If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization: Stephen C. Berkwitz


On the heels of a successful series based on Russell
McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, where 21 early career
scholars weighed-in on a separate thesis, we at the Bulletin would
like to continue with the theme of professionalization as it relates
to mid-to-late career scholars, asking them to name one thing (or several) about
their career (in either teaching, research, or service work) that they
know now but wish they had done earlier on. For other posts in this series, see here.

by Stephen C. Berkwitz

The transition from an early-career faculty member to a mid-career one takes place subtly and with little fanfare and recognition. This transition is not coterminous with promotion and tenure, but instead occurs at some indistinct point years afterwards. Because there is no formal rank of “midcareer” scholar, the onset of this status will differ for individuals, many of whom will suddenly be referred to as such by a colleague or administrator. Who knew?! In my own case, I cannot pinpoint exactly when I went from being an early-career professor to a mid- career professor. However, I can identify one of the key changes that actually take places in this change in one’s career.

The most important change for mid-career scholars, I believe, is related to the orientation of one’s professional work. Up to the point of becoming a mid-career scholar, the focus of one’s scholarly work is rightly on one’s own research and courses. Doctoral training and early-career teaching both involve the development of one’s individual skills needed to become a successful researcher and teacher. The orientation of professional activity is directed inward, and one can be excused for a measure of self-centeredness in one’s professional development at the earlier stages in one’s career.

As a mid-career scholar who has established oneself as a researcher and teacher, the focus begins to vector outwards toward collaborative work with others. This collaboration becomes increasingly important and comes in many forms for mid-career scholars. Most conspicuously, one begins to devote more time in service to one’s department and university. But one also begins to find more opportunities to participate and publish in collaborative projects such as edited volumes. One begins to receive invitations to contribute to the collective work of the discipline, whether in the form of steering committees, editorial boards, program reviews, and as external referees for journal articles and book manuscripts. In short, more of one’s time becomes increasingly devoted to the needs of others.

There are at least two ways to look at this change. One way is to become resentful of being pushed to give up one’s time to activities apart from one’s own research. Resentment can lead to resisting and rejecting the calls and invitations to participate in work that is not of your own making. You may succeed in retaining a greater degree of autonomy to do your research, but this often comes at the cost of alienating your colleagues who accept the additional responsibilities of service activities and cooperative work. The other, more productive way to view collaboration is to see it as new opportunities to help your colleagues and your discipline to develop and flourish. Like in the “real world,” maturation brings more responsibilities and less time to pursue one’s wishes. However, collaborative work can carry its own rewards, particularly when it involves helping junior colleagues publish and improve their work, creating opportunities for students to become more acquainted with the field, and assisting in strengthening the future of the field.

My advice to early-career faculty who are rightly focused on meeting the publication and teaching requirements for fulltime employment or tenure is to begin investing efforts to network with colleagues. Early on, junior scholars typically see networking as the means to land a permanent position. However, networking becomes arguably even more important in the development of your career after you land a teaching position. Being receptive to invitations to serve on committees and editorial boards early on can pave the way for more opportunities for collaborative work later on. This becomes particularly useful when the time for undertaking substantially new research projects is cut short by teaching responsibilities and, possibly, family obligations or health issues related to ageing. Research time spent overseas or in archives tends to diminish (but not disappear) over the course of one’s career.

Acquiring the tools to do one’s research close to home is critical, as is engaging one’s colleagues in collaborative projects that lead to workshops and edited volumes. Setting the ground work for collaborative work in the areas of teaching, research, and service early on allows one to move seamlessly into this phase of professional growth. Embracing collaborative work gives rise to new, unexpected opportunities for publishing research and for service to the discipline. Professional networks expand, which can be of great use to your students, your colleagues, and your own career. Equally important is the social aspect of collaborative work. You can form friendships that revolve around shared interests and concerns, which serve to make one’s professional work more satisfying.

No one told me when I became a “mid-career” scholar or how the focus of my professional activity would be directed more toward collaboration and cooperation with other colleagues. Instead, I sort of stumbled into this recognition, albeit missing a few opportunities along the way. Preparing oneself early on for this shift in the orientation of one’s professional work can pave the way for a smoother transition to the work one does as a mid- or late-career scholar in the field. Looking out for opportunities to join editorial boards, organize workshops, and participate in research teams for large grant projects, etc. are examples of embracing the ethos of collaboration in one’s scholarly work. Learning to see oneself as part of a larger guild of scholars, one in which collaboration and cooperation can be beneficial to oneself as well as others, can smooth the transition to becoming a mid-career scholar. Although for many of us, the nature of our professional work will change somewhat, it is still possible to thrive and enjoy what one does as a scholar in the company of others.

Stephen C. Berkwitz is Professor of Religious Studies at Missouri State
University (USA). His research focuses on Sinhala Literature and Buddhist Culture in Sri Lanka from the medieval up to the contemporary periods. His most recent book is Buddhist Poetry and Colonialism: Alagiyavanna and the Portuguese in Sri Lanka (Oxford
University Press, 2013).

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