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Taking the Leap: Helping Professionals Transition to Scholarly Writing

By Thomas Barker | STC Fellow

This column focuses on a broad range of practical academic issues from teaching and training to professional concerns, research, and technologies of interest to teachers, students, and researchers. Please send comments and suggestions to column editor Thomas Barker at ttbarker@ualberta.ca.

Recently an article in Chronicle Vitae asserted that a doctorate will not prepare students for professions outside academia. The article claimed that a doctorate has “little or no connection to their current work and profession” (Wood 2019). If we turn this assertion around, we might ask, “Does professional work prepare a student for academia?” The answer is maybe. In this column, I explore the challenges professionals face when transitioning to academic work. What mindsets might they bring to their new role as scholars? How might they re-envision their thinking and writing to make it more scholarly? How can they take the leap to scholarly writing?

A typical transitional scenario might play out like this: a college or university graduate spends a few years working in industry or the social, governmental, or educational sector. They realize that a Master’s (or possibly a PhD) might open the door to desirable professional tracks or better pay. At the University of Alberta’s Master’s in Communication and Technology (MACT) program, we see cohorts of these folks applying to expand their professional horizons. In making this leap, they face significant challenges.

Challenges of Transitioning from Work to Scholarship

A conversation with Dr. Gordon Gow, Director of the MACT program, uncovered some typical challenges faced by students transitioning from work to scholarship.

Writing and Communicating

The academic writing style is significantly different from the descriptive reporting often done in the workplace. Critical writing and expository purposes pose real challenges for transitioning professionals.

Responsibility for Learning

Graduate-level work requires that students take responsibility for their learning. Students manage their courses, set their own learning goals, and decide where to put their energies. A typical response from a student in our classes might be, “I can do that?” Of course you can!

Learning New Tools

Sometimes transitioning professionals lack skills in using the common tools of academia. These might include document and reference management tools, ethics applications, and grant support services. We have a librarian attached to our program. Do the students take advantage of this service? Not right away, and not enough, says Gow.

Building Intellectual Capital

Learning at the post-Bachelor’s level can often mean keeping track of readings, keeping records of ideas, and keeping notes. “It’s like a savings account,” says Gow. You store and curate your ideas, quotes, and hunches, so they will be available when needed. This kind of knowledge management may still elude even seasoned academics, but seeing the value of it can help a transitioning professional build intellectual capital.

Being Comfortable with Divergent Thinking

Workplace constraints often encourage professionals to define problems clearly and find clear solutions. In academia, the emphasis falls on divergent thinking, working with ill-defined problem sets and keeping solutions at bay. In fact, academics often think in terms of problematizing an issue instead of accepting expedient solutions. The trickiest area for transitioning professionals lies in the academic emphasis on questions over solutions, broad ideas over narrow applications, theoretical over practical thinking, and argument over description.

How to Help

As coaches and mentors for transitioning professionals, academics often focus on writing and communication skills. These skills represent an arena where many of the challenges we have just reviewed come into focus for students. These skills also represent how students can address their existing workplace frames of reference in ways that help them land on their feet in the academic world.

Over many years working with industry and community partners in MA and PhD programs in the United States and Canada, I have personally shepherded many workplace professionals into academic and scholarly work, mostly through their writing. In the remainder of this column, I present some techniques that might help keep these adventurous learners on track.

Using Scholars’ Tools

Research tools used by professionals can range from a chat with someone else to structured qualitative or quantitative research. Usually it’s more like the former, and in some cases, boils down to searching in Google. For the scholar, on the other hand, research is always structured around empirical or community-based participatory approaches. Sometimes transitioning professionals lack skills in using libraries, indexes, and databases (mostly databases); online journals; and even visits to the stacks. Getting to know a librarian is always a good idea.

While the “newness” of scholarly work may appear as a training problem (learning RefWorks, EndNote, or my favorite, Paperpile), the crux of the transitioning problem starts with gaining familiarity with academic libraries themselves.

Some libraries are leading the way with innovative programs targeting community and workplace researchers. Many libraries, attempting to soften the landing of workplace-oriented patrols, are evolving to align their services more closely to the holistic academic journey. In many cases, this means that the library can be an ally in bridging the gap between workplace thinking and academic thinking. This bridging occurs through workshops connecting resources to workplace problem-solving, improved user experiences, and research forums to share techniques and resources. Once they can identify useful and reliable scholarly sources, transitioning professionals are ready to tackle the next hurdle: writing like an academic.

Learning the Scholarly Style

In workplace and professional writing, documents often follow templates (for proposals and reports) that carry a certain, sometimes boilerplate, style. In the workplace, style is sometimes seen as “wordsmithing.” Wordsmithing tends to focus on text elements of clarity and style, not really content. This emphasis on clarity is foremost for professionals. “Short and sweet” or “to the point” are often used to describe good writing.

