Theses on Professionalization: Kelly J. Baker


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 Kelly J. Baker

Thesis # 15: Having successfully defended the dissertation, the manuscript does candidates no good in their desk drawer. However, before making revisions (unless they are dissatisfied with its argument or quality), graduates should create a prospectus containing a brief cover letter, annotated table of contents, and sample chapter (e.g., the Introduction) and submit it to a select number of top tier publishers in their area of expertise. Obtaining an outside experts’ assessment of the manuscript–a step often essential to a publisher’s process of evaluation–provides the best place to begin one’s revisions of a manuscript with which one is intimately familiar and, perhaps, too closely tied.

I must confess that I found Russell McCutcheon’s theses for professionalization after I decided to take a break from the job market in 2013. I read each hastily, and I couldn’t help but wonder how his theses applied to the dismal and dire job market that left me bruised and aching. I briefly contemplated writing a rousing response to each, but the idea floated away as I adjusted to life outside of academia. I was glad to reread these theses when Matt Sheedy invited me to respond to #15 on manuscripts and publishing.

“[T]he manuscript does candidates no good in their desk drawer” is one of those statements that compels response. When I reread this sentence, I reacted by shouting “of course, it doesn’t!” This is likely not the response McCutcheon would have expected, but thesis 15 offers sound, practical advice to job candidates on turning a dissertation into a monograph. It is true that your dissertation cannot become a book without yanking it out of your desk (or from the cloud) and shaping it into manuscript worthy of peer review and press approval. Job candidates should create a prospectus, or proposal, and send it out to “top tier publishers” in their respective fields. McCutcheon further suggests finding outside readers, who can provide expertise on what your dissertation needs to become a proper book in religious studies.

His advice is remarkably similar to the advice my advisor gave me as I was finishing my dissertation in 2008. My advisor also emphasized that our dissertations shouldn’t read like dissertations. He had me rewrite the damn thing at least four times, so it read like a monograph. This proved to be very helpful advice as much I am still loathe to admit. I sent the manuscript off to scholars who knew my general area of expertise, American religious history, but who would also be able to offer suggestions what revisions it required and which ones would make it the book that I wanted it to be.

Three presses contacted me before my dissertation was filed. My topic, the 1920s Klan, intrigued them. The editors from each had either read blog posts that I had written on the topic or noticed papers I presented at academic conferences. Another editor from a different press emailed because one of outside readers recommended my manuscript for her catalog.

After I defended my dissertation, I sent off  the proposals along with the full manuscript to one press after another. (Academic presses frown upon simultaneous submissions.) The publishers wanted the whole manuscript rather than sample chapters. After all, I was a junior scholar with some articles published and they wanted to assess the project in entirety. I quickly learned that some presses wouldn’t consider manuscripts from dissertations without substantial difference between the two. Editors sought manuscripts that read more like full-fledged monographs.

Before I graduated, I had a book contract and advance. My committee was convinced that I would have no problem getting a tenure track job. Any department, they assured, would be lucky to have me. I chose to believe them. I had four campus visits that year. Following my advisor’s advice about published seemed to work.

However, no amount of advice mattered after the market crash in 2008. The job market for tenure-track positions in the humanities, which already wasn’t good, became worse. The common lament was “there are no jobs,” but this wasn’t true. There were still jobs, but they were not tenure track. Contingent positions, those part-time and full-time jobs re-upped every semester or year, were readily available. I had no problem securing temporary lecturer gigs. My book contract might have helped. Yet, I’m not sure it mattered much when departments just need bodies in front of classrooms to teach students. I finished my book while teaching part-time and applying for tenure track jobs. I got a contract for another book after getting a full-time lecturer job.

I imagined that if I just worked hard enough and published more that I could cajole search committees into hiring me. I didn’t get a tenure track job.

So, while I agree that your manuscript does you no good in your desk drawer, I’m not entirely convinced that it does you any good out of the drawer either. A book contract likely makes a candidate look better to search committees. A completed manuscript possibly looks better. Neither the contract nor the manuscript are a guarantee that you’ll do well on the job market and score one of those elusive tenure track jobs. They might help. They might not. (It is even possible to publish too much for assistant professor jobs.)

You can do everything right and still not get a tenure track job because there are fewer and fewer of these positions. This is not a reflection on you, but the reality of humanities job market now. Are job candidates professionalizing for a job that they might never attain? What kind of advice can we offer if the positions that largely await job candidates are low-paying, temporary work?

Turn the manuscript into a book if you want to. Abandon it if you don’t. I can’t advise writing a book, a long, arduous task, because you are searching for a tenure track job. Clearing the drawer in the hope of being a model candidate feels risky in ways that it maybe didn’t in 2007. Write a book and seek a contract because you want to. Realize that the secure employment in academia is getting harder to come by. And be ready to walk away if you don’t like your options.

Kelly J. Baker is a freelance writer with a religious studies PhD. She writes regularly for the Chronicle for Higher Education‘s Vitae project, Women in Higher Education, Killing the Buddha, and Sacred Matters. She’s also the author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, and The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture.

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