Mapping Your Academic Career, Gary M. Burge. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
Summary: Traces the career trajectory of a college professor, identifying the factors that mark the successful passage from one “cohort” to the next, the risks to be negotiated in each season of work, and key resources for career development.
When many of us are young, we give relatively little thought to what the “map” of a career might look like and what differentiates a career that is successful and fulfilling from one that is not. Often, the focus is on landing a good starting position in a field for which one has prepared and then advancing within it. Often, though, we think the passage into adulthood is simply one of obtaining a real job, which we do in some form, with promotions and achievements, until we retire. What Gary M. Burge proposes, in this case for the academic career of a college professor, is that there is a discernible course that can be traced for college professors, and certain marks that differentiate successful and fulfilling journeys in academia from those that are not.
He breaks the career trajectory into three “cohorts”. Each of the cohorts is discussed in one of the chapters of the book. Each section includes helpful addenda on topics like mentoring, sabbaticals, financial planning, and retirement planning.
Cohort One faculty are those who have completed the doctorate and are pursuing tenure, which defines the key theme of this cohort: security. The chapter assumes those who have been appointed to tenure track positions and may have been more helpful if it included some material for those who have not yet been able to land such positions. It focuses on the formation of one’s core identity as a professor, on building strong peer and mentoring relationships, and on experiencing strong student and college validation of one’s work. I thought one of the most interesting sections here was his discussion of “toxic anxiety” and the importance of early intervention. This cohort ends with the granting of tenure.
Cohort Two is concerned with the theme of success. Key factors are effective teaching that connects with students, the pursuit of scholarship, often honed to a particular sub-discipline that one becomes “expert” in, for the sheer interest and enjoyment of the work, and the finding of one’s own voice, both in one’s discipline and institution. The pitfalls here are in not continuing to develop professionally, a type of egocentric disengagement, and unresolved institutional dissonance. Successful faculty are sought after by students, are making a distinctive contribution in their scholarly work, and both speak into and represent well the institutions with which they are affiliated.
The third cohort has to do with significance. These are “senior” faculty moving toward the end of their careers and are in the midst of a redefinition of both themselves as they age, and what is truly important within their work. If they negotiate this well, they become valued mentors to junior faculty and become more focused in their scholarship. If they have indeed grown in wisdom, they are often trusted “adult sages” to students who don’t want them as a friend but as a caring adult who listens and mentors. At some point, this stage ends in retirement, with the wise counsel of doing so before one has to.
Burge does not address the question of exernal changes: institutional change, disciplinary change, technological change, and change in student culture. Perhaps this is implicit in the developmental process he charts, but it seems to me that we are in a season of rapid change in higher education and how one negotiates this in the course of an academic career is significant for each of the cohorts, and especially the latter two.
One thing I appreciated was that while written by someone who is clear about his own faith commitments and published by a Christian publisher, the text is written neither for a Christian audience nor laced with Christian jargon or biblical references, other than occasional references to the author’s scholarly work in New Testament. This book could be used with any group of faculty concerned with faculty career development. It is generic to concerns all faculty face.
Burge wisely counsels talking with those who are ten years ahead of us to help us understand what’s ahead. This book, while no substitute for such personal interactions, is a helpful guide to think about the contours of, and important questions one must address in, the course of an academic career. He points out the dangerous “rabbit trails” academics can pursue that end in disillusionment and disappointment, as well as the essential tasks one must address for growth. This is a helpful handbook for academics at any stage of their careers.