Current Thoughts

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.

The Nested Bell Curves

I grew up a huge fan of the Detroit Tigers, and thus learned to love baseball above all other team sports. Because of that, I used to read Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts, the annual geek’s guides to baseball statistics that were the precursor to the Moneyball era.

In one of those editions, he discussed baseball fans who watch a miserable player or a miserable team and say—nachos in one hand and a beer cup in the other—”I could play better’n that!” No, James said. No, you couldn’t. And he used the descending upper tail of the normal distribution to make his point. If there are thirty MLB ballclubs, and each team has an active roster of 25 players, that’s 750 men currently playing professional baseball at its highest level. These are the 750 best baseball players in a nation of roughly 200 million adults; that is to say, they are at the uppermost .00000375 of American baseball talent, five or six standard deviations above the mean.

You and I, alas, are not.

So imagine player #750, say a backup infielder for the Phillies, 2015’s worst team. There he sits, day after day on the bench, watching his team lose two out of three games all year. And yet, he is an immeasurably better ballplayer than any high school star, an unimaginably better ballplayer than you and I. He was born with the right physiology, he was born with some degree of innate talent, he got terrific coaching, and he has worked harder than any human being should ever have to work in their lives to be as fit and as capable as he is. He is, by any measure, an elite athlete. But in the microscopic bell curve of major league players, he is at the far left end of the graph, the bottom of the low tail.

All bell curves, James said, contain bell curves within them. Even within the rarified air of MLB rosters, far above us mortals, there are ranges of talent, with central tendencies and outliers at both ends.


Now, let’s take this analogy to the world of doctoral life. About 50,000 people a year get PhDs; about 1.5% of all American adults have one, according to the US Census. That would put us about two to three standard deviations above the mean of the general population’s educational attainment. Most people could not do this, and you should be proud that you can.

But when placed under the microscope, that leading tail of the bell curve has a bell curve within it. Every year, if 50,000 of us get PhDs, a few hundred are at the acknowledged top of that top; a few hundred are (sometimes identifiably) at the bottom; and most of us are somewhere in that big bulge in the center. In broad population terms, we are remarkably well educated; within our own little neighborhood, though, we might not stand out so clearly.

What does this mean in strategic terms? It means that even though you’ve finished your degree, perhaps even finished it with some degree of distinction, you still have a lot of work to do to differentiate yourself from the herd. Talent is necessary but not sufficient in an elite marketplace; you need allies, networks and marketing materials that can help push you up into that outer tail of success.

Yet again, in the anteroom…

I went up to Middlebury College last night to watch a marvelous movie, Mr. Turner, about the English painter JMW Turner. It’s absolutely a marvel, with Timothy Spall giving a fully embodied performance of a deeply talented and deeply unlikeable man. But for our purposes, I’d like us to consider this brief clip of the Royal Academy of Arts annual exhibition.

If you are considering a career in higher education, these are the people who will—or will not—grant you entry. They all know one another, and have for decades. They know one another’s work, they have their ongoing friendships and grudges, none of which will be visible from outside. Pleasing one will offend another. And you, coming in with your avant-garde ideas, will have a hard time getting traction. You may be placed, yet again, in the anteroom…

As a thought experiment, imagine yourself coming into a setting like this and trying to become a part of it. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt, and imagine that you have a sponsor, an ally on the inside… walking in unannounced and un-introduced will gain you nothing at all. So let’s imagine that the mighty Mr. Turner himself has taken you under his wing, and is introducing you to his colleagues in the Academy. How would you work the room? How would you do the ethnographic work of understanding how to position yourself?

And let’s now address those who are already inside the safety of membership. If you wanted to bring a young colleague into this community, how would you do it? What features of her work would you bring to the fore with different members of the chamber? Who would you make sure she met?

The faculty of higher education is a membership organization, no different than the Elks Club or the Masons, in which the current members elect new members. You need a sponsor, and that sponsor has to intercede on your behalf with skill and tact. And whether prospective member or sponsor, you need to think carefully about the tactics you’ll employ.

The Book is Born!

The first advance copies of The PhDictionary will make their debut at the American Educational Research Association conference this weekend in Washington D.C.! Thanks to Elizabeth Branch Dyson and the entire U. Chicago Press team for making this a reality.