Transitioning from Student to Scholar

Cahn, S. M. (2008). From student to scholar: A candid guide to becoming a professor. New York: Columbia University Press.

Summary: Stephen Cahn provides a practical guide for doctoral students as they make their transition from being a graduate student to becoming a professor in higher education. He gives advice based on his research for the dissertation, interviewing, networking, and the three pillars of scholarly responsibility: teaching, research, and service. He also talks about the importance of tenure and gives advice for new scholars as they try to achieve the ultimate goal of personal academic freedom.


             By Catharine R. Stimpson

·      She quotes David Damrosch: "As David Damrosch writes in We Scholars, 'To an unprecedented degree . . . American intellectual life today is shaped by the values and habits of mind inculcated during years of specialized undergraduate and graduate training (p. ix).'" David Damrosch, We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Universtiy Press, 1995, 3.

·      She summarizes Cahn's work in this book: "Cahn rightly notes how crucial are resilience and perseverance if a student is to survive and thrive (p. x)."

Chapter 1: Graduate School

·      "Keep in mind, too, that graduate students are especially liable to self-doubt, for they are constantly being reminded of their lack of knowledge and of how little they have accomplished compared to the senior professors (p. 3)."

·      Resiliency and perseverance are critical characteristics of a successful doctoral student.

Chapter 2: The Dissertation

·      Cahn writes that most graduate students dread the dissertation. They actually fear it. The dissertation has achieved this reputation because there are so many individuals who get to this stage and never actually finish; they acquire the title ABD and never get to Ph.D. (Note to self: Do I actually fear mine? Not really. I'm actually quite excited about it. Sure the data analysis and writing seems daunting at times, but I'm very excited to learn from it. Now... I wonder why that is. To what can I attribute that? Is it to the preparation I have had and the research rotations I have already completed on my own. To what extent have they contributed to my feelings here?)

·      The advisor has the following responsibilities: guide, provide feedback, and give approval before sending your work to others.

·      Professorial malpractice is a term that Cahn has coined. It refers to advisors who do not uphold these responsibilities and graduate students become the victims. Professorial malpractice is when an advisor undermines the doctoral student's work and effort so that their progress is stalled or hindered in some way. Offenses can include but are not limited to: not receiving feedback, receiving meaningless, superficial, or tedious feedback, and taking too long to receive feedback.

·      Professorial malpractice is sometimes intentional but not always.

·      "Your advisor may be crucial to your life, but you are not at all crucial to your advisor's (p. 12)."

·      Cahn recommends that if the doctoral student is a victim of professorial malpractice, then the student should select a new advisor.

·      Knowing you have a good advisor: "The promising signs are that your work is returned promptly, the criticisms are constructive rather than destructive, you find yourself making substantial progress, and completing the dissertation appears within your capability (p. 13)."

·      At the defense, Cahn recommends less talking on the candidate's part, especially if the person rambles. "Keep in mind that after a few minutes, the longer you keep talking, the less impressive you sound (p. 14)."

Chapter 3: Networking

·      Networking is critical to your success.

·      You are always networking - always.

Chapter 4: The First Interview

·      Personal letters of interest need to be brief.

·      Waiting after applying is par for the course.

·      During your interview, you will need to explain your study succinctly and briefly. The 2 minute summary: "The challenge is to convey as clearly as possible the reason your topic attracted you, the insights you gained, and the relevance of your work to broader interests the interviewers might have (p. 29)." The goal is effective communication - that's what the interviewers are looking for.

·      Other possible questions: "You are likely to be asked how you would teach a course in an area of your competence. Be prepared to respond in detail. You might even have available multiple copies of syllabi that you can distribute on request to the interviewers (p. 30)."

·      You should know: "For each course listed on your vita, you should know the texts you would use, the topics you would cover, the readings you would select, and the methods of evaluation you would employ (p. 30)."

·      If asked to teach a course that is outside your areas of interest, here is a good response as long as the request is reasonable: "I'd like to do it, but I'd need a few months to prepare (p. 31)."

Chapter 5: Dramatis Personae

·      Tenured faculty have no bosses. "They essentially set their own working conditions, cannot be fired, and answer to no one (p. 38)."

Chapter 6: The Second Interview

·      This is the interview where the university pays for a campus visit.

·      "Before going, familiarize yourself with the school by checking its Web site and learning all you can about the college in general - its history, structure, and curriculum - and the department in particular, including the research interests of its faculty, the course offerings, and the requirements for the major (p. 39)." Preparation of this kind conveys seriousness of your interest.

·      For the scholarly talk: 'Try to make your talk accessible to nonspecialists, and observe the suggested time limit. In responding to queries, be gracious and avoid quibbling (p. 40)." The talk should be on a section of your dissertation - something you know best.

·      Meeting with the dean: "No doubt the dean will ask if you have questions. Because the dean controls the budget, here is the occasion for you to raise issues related to salary, benefits, moving expenses, travel funds, computer costs, and any other financial matters (p. 42)." You should also ask about the dean's vision for the college and for the department.

·      Another good question to ask the dean about expectations for tenure: "What percentage of eligible assistant professors receive it? What criteria are used in making the decision? How extensive a publication record is expected? The dean is in the best position to provide these answers (p. 43)."

Chapter 7: Tenure

·      "Finally, let's remind ourselves why tenure is so important. While students may not know which professors hold it, faculty members never forget. After all, to have tenure is to possess the ultimate job security. Under its protection, the pressure truly is lifted, and when you stroll the campus, you do so armed with a cloak of invincibility (p. 52)."

·      Do's and Don'ts:

o   Attend all meetings

o   Don't brag

o   Don't gossip

o   Voice your opinion with elegance but don't be an obstacle

o   Don't engage in personal attacks

·      "In short, have the courage to take a stand but don't be foolhardy and defend your position at all costs (p. 51)."

Chapter 8: Teaching

·      "Nevertheless, because most graduate schools prepare you only as a researcher and not as a teacher, you may be surprised at the difficulties when you attempt to explain material while you simultaneously seek to enhance appreciation for it (p. 52)."

Chapter 9: Service

·      "Understand, however, that when tenure times (sic) arrives, service is no substitute for publications. In fact, even exemplary service along with excellent teaching will not compensate for weak research. But an absence of service can hurt your changes, suggesting that you will not be a productive member of the academic community (p. 64)."

Chapter 10: Research

·      It is easy to become overwhelmed and avoid research - don't do that. It is the kiss of death. You must put research first because it is valued.