Professionalization: A Formula for Anxiety?

Anne-Elise Coste, "Professionalization is killing art" (2008) I first misread this as: "Professionalization is a killing art," which, really, is just somehow so much more poignant.

Anne-Elise Coste, “Professionalization is killing art” (2008)
I first misread this as: “Professionalization is a killing art,” which, really, is just somehow so much more poignant.


(R) is for Risk; (A) is for Anxiety: A new blog post on PhD professionalization, quantitative risk assessment, and what the two have to do with graduate-student anxiety.

Professionalization makes me bloody anxious.


The term “professionalization” refers to the process of professional development that grad students undergo in preparation for their debut on the academic job market. The term “professional development” usually refers to the process of improving and updating one’s skill sets when already employed. “Professionalization” is a whole different beast because it’s about developing skills and acquiring credentials based on some unknown, unquantifiable set of future possibilities, which may or may not actually exist. And, even more importantly, these maybe-extant opportunities are also only maybe-desirable. A PhD student’s graduate career is of a minimum four years; this extended period of professionalization compels grad students to prepare not only for presently-felt desires, but for a whole thwack of desires that might not yet exist.

This is a pretty anxious situation. It might be described as “inherently paranoid,” as Dan Colson (2010) has suggested. He writes that the “balancing act of teaching and coursework, the inscrutable whims of a dissertation director, and the heartless machinations of ‘the university’ can all portend our [read: PhD students’] demise. …the pressures of graduate school turn us into the self-conscious subjects for whom there need be no watchful eye manning the panopticon” (1).

Okay, never mind that Colson seems to misunderstand both what paranoia actually is or that the panopticon is effective as a mechanism of surveillance precisely because the surveilled never know when or if they are being watched–we must, then, always assume that we are never out of sight–besides these points, Colson’s is a rather caustic if not ominous iteration of the standard diagnosis of grad-student anxiety: our anxiety is justified because grad-student life is inherently anxiety-causing.

(R) is for Risk; (A) is for Anxiety

Graduate students are anxious because we are risk assessors. We are constantly performing quantitative risk assessments, such that even if you are a math- and stats-incompetent scholar of the social history of the English kitchen garden, you will be familiar with this quantitative risk assessment formula: the calculation of  “two components of risk (R): the magnitude of the potential loss (L), and the probability (p) that the loss will occur.”

I am tired of the formula. I have over-used it, and with little quantifiable data to insert as values. Rather than resulting in a quantification of (R), which might allow me to make informed decisions, my risk calculations result more often than not in anxiety (A), and, in extreme but not uncommon cases, in uncontrolled rampant anxiety (Uncontrolled Rampant A).

So how do grad students and departments make professionalization–a necessary, incredibly helpful process for grad students–a less anxious one?

1. Do All the Things

Departments can and should do all the things that the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Professionalization of PhDs suggests in its report, “Professionalization in Perspective.”  Luckily for me, my department already does all the things the report recommends. Here are a few highlights: we have dedicated professionalization committees for academic and non-academic jobs, which host regular workshops and info sessions on important subjects like interview skills, how to write a CV, networking, conferencing and so on. In my department, these committees also have created and maintain online sites that function as repositories of important resources, like sample CVs, but also work to create professional communities in departments.

If professionalization “is now part of the normal and indeed required preparation for a life in the academy, or, for that matter, outside it” (MLA Ad Hoc Committee), then I think it important that we make it less bloody demoralizing. Grad students need not feel like paranoiacs. Nor should PhD programs be promoting departmental cultures that, as Kathleen McConnell has phrased it, define professionalism “less as a matter of advancing a program of research and teaching and more a matter of recalibrating… selves in order to ‘stay on track'” (1777). McConnell makes the case that professionalism–and by extension, professionalization–in academic circles is quickly being reframed as an issue of “self discipline” (1778), which, not surprisingly, always places the individual as an object of discipline at fault and in need of correction.

Anne-Elise Coste, "Professionalization is killing art" (2008) I first misread this as: "Professionalization is a killing art," which, really, is just somehow so much more poignant.

Anne-Elise Coste, “Professionalization is killing art” (2008)
I first misread this as: “Professionalization is a killing art,” which, really, is just somehow so much more poignant.

2. Do All the Things, but Don’t Say All the Things

If step one in making professionalization and job markets less terrifying for grad students is formalizing professionalization supports within departments, step two is considering the departmental culture you would like to foster with and through these supports. This means that while departments must offer robust professionalization supports to grad students, they must also be careful that they do not overwhelm students with tactical advice about what to do in case x, y, z, and a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, and so on.

Right now, I’d wager that many departmental professionalization programs prefer tactical training over the development of strategic thinking among graduate students. And this is a big problem.

Thinking strategically about professionalization means thinking about the type of scholar, researcher, writer, teacher and co-worker you would like to be. This is not to say that strategic professionalization is about sailing blindly to a Gold Mountain of scholarship, where the streets are paved with academic integrity and absolute, unconstrained intellectual freedom.  The authors of “Professionalization in Perspective” cite the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences when they describe the general understanding of professionalization as “the development of skills, identities, norms, and values associated with becoming part of a professional group” (Felice, qtd. in “Perspective”). In terms of professionalization, then, thinking about the type of scholar & academic you would like to be means thinking about not only your own ethics, ideals and desires, but also how these values can and will translate to the norms and standard practices of the job markets you would like to enter.

