Tips for Pursuing a Career in Higher Education

By Dr. Keon M. McGuire (’08)

Keon McGuire headshot

Dr. Keon McGuire (’08)

Dr. McGuire is an Assistant Professor of Higher & Postsecondary Education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University in Phoenix, AZ. He is also a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow and an ACPA Emerging Scholar.

In many real ways, I was never supposed to be a professor. Put differently, the racial/ethnic and socioeconomic background of most tenure-track and tenured professors are the very opposite of my own. In addition, higher education institutions writ large have often shirked their responsibilities to recruit, hire, and retain racially underrepresented faculty despite increasing diversity among student bodies. However, my trajectory is very much credited to a family and broader community of elders that loved me deeply, encouraged my intellectual curiosities, facilitated my literacy development, and consistently reminded me that individual achievements without supporting and aiding others along the way leads to a hollow existence.

Also, it goes without saying, but probably should still be stated: the pathways to any career destination in general and becoming a professor in particular is not easily reducible to three tips. There is always some level of good fortune, universal timing, and unanticipated detours that influence one’s path in ways that may be beyond our own recognition. I offer this caveat merely as context for the following tips on working towards a career as a college/university professor and additional research-based advanced degrees:

  • Participate in undergraduate research
  • Follow your passion through co-curricular activities
  • Find a critically supportive and loving space

Undergraduate Research: Undergraduate research serves as an important venue for skill development. While sometimes this comes in the form of independent research exercises – such as completing a thesis – it is also beneficial to join a research team lead by a faculty member in your discipline or field of interest. On a research team you will have an opportunity to witness up close, and hopefully participate in, research activities such as developing research questions, designing data collection instruments, collecting and analyzing data, and presenting and publishing results. Such first-hand experience will prove valuable in graduate school applications.

Moreover, developing a close mentor-mentee relationship with a professor will allow them to write a stronger letter of recommendation that details your strengths. Finally, you can see if research is something that truly interests you.

Follow Your Passion: In addition to the skills one acquires through student involvement and leadership (e.g., marketing, budgeting, team management), I believe the most inspired and inspiring professors are scholars who connect their research and teaching to “real world” challenges. Some of the best research questions are those that address a question or problem of relevance to larger communities. Often times the best way to become intimately familiar with an issue is to work through a student or volunteer organization. Working with your peers to provide educational support to an under-resourced school, for example, allows you to hone your passions and simultaneously become intimately familiar with the on-the-ground realities of an issue you may study (or teach) later.

Find Support: This is the most nebulous tip, but arguably most important. For those of us who do not enter college with the same social, cultural, or financial resources as others, college and university life can be particularly difficult. Often, this has very little to do with cognitive skills or academic capacities. Rather, when one learns in an environment where those things (curricula) and people (faculty, academic leaders) considered worthy of studying and intelligent, respectively, do not resemble you or your home community, you may subconsciously believe you do not belong or this is not for you. Also, this does not include the at times explicit messages that communicate the same.

It is so important to find a space and group of people who sincerely believe in you, will give you truthful and critical feedback, and above all love you through the tough times. These noncognitive and nonacademic factors are critical to ensuring you are confident enough to succeed academically, take intellectual risks and follow your curiosities. I am so thankful that I found those people and spaces at Wake Forest largely through the (former) Office of Multicultural Affairs and people like Ms. Darlene Starnes, Dr. Barbee Oakes, Dr. Kendra Stewart-Tillman, Dr. Marcus Ingram, Dr. Ana Wahl, and many more. These people encouraged me to apply to graduate school before I knew what the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) was and often times provided the financial and logistical support for opportunities when neither I nor my family could provide them. I am eternally grateful for them.

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