Chances are you were not attracted to academia by the professional identity of “Historian” or “Literary Scholar” or “Sociologist” or whatever they call people in your field.
You were attracted by the possibilities of particular research questions. You selected a program that would enable you to explore those questions. That may have been in a specific discipline or in an interdisciplinary area.
As your research progressed, your commitment to this particular discipline or field may have deepened. Or, you may have discovered that there were other ways of looking at these issues that you find compelling, perhaps more than the discipline in which you did your PhD.
And then you start looking for a job
Now discipline matters. Professionalism is discipline.
Your idea about what it means to be a “Historian”, “Gender Studies Scholar” or whatever is now haunting everything you do.
You may even be paralyzed by the Spectre of Professionalism.
It doesn’t end there
I know a few academics who have tenure and are still haunted by this particular Spectre.
All those debates about whether academics should blog, or be on Twitter? Haunted.
Anxieties about having a wider impact? Haunted.
Frustrations with the current debates in your discipline? Haunted.
Concerns about whether this is really suitable for the kinds of journals your colleagues expect you to publish in? Haunted.
Not to mention feeling like the debates at the conferences and in the journals are somehow beside the point.
What kind of professional scholar do you want to be?
Set aside the question of whether anyone will pay you to be that scholar (for a moment).
- What topics do you want to be working on?
- What kinds of writing do you want to be doing?
- Who do you want to be communicating with? Specifically.
- Which debates are most compelling to you?
Getting clear on what it means to you to be a scholar can help you make the decisions to get there. You may have to compromise but compromise consciously, based on your own vision.
Do not impute magical powers to “the tenure track job” or whatever other future state you imagine. Yes, security and a salary will make a huge difference to your ability to imagine a scholarly programme and do good scholarly work. But if you don’t have a clear vision of the kind of scholarly life you want, you could very well end up with a job that is still haunted by the Spectre.
If you already have that job, knowing what your own vision for your scholarly work is can help you identify opportunities to pursue activities in line with your vision even if these are currently considered marginal.
There is no easy path
Success involves hard work. It involves taking risks, some of which won’t pay off.
Pursuing your own vision of a professional scholar means that you are engaged in work you find meaningful and probably enjoyable.
That makes it easier to do the hard work. It makes it easier to pick yourself up and get back on the road when something doesn’t work. It makes it easier to fight for the recognition you deserve.
But it won’t make it easy by default. And it won’t make the work you do less valuable.
This post was edited July 14, 2015 and again 25 October 2018.