Bookshelf—Becoming an Ex

Occasionally, I’d like to highlight a book that I think that you’ll benefit from, whether you’re a prospective or current grad student, a prospective or current faculty member, or an advisor of either of those two communities.

Today’s book, a recommendation of a kind and smart friend, is Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh’s Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit (1988, University of Chicago Press). And I think it’s important because it complicates the already-complicated process of taking on new roles, whether personal or social or professional. We already do a pretty bad job of that, which is why The PhDictionary exists—we don’t do nearly enough to help our students or our colleagues prepare to be different people when they take on a different role. A scholar is just a different kind of animal than a student—more independent, more political, more aligned with bodies of thought and the people who develop and carry them. Being a good student is only marginal preparation for being a good scholar.

Ebaugh’s brilliant contribution is that we simultaneously take on two new roles every time we become someone new—that we also become an “ex.” To draw from the list on the cover of her book, we become an ex-doctor, an ex-nun (her own circumstance as she moved into academic sociology), an ex-prostitute, an ex-husband, an ex-convict. Like a whiteboard erased after a busy class session, we will always carry the faint writing of the past self. We spent decades becoming a terrific student, and now we need to learn to be an ex-student. We need to learn to carry those life lessons with us, to claim the very best parts of that role—diligence, energy, collegiality and cameraderie—into our faculty or professional lives while understanding that the new role will also require different attributes.

In a very real sense, the process of becoming an ex involves tension between one’s past, present, and future. One’s previous role identification has to be taken into account and incorporated into a future identity. To be an ex is different from never having been a member of a particular group or role-set. Nonmembers do not carry with them the “hangover identity” of a previous role and therefore do not face the challenge of incorporating a previous role identity into a current self-concept… A person in the process of establishing him- or herself in a new role struggles to become emotionally disentangled from the self-perceptions and normative expectations of a previous role while at the same time people in society are expecting certain role behavior based on a previous identity. [Ebaugh, 149]

Academic life is full of transitional moments: from undergrad to doctoral student, from doctoral student to faculty supplicant, from job beggar to job holder, from pre-tenured assistant professor to safely tenured associate professor, from faculty member to administrator. At each of those transitional moments, we should give conscious consideration to building the new person that the new role requires, while being equally conscious of the pasts we will carry.