In academic writing, the focus is more on content, so fixing text isn’t just to make it clearer, but to shape an argument. Consider this sentence:

The advantages of process improvements affect all levels of authority.

The workplace writer would edit this to say, “Process improvements affect all levels of authority.”

The intention is to make the claim and possibly alert those in authority to anticipate changes. The scholarly writer on the other hand, might edit this to say, “Among the advantages of improving processes is to distribute organizational change throughout stakeholder groups, including those associated with pre-defined levels of authority.” The second version is clearly longer. But the focus here is not on brevity (to accommodate busy professional readers) but on stipulating and evoking broader concerns (theoretical attempts at organizational change, or identification of organizational groupings and structures). These (presumably) comprise the theoretical argument being made.

That theoretical argument, and the argument itself, is a key to academic writing. Drafting it, and editing it, is always at the service of clarifying the cumulative point being made. Clarity means clarity of argument, not precision of reference. What appears “wordy” or “verbose” is actually an attempt by the writer to associate the ideas with pre-existing claims, arguments, logical structures, and theoretical frameworks.

While the successful professional writer takes pride in a breezy style, the scholarly writer strives for a style that encourages the reader to slow down and to make deeper, often critical inferences: a striving that results in a denser, interwoven, questioning style. The intention to share and influence other scholars justifies the more formal, argumentative style. The scholarly creates into what is called the scholarly conversation.

Joining a Scholarly Conversation

All writing, workplace or university, is a type of conversation. Even a humble statement like “Choose Open from the File Menu” has something of a conversational basis. The reader responds (by clicking or pointing) and awaits the next command from the textual interlocutor. Professional writers live in textual conversations all the time, such as through email or chat. In some ways, proposals and reports (two key workplace genres) create and maintain existing relationships among players. Clients relate through proposals and leadership relates through reports, so in simple terms, the transitional professional just needs to learn to speak to a new readership: other scholars.

What does it mean to join the scholarly community? What is the scholarly community? Well, over time, certain theories and explanations at a broad level come to define the questions scholars try to answer. What is the best way to structure research? What class of social interventions leads to effective social policy? Why do some communicative behaviors work and others do not? Researchers who ask those “why” questions make up the scholarly community. Sometimes they follow broad, seemingly unanswerable, questions for years or decades. Each scholar adds more facts (evidence, perceptions, analyses) to the collective understanding.

A case in point is a topic I am currently working on, which is how to approach research from the perspective of Indigenous research methodologies. To start off, I needed to know what questions researchers were focusing on. A good start came when I discovered a call for papers on the topic of Indigenous knowledge, priorities, and processes in qualitative research. This call for papers was for articles in a focused, special issue of a journal on qualitative research methods. So right away, I knew that there must be some ongoing questions about how to do qualitative research in Indigenous context. Who knew? Reading the call for papers helped me to identify questions that other scholars were asking about the topic, and see where my analyses (in this case of published stories by Indigenous authors) fit into—and helped answer—some of these questions.

Calls for papers like the one discussed above are invaluable resources for transitioning professionals. Almost all academic journals have at least one each year. What’s happening is that a scholar identifies a topic that a number of “conversants” (scholarly writers) are interested in and around which she has volunteered to assemble the ideas into a special issue of the journal. How convenient! Not only that, almost all “special issues” of scholarly journals (usually identified by having the table of contents on the cover, not inside) originated as calls for papers. All the transitioning professional needs do is study these special issues (and the calls that led to them) to get a ready and robust sense of what a scholarly conversation actually looks like.

Making the Leap to Scholarly Writing

As far as transitions go, making the leap from professional work and writing to scholarly work and writing is one of the trickiest and most frustrating. No voice is as lost as the one you need when you have to make statements around a table or in print, and the people sitting there seem to be speaking a different language. Similarly, no tools feel as unwieldy as those connected with complex ideas and seemingly obtuse institutions and traditions. Mastering your tools, finding your voice, and fitting in with a new community likely represent the major hurdles for professionals transitioning to scholarly work. As academics, it’s our responsibility to help by understanding the challenges new scholars face, helping them master basic tools, clarifying writing purposes and conventions, and familiarizing them with current scholarly conversations. In this way, transitioning professionals can feel a little more confident when they take the leap.

Resource

Wood, L. Maren. “Odds Are, Your Doctorate Will Not Prepare You for a Profession Outside Academe.” ChronicleVitae. 12 July 2019. https://chroniclevitae.com/news/2223-odds-are-your-doctorate-will-not-prepare-you-for-a-profession-outside-academe.

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