must learn the culture in which they work and decide how they are going to fit into the corporate life of the community.

Burge claims that graduate school generally “does not provide instruction in how to do these things.” I’m not sure that’s still true of teaching. (Our newest hire, for example, came to us as a remarkably polished teacher.) But I think Burge’s right that learning the culture and deciding whether to “heartily embrace” it or feeling “strong dissonance” about it is a crucial task for this stage of development. (I’ll have more to say about my own experience of this in my next post.)

And he’s certainly correct that new members of this cohort are both bound to make lots of mistakes and capable of learning — “that is the golden skill a PhD does provide.” He identifies four elements that help most in this learning process. Two have been most important for me:

Gary Burge
Gary Burge

Core Identity Formation: Self-doubt, insecurity, a sense of being an impostor… This cohort is fraught with anxiety. So if these professors don’t form their core identity, “uncertainty will stalk their adult lives and they will live with an unsatisfied quest for validation.” In short, they will have “a profound lack at the center of their soul, a question mark that has never been edited—the absence of a voice at a formative stage that told them they mattered deeply.”

(Some of those voices come from our students. I won’t focus on that section of the chapter here, except to pull out one vitally important point: “The great temptation is to see popularity with students as the sign of success,” pursuit of which risks “[robbing] us of our integrity in the classroom.”)

Relationships with peers: Unlike Burge, graduate school advisers did not serve as those voices — they could not have, for what’s core to my identity as a professor is a set of values and aspirations that was little discussed in an elite graduate school concerned with churning out research. I had to learn who I was as a junior professor at a Christian liberal arts college; I had to listen to the voices of my peers.

Probably most importantly, Burge would point out that I was mentored by more seasoned colleagues: two history professors who had already passed to Cohort 3, and a political scientist who had just entered Cohort 2. All three had the qualities Burge attaches to an ideal faculty mentor: someone “who has an instinct for formative experiences, who is naturally affirming, who has retained an enthusiasm for teaching and believes strongly in the college.”

But I also found myself forming important relationships with peers at a similar developmental stage. They provided what Burge calls “safe relationships with people outside the assessment system, people to whom we can admit our weaknesses and failings.” But more importantly, they became my best friends. So I was primed to highlight this passage: “There is growing evidence that one of the most important predictors of well-being and resilience in life has less to do with competence and everything to do with community. That is, the ability to make genuine friendships, not professional associations, is one of the most important keys to perseverance and health.”

What Burge doesn’t discuss here is the importance of relationships outside of the academy. In my case, no event was more significant in my “core identity formation” than getting married, three years into my career as a professor. (To be sure, this is rather unusual among the Christian college professors who are the primary audience for this book. But I’m sure that being one of the only single professors on campus did little to dampen my sense of insecurity…) And I suspect that becoming a parent three and a half years after that has done much to shape my transition into Cohort 2, to which I’ll now turn…

Cohort 2

“Life in Cohort 1… ends (hopefully) with security.” Whether by tenure or something else, you feel “a growing sense that you are safe; the institution has decided that you should remain, and as a professor your contribution is valued.”

Now, I think this is precisely why the recent economic turbulence in higher education has been so deeply disconcerting to so many of us. We thought we had signed up for a career that provided a reasonable guarantee of security fairly early on in our development. But in recent years, many of us have discovered that the sand is shifting beneath our feet: even tenured faculty can lose their jobs — or keep them, but find that they are less and less like what we signed up for.

But let’s continue as if something like the higher ed of Burge’s experience will continue to exist: “Cohort 1 ends when a threshold is passed, and every professor knows it.”

I certainly did, and my experience of Cohort 2 matches quite well with Burge’s description: the elation of tenure, tempered by the concern that it’s not clear what comes next; the “growing confidence” that is the “watchword” of the cohort, paired with a worry that I’ll grow lazy in my new security; and the heightened prestige and recognition within and without the institution, matched by the new “weight of expectations” and higher level of responsibility. (Here’s where becoming a parent in the middle of this transition no doubt factors in…)

If Cohort 1 is about becoming secure, #2 is about becoming successful, says Burge. It’s about already skilled professors honing their skills and “finding their voice” as teachers and scholars. And that comes with a new set of risks: a diminishing interest in continued professional development; disengagement; egocentrism; and “institutional dissonance.”

It’s with this last risk that I’ll pick up next time.


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