September 3rd, 2009
What does it mean to become a professional? I have been thinking about this question because it marks what is probably the most important difference between undergraduate and graduate studies. Undergraduates are, by and large, amateurs, and graduates are professionals, or being trained to be.
I didn’t really have any appreciation of what this meant when I was in graduate school, at least not at first. Being professionalized is a process that takes place over time. You don’t suddenly wake up to a professional identity. You acquire one gradually, along with maturity and grey hair. I think most new graduate students carry forward the attitudes of their undergraduate experience, assuming that life will continue with some different challenges but remain essentially manageable. At some point a graduate student starts to realize just how much is expected in the lab or the graduate seminar, and he or she realizes that you have to have earned entry to a club where everyone is at least as smart as or smarter than you are. Keeping your membership means performing at levels you have never reached before.
Becoming a professional is, in this regard, a psychological and intellectual journey. But strictly speaking, professionalization is a social process that leads to being paid for the activity you are engaged in. That’s why the oldest profession, as the vulgar commonplace has it, is not sex but prostitution.
In only the rarest circumstances are undergraduates actually paid to produce knowledge. Entry to graduate school, however, is usually accompanied by some financial support, the first happy sign of the difference between the amateurs and those who play in the professional world. I vividly recall the first time I realized I was actually going to be paid, so to speak, for doing graduate studies. I honestly couldn’t believe it. Why hadn’t anyone told me what a great gig this was? Paid to read and share ideas? Well, yes and no. There was certainly an expectation that I would be assisting a professor by marking papers and leading tutorials in his large first-year class. The financial support was specifically dedicated to paying me for those tasks, which I happily took on as part of my graduate student duties. How lucky, I thought, to be paid not only for attending school but for having the responsibility for disseminating knowledge. This apprenticeship in teaching is the most obvious part of the professionalization process. I was being paid to teach the amateurs. Sign me up for life, I said.
The profession you are being trained for as a graduate student, broadly speaking, is that of the academic, but more specifically it is the profession of chemistry, or philosophy, music, or geology, and so on. And each of those professions has its own norms, qualifications, and codes of conduct. Professionalization means acquiring knowledge of those codes and adhering to the norms of that group.
I believe there’s a downside to all this, and it has do with the increased pressure we put on graduate students to professionalize themselves too soon. We seem to have forgotten that they are engaged in a social process over time and instead demand that our students jump right into their professional identities from day one of their programs. The pressure on them to publish and navigate the conference circuit as soon and as often as possible is intense. This practice has become the new norm of the academic professional world, and it is practically impossible to scale it back. Faced with this shifting norm, we have stepped up our professionalizing services, advising graduate students how best to apply for jobs, do interviews, even dress for success. If the norm has changed then surely we have an ethical responsibility at our institutions to prepare students more rigorously, and not expect them to acquire a sense of what the professional demands simply by osmosis or intuition. I learned how to cook by watching my mother in the kitchen but I don’t think we want our graduate students to know how to lecture just by watching others teach.
So it is that we are all reproducing the same culture of early or pre-professionalization. In a competitive market, and with universities facing the challenge (problem?) of senior professors hanging around way past traditional retirement dates, the scramble to get an academic position is often a blood sport. In other words, the best professionalized applicant, PhD in hand, will win.
If we can’t return to a time when professionalization was a slower, more gradual process, when students had the luxury of acquiring and producing knowledge without worrying about where next to publish, then we need to find other ways of easing the pressure. Slow learning, unlike slow cooking, seems to be off the table. Perhaps that’s why someone invented campus pubs.