Like many, my graduate program has long had a mandatory professionalization workshop series–PWPs, as we call them–that all PhD candidates must complete before we’re allowed to graduate. Rachel Cayley wrote a useful blog post last week that distinguishes nicely between professionalization and professional development, and PWPs are very much about professionalization as Cayley defines it: they happen at the department level, are targeted at preparing grad students to work within, and eventually become tenured members of, our discipline, and are run by faculty. (My job at SickKids, in contrast, is about professional development as Cayley defines it, which happens at the institutional level, is generally aimed at less discipline-specific or narrowly academic professional skills, is often explicitly about non-academic career preparation, and is run by people like me). As professionalization, my department’s PWP series covers the usual stuff that one needs to succeed as a graduate student who is aiming to become a faculty member: conference papers and journal articles, job applications and interviews, teaching, writing the dissertation proposal, applying for scholarships, etc.
I somehow managed to miss out on one of our PWPs–“Professional Resources and Strategies,” run by our own Lily Cho, who also happens to be my supervisor–and squeaked it in on Tuesday, just in time to defend. Because I’ve been at York since 2008, I’ve been able to watch with interest the shifts in how it understands and addresses what it sees as the fundamental purpose of graduate education. I started out as a new PhD student in a graduate department that spoke of “the profession” as though there were actually just the one, in 2012 became a graduate assistant in the Faculty of Graduate Studies whose job it was to research professional and career development programs on campus and across the country, then in 2013 took a full-time job in administration and launched the Faculty’s university-wide graduate professional skills program. Back in 2008, the PWPs I attended didn’t acknowledge, never mind confront, the idea that we were training to become anything but tenured professors at R1 institutions. In her PWP, however, Lily spent quite a bit of time acknowledging that a workshop on strategies for professionalizing within academia occupied a fraught position given the awareness that only about 20% of us would ever enter that profession. It made for a useful and realistic but strange sort of workshop, and it made me wonder:
What does professionalization look like when “the profession” isn’t, or isn’t only, what we’re aiming for? And how do we balance the need to prepare all of the graduate students who are interested in that route for the academic job market and a future academic job in case they do end up in one, while recognizing that we’re professionalizing 80% of them for a profession they’ll never enter?
The other grad students who were in Lily’s PWP with me wondered this too, and they seemed to find her very considered attempt to do both things–acknowledge the realities of the job market while preparing people for that market–disorienting. A couple of them suggested dispensing with a discussion of those realities altogether, which certainly would simplify things. That’s essentially what we do at SickKids, in some very specific contexts. We do a lot of transferable-skills type professional development, but I also coordinate a thing called PI Prep School, which is a very comprehensive career development program designed to get people jobs as academic scientists (or principal investigators, i.e. PIs). It covers everything from preparing job documents to establishing your first lab, and includes a full day mock campus interview (awkward lunch with the hiring committee included). At the PI Prep School intro session, we talk very little about the job market for academic scientists, which is just about as bad as any other. Mostly, we just proceed as though everyone in the room who wants an academic job may very well get one, and work from that premise. It’s straightforward, and while it might be unrealistic, it does away with the uneasiness that the mismatch between purpose and reality seemed to create for some of the people who attended Lily’s PWP.
But PI Prep School is aimed at preparing people only for the very last part of being professionalized–the point at which you move into being a professional–and only those people who are interested in and committed to going that route participate. The people interested in learning how to do a good job talk either know what the job market is like and have decided that they don’t care, or don’t know and don’t care to know. A discussion of the realities of the job market they’re professionalizing toward could, and largely has been, dispensed with. But what about a mandatory workshop on publishing journal articles, or giving conference presentations, or teaching? To a certain extent, those workshops could be considered useful to all grad students because those activities are arguably a part of the graduate degree, although you could absolutely–if you had no intention of becoming an academic–never publish a journal article or give a conference presentation as a PhD candidate. But how do we–or do we need to–address the fact that these professional competencies, when framed in specifically academic terms, are attending to the professional futures of so few?
Some of the other participants in Tuesday’s PWP seemed to think that we don’t, but I’m not sure I agree. I was, like many people who began their PhDs alongside me, woefully unaware of the academic job market when I started, and only became aware as the market in my field–Canadian literature, never a very robust one to begin with–tanked very loudly after the economic downturn. My program made no effort (at least that I was aware of) to make its students aware of its academic placement rates, or of the other kinds of jobs its graduates were taking up after their degrees. PWPs talked about “the profession” without the scare quotes, as if there were only one, and contextualized the professionalization we were doing only as preparing us for that singular career path. I found the culture that approach promoted very damaging when it came time to figure out my own non-academic career path, and I’m certainly not alone in that. The old approach served very few, and my graduate program seems to have realized it. Lily’s workshop is evidence of that, and so too is the new #altac workshop the department is bringing me in to run as part of the PWP series starting in the fall.
I’d suggest that there’s a third way to approach this–not to professionalize as though entering academia is inevitable and the only option, or to get caught up in the seeming strangeness of professionalizing 100% of graduate students for a job 20% of them will have, but making professionalization a little more like professional development. One of the things that professional development for graduate students works to do is to make clear to PhDs the transferability of their skills to a fields and jobs in and out of the university environment. And while professionalization as Cayley defines it is about preparing people to be professors and academic scientists, what we teach in professionalization workshops and courses isn’t applicable to just that profession. Yes, the PWP on writing articles and giving conference presentations is aimed at helping us build our C.V.s, but it is also–and could, perhaps should, be explicitly framed as–preparing us to be effective writers and public speakers wherever we end up. Writing grants is a key part of being a faculty member in most fields, and a major topic in professionalization programs, but guess what? A major proportion of the non-professor PhDs I know work in research funding administration, writing, developing and administering grants (me included). Let’s talk about that in our PWPs. The same goes for Lily’s professional resources and strategies workshop: the same strategies that she suggested as useful for becoming an academic professional (making connections with people in your field, reading blogs by people who write about higher ed, keeping up on major trends, figuring out the dress code, going to the most useful conferences) are the very same ones that help you become a professional in whatever field you choose.
It isn’t a major change, and it doesn’t require much of professors–not much more than figuring out where else academic skills could be useful and then talking about it–but it might solve the problem of professionalization when “the profession” isn’t (only) what we’re aiming for.