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Implicit Versus Explicit Professional Training in Sociology

The role of informal professional structures on career success

by David Shulman, Lafayette College, and Ira Silver, Framingham State College

Graduate students in sociology are rightfully concerned with how they can best advance themselves and launch successful careers. Since doctoral work requires material and emotional sacrifices—not to mention the uncertainty of future employment—their circumspection is understandable. Sociological research on workplaces teaches us that individual skills and aspirations are impacted ultimately by informal professional structures that help or hinder career success. This important insight also relates to careers in sociology.

Graduate training includes specific benchmarks of mastery (e.g., learning theories, statistics, who are the important figures) and a formalized structure and set of rules organizing and defining professional training, such as the number of years of coursework, having an official advisor, and meeting the requirements for acceptance into PhD candidacy. There are also informal professional norms to learn that can greatly impact career prospects, yet these norms receive surprisingly little public dialogue or formal classroom attention.

Professional Socialization

For example, students must learn to manage relations with faculty, graduate student peers and publishing gatekeepers; they must tailor their research so that it can be published; and they must learn types of impression management and emotional labor that are critical in crafting identities as sociologists. Mastering these informal professional norms through which people actually practice the sociological craft is important. One way to support the next generation of sociologists, then, is to acknowledge, research and teach our professional culture more explicitly.

We considered these issues in our fall 2003 article, “The Business of Becoming a Professional Sociologist: Unpacking the Informal Training of Graduate School,” published in The American Sociologist. We argued that much of the important professional socialization that transpires in graduate school occurs through faculty mentors, individual entrepreneurship, and, to some degree, chance. We also claimed that much of this professional knowledge is not taught formally and that more of it ought to be. Using a business analogy, we argued that graduate students must develop into intellectual entrepreneurs who are attentive to critical but informal aspects of professional socialization. The following are some of the points we raised:

    1. Graduate students must learn about professional infrastructures that mediate research success.
    How does one gain a specific understanding of the different scholarly conferences that exist, how colleagues network, the prestige hierarchy in journals, and their relative tradeoffs when submitting manuscripts for publication? How do people go through the manuscript submission process? In what ways can graduate departments help them navigate these processes?

    2. Graduate students encounter problematic aspects of the relationship between teaching and research productivity in higher education.
    Graduate programs generally emphasize research productivity over teaching effectiveness. This preference reflects the fact that research publications are the coins of the professional realm. There are many implications of this valuation for disciplinary practice and for the graduate experience, as well as for understanding the status system within the discipline.

    3. There are obscured pathways to successfully entering the different labor markets that exist for PhDs in sociology.
    Several job markets exist in addition to primarily university research and teaching-oriented labor markets. Some job opportunities allow people to be primarily activists for social change; other jobs outside the academy involve conducting research for government, business, and private research organizations. The pathways to these alternative job markets are not well charted for graduate students who, if interested, typically must do their own leg work to uncover them.

    4. Graduate students must actively work to craft networks with faculty.
    Graduate education is accomplished through professional relations with professors that are funneled through an institutional structure. We receive PhDs through faculty advisors who help develop dissertation work and who sign off on paperwork and write recommendations that allow us, hopefully, to commence a career in the sociological profession. Though a degree comes from a particular institution, one’s professional pedigree is also meaningfully the result of the reputation and perceived investing of expertise and training in us by faculty mentors. Graduate students must build networks with faculty who will mentor them, help them advance their research and win employment, and assist them in meeting challenges along the way.

    5. Graduate students must build mutually satisfying and professionally rewarding relationships with their peers.
    Many sociologists consider the relationships that they formed with their graduate student peers to be vital aspects of their current career happiness and success. Interactions with graduate student peers are a critical form of professional socialization, a “Colleague 101.” What dynamics, missteps and strategies exist to optimize these relationships?

    6. Graduate students must learn how to navigate the pathways for securing research funding.
    Paying for graduate school requires money, as does conducting research. Attaining grants and fellowships is also an important prestige marker. What are good lessons in acquiring funding? How do students find out about funding sources that are particularly suited to their areas of specialization?

    7. Graduate students must embrace an array of dramaturgical identities in order to thrive in a sociological career.
    All roles require some component of emotional labor and other impression-management demands. Graduate training in sociology is no exception. The job market in particular requires that individuals learn how to present their intellectual identities publicly, with job talks and interviews being clear showcases for that impression management. What role-playing and impression management are associated with our professional culture, research, and teaching?

    8. Progressing through graduate school is stressful and exhilarating.
    Graduate students encounter a number of obstacles in graduate school, from wrestling silently with self-doubt to confronting feelings of estrangement. There are also times of great joy in pursuing intellectual passions and engaging in fulfilling professional and friendly relationships with faculty and peers. What stresses exist in graduate education and how do they plague research and teaching productivity? What can be done to lessen their impact and varieties? Even things like a faculty mentor discussing anxieties about how to write help motivated but silently fearful students.

    Creating Dialogue

    We have developed a weblog (at that addresses professional socialization in sociology and that features resources, links, and message boards. We welcome there other sociologists’ thoughts about their present or past graduate experiences. We want to know, for example: What do you know now that you wish you had known then? What do you identify as the “best practices” for moving forward? How did you learn these practices? While we approach these questions from the standpoint of our mutual interests in organizational culture and symbolic interaction, we certainly recognize that there is much to be learned from sociologists with varied scholarly orientations. Therefore, we encourage and welcome dialogue from people at all career stages and of varied theoretical and methodological orientations.

    Our efforts are motivated by a pedagogical and research agenda that we think is useful for the discipline. First, we think sociologists should be more explicit in addressing these points with graduate students, at the very least, to direct them toward a reflective focus on their work, and more importantly, to help them advance forward into professional practice. Second, we believe it’s an important research agenda to examine facets of informal organizational culture that shed light into the profession. Sociologists should not be immune to the techniques of appraisal they apply to others, nor should they be denied their benefits.