Who Wants to Be a Professor?
One individual’s trajectory offers insights into broadening participation in academic careers.
By Brian A. Burt
Why do some engineering graduate students choose faculty careers while others do not? The underrepresentation of historically marginalized individuals in the engineering faculty will remain a problem until we learn more about why students choose the engineering professoriate.
Scholarship on the pursuit of engineering faculty careers remains limited. Developing an in-depth understanding of the reasons why individuals choose this path requires both large-scale surveys and zoomed-in accounts that detail students’ choices.
My research explored the journey of “Allen,” a Black chemical engineering graduate originally from Africa. His narrative features evolving understandings of the academy and the professoriate, the development of a faculty prototype (a model for success used to self-assess performance), and the ways he began to envision himself as a professor.
The work also provides a launch-point for understanding how to broaden participation in engineering pathways among underrepresented students of color.
The study brought Allen’s own meaning-making and voice to the forefront. I analyzed narrative data chronologically and thematically to help make sense of his journey.
As an undergraduate, Allen was not interested in a faculty career. His interactions with peers negatively shaped his understanding of what it meant to be a faculty member. This suggests that undergraduate experiences can shape how and when students begin to think about postgraduate careers. For Allen, graduate research experiences under his faculty prototype, Professor Jackson, appeared transformative; they ignited his passion to do research, gain recognition for discoveries, and mentor students. As he engaged in independent research, practiced and honed his presentation skills, and presented his work at conferences, he felt assured that he, too, could succeed.
Interacting with Professor Jackson, a professor of color who affirmed him, allowed Allen to envision himself in a faculty career. Faculty prototypes for other students, however, might hold identities different than their own. And in some cases, students may have multiple faculty prototypes that inform their professorial intentions.
A skewed faculty prototype could be problematic if the student’s prototype is (sub)consciously rooted in historically oppressive representations of who is and can be a professor. It is possible that a student may think of an older White man as the symbolic representation of a professor, potentially casting out the possibility of other representations. Because of the importance of the faculty prototype, faculty should be aware that they are being watched by students.
Though Allen was not interested in the professoriate during his undergraduate studies, with additional experiences he became interested. Thus, students’ interest in faculty careers can change over time.
My findings show that Allen’s thinking about the professoriate was shaped by his social identities and individual experiences, participation in research, identification of a faculty prototype, and social comparisons to that prototype and others. These results suggest that the development of students’ intentions involves more than how they are socialized in graduate school, or their research experiences with their group and faculty supervisor, or their social identities and experiences prior to graduate school. Rather, students’ professorial intentions present a complex puzzle formed by the interaction of all of these factors.
Without a wider range of faculty models, students may maintain hegemonic perceptions of faculty prototypes (e.g., White and male), impeding diversity and broader participation in the professoriate. This study also suggests that faculty perceptions of who is a stellar student most likely to succeed in the professoriate—and thus, whom to mentor—may draw, consciously or not, from their experiences of emulating their own faculty prototypes. This, in turn, may lead to the unintended replication of patterns of student demographics and of advising and mentoring behaviors. That can result in a lack of recognition of the efforts and potential of marginalized students. Perhaps reading more accounts of journeys like Allen’s will help faculty perceive their students differently.
Brian A. Burt is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He also serves as a research scientist in the Wisconsin Equity & Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB). This article is based on “Broadening Participation in the Engineering Professoriate: Influences on Allen’s Journey in Developing Professorial Intentions” in the October 2020 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education.
Image by Alexander Da Silva