As a PhD student (No, my dissertation is not done. Yes, I should be writing it now.) there is a mysterious land beyond the portals of graduation called “an Academic Career.” I have witnessed that this land exists, because my professors are all experiencing it. However, until recently, I have encountered very little information that can help me understand the challenges that may be ahead. (Of course, as I write this, I am an administrator at Oklahoma Baptist University. My academic career as a professor is likely to remain a secondary concern to my role in the administration.)
Gary Burge pulls back the curtain on a career in academia, using his decades-long experience and some psycho-social categories to frame a discussion of the progression of individuals through the jungles of higher education. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, so this volume has the flavor of Christian higher education. However, the text applies to all contexts, whether “secular” or “religious.”
According to Burge, there are three main stages of an academic career. He excludes the Pupal stage, which is an indeterminate but often lengthy period before hooding occurs. These stages are divided into cohorts that are bounded by landmark events rather than age.
Cohort One is the phase where faculty are seeking tenure. This is really a pursuit of security. A quest for the knowledge that one’s academic work has been truly accepted and the brand sponsorship of a university or college has been achieved. Cohort One is characterized by frenetic activity in the scholarly realm: books, conference papers, articles, and book reviews. The young scholar is seeking to be validated and achieve sufficient clout within the academy that his or her peer vote him into the club. This is also the time when teaching skills must be gained, for often they are neglected in the road to earning a terminal degree. The absence of classroom skills has a greater potential to undermine faculty success than publishing opportunities, yet it gets much less attention than it deserves. Burge champions a meaningful mentorship process, where an older faculty invests concern and effort into the young scholar who may be struggling to connect in the classroom or even simply figure out how to put meals on his meal card.
Cohort Two is characterized by chasing success. The faculty (and perhaps the Board of Trustees) have affirmed the scholar’s ability through tenure. Now priorities can shift. Burge notes that there are basically three directions a career can take in this phase. First, individuals can achieve tenure and get distracted or lazy. They may stop publishing, stop keeping up with their field and coast to retirement. Often any success such individuals had in the classroom fades as they lose expertise in their field. Another tendency is to privatize research endeavors and to withdraw from the surrounding community in hopes of publishing a “definitive” work in the field. The third option is the golden mean, which includes publications, professional activities, pursuit of teaching excellence in relatively balanced proportion. At its best, Cohort Two closes with a sense of achieved excellence both in the classroom and in the academic field.
At the tail end of a scholar’s career is Cohort Three. This time in life has a loose beginning point. About the time earlier mentors retire, you wonder who let their kids come to the faculty meeting with voting power, and restaurants begin to give you a senior discount without asking you will have entered Cohort Three. This is the phase of professional development when some administrators consider professors a lost cause and, indeed, some of them are. This cohort usually ends in retirement, but that can be preceded by withdrawal from participation in the community, a sense of despair because no friends remain, or sometimes veneration by peers and younger scholars. At its best Cohort Three entails a shift in emphasis toward lower energy activities, opportunities to mentor younger faculty, and continued personal growth until retirement.
Burge’s book is a quick read that would be good for many seminary and university administrators to read. It would also be useful to put into the hands of an institution’s faculty because of the helpful advice about navigating some of the pitfalls of academic life.
Based on my experience (limited as it may be) in academic life, Burge’s cohorts are a reasonable way to describe the progress through the scholarly lifecycle. As he described both the successes and the potential pitfalls, there were individuals that I know that fit those roles.
The weakness in these cohorts is that there are not clear points of delineation between some of them. For example, it is difficult to tell whether one is in Cohort Two or Cohort Three. However, this does not undermine the overall explanatory power.
This would be a useful text for both religious and non-religious audiences. However, it may have been beneficial to discuss some of the spiritual dimensions of some of these cohorts instead of relying on mainly psychological categories. Perhaps another text would be more apt for that purpose, but a deeper discussion of changing spiritual disciplines over an academic career would have been beneficial.
This is well worth the time and money. If you are looking for a text for a professional development discussion group, to work through in a mentorship relationship, or for personal enrichment as an administrator in higher education, this volume would be a good choice.
Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided with no expectation of a positive review.