Students at my university take a course in their final semester called “The Civil Engineering Profession.” Most of our time is spent reviewing requirements for professional licensure, along with different opportunities for employment in the public and private sector. These are some of my favorite discussions to have with students; they represent one of the few spaces within the undergraduate engineering curriculum where students might imagine themselves in different roles while working for an incredibly varied array of potential employers.
The real ‘aha!’ moment for me occurred in an unexpected place. I was filling in for a colleague on sabbatical at the time, and the one class period that I was not looking forward to dealt with résumés. It’s usually not a good sign when my very first act in preparing a new lecture for class involves a Google search! Fortunately, while browsing Purdue’s On-line Writing Lab (OWL), I discovered an excellent resource. (The sheer volume of information was overwhelming; I realized that I might end up spending fifteen minutes discussing how to mix serif and sans-serif fonts…)
My previous experience reviewing resumes with students suggests that the hardest part for everyone is the statement of one’s objective — that is, what the résumé-writer is hoping will result from others’ encounters with the document. Consider this example from the OWL that describes what not to write in a statement of objective:
An internship allowing me to utilize my knowledge and expertise in different areas
This is undoubtedly good advice about what to avoid, but most students’ first drafts contained something very much like this. In fact, I have myself written objective statements that are almost identical to this bad example. Fortunately, the OWL provides some useful guidance for crafting a much more meaningful objective statement (assuming, of course, there is a human on the other side waiting to read it):
- What position(s) are you applying for?
- What are your main qualifications?
- What are your career goals?
- What is your professional identity?
- How can you help the company?
All of those suggestions point in the general direction of vocation, but the connection seems strongest for Item 4: “What is your professional identity?” For most students, however, this question will require some unpacking; most will have difficulty even defining a “professional” and understanding how such a person differs from others. Some will assume that the term “professional” describes any work that is done for money: professional photographer, professional athlete, professional gambler (!). This makes it all too easy to miss the integral relationship between professionalism and vocation.
A simple definition of professionalism from William May’s book, Beleaguered Rulers, is a good starting point for helping to make this connection:
“The professional’s covenant, in my judgment, opens out in three directions that help distinguish professionals from careerists: the professional professes something (a body of knowledge and experience); on behalf of someone (or some institution); and in the setting of colleagues.”
The sociologist Eliot Freidson offers an even richer framework for professionalism that, on first glance, feels very mechanical but ultimately makes an even deeper connection to vocation. In his book Professionalism: The Third Logic, Freidson lists five primary elements of “ideal-typical professionalism”:
1. specialized work . . . believed to be grounded in theoretically based discretionary knowledge . . . ;
2. exclusive jurisdiction in a particular division of labor that is created and controlled by occupational negotiation;
3. a sheltered position in both external and internal labor markets . . . that is based on qualifying credentials;
4. a formal training program lying outside the labor market that produces the qualifying credentials, which is controlled by the occupation and associated with higher education; and
( . . . one more . . . the moment you’ve been waiting for . . .)
5. an ideology that asserts greater commitment to doing good work than to economic gain and to the quality rather than the economic efficiency of work.
This last point provides us with a very strong connection to vocation. The author even asserts that professional work, as seen through this lens, can serve as a kind of “secular calling, a modern source of meaning and identity.” Interestingly, Friedson also elevates service to others as a critical element within his framework. He extends May’s assertion that true professional work is always done on behalf of someone (or some institution):
The professional ideology of service goes beyond serving others’ choices. Rather, it claims devotion to a transcendent value which infuses its specialization with a larger and putatively higher goal which may reach beyond that of those they are supposed to serve.
Regardless of how one might define this “transcendent value,” any attempt to engage students in discussions surrounding the values of a profession would seem to call for a particular kind of discourse. The fact that the bodies of knowledge attached to every functioning profession are expanding exponentially already places a tremendous burden on professional programs within higher education; there is always more content that needs to be covered. But by engaging students in the discipline-specific questions surrounding the values of a profession, we might provide them with some inspiration for the monumental task that awaits them. Mastering the body of knowledge necessary for professional practice is a life-long commitment; can we really expect students to remain engaged if that task becomes a merely cognitive exercise?
The professional identities of undergraduates are never fully formed by commencement day. But that should not preclude students from imaging a professional identity that they hope to create, including whatever “transcendent value” they might assign to it. This vision may not find its way into the objective statement of a résumé, but students have much to gain by shaping their vocations in light of a particular profession (including the actual values of its practice, as well as its more idealized versions). And that should contribute in meaningful ways to a student’s education — not to mention making it much easier to craft a meaningful objective statement on their résumés.
Freidson, Eliot. Professionalism: The Third Logic. Oxford: Polity; Chicago, U of Chicago Press, 2013. pp. 127, p. 108, p. 122.
May, William. Beleaguered Rulers: The Public Obligation of the Professional. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Jeff Brown teaches engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. His essay, “Unplugging the GPS: Rethinking Undergraduate Professional Degree Programs” is part of the collection Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2017). Click here for more blog posts by Jeff Brown.