Teaching future minority PhDs about the academic career path

academic career timeline

In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dian Squire laments that many racial (and gender) minority graduate students in the US are ill-prepared for careers as tenure-track faculty. This is not because they lack the requisite research and teaching skills, but because they do not understand how the career track works.

He brings up examples of doctoral students who did not understand the administrative structure of the university or the different types of faculty positions out there. He argues that faculty in doctoral programs should spend more time on professional development. As “digiwonk” wrote in the comments:

Most graduate education is still based on the model of “read books, write papers, and I’ll tell you when you’re good enough.” There’s really nothing about HOW to do any of this, or how to negotiate and understand the institutional and career aspects of working in the academy.

As a racial minority and first-generation student myself, I can relate to many of the misunderstandings of the academic career path that Squire mentions in the article. When I entered my graduate program several years ago, I did not know that there was a difference between tenured and untenured faculty, and had never heard of adjuncts before. I did not know that I was attending a “Research 1” university, or what that meant. I had no idea how an academic job search worked, or what the criteria were for promotion on the tenure track.

I learned all of those things rather quickly, but it would have been helpful if I had a better understanding of academic life before I applied to graduate school. In my work with the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows, I try to make sure that all of the fellows have a solid understanding of the academic career track and of academic labor before they apply to graduate school. Nearly all of the students in the program at UCLA are students of color who are in the first generation of their families to go to college. Many had transferred from community colleges and are older than their “traditional age” (18-22 years old) peers. They were admitted to the fellowship program because they have a strong desire to get PhDs and become college faculty. However, when they come in to the program during their junior year, their grasp of what being a professor actually means is often tenuous at best.

One successful activity that I tried earlier this year was drawing a blank academic career timeline on the board and asking the students to fill it out. The timeline started from today and went to the end of the PhD program. I wrote different career milestones (e.g. “take comprehensive exams” and “defend dissertation”) and activities (e.g. “publish,” “attend conferences,” and “sleep”) on separate sticky notes. I asked the students to work as a group to figure out where the different sticky notes belonged on the timeline. Above the timeline I left a space for activities such as “sleep” that should be done at all stages.

This activity allowed the students to discuss amongst themselves what the different sticky notes meant and where they belonged on the timeline. As the instructor it was useful to listen in on the conversation because students would talk about their own assumptions as well as what they had heard from others. Once they had finished putting all of the sticky notes onto the timeline, I discussed with them where I thought the notes should go (“No, ‘you can sleep when you’re dead’ is not the right answer!”). This also gave me the chance to discuss any incorrect assumptions about the path through graduate school that I heard in the discussion. In the future, I plan to extend the timeline through to tenure.

It is important for graduate programs to be more proactive about professional development, especially with students from underrepresented minority groups. But it is also important to start early, with undergraduates who are considering academic careers, to make sure that they go into graduate school with a solid grasp of what they are getting themselves into.

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