The Professional Academic

Something occurred to me recently. Professions share common characteristics (Elliott 1972):

  • Body of knowledge
  • Barriers to entry
  • Public service
  • Mutual recognition

Thinking about being a professional architect, QS, engineer or whatever, it is straightforward to identify how these things work. But does this work for the profession of being an academic?

  • Body of knowledge: This does not refer to the knowledge that you use in your construction profession. That is already dealt with there. The knowledge we need as academics are not simply the knowledge of construction activities. What do professional academics have in common? Writing, arguing, researching, analysing, concluding, making claims, testing ideas, introducing doubt and scepticism where there is apparent certainty.
  • Barriers to entry: Just as you need a BSc to gain entry into a construction profession, you also need one to get into an academic profession. Indeed, one useful way to view a PhD is as an essential prerequisite for an academic career. It is not the only purpose, but it is an interesting way of thinking about what a PhD is for.
  • Public service: Just as surveyors and engineers have ethical codes of conduct to put public interest above private profit, so academics are (generally) not focused on commercial returns.
  • Mutual recognition: Being a member of a specific academic community through your research and writing brings acceptance into that sub-set. Being an academic in the wider sense involves recognising that other academic fields include people who share the same body of knowledge, barriers to entry and ethical conduct.

These ideas may help you to deal with some of the demands that are placed on you as a doctoral student, which are common to all doctoral students, from any discipline. In case you are interested in reading more about the professions, please see Hughes and Hughes (2013).


Elliott, P (1972) The sociology of the professions. Macmillan, London.

Hughes, W P and Hughes, C (2013) Professionalism and professional institutions in times of change. Building Research & Information, 41(01), 28-38.



About Will

Professor of Construction Management and Economics, University of Reading, UK. Editor-in-Chief, Construction Management and Economics (1992-2016). Programme Director, MSc Construction Management. School Director of Postgraduate Teaching Programmes.
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4 Responses to The Professional Academic

  1. janbro says:

    What if the static concept of a Body of Knowledge is fundamentally unacademic?

    • Will says:

      Jan, that is an interesting question, although rather rhetorical! The body of knowledge about academic life is rich a diverse. I am thinking of journals like the Journal of Research in Higher Education, among others. Also interesting books like Collini’s, “What are universities for?” and Ford’s “Beyond the Modern University”. While it would be a disaster if the body of knowledge for the academic profession was unacademic, I am confident that it is not!

  2. jerikshammar says:

    Interesting thoughts. It is crucial that we give our students the possibility to develop, however it is always a difficult to balance commercial interest if you have the industry financing the research. It is also difficult to handle the academic pressure to publish and create innovation incubators from your research. So in one sense the academy is also a commercial institution. We, that have longer experience, should definitely guide and shield our students.

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