Theses on Professionalization: Thomas J. Whitley


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 Thomas J. Whitley

Thesis # 18: Despite being the primary, and sometimes even the exclusive, focus of candidates’ attention during the last years of their Ph.D., once hired into a tenure-track position a variety of other just as time consuming tasks compete for their attention. Learning to juggle many balls simultaneously–knowing which will bounce if dropped and which will break–is therefore an essential skill for early career professors who wish to continue carrying out original research while also teaching a full course load and serving the needs of their Departments and the profession at large.

Time management is at the heart of Thesis # 18. This is not something that all academics think regularly about; graduate students seem to be especially poor at cultivating this skill. Academics can be (read: seem) heroic when it comes to just getting done what needs to be done, not allowing evenings, weekends, or vacations to get in the way. This type of living on the edge may provide an adrenaline rush for graduate students, but it is only setting them up for failure. Yet, many graduate students, I fear, simply do not realize what will be expected of them when (read: if) they get that elusive tenure-track job. Taking three classes is simply not the same as preparing and teaching three classes. And while graduate students do understand this, even those who have only been given the opportunity to be a Teaching Assistant and have not been an Instructor of Record, their ability to realistically imagine what being a professional academic looks like is hampered by the fact that ours is a profession that holds its cards close to the chest. Very few graduate advisors talk to their graduate students about what service to the department, service to the university, and service to the field actually look like. And so graduate students prepare for a career in academia with a vision that is only as broad as their previous experience in academia, an experience that has been largely limited to the classroom.

The value in Thesis 18 can only be realized if graduate students heed McCutcheon’s advice. The best way to prepare for “juggling many balls simultaneously” is to juggle many balls simultaneously. As such, I encourage graduate students to not only learn more about time management techniques that work for them, but to get involved, as they are able, in their department, in their university, and in their field. Can you help organize a conference? Can you organize and propose a panel for your regional or national conference? Are there committees that you can serve on that will give you a glimpse into what the life of an academic really looks like?

In case you’re wondering, I have followed my own advice here. I serve on a departmental committee, I have co-directed and directed a graduate student conference, I chair a section of my region’s professional/academic society, and I serve on a national board for one of the major national professional/academic societies. All of this while being a doctoral student, writing my dissertation, writing regularly for online audiences, and working on peer-reviewed publications. While some of my (graduate student) colleagues think this is impressive, those who are already working in the field know that it is simply what life as an academic looks like. It is, as McCutcheon said, a juggling act. As someone who is currently on the market, I cannot say whether my attempts at this will help me land a job, but they have certainly helped me have a better idea of what life is like on the other side of the desk.

Thomas J. Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University. His dissertation, “The Greatest Blasphemy: Sex, Souls, and the Carpocratian Heresy,” analyzes the “heresy” of Carpocratianism and its role as an opposing voice to what would become the dominant narrative of asceticism and renunciation in the 4th-5th century church.

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