Hasty Professionalization

The rush by students to make themselves appear employable may end up hurting their educations and their careers, writes one professor.

January 17, 2006

When he arrived at my office, one early spring morning, he looked like any other student, many of whom had been there with their add/drop slips. But he wasn’t. Ever since he had taken one of my classes two semesters previously, I noticed he was, as the saying goes, “going places.” Let’s call him Joe. Just entering his junior year, Joe was going places.

But that morning the only place he was going was my office, to ask me to add him to one of my classes. After I signed the required form, gave him the syllabus, and told him to buy the books and make sure he brought the assignment for next class, he gave me his card. It read, “Joe X, Business Major, Undergraduate Student,” followed by his e-mail address, his dorm address, phone number, cell phone number, and his Web site's address. After this last item, a line in italics said, accepting inquiries. In a corner, the (copyrighted) symbol of the university.

First, I thought that this card was some kind of a joke. After all, this young man was a first semester junior, and to judge from how he had done in my class, may not even be a particularly successful student in classes in his major. In spite of his “I know it all” attitude, which I remembered well, he did not have the most compelling study habits, and could not write well. But he could be seen schmoozing with the fraternity folks, and had gotten himself elected to be part of the student government. Right moves, I thought. Too bad, from a purely academic point of view, he did not have the same desire to excel. In any case, I visited his site, mainly out of curiosity. I was expecting some kind of blog where he felt free to disclose his feelings and reflections about life in school, girls, plans for the next spring break, and such.

The site, however, was a very professionally designed page, in which the young man appeared more like a “product,” than as what he was, an undergraduate. The opening page had a disclaimer that he was still an undergraduate, and gave the date of the probable graduation. In links, I could check his résumé: classes taken, papers written, and his evaluation of the classes as well as of the professors. I checked for the comments on my class: not bad (especially considering he had gotten a mere B-). There were pictures of him wearing a suit, talking to some other young people, another picture with some professors of my university, and a last one of him at a podium,  giving a speech. He had a list of abilities and skills, out of which a particular one called my attention: “capacity to transform any assignment into an opportunity to learn and to improve his skills.” Finally, he had a kind of unofficial  transcript -- a list of courses and grades earned. The grade for my class had risen to an A-.

This student’s attempt to present himself as a neat package, almost ready to enter the workforce, may have seemed exaggerated. I called him to my office and asked about the change in the grade for my class, to which he replied that the friend who had put the page together may have made a mistake, and that he would have it fixed. I asked him what he wished to accomplish with such a page, and he had no qualms to explain that he wanted to get a good job as soon as he left college. “The employers will not look at your transcript, anyway. They just want to know that you graduated.”  And what if you want to go to graduate school? I asked. “In that case, they will look mostly at your GPA.” I told him that I thought that the home page was very well done, but that he should not appear to have or know more than he did. I don’t recall what he said in reply. Maybe he didn’t say anything, after all, who am I? Only a professor, not even in the department where he has a major.

After this exchange, I began noticing that many of my undergraduate students had similar pages or blogs, whose main purpose was to advertise them as employable. I could not check the truth of the claims in many of them. But this led me to reflect on what seems to be a trend, at least in my university: undergraduate students who either haste or are led to haste to the next level, to become professionals even before they are ready, or minimally prepared.

I checked with some friends in the biological sciences, and they said that their students are indeed encouraged to start looking for assistantships, internships, and other research possibilities as soon as they start their freshman year. Colleagues in the business school say the same. The students in technology begin thinking about résumés even before they can write “curriculum.” It is no wonder that students in the humanities are doing the same, by putting together their home pages and pumping themselves up as soon as they understand that this is what everyone is doing. In each of my advanced classes, students are eager to “publish” their final essays, even when I tell them that the material is not ready, and that they should revise them and wait a while longer, to mature their takes on their subjects. Very few listen. Most just go ahead and publish their essays in their blogs and on their Web pages, thus making public something that is not ready, and that may, in the long run, not reflect as positively on their authors as they would like.

