What does it mean for a graduate adviser or a department (or, in science, a postdoc’s lab chief) to successfully “place” a protege? In academics, writes English professor Leonard Cassuto in an astute and provocative essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it is almost always taken to mean helping the person land a job on the tenure track. But, he argues, that definition is far too limiting and needs to change — and not only at the level of individual faculty members, but all the way up to the National Research Council, which uses records of placement in “those pernicious lists” that show the relative rank of departments.
To illustrate why the current approach is erroneous, Cassuto presents the fascinating case of Nathan Tinker, who earned his Ph.D. in Cassuto’s department but disappeared from the department’s records until Cassuto looked him up on LinkedIn almost 10 years after Tinker finished his degree. There, Cassuto discovered a remarkable career.
Though Tinker studied literature, he has made a successful career in the nanotechnology and biotechnology industries. He is now executive director of a nonprofit bioscience trade group. All the university knew about Tinker during those highly productive years, however, was that he “did not seek academic employment.”
Losing track of Tinker (and his success) was “an instructive mistake on at least two levels,” Cassuto writes. First, it’s a “practical loss” because the department couldn’t take advantage of his experience and contacts to help other students plan and develop their own careers. Second, it is a conceptual mistake that demonstrates academe’s limited thinking on the subject of careers in general. As Tinker’s unexpected but extremely intriguing story illustrates, opportunities can be far broader than blinkered conventional thinking assumes.