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Why is academia persistently described as a space that one can either remain in or else leave, totally and forever? Why are people either in academia or out of it?
First of all, we imagine the academy as a space from force of habit. For most of us, academia started out as a space: a campus. It was a place to go, a place to be, a place to work. Not for nothing do colleges celebrate their campuses as catalysts for community.
Now let’s look at the campus space: in its classical form, it’s enclosed. So it’s something to be in or out of. Our habit of thinking about academia as a space derives from the nature of the physical space it so often occupies. Why does this matter? Because when we talk about higher education in spatial terms, our habitual descriptions -- beginning with choices as simple as the prepositional phrases we use -- reflect and perpetuate many of our current problems with doctoral preparation.
Like the physical campus, the figurative space of academia is enclosed. Sometimes it’s even walled off entirely. One tightly closed-off area of academia is the academic job market, whose terms and practices are rife with spatially oriented language. The academic job market’s guiding job term is the tenure track, which someone is either on or off.
We’re also prone to describe academia in ways that create space between the academy and other arenas. There are careers in academia and those outside academia. People leave academia, or remain in academia. Still others are beyond the tenure track or academia itself -- which is a better, more positive descriptor, but still a spatially bound concept.
When we describe academia in spatial imagery, we endorse an imagined separation of worlds. That separation is a pernicious construct: it creates a world within opposed to a world outside. Or to put it more bluntly, it leads to separatism: us and them.
This binary thinking separates academia from society at large and hinders us from imagining ourselves in a productive relation to that wider society. We need to exchange this binary for new, more capacious metaphors. New metaphors will free us to think about new practices. Academia is not one world but many intersecting and overlapping ones -- and we need new ways to inhabit them together.
Examining language patterns in this area isn’t a theoretical exercise. Ideas have legs, and our terminology encourages those legs to take us down certain paths. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson remind us in Metaphors We Live By, metaphors are not usually ornamental. Rather, “human thought processes are largely metaphorical.”
Thus it is that metaphors like “the mind is machine” are embedded in phrases we use on a daily basis, like “My mind just isn’t operating well today,” or “I could see the wheels turning in his head.” Another metaphor, “time is money,” circulates in phrases like “I can’t spare the time” and “You need to budget your time” or even “How did you spend your weekend?”
To Lakoff and Johnson’s list of metaphors, we might add another that we reinforce every day: “Academia is a place.” Or “academia is a container.”
But academia isn’t a place or a container. It would in almost every instance be better described as a collection of people.
The metaphor of academia as container influences us even when we describe the “academic community,” because the current version of academic community too often sounds like another class of container that has holds certain people and excludes others.
The idea of academia as container doesn’t capture the interconnected and overlapping relationships that individuals have had with higher education in the past, present and future. (Allow me to pose a quick thought experiment: Was/is Ralph Waldo Emerson in academia?)
To reimagine academia for the 21st century, we need new metaphors to describe its variegated nature. One suggestion: let’s conceive of the academy and the worlds it intersects with as an ecosystem. And let’s imagine careers that blend academia and other sectors, and find descriptors worthy of them.
We should spend time to rethink our terms because the language we use and our personal and collective attitudes toward professional development are closely related. In the particular case of graduate education, we need to be more attentive to how we describe what Ph.D.s do.
The metaphors we’re looking for can’t and should not always be spatially derived. There are plenty of better metaphors when we look to the world of music, for example, in which harmonies can produce overtones, and in which notes can be discrete but also blended.
Each discipline should build a vocabulary around career and professional development that is more capacious. We especially need to stop characterizing careers as in or out, and simply describe them as they are.
Such a change would simply meet reality. All signs point to more blended careers for Ph.D.s., who will hold administrative as well as teaching positions, or move between higher education and other employers. Such careers feature not binaries or barriers, but interwoven communities and overlapping ecosystems, with people at the defining center.
This is a matter of language, and also of the actual lived experience of graduate students and graduate alumni. To describe academia differently opens up space for graduate students to rethink their approach to their own graduate training, their relationship to the academy and the ways that preparing for multiple outcomes is not just “professorial preparation, plus other stuff.”
