heavy-handed metaphors · job market

The Gambler: Notes from the Non-Tenure Stream

Lately, it seems that all of my conversations have to do with the job market. More specifically, most of my conversations have to do with knowing the difference between when to walk away from the dream of the tenure-track job and when to dig your heels in, put your head down, and keep working. It seems that if you’re on the job hunt life feels quite like that old Kenny Rogers song called “The Gambler.” Do you remember the chorus?

You got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run

First, some history: I finished my PhD in 2008 when the bottom fell out of most everything. For the first few years colleagues who were a generation or so older than me were commiserating. I often was comforted by their reminiscences of how bad things were in the 1990s. I have not had anyone refer to that time in a while. Regular readers of my post may remember that I am in a kind of a both/and/neither/nor situation. My first year as a PhD holder was a challenge, to be sure. I taught ten courses between September and June. I took a part-time retail job to bridge the summer when there was little to no sessional work, and I applied for everything for which I was qualified. Suddenly, I interviewed for and was offered a ten month limited term appointment at Dalhousie. That was nearly two and a half years ago. Since then, through my own hard work, departmental needs, and the advocacy of two Chairs I have had that ten month contract renewed for another ten months, and most recently for another twenty-two months. All of this to say that I know I occupy a position of relative security, where relative is a key word.

Two of my best friends are in Halifax, one is a sessional and one is a postdoctoral fellow. Try as we might to talk about other things, inevitably conversation always turns to the job market. We ask each when do you decide you have had enough of the stress of uncertainty? When do you decided to give up on the research and commit to making a life out of teaching sessionally? Or, as that is an equally uncertain life, when do you make the switch out of the academy?*

Let me be clear: I know there is no certainty in life, not really. Additionally, I don’t think that a switch out of the academy is a failure. On the contrary I am awed by the bravery and ingenuity of the people who choose to make this move. But beyond the individual soul-searching that is an important and inevitable part of every life change, at what point will the Academy (writ large) move beyond acknowledging that things are broken and move instead towards making some changes? If the PhD is the job and the LTA is maybe the next phase of the job, what then? What happens when you’re so busy during the term that you legitimately do not have time to consider other options? When your paycheque is only enough to make ends meet, not enough to put by while you take a break and plan next steps, how do you begin to imagine life beyond the Academy? Or, how do you help the Academy to reimagine itself?

*If you have not yet had a chance to look at the crowd sourced document that details sessional salaries per class, do so. You may want to make sure you’re sitting. Yes, most of these schools are in the States, but not all of them. We should be doing this in Canada too, shouldn’t we?

6 thoughts on “The Gambler: Notes from the Non-Tenure Stream

  1. There's a section on the crowd sourced document for Canada. If you look at the bottom of the spreadsheet you'll see “Outside US”. We're there.


  2. This is a great post. Thanks for articulating what I am struggling with right now. I graduated with my PhD in 2009 and have been working as a sessional ever since (I actually started as a sessional in 2003). I currently teach for 3 different universities, on average teaching 4-6 courses per term, all online. I have managed to cobble together enough teaching to stay afloat, all the while hoping for that elusive tenure track position to open up. At the same time, I have maintained a research program (difficult to do given that as an 'itinerant' professor, I can't apply for ethics approval for individual projects because I don't have a home institution) and done service at local and provincial levels in 2 cities. I knew it was important to maintain all levels of my C.V., even though I am 'just' a session.

    I interviewed for a tenure track position last week and unfortunately found out that the committee decided not to hire anyone right now. I am reeling from the reality that the the job I had dreamed about (and the associated regular salary, pension, benefits, etc.) is not going to happen right now, and in fact may never happen. I don't think I had fully realized how much I was looking forward to having a regular salary, not having to seek out teaching every term, not having to worry about whether I would be teaching enough courses to pay my bills, etc.

    Like you mention, I am going to have to soon decide how much longer I can maintain this…I may have to seek out other options, even though that's not what I want to do. But frankly, the uncertainty and the stress of not having a 'real' job (not to mention the sheer exhaustion I get from teaching so many courses each term–12 months a year, without break) can't continue indefinitely.

    Thanks for posting this and for sharing the sessional salary document. I am heading there right now to check it out!


  3. One of the best posts on here was “The PhD IS the job.” It gave me some much-needed perspective on what I had accomplished, rather than what was still (inevitably) lacking on my academic cv. Because “lacking” is what I have increasingly come to associate with academe: lack of enough publications, lack of respectable jobs, lack of enough publications, and lack of anyone who really gives a damn about fixing a badly broken system.

    I am pretty sure we are heading into the land of limited term contract work, and I say this based on my own experience (I graduated in 2010, with nary a tt job in my field), and my partner's experience as an administrator. I've been cobbling together a career of part-time everything, and I think I'm about to “fold 'em.” Partly because I don't want to spend the rest of my life feeling crappy about myself, partly because I'd like to start living my life again “writ large,” and partly because I'm starting to develop some nasty stomach issues thanks to anxiety. Oh, and partly because my post-doc explored fictional and factual representations of women professors. It ain't pretty. And now here I am, with all these great skills and ambition, and I'm just wasting away in margarita-ville.

