In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here.
by Adrian Hermann
Thesis # 14: Depending on the type of institution into which one is hired (i.e., its teaching load, service obligations, emphasis on research, sabbatical opportunities, etc.), the dissertation may constitute one of the few, or quite possibly even the last, opportunity a candidate has to devote an extended period of time to one, focused project, free from the many obligations routinely expected of an Assistant Professor. Given the pressure to publish that, for some time, has attended academic careers, graduate students would be wise to write their dissertations while keeping in mind their eventual submission for possible publication-whether as a monograph (which, depending on a Department’s “Tenure and Promotion” requirements, may be preferable) or as separate peer review essays.
In his fourteenth thesis on professionalization, McCutcheon alerts graduate students to the fact that the time spent working on their dissertation might be the only instance in their professional career in which they can completely focus on only one large research project. At the same time, he highlights the importance of thinking about one’s own research in terms of publishability from the very start.
Reflecting on this thesis today as someone who received his degree from a university in Switzerland and is now working in Germany, a number of things come to mind.
In the current climate in which peer-reviewed publications are becoming more and more important for any substantial academic career, beginning to think early on about the possibilities of publishing one’s work is not only sound but necessary advice. At the same time, the two parts of McCutcheon’s thesis could also be read as slightly at odds with each other. Every young scholar faces the question of whether to treat the environment offered by a graduate program or graduate school as a chance to focus purely on one’s own interests without necessarily taking into account employability, or to choose a topic which may be more fashionable and might promise ‘market success’. Making this choice is complicated by the fact that as someone just starting out in a graduate program you might not be able to completely assess how your possible topic will fit into the current research climate and the priorities of the field as a whole. While the decision itself has to be taken by each student individually, advisors should discuss these issues with their PhD students and both encourage them to follow their interests while also alerting them to the fact that not all topics might be similarly conducive to their subsequent applications to faculty positions.
In any case, even as a graduate student it is important to actively be looking for chances to publish the work one has decided to focus on. In Germany, most dissertations in the humanities have traditionally been published as books. While publishing online is now a possibility at almost all institutions, in most cases it is not yet advisable to do so, as many hiring committees are still paying close attention to the context (i.e. the publisher) in which a particular dissertation appears. At the same time, it seems to me that thinking about designing one’s dissertation to facilitate publishing journal articles based on the manuscript is a good idea that many PhD advisors do not yet think about enough. A closer focus on this issue might be one of the more important changes currently taking place in graduate programs in the humanities, at least in Germany. At the same time, if your advisor is a senior scholar, he or she might not be completely aware that young scholars today are facing new requirements for launching a professional career. Therefore, even in the context of the often more traditional German system, it seems advisable to prepare the dissertation in a way which still allows for publication as a book by one of the more recognized publishers, and at the same time attempting to publish one or more chapters as articles, possibly while still working towards the degree.
Another issue that seems to be insufficiently explored by graduate students and young scholars in the humanities is the idea of writing together with another person. As a graduate student, the chance to co-author an article or book chapter either with someone with more experience in the given field of research or with another graduate student or young scholar might offer an early chance to contribute something substantial to the scholarly conversation. Such a publication might also receive increased interest by readers already familiar with your co-author. While writing in pairs or groups is an established practice in the natural sciences or social sciences, it is not yet widespread in Religious Studies. Luckily, it looks like this is about to change.
This goes along with another suggestion about finding and identifying possibilities of getting work published even very early in graduate school. You might not be aware that editors of collections on a specific topic or even of conference volumes are often looking for a particular essay to fill a spot or deal with a specific topic which is still missing from their outline. If you hear about such a publication being prepared, it might be a good idea to ask the editor(s) about their plans and to propose contributing a chapter of your own. You might just end up with your first publication as a result.
The biggest difference between universities in the U.S. and the German (and larger European) context probably concerns the possibility of fully focusing on one large project. Traditionally, in Germany the completion of a “Habilitation thesis”, a second focused and long-term book project after the dissertation, used to be a necessary requirement to apply to full professor positions. Therefore, it always has been expected and – as much as was feasible – was encouraged by universities and colleagues that a young scholar finds the necessary time and space to work on such a second large research project.
While many young scholars continue to work towards completing a “Habilitation”, other career options have become available. Over the last decade and a half, new large-scale funding initiatives, especially in Germany, have led to a comparably longer post-doc period than before (at least in the humanities). A young scholar might for a couple of years – or even for up to six years (as, for example, in the Emmy-Noether-Program of the German Research Foundation) – continue to work on a clearly defined research project while also supervising a number of PhD students, before moving on to a full-time faculty position. In such a position as a ‘research group leader’ the teaching load is not as high as for most other positions available to PhD holders.
At the same time, the introduction of an Assistant Professor position (“Juniorprofessor”) into the academic system in Germany has made the situation even more complex. Young scholars appointed to one of these positions are awarded all the rights and duties which traditionally were limited to full professors in the German system. They teach regular classes, participate in their departments’ administrative work, and are also expected to bring in third-party funded grants and supervise PhD students. At the same time, because they are demonstrating their potential as future full professors in these other ways, they are no longer expected to complete and submit a formal “Habilitation”. Nevertheless, many of these young professors, especially in more traditional disciplines in the humanities (like History or German Studies) are hedging their bets and try to write a formal habilitation thesis at the same time as they are attempting to fulfill all the other responsibilities their positions entail.
All of these career choices and possibilities are taking place in a context in which the rise of big research clusters and large collaborative research endeavors even in the humanities, as well as an increased pressure on all scholars to apply for a variety of small and large third-party funded research grants, make it difficult to find the time to focus on writing a second comprehensive monograph. Rather, every young scholar I know is constantly struggling with the challenge of keeping up with the various deadlines for essays, articles and book chapters which one has promised to funding institutions and colleagues in the context of one’s own or other’s research projects.
In regard to publishing, the academic world is changing rapidly, so that often your own mentors are unsure how to counsel you on which publications (books, journal articles etc.) you should focus on, and which types of publications are the most important. In this way, it becomes increasingly important to discuss such issues with other young scholars and colleagues to get an idea of how they are dealing with these different demands.
I find it important to reflect on these issues while I myself am moving from being a graduate student/post-doc to thinking about my own priorities in mentoring future PhD students. As many aspects of how graduate students and young scholars should approach publishing in order to prepare for a successful professional career in the humanities are profoundly changing, these issues are only becoming more important.
Adrian Hermann is an Assistant Professor (“Juniorprofessor”) of Religious Studies and World Christianity at the Department of Protestant Theology, Faculty of the Humanities of the University of Hamburg, Germany. His first book, published in June 2015, deals with the emergence of a global discourse of ‘religion’ in the nineteenth and early 20th century. He is currently doing research on independent Catholic Christianity in the Philippines and religion in a globalized world.