Theses on Professionalization Series: Matthew W. Dougherty


In this feature 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

Matthew W. Dougherty

Thesis 1. Academia is unlike other professions in that the pre-professional period of training–which includes coursework, dissertation research and writing, and teaching assistantships–is not akin to an apprenticeship. Accordingly, there is no direct linkage between the accumulation of credentials and admission to the profession, no necessary relationship between feeling oneself to be qualified and the ability to obtain full time employment as a university professor.

The value of McCutcheon’s first thesis lies in its canny assessment of the gap between the expectations of the market and the listed requirements of the Ph.D program. Reflecting on it as a current doctoral candidate, my main reaction is twofold. First, most doctoral students I’ve encountered already seem to be aware of the realities addressed in this thesis, even if they are not aware of what, precisely, are the “extra” things they need to do beyond the program requirements. Second, because of disparities in the amount of time and prior preparation graduate students have it is critical for their mentors to reflect on this thesis and think about how they can help their students learn the many skills necessary to survive in academia that are not conveyed by the credentials accumulated in graduate school.

Most doctoral students I know started graduate school already knowing that they couldn’t count on finding jobs in higher education, let alone tenure-track ones, simply by ticking off the boxes on their program’s list of requirements. My peers and I are already dogged by the feeling that there is always something we could, and probably should, be doing to better our chances on the job market: cultivating an online presence, talking to potential collaborators at conferences, publishing additional articles, or finding mentors to help with our self-identified weaknesses. At the root of all this activity is the belief that, ultimately, doctoral students are responsible for our own education and professionalization. Whether a new Ph.D gets a job or not is, if you listen to most doctoral students I know, a function of that student’s success or failure at professionalizing above and beyond what the program requires.

Approaching graduate school this way holds both promise and peril. It encourages thinking intentionally about one’s doctoral training, which can have personal as well as professional benefits. If graduate school is to be more than simply an exercise in getting a job, if there is joy and fulfillment to be found in scholarship and research, then one of the most vital goals of graduate education has to be for students to become intentional about their own learning and thinking. Academia holds out the promise, even if it is often illusory for the increasing number of contingent faculty, of a career spent researching whatever one finds most interesting. When doctoral students take charge learning to direct our careers and research while there are still mentors readily accessible to help, we are preparing ourselves for such a life far better than when we concentrate on simply accumulating credentials.

But expecting graduate students to discern what they must do to professionalize and to take steps in their own time to fill those needs has its dangers. It ignores the fact that not all graduate students have equal amounts of time “free” after teaching, coursework, and research to work on professionalization. For example, those with family responsibilities such as young children or aging parents—a group that includes disproportionate numbers of women and people of color— have significantly less extra time available to strategically professionalize themselves after hours and on the weekends than those without. Neither do all graduate students, even as separate Master’s degrees become more commonplace in our field, arrive in doctoral programs having had equal amounts of exposure to academic culture and knowing equally well where to direct their energies. Knowing what conferences are most relevant, which books to read, how to write a book review, or how to craft an academic CV are all necessary skills for success in our field. Some doctoral students will have acquired many of these skills during their undergraduate years, but others will not. Often, this is a result of class divisions: colleges and universities that don’t expect many of their graduates to go into academia will be much less likely to offer opportunities to learn skills relevant to that field.

With that reality in mind, graduate students can be expected to take responsibility for directing their own education, but they cannot be expected to learn to do so without help. This is where McCutcheon’s thesis has the most value from my perspective: in reminding mentors of graduate students of the realities of getting a doctorate in today’s market and helping them to be clear—to themselves and to their students— about what it will take to succeed. Sending, even by omission, the message that accumulation of credentials is enough does the most harm to those students with the least additional time or prior knowledge of academia.

Fortunately, although, again, most doctoral students I’ve met are remarkably self-directed, not all professionalization has to happen in students’ “spare time” or entirely under their own steam. I have taken graduate seminars that required students to create syllabuses or write book reviews— assignments which teach research and argumentation while having a more direct relationship to daily life in academia than does the traditional seminar paper. New student orientation in my program includes discussions of the job market and advice on assembling a teaching portfolio. Many of the professors I’ve served as a Teaching Assistant have taken the time to observe me teaching and to discuss strategies for improvement with me. These were all concrete decisions that the professors in my program made to help their students keep sight of the longer-term goal of professional development rather than focus only on the short-term challenges of coursework and teaching. My hope is that reflection on McCutcheon’s thesis will encourage mentors of graduate students to make choices that foster the growth of specific professional skills without assuming that work on professionalization must happen in addition to, or even in competition with, the normal demands of a graduate program.

Matthew W. Dougherty is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He studies race and religion in North America from 1500-1860, focusing on missions, whiteness and Native American Christianities.

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2 Responses to Theses on Professionalization Series: Matthew W. Dougherty

  1. Mike Altman says:

    I think this misses the point a little. It’s not that graduate students need to do *more*, it’s that whatever they do is not guaranteed to translate into a job. One can make better or worse decisions along the way but so much of it is just out your control. The pressure to “do more” does more harm than good. Find freedom in job market nihilism.

    • Matt Dougherty says:

      I wrote this in response to the concept of apprenticeship raised in this thesis. In the context of the other theses, I understood the idea that graduate school is not like an apprenticeship to contain both: 1) there is no guaranteed link between graduate school and a job and 2) the credentials one accumulates in graduate school do not have a direct relationship to the skills one needs as an assistant professor. I chose to write about ways that graduate students’ urge to do more (which I’m ambivalent about) could be channeled into learning skills that would be useful to those who get academic jobs. You’re right, Mike, that I should have led by saying that none of the extra skills I’m talking about guarantees academic employment any more than traditional credentials do.

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