    But that's another song, and I'd sure hate to steal the limelight from Kenny Rogers. Thanks for your post, Erin. I know this is most unhelpful, but you sure aren't alone in this mess.


  4. @ Anna: Thanks for directing me and others to the tab. I know Canada is beginning to be represented, but I do wonder if we might consider mobilizing a separate document?

    @ Joanne: Thank you for your honesty and your commentary. I hear you so clearly.

    @PhDiva: I agree with you, one of the best posts here was Aimee's 'PhD IS the job.' I too appreciated the perspective, I too felt it gave me a reoriented sense of accomplishment. However, the longer I write here the more I find myself hamstrung by what I feel I can and can't write about. For example, I feel I can't write about specific teaching issues because I've not taught long enough for it not to be obvious what I'm referring to unless I write in the most general terms. I can't write about being on the job market because I'm on it, and I'm competing for jobs with some of the readers no doubt.

    I work to write with optimism and practicality when I can, but like you I am feeling inundated by lack. I think you're right, I think we are heading into the land of contract work. The Canadian system (writ large)seems hell-bent on following in the American system without paying much mind to where that actually leads.

    I almost feel badly about writing this post–it feels self-indulgent in some ways–but hearing from you readers reaffirms my determination to at least say it like it is, or at least as I experience it. And gosh, writing about the physical repercussions of this is more than another post, it is a book in an of itself.

    So what next? Each person decides for herself, surely, but I am struck by the last lack–the lack of anyone who really gives a damn about fixing a badly broken system. I agree–or at least it certainly feels that way. I wonder though, how to put some modicum of power back in the hands of the workers?


  5. From the other side of the fence, I'd like to pick up on PhDiva's remark about the lack of people giving a damn about fixing a broken system.

    Trying to fix things is also something that can easily grind someone down. Step 1, figuring out what to try to do, is itself a formidably complex problem. One frequently suggested “remedy” is to create teaching-only or teaching-intensive permanent positions to replace sessional teaching. This would give people benefits, departments would have continuity and perhaps even some help with actually running the damned place, etc. But … inevitably, this creates a class system among faculty, it means many fewer people will be able to keep any links to academe, in the long run it probably means many fewer traditional academic jobs that include both teaching and scholarship, and it blurs the line between universities and community colleges.

    Should we produce fewer PhD students in the humanities? Well, first see “The PhD IS the job” and the ensuing discussion. Do we want to be the undergrad teaching wing for the science and engineering parts of the university, or to have all our grad students be in MA programs that are “biz school light”? Or are these ways of keeping humanities budget numbers up actually breaking the system further?

    Even if you finally decide what to do, it's tough getting any of it done … contingent work forces are very hard to organize, of course, and, ahem, unlikely to be uniform in their opinions. And progress is hard: academic administrator career trajectories are not enhanced by working through this sort of contentious stuff, but by getting a big donation for a new program in Whiz-bang Golly-gee Studies. (After all, you don't want to be a mere *manager* instead of a *leader*.)

    Of course, whatever gets accomplished is never more than incremental. And every change is accompanied by complaints: some inevitable because of the previously mentioned different opinions about what is going to help the problem, and some inevitable because no matter how much consultation happens in advance someone complains that they were not consulted.

    So … even among those who ever get involved in this work, lots quit and return to the parts of the job that bring rewards, like scholarship and teaching. That's what we're hired to do in the first place, right? While the pay scale and levels of security are different, there's the same fundamental problem on both sides of the contingent/permanent divide. People have overwhelming incentives to pursue the other parts of their careers and lives rather than pursuing campus-political matters that will primarily benefit others. Some of us don't give a damn, admittedly. But even among those of us who do, for many it's just one of those “carings” that is easily outweighed by other things.

    So a related issue to the ones raised in Erin's post is the permanent problem of politics: how do you get people to be engaged in issues that matter, but don't matter immediately to them? It's hard to care much about that meta-issue when you have to hop in the car and drive to another teaching gig at another campus in two hours. But it's also hard to care about when you've got to meet three grad students this afternoon then go to a committee meeting.


  6. Point taken, ddvd. There are some great people out there trying to fix the current system. But you are right: making contractual work more secure brings with it a whole other set of problems and issues for both parties. Further “securing” a fundamentally insecure contractual arrangement may seem like progress … might seem enticing … but it is no real solution for anyone.

    We all know that an academic job is a HUGE job. So even the most well-meaning, tenured faculty member who is acting as an advocate for contract workers only has so much time and energy to put into that particular battle (hunkering down as he or she is on the many other fronts known as: applications-for-promotion, teaching, committee work, and research).

    So where does that leave us? Well, I'd say pretty well right back where we started. In some kind of paralyzed stasis where the tenured folk are securely over-extended, and the contractual folk are in an over-extended free fall.

    @ Joanne: Please take care of yourself. A friend of mine did the whole online teaching and commuting to teach at two different universities for a number of years, and she suffered from a bad burnout.

    @ Erin: I read no self-indulgence in your post. You mentioned being on the “job market” but really … there's no job market out there. “Meat market,” maybe, but certainly no respectable job market.


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