#alt-ac · administration · grad school · identity · risky writing · transition

On Being That Which You Question

It’s been six months, but most of the time it feels like I’ve been in the Faculty of Graduate Studies for as long as I can remember. My days as a full-time PhD student feel like they happened a very long time ago, and a lot has changed. My writing related anxieties (and they were many, and sometimes debilitating) have entirely disappeared, replaced with an affection for my dissertation and the writing process that brings me much joy. No longer worried about making myself attractive on the job market as a Canadianist, I’m delightedly pursuing my other academic passion, which is writing, reading, and talking about doctoral reform, graduate professional development, and post-PhD pathways. I have a decent professional wardrobe, and I finally figured out a quick but put-together hairstyle (a.k.a. have been too busy to get a haircut and it just happened to grow out nicely). Instead of frequently being the oldest person in the room, surrounded by students, I’m quite often the youngest, and more often patronized than I would like. I usually identify myself as a fellow PhD student when I’m working with graduate students, but not when I’m working with other staff. I have people to delegate to, and wish there were more of us to share the work. I’ve seen inside the sausage factory, as Kim Yates delightfully puts it in her great essay about taking a staff position post-PhD, and I’m only mildly horrified.

Some things, however, remain much the same:

1) Impostor syndrome doesn’t just go away when you change jobs (file this under “things I knew but chose not to believe”), and it has cropped up in all sorts of weird places. Like at our monthly Research Officers meeting where my predecessor, now in a different Faculty, commented that my pay band was totally out of line. I was just about to chime in with “I know! I can’t believe what I make!” when she continued “they SO don’t pay you enough. That job is hard.” Oh. Or when I presented at a big provincial conference for higher education professionals earlier this month and worried that I would reveal that I was doing my job totally wrong, and then found out that I was doing it pretty much like everyone else, and pretty damn well for someone who is learning everything as she goes. Or when I was invited to give a talk at another university and realized that I get to take a train (my favourite thing!) and be away from the office for the day and get paid for it (rather than, as with conferences, end up in the hole).

2) My academic credibility hasn’t vanished overnight; if anything, it’s increasing in some areas. I’m getting asked to do more invited talks than ever before. I have a major new publication on the books, and I’m working out a collaboration with one of the country’s major advocates for doctoral reform. My academic network is expanding across the border in useful and interesting ways. And perhaps best, I get to do the work, to build the reputation, to do the research, to share the knowledge, without having to reenter the structure of the professoriate. At the same time, I’m realizing that finishing my PhD remains necessary to achieving my #alt-ac goals, which is a good question to have answered.

3) And speaking of vanishing, neither (I’m both pleased and disconcerted to find) has my wariness of academic administration, despite my being firmly ensconced within it. I’m admittedly not very far into the beast–I’m only one step away from our graduate programs on the organizational chart, and when I’m not liaising with the government or other granting agencies, I work directly with graduate students, faculty, and student services. A fair part of my job is teaching, mostly in the realm of professional skills and grant writing. Critiques of administrative bloat, outsize salaries, and blatant self-interest are, for me, in sharp contrast to the leanness of our Faculty’s operations–we have a reputation for being the busiest and toughest Faculty to work in–and just how deeply the folks I work with care about grad student success. Those critiques don’t seem to apply to us.

But then I attempt to mentally picture the structure of the university that sits over my head, in all of its many many layers, and realize that I can’t completely wrap my head around a structure of its size and complexity. I realize just how newly created the positions are of some people I work with (even my position has only existed in its current form since the year I started my PhD), how many of those new administrative positions there are, and how desperately we fought during our last adjunct strike to get two tenure-stream conversions. I hear from Aimée that her office has curtains from 1972 while the administration building at her university is doubling in size. I try to explain to our President’s manager of communications, who started not long before I did, how polarizing a figure he (and his salary, and his car, and his housing allowance) was during our last labour dispute, which was centred on fair compensation and job security for contingent faculty. I see efforts duplicated, resources misdirected, politics getting in the way of getting things done. I work to bring to the table the perspective of graduate students, the people we’re serving, a perspective that sometimes gets lost with a group of people who never were grad students, or who haven’t been one for a long time. And I try to reconcile my long years of being a graduate student, at a university where grads tend to have a critical and indeed antagonistic relationship with administration, with my few months as just one of those administrators. That reconciliation hasn’t happened yet. 

But maybe, as tiring as the internal contradiction can sometimes be, that’s a good thing. I don’t want to become an administrator who forgets what it’s like to be a student. I don’t want to accept the structures and the processes of the university as the status quo if there’s a better way we could do things. I don’t want to feel entitled to my job, or indispensable, when most of my academic friends are still vying for an infinitesimally small number of stable faculty positions. I don’t want to identify as an administrator to the point that legitimate critiques of the structure I’m in make me defensive, or challenge my sense of identity, rather than inspire me to work on the problems they identify. So I’m going to hang on to that questioning, that suspicion, that critical distance, that impostor syndrome for as long as I can. I took this job because I passionately believe in the value of graduate education, and because I want to be somewhere that lets me make a real and tangible difference in the lives of graduate students and in the ways that the academy supports and trains them. And if I can keep on asking those questions, I’ll do those things better.

But remind me to read this in ten years.

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