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?