Want to Demystify the Academy? Try the Professional Development Daisy-Chain.

by: Will Arguelles, & the FI Team

Every Tuesday here at the Futures Initiative, our fellows and staff gather, update one another on our work, and brainstorm solutions to complex problems.  A key component of our work is professionalization and helping our cozy community of scholars blossom into the best versions of themselves. The content of this blog post originated in our 10/03 weekly meeting, where Christina Katopodis arranged us into a “professional development daisy-chain,” as detailed below. The text of this activity has been edited and reformatted to fit a wider, public audience. The idea of this activity was originally written about by Christina on her blog, which you can read here.

  The Futures Initiative prides itself on interdisciplinarity and cross-departmental thinking, bringing together scholars from geoscience to theatre, psychology to medieval history. But one consistent throughline is that we’re all part of “Academé” in some way, shape or form. Mythologically originating with the Athenian Academy of Socrates, our “ivory towers” have not always been the most welcoming or accessible place – and still aren’t nearly as open as we’d want. We at FI are constantly trying to improve access in higher education, from our efforts to create a broader community through HASTAC, or our work within CUNY to raise up the next generation of scholars, through the CUNY Peer Leaders program. 

  But beyond our bigger programs, we also have a lot of practical advice too – from new and exciting insights to step-by-step activities you can readily adapt to your department or classroom. This week’s activity comes to us from Christina Katopodis, the recent winner of this year’s Frederic W. Ness Book Award for hers and FI Co-founder Cathy’s book, The New College Classroom

Today’s activity is perhaps better fit for the department meeting than the classroom, due to its confessional nature. Called “The Professional Development Daisy-Chain,” the instructions are actually quite simple:

  1. First, each person needs to identify where they are in their career – who are YOU as an academic? Are you Tenured, or still on the clock? Maybe you’re on a non-TT track, and trying to transition to the fabled heights of the TT job. Or maybe you’re the industrious graduate student, working tirelessly to be seen as critical to the academy.
  2. Then, everyone will need to re-arrange themselves from “earliest” in their careers to later. So this might mean that at one end of the line is an undergraduate college assistant, and at the other is the distinguished professor, with a list of publications a mile long.
  3. If you have a lot of peers in a similar place, sort yourselves by years at the institution, or proximity to the next step in your journey. The key thing is for everyone to have someone who has “just” done what you are trying to do next on your right, and someone trying to get to where you are on your left.
  4. Then, starting with the earliest career scholar, the first person describes where they currently are in their educational narrative and a problem or a worry that they currently have – something that they’re struggling with, and could use some advice on. It can be as simple as “how do I get through orals exams” to as existential as “I just finished my dissertation and now I feel so empty inside” (and if the latter applies to you, please take a look at Christina’s Chronicle article on that very topic!)
    1. Alternatively, if the prior person did not have a concrete issue, or did not feel like sharing publicly, we propose simply asking, “What do you wish you had known when you were where I am now?”
  5. The person who is immediately to their right then tries to help the asker. The point is to listen and understand what the person is going through, and validate or advise on the challenge. In our experience, it was startling how even small differences (such as pre-first exam or post, or a single chapter of the dissertation written or multiple) led us to see ourselves as authorities on the issue. At the very least, we always had thoughts on what stage we just left, and it led to some really engaging conversations.
  6. Then the advisor becomes the advisee, and they pose a problem or concern to the next person, and the chain moves upwards and onwards. It was striking how many concerns – be it imposter syndrome or work-life balance – cut across rank, re-emerging as the conversation moved forward.
  7. You might not get through the whole ranking – we only got as far up as those of us who are ABD (set a timer to try to get to everyone, we suggest 2 minutes for advice, 1 minute for where you are, and 1-2 minutes for question/concern) – but critically, the earliest folks received the most attention and got to imagine and see themselves in the next few steps of their journeys.
  8. You should be mindful of the personal nature of this activity, and keep things professional, but warm. Struggles are just that, astruggle – and not everyone wants to share what they find difficult or issues they have in a public meeting. It should be understood that this activity is done within a confidential and accepting environment, as it requires a level of trust and honesty that is not always a given in the academy.


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