Mind the Gap: Transitioning from Doctoral Graduates to Early Career Faculty

Kate McCormick, Libba Willcox
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 14  •  2019  •  pp. 543-566

Graduate programs aim to prepare students for future professional roles, yet doctoral graduates often earn faculty positions at institutions that differ from those in which they were socialized. Navigating this “preparation gap” can produce feelings of uncertainty, tension, and, ultimately, dissonance. This collaborative autoethnographic study explores the gap as it was experienced by two early career faculty in a U.S. context.

The landscape of academia is rapidly changing, meaning graduate programs cannot prepare each graduate student for every potential professional role offered to them. Therefore, as doctoral graduates emerge from their respective graduate programs, an inevitable gap in preparation exists. This gap in preparation mirrors a gap in the graduate socialization literature, which is limited in describing how early career faculty are socialized into their first positions.

The paper discusses a year-long collaborative autoethnographic study conducted by two tenure-track early career faculty in Education & Arts fields at universities in the U.S. The study employs Clancy’s (2010) theory of Perpetual Identity Constructing as a theoretical framework to examine the perceived dissonance produced during the transition from doctoral graduates to early career faculty.

This collaborative autoethnographic account of two early career, tenure-track faculty members’ transition from doctoral graduate to assistant professors expands the literature on doctoral socialization, academic identities, and the potential of qualitative modes of inquiry. Specifically, it recognizes that doctoral graduates experience dissonance and undergo identity construction during the first year.

Our findings revealed three categories repeated in our collaborative autoethnographic data that potentially serve as a window to illuminate the complexity of the dissonance across the gap: support, connection, and control. Each category includes varying levels of dissonance with the self, department, institution, and fields of which we were part. Using Perpetual Identity Constructing theory, each category was examined through the three-stages of academic identity construction.

The study has implications for practitioners, specifically those who help to prepare doctoral students for positions at teaching-intensive universities. We recommend doctoral granting institutions expand formal and informal socialization programming to enhance students’ awareness and preparation for the contexts and tensions they may encounter.

Additional fine-grained studies, like ours, are warranted to further illuminate the complex interaction between the gap in socialization and the academic identity construction process as early career faculty.

Awareness that deconstruction and reconstruction of identity continues beyond doctoral socialization could better prepare future faculty for the perpetual identity work across a career; it has the potential to produce better adjusted early career faculty who improve student outcomes and conduct research that impacts society.

Based on the findings of this study, future areas of research should further investigate the experiences of early career faculty, in particular their socialization experiences during the transition from candidacy to first career positions.

early career faculty, doctoral socialization, collaborative autoethnography
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