May 24, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Professionalization: Mentoring Grad Students Into Professors

Amrit Singh

Mentoring Ph.D. candidates goes well beyond scholarship and subject matter, says Dr. Amritjit Singh, Professor of English, who is helping to lead a conversation about “professionalization” in Ph.D. programs.

At the most recent annual MELUS conference in Pittsburgh, Singh led a panel and participated in two others. These conversations included much more than scholarly issues such as conference presentations vs. publications, books vs. essays, essays vs. book reviews, etc.—issues discussed in the May 19 Chronicle of Higher Education article on “The Long Odds of the Faculty Job Search,” which featured Ohio University’s Creative English program.

Professionalization includes additional topics such as:

  • Strong teaching—What makes you a strong teacher?
  • Teaching vs. Research—even at research institutions, good undergraduate teaching is valued in special ways.
  • Mentoring students and finding mentors for oneself
  • Networking
  • Conflicts in English Departments and how to engage with a department and its service components and also avoid minefields of ideological and personality politics.
  • Connecting with the campus
  • Mapping out plans for publications and other professional development – long term goals vs. short term focus

Singh consulted colleagues in the College of Arts & Sciences as he prepared for the MELUS panels and was especially struck by the observation that grad students might be pushed into professionalization at too fast a pace. Just as they are mastering the demands of the graduate program, the demands of being a professional scholar loom.

One Ohio University colleague, Eric LeMay, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing, told him: “I have significant reservations about the demand for young scholars to ‘professionalize’ right away. I think it forces grad students to commit to projects too quickly and doesn’t give them the time they need to develop their expertise and discover the joys of slowly developing a book and a career. But, as you know, the market is so draconian, that if they don’t start thinking about how to succeed early on, it will be much more difficult to do so in year five or six, not to mention that merely applying for jobs can take a huge chunk of time out of a candidate’s professional life, right at the moment he or she really needs to be focusing on the scholarship. It’s pretty brutal.”

Singh, who is the Langston Hughes Professor of English at Ohio University, organized the panel on “Challenges of Professionalization: How to Negotiate Your Way into a Campus and Much More: A Workshop for New Assistant Professors and Advanced Graduate Students” at the MELUS 2013 conference in Pittsburgh in March.

Dr. Rachael Peckham, Associate Professor of English at Marshall University, earned a Ph.D. in English at Ohio University and credits Singh’s mentorship in her professionalization process. She won the Robert Watson Poetry Award for Muck Fire (Spring Garden Press, 2010) and was named a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays 2012 (Mariner Books, 2012).

“I hope you know what a huge role your mentorship has played in my career—truly,” she recently told Singh. “I credit my first scholarly publication entirely to you, and to all of those great discussions about Ellison, Wright, Baldwin, etc., on days when I am sure you had a looming stack of papers to respond to; classes to prepare for; and not to mention, your own work to tend to! Now that I’m ‘on the other side of the desk,’ I absolutely recognize and appreciate how much time and guidance you gave me. What a gift. I had the best mentors at OU, in every single facet of my studies, and I just hope my own students feel as well supported and, at the same time, challenged. That’s what you did for me, Amrit—raised the bar again and again, and showed me I could meet it.”

At MELUS, Singh also brought his expertise to a plenary panel on “Getting Your Essays and Books on Ethnic American Literature Accepted for Publication.” He has published and edited numerous books on ethnic American literature, including: Interviews with Edward W. Said (University Press of Mississippi, 2004), The Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman: A Harlem Renaissance Reader (Rutgers University Press, 2003), Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity and Literature (University Press of Mississippi, 2000), Conversations with Ralph Ellison (University Press of Mississippi, 1995), and and Memory and Cultural Politics (Northeastern University Press, 1996).

“The plenary panel had an impressive 80-100 attendance, and faculty and graduate students found it very helpful professionally,” noted Dr. Lingyan Yang, the conference committee chair and MELUS Vice President. “I am deeply grateful personally for Prof. Singh’s generous and remarkable support for the conference by organizing the second professionalization workshop and by participating actively in all three professionalization workshops. Prof. Amritjit Singh has been a nationally and internationally prominent MELUS scholar in American multiethnic literature, postcolonial literature and theory, and South Asian diasporic literature. He is also a highly respected MELUS senior leader, former MELUS President in 1994-97, and recipient of MELUS Award for Distinguished Contribution to Ethnic Studies in 2007. Prof. Singh’s exemplary scholarship, dedicated services to and leadership in MELUS and his fields, his warm and engaging collegiality as well as his generous mentoring of younger scholars and graduate students in the fields are profoundly appreciated.”

MELUS stands for Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States and is a national professional organization and field of studies on the research and teaching of American multiethnic literature, criticism, arts, and culture in the national, regional, local, or global contexts. During his tenure as MELUS President from 1994 to 1997, Singh helped to launch successful MELUS chapters in Europe and India, known respectively as MESEA ( and MELUS MELOW (

Read more about the MELUS conference at the host Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s website.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *