Rebecca S. Graff
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, Illinois, USA

In the American academic job market, it seems neoliberally optimistic if not willfully obtuse to suggest to graduate students and early career archaeologists that, if only they adjust some personal practices to become more professional, they will successfully find and retain employment. Structurally speaking, “professionalization” at this individual level will not alter the corporatizing of the academic job market, with up to 70% contingent faculty in a professoriate with deteriorating working conditions. It won’t impact a public sector whose existence is threatened by government agency closures and reviews of existing National Monuments and antiquities legislation. And it can’t resolve the issues surrounding what constitutes academic labor. That being said, there remain legitimate reasons to think seriously about professionalization.

In writing this post I reached out to colleagues in a variety of archaeological careers and stages (grad student, recent grad, postdoc, administrator, untenured T-T professor, etc.) to get their thoughts on professionalization. The pieces of advice that follow, grouped by theme, come from myself and from these women in my network, who generously took some time to think about lessons we learned. A couple of caveats: First, since professionalization can mean a variety of different things, note that many of the suggestions listed below treat professionalization as a social practice and a mindset associated with those practices and interactions. Second, these interactions are very personal and play out among intersecting gender, race, class, and (sub)disciplinary identities within these social institutions. Thus for me as an assistant professor of anthropology at a small liberal arts college, who has worked at larger R1 and R2 universities, including as an archivist in academic libraries, many but not all of the suggestions ring true. Take what you think will help you, and ignore the rest (another good thing to remember when people give you advice!).

Self-Identity/Creation of Public Self

  • Own your expertise. Say aloud what you are an expert in (use that word, it’s hard!), until it comes naturally. Imposter syndrome is real!
  • Please replace “in my dissertation” with “in my upcoming book, article, whatever” whenever possible (especially job talks!).
  • Learn from others, learn to work with others to achieve what you need, and learn to lead in a way that is effective and fulfilling for you.
  • Be an “ethnographer” and pay attention to the institutions you are interested in as well as the people who populate them.
  • Be observant: when you’re in a room of academics, watch the dynamics.
  • Consider how you might comport yourself professionally. I recall attending meetings as a grad student where others were clearly not paying attention—cleaning their wallets out, checking their phones, etc. People notice these actions and may negatively perceive them.
  • Remember to review and/or “curate” your presence on social media. Everyone checks this.
  • Sit on a difficult email for a bit before sending a response, and remember that all email is potentially public—you never know who else might read it.
  • In the classroom, it’s ok to insist on “Professor” or “Doctor.” I like this poem by Susan Harlan on the gendered dynamics of instructor naming conventions.

Work/Life “Balance”

  • Prioritize finding some kind of work-life balance. You’ll have more energy to be the best scholar/teacher/colleague you can be if you’ve recharged by doing something other than your job….Of course, that assumes that you don’t have to teach five courses a semester and hold a part-time job just to cover your rent, student loans, and day care.
  • Learn how to say no. As per the article I linked to [Epistemic Reproductive Labor and the “Academic Wife”], women end up doing a lot of uncredited work. Prioritize things that are important for your career/family. Never commit to things immediately; walk away and think about it for 24 hours.
  • Stop apologizing—for your family needs, tardy reply, whatever.
  • There is never a good time to have children.

Networking and Job Searches

  • Do attend and present at academic conferences, but stop putting panels together that are just you and your grad school friends. It’s important to use these opportunities to meet scholars from other institutions and organizations.
  • Never go over time in a job talk. The floor will open up and swallow you.
  • Never accept the first offer—i.e. always negotiate. Prioritize what’s most important to you (salary? start-up? spousal hire? etc.) and make the case for why this request is integral to your ability to be the best teacher-scholar you can be for that institution.

Clearly, this short blog post is not meant to fully summarize recent writings on the state of graduate student and early career academic professionalization. Further reflections and advice on academic professionalization can be found at Inside Higher Ed (see “5 Professional Skills”) and elsewhere, including those by the SHA’s Standing Committees in their blogs.

Thanks to all who answered my call for their professionalization advice. One of the most important reminders from one of these colleagues was how important these friendships are, especially in navigating this career. One friend wrote “I don’t know how to succeed in academia, but I do know how to enjoy it: surround yourself with colleagues and mentors you like and trust.” And another reminded all of us during our conversation, “Be kind—to yourself and to others.”

Written by Rebecca Graff

Associate Professor of Anthropology