Guest Post: Career Puzzles

Look! It’s a guest post! You should write one for us! This is from Dorothy Hadfield, a lovely new colleague of mine in the English Department, who once drove me home from an airport in the middle of the night after we had shared a very long cab ride down the 401 … it’s a long story, but the upshot is, she’s awesome. And thoughtful, as this post demonstrates.


Picture puzzles, detective novels, hermeneutics. I’ve loved all of them for as long as I can remember, and for basically the same reason: the profound satisfaction of seeing a coherent picture emerge where there had previously only been fragments, and of being able to identify the fragments that make up the coherent picture.

I remember a sense of regret and loss when I realized that life isn’t like that; when Hayden White convinced me that the teleology of history was actually a fictional narrative and that all the experiences of my life hadn’t inexorably led me to exactly where I was.

I’ve been particularly disappointed about letting go of life as a linear narrative because for much of my adult life I couldn’t seem to figure out where I was supposed to be going. I’d always wanted to teach or write, but my mother, always practical, insisted I hone my office skills. While my friends had summer jobs babysitting and picking fruit, I was filing, typing, and learning to run offset presses, bookbinders, and early keypunch computers. I loved the sense of order and efficiency that came with administration and technology.

My career path was inexorably forked. Through three English degrees, I alternated teaching with administration and freelance publication work. After the PhD, the untenured two-step became even more frantic: sessional teaching at multiple universities supplemented with curriculum development, managing research projects, freelance writing, editing and indexing, website development, publication design…whatever I could cobble together to make ends meet. The career picture wasn’t coming together, it seemed to just keep fragmenting farther apart, with increasingly less hope that this was all heading somewhere purposeful.

After almost a decade, I was reaching the long dark teatime of the sessional soul: running on multiple career paths was getting exhausting and getting me nowhere. But how does someone who’s gone in so many directions settle into one track?

Apparently, she circles back. I had chosen Waterloo for my undergrad specifically because the co-op English option perfectly suited all those literary, business, and technology interests. Last summer the Waterloo English department created the position of “Extended Learning Co-ordinator” to develop and manage the department’s online course offerings. According to the posting, the ideal candidate should have experience in teaching and research, project management, curriculum development, design, web-based learning technologies, and administration. It was the oddest duck of an academic job that I had ever seen. It was the kind of job that only someone who’s never been able to focus on just one career path could love.

A couple of weeks ago I was following my new Waterloo criticism students through their online module on hermeneutics. Even though much of my own critical practice now tends to the deconstructionist line, I still love the satisfaction of finding the logic behind how the text fits together and seeing how all the pieces play their part in making the big picture emerge. I still wish real life were like that. But it isn’t, right?

Dorothy Hadfield
University of Waterloo

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Career Puzzles

  1. What a good story, Dorothy. As the academy changes, I think we are going to see more and more of these “odd duck” jobs. In Germany, the category “academic manager” is emerging as an important para-professorial position. As for you: lucky Waterloo!


  2. GREAT story, Dorothy, and one that gave me much hope, particularly because I am starting to sense a similar such career trajectory for me. I've been pulled between “pragmatic” and “academic” applications of research and writing for a number of years now — it all started with a quick stop at Humber College after my BA, where I picked up a certificate in Technical & Professional Writing. Since then, I've moved back and forth from the academy (MA), the corporate (Northern Telecom), the freelance, and back to the academy (PhD), with a little part-time teaching on the side.

    I keep telling myself not to lose my nerve, or to get discouraged, but to focus instead on thinking “outside the box” when it comes to jobs and job satisfaction. I've recently concluded that the eight-ten-twelve month contract plan (x 10 or more years) just isn't going to work for me while I wait for the tenure track position to appear. After all my years as a student, I want to start living again (and living BIG!) Your post just gave me a bit of a boost when I really needed it! Thanks! 🙂


  3. Wow, that's the best outcome to anything I've ever written!

    I remember in grad school some of my friends joking (when I was hired by my graduate English dept. to fill in for the vacationing admin staff) that I should leave academe to those who had no other marketable real-world skills, because I had career choices they didn't! (They now joke with me from their tenured, assoc.- or chair-level faculty offices. So that worked well :P)

    This job isn't what I would have once called ideal–it's not tenure-track and likely never will be; it's not currently permanent, although hopefully might become that–but it's pretty darn close. I've got a job that excites me, in the most amazing and collegial department I could have imagined, that didn't require me to uproot my family (but that last condition is a whole other “feminism & the academy issue!).

    Hang in there, PhDiva. There's more than one pond for us odd ducks.


  4. I think we're all reconsidering definitions of “ideal,” Dorothy. I'm currently juggling three contract jobs (two in Student Services, and a stipend to teach a senior-level course on Writing and Communications). While the jobs in Student Services are not “ideal” in terms of what I am doing, I have my own office (complete with computer and phone) AND colleagues who truly seem to like, support, and respect me. Wow! Rock my world!

    I contrast this environment with what the English department could offer: a shared library carrel (no phone, no computer) for my weekly office hours. Oh, and a mailbox in the English office, along with the photocopy code. Perhaps if I hung around the office more often, I'd see my academic colleagues. At this point in the term (week 10 of 12 weeks), I've seen only the departmental secretary. Well, and one other contractual worker. We enjoyed a brief commiseration about plagiarism.

    What has become ideal for me is a work environment that doesn't make me feel badly about myself, and colleagues are a big part of that environment, and that feeling. Shoe-horning myself into someone else's permanent office (for a quarter of a book shelf) or a library carrel, or working in isolation just doesn't cut it for me … anymore. So bring on the alternatives – er, “ponds”?! If I sound griping or sarcastic, I'm really not. Seriously. I haven't felt this good about myself and my situation in years. Reading my CV with only a tenure-track faculty position in mind makes me focus on what is lacking, and evokes despair. Yet, if I look at my CV with a slightly different focus — so one that is more “expansively” academic, I feel good about myself and my abilities. Over the years, I've developed a unique range of skills, and when I think about it carefully, I conclude that my ideal job is simply one that will allow me to use all of these skills in creative and dynamic ways.

    Thanks again, Dorothy! And happy spring, everyone!


  5. @PhDiva: I have thought a lot about academic working environments, and in my minimal experience, and from talking to more established scholars, I think finding a good environment is so important. I hope to have the same attitude you do toward whatever work I find–I am definitely looking to expand my marketability beyond traditional academe because I want to have something I can do in case I cannot find more permanent work in academe or in case I decide that I would rather do something else other than teaching.


    Thank you for this great, and inspiring, post 🙂 I had a somewhat similar experience with my seemingly random RA position. With what I want to do with my proposed diss project, the theory and practices I learned for my RA position may prove of benefit to some areas of my new project 🙂 I love how things work out that way sometimes 🙂


  6. But I think your story proves Hayden White wrong! The years of lovely and freaky kaleidoscopic spinning and fragmentation DID lead to where you are now–the perfect job for you (if only it could go permanent!); and, really, a job that ONLY you with your many and varied skills could possibly do! Waterloo is so lucky to have you (back)


  7. You know, PhDiva, I really like your approach of looking at your resume for what it affirms rather than what it lacks. And for pushing yourself to redefine what the “ideal job” is. These are modes of thinking that the academy is only just starting to realize are useful, but they would have probably made so many choices so much easier through all that sessional limbo. Maybe you have another career emerging as a motivational speaker/professionalization expert for graduate students?


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