Of course, there should be nothing wrong in this attempt to move on, to promote what one has accomplished. However, such speed can cause a number of side effects that can be very negative to a young person’s professional future.  

First, there is the matter of the conflict between the unofficial and the official transcripts. Even though my first professional undergraduate insisted that neither prospective employers nor grad school officials ever read the whole transcript, there is always the matter of keeping as close to truth as possible. Second, there is the real danger that, if the employer buys the package “whole,” this person will be given responsibilities and tasks above his or her level of maturity or knowledge.

But who is powering this machine? The professors in departments that want their majors to obtain jobs quickly and thus reflect positively on the department? The parents who want their children employed as soon as possible so that they can begin to repay the student loans? Or the students themselves, who want to look grown-up as soon as possible, to “get on with real life”? The current job situation, which pushes every new graduate into a kind of terror of not getting a job as soon as he gets his diploma?  

Because I teach in the humanities, this situation reminds me of the story of a brilliant woman who never finished her Ph.D. and never forgives herself for giving it up. No matter how successful she may be in her current profession, she feels she has a terrible failure in her life, because she gave up teaching, her first love. And the reason for her failure is that she went into teaching before she was prepared, and that experience scarred her so much that she lost all confidence in herself. As she tells the story, when she finished her graduate comps, her advisor encouraged her to take an adjunct position at a very wealthy college in the East. The chair of the department was his friend and they needed somebody for a year. “A year is nothing,” her advisor said, “and you can mature the subject of your dissertation. Besides, it will look good in your CV for when you are ready to go for tenure-track positions.”

He failed to give my friend some pointers about teaching in a very exclusive institution whose students drove cars of the year, took spring break vacations to Europe, and whose parents practically owned the school. The department chair did not fail to remind her, however, that the parents paid for and demanded total dedication from the faculty. She spent the year terrified of making a mistake, preparing classes to the last minute detail, and feeling that she could be called down by any student, colleagues, the chair, the parents, at any time.

The dissertation? She did not have time to even think about it. Her advisor never called, never wrote, never tried to know how she was doing. Not that she wanted any contact, because she was sure that he would not like to see that she was barely managing to keep a semblance of normalcy during the year. She was afraid she was going to disappoint him.

After two semesters, the contract over, she was completely stressed out, disappointed, unsure of the validity of her dissertation, and suspecting that she could never acquire enough confidence to face a classroom again. She never returned to finish her Ph.D. The year teaching proved to her, she thinks, that she would never know enough to teach the subject. Her memories of the dread of being “outed” as an “incompetent” kept her from ever trying to be a teacher anymore.

Of course, somebody who doesn’t know this woman can say that it may just have been as well. Probably she would not be a good teacher anyway. But the truth is that she is, actually, someone who is a good teacher. She just was placed in front of the classroom without real teaching preparation, and without enough confidence in her knowledge in order to just “wing it” when she didn’t know the answer to every question. Her advisor, in his haste to “place” his student, did not remember that this person needed a longer time to mature in the profession, and that she needed to start teaching in stages, to acquire her style and her self-confidence. Some people do not need these stages, and can jump into teaching, so to speak. But these are the exception.

The result, for this friend, has not been so devastating. She collected her master’s degree, and got a job in a company. Now she prepares and trains co-workers. She does not feel threatened by the atmosphere, and is indeed considered one of their best workshop leaders. But the lack of a Ph.D. weighs on her, and the memory of the “year in fear” are strong enough for her to mention them frequently.

When my undergraduates want to prove they know and are more than they are and know, I now sit with them and tell them they should not try to run before they can walk with confidence. I have advised some to think about the Peace Corps. To others I have said that they could consider internships. And to some I have said that they should give another thought to graduate school, before they go on to a full-fledged career. I understand that many need to start making money as soon as possible, but I still tell them that they should not try to jump stages and take on more than they are prepared for. As advisors, we owe it to our students to remind them of these truths that seem to not be apparent.


Anónima teaches at a Southwest institution. She hates not to use her real name because of fear of losing her job over this column. But she doesn't have tenure and you never know.


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