In contrast to strategic professionalization, tactical professionalization requires constant risk assessments on the part of graduate students. Professionalization programs that attempt comprehensive analyses of every aspect of professionalization–or, programs that in doing all the things also try to say all the things, all of them–often end up reproducing an irresponsible cult(ure) of the individual that downloads the burdens of complex, inhuman systems onto the shoulders of individuals. Professionalization programs that offer training and support mostly on the tactical level result in high levels of graduate student anxiety precisely because individual actions and behaviors are suddenly freighted with conditions outside of an individual’s control. Within even progressive departments, then, departmental cultures are produced that authorize the inhuman logic of the labour market and transforms it into individual, even moral burden. For a truly amazing discussion of this dynamic, read Kathleen F. McConnell’s article in International Journal of Education, titled “Of Careers and Curricula Vitae: Losing Track of Academic Professionalism” (2011).

3. Changing How We Say All the Things

What I’m not so sure of is how such an anxious culture might be transformed. Before sitting down to write this post, I came across Mind the Gap, a blog written by Sarah Thorneycroft, an “academic developer” who works at the Teaching and Learning Centre at the University of New England. In a recent post, she comments:

Generally if you are an educator in a university or school, you have a fairly extensive list of restrictions you are working with whenever you attempt to do something new and/or innovative with your teaching practice. You have both institutional and governmental red tape to comply with, administrative processes to follow, institutional structures, set content and/or assessment etc etc. Change is difficult to effect. There are many rogues and cowboys out there doing cool stuff regardless, but generally, as an industry education is far from agile and conducive to innovative practice.

But – professional development (as an entity in education) is almost entirely unregulated. Almost none of these restrictions apply to us when we are designing training and PD programs. And yet this is an almost universally wasted opportunity. We fill our PD programs with face to face workshops that are generally only a computer click or two away from a lecture. Powerpoint presentations. Paper handouts. We’re presented with a situation which perhaps more than any other scenario in education facilitates truly innovative design, and we’re dropping the ball rather badly.

I’m not sure I agree with Throneycroft’s criticism of “face to face workshops,” or with her promotion of distance online seminars and courses. But her recognition of the relative freedom to innovate in internal training in colleges and universities did make me think: how much of the anxiety that grad students express about professionalization has to do with the format in which we encounter its discussion? In my department, panels are often formed of senior PhDs and experienced faculty who share their expertise with graduate students on clustered topics like networking or publishing. I’ve sat in on these panel discussions and have benefited greatly from them. I have also been a panelist a few times for such events. But in both positions–as auditor and as speaker–I have found myself wondering: Does a format that so openly invites anecdotal evidence and the sharing of personal experience lead to the cataloguing of specific, and ultimately innumerable tactics for any number of possible situations and concerns?*

*Faculty members at McMaster’s Dept. of English & Cultural Studies have set up fantastic online resources for graduate students regarding professionalization, which, to me, offers an important alternative to the workshop format. If you’re a student or faculty member in the English & CSCT program at McMaster, you can access the academic-jobs resource via Mac’s current LMS, Avenue to Learn. Students and faculty at Mac can also check out the Non-Academic Jobs Resourceblog–interviews with alumni make this resource a deeply engaging one (it’s hosted by McMaster’s library website).

Works Cited

Colson, Dan. “Paranoia and Professionalization: The Importance of Graduate Academic Freedom.”  AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom 1 (2010): 1-18. Web.

McConnell, Kathleen F. “Of Careers and Curricula Vitae: Losing Track of Academic Professionalism.” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011): 1776-1785. Web.

MLA Ad Hoc Committee for the Professionalization of PhDs. “Professionalization in Perspective.” Hutcheon, Linda, Wendy W. Allen, Don Bialostosky, Anne Donadey, Christopher M. Kuipers, John B. Lyon, Philip White, and Rafia Zafar. Web.

Thorneycroft, Sarah. Mind the Gap. 2013. Blog.


4 thoughts on “Professionalization: A Formula for Anxiety?

  1. Lisa, you’re spot on with this. Even reading about professionalization makes me anxious about professionalization!

    I have tried to find a way to put into words just what I find so very anxiety provoking about professionalization but have struggled to do so. This elucidates a lot of what I have been feeling!

    • Thanks Phebe! I imagine that professionalization anxiety might be increasing for a lot of people as they near completion of their degree. Do you find this to be so? I’ve somehow found the opposite: the longer I’m in our program the more I recognize just how much is out of my hands, and that makes it easier to not worry about it.

      • I find I am much MUCH less anxious about professionalization now that I am not on campus very often, and thus have been able to distance myself from the culture of professionalization. Spending most of my time away from the university, I realize I have many skills, talents and capabilities, including many that are not even recognized as such within academic realm. I’ve also realized that most of my friends who are not academics are similarly struggling with finding a career that suits them (or even with finding work at all) so it’s not a problem we’re alone with in academia — so, like you, I’ve been able to see that a lot of this is out of my hands – it’s a much more structural problem. It’s really given me perspective!

  2. Pingback: Conferencing! | survivingtillsunday

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