A change in language will open our minds toward how we think about graduate training, the skills and competencies graduate students acquire during it, and the ways we think about our careers. If you think about your training differently, you may shape it differently for yourself.
For Ph.D. Students
Recognize that you will almost assuredly -- regardless of where you end up -- have a blended career, composed of a range of responsibilities and tasks that will sometimes expand in one area (say, project management or research) and sometimes in another (say, budgeting or strategic communications).
Even if your first job is assistant professor, you will almost assuredly have a career that is unlike your adviser’s.
So while we should resist imagining academia as a container, we also need to avoid thinking of other fields of endeavor as discrete pathways that we should identify and then prepare for in a linear fashion.
Linearity -- when it comes to career and professional development -- is overrated. There aren’t very many career arcs for Ph.D.s -- particularly in the humanities and social sciences -- that are reproducible. And so avoid the temptation to think right away about “what other jobs can I do?” or “what other job titles should I add to those I’m currently pursuing?” Instead, prepare for a range of positions by first remembering that industries are made up of people, and that your mission is to connect with a group you can contribute to using your strengths and background.
Reflect on the reasons you like academia, and take practical steps to bridge worlds. Find contacts who link higher ed and other sectors and schedule informational interviews.
Capture the granular details of how you spend your time, and then analyze what it is you’re doing, during both graduate school and free time. To this end, create résumé fodder folders: first, create a working Google Doc that documents -- at least once a week -- what you’ve done that week in bullet form and updates categories in this document. For example, have categories such as “Funding/Budgeting” that would include securing a departmental grant to host a graduate student conference, “Project Management,” that would detail actions taken and partnerships formed to organize a conference, as well as collating the skills you’re acquiring in the process of dissertating.
To complement this more high-level document, make sure you save the granular details so that you can pull them into résumés in the future. To do this, create an email folder with a title like “Résumé Fodder” and archive related emails in it. Your future self will thank you, as you’ll be able to bring together disparate elements of your professional self while also seeing gaps in key competency areas.
Because such granular details -- odd as it may seem -- help you keep track of the big picture. (Metaphor theorists like Lakoff and Johnson would have a lot to say about my last sentence!) But perhaps the best way to understand the relationship between capturing these granular details is to turn to a regular and intentional wielder of metaphor, the poet Annie Dillard who reminds us in The Writing Life that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”
Academia will continue to change as you progress through graduate school, as will your interests and commitments. Attending to how you spend your days over time is one of the best ways to ensure you’re not being bent to desires that aren’t your own.
For Ph.D. Program Leaders
Revise language on your websites, and in your conversations with graduate students and graduate alumni. Start with the terms we use to discuss professional development and career preparation in graduate education. The Council of Graduate Schools’ “Shaping New Narratives about PhD Careers: A Communications Resource to Advocate for Career Diversity” has a helpful “say this, not that” section.
A few examples: instead of “plan B,” we could substitute “flexible career paths” or “career diversity,” and instead of terms like “nonacademic” or “alternative careers,” use positive or at least neutral terms like “pathways beyond the professoriate” or “careers beyond academia.”
Value your alumni beyond the tenure track as advisers to your department’s students and faculty. They’re not just symbols or outcome statistics -- they have skills. They can help you reimagine your career and professional development practices, and more.
You might ask them, for example, for feedback on your website, your outreach to prospective graduate students and so on. Work to see all of your graduate alumni together in one picture, not fragmented into two camps depending on their relationship to academia.
Many departments have alumni advisory boards: a graduate alumni group would be a welcome addition, if you don’t have one already. And don’t just engage with the cheerful champions. In some cases, you’ll need to do some work to repair breaches with graduate alumni who haven’t heard from your department -- or who have been made to feel less-than or outside. Find your graduate alumni, give them fora and act on their ideas.
We need to center the complicated, lived experiences of those in graduate school while simultaneously celebrating those doctorally trained individuals whose tessellated experiences require new descriptors and a range of rhetorical choices from which we can build new policies and procedures.
Let’s resist simplistic language when describing the careers of people who exist in much more complicated relationships to higher education than our current crop of metaphors allow. Instead of thinking academia as a container, let’s come up with better metaphors. More important, let’s use them to together reimagine the future of the Ph.D.