#alt-ac · administration · banting · change · equity · research · scholarships

The Challenge of Challenging Unconscious Bias

I talk more about the professional and career development parts of my job here than I do the research funding part, mostly because the PD and careers stuff seems like it would be more useful to more readers. It also tends to be more political, and that’s what we often like to focus on. But research funding administration takes up a good chunk of my time at work, although less now than it used to, and it’s just as political as the state of the academic job market. Because I’m running fewer funding competitions now that I’m at a smaller institution, I’ve got more time to think about the issues with the way that research funding gets applied for and distributed, and to focus on improving our processes and documentation, both for the people applying for awards (graduate students and postdocs) and for the people supporting applicants (their current and former professors and supervisors).

A big chunk of the time I spend in every funding competition is reviewing applications–to make sure people are applying to the right Tri-Council agency, for completeness, to help the students and postdocs I work with to develop their applications and make them more competitive. In consequence, I read a lot of reference letters in a year–easily a couple of thousand. Given how necessary and ubiquitous reference letters are in academia–for funding and admission applications, for tenure and promotion, for job applications–I had never read any, at least of the ones written about me, before I started working in admin. That’s pretty normal, I should think, given that letters of reference are supposed to be confidential. It’s been enlightening to get to read not just a few, but a glut of them. Mostly, though, in terms of how bad some of them were. And not just bad, but so, so biased.

If you were to walk past my office during an intensive application review session, you’d hear a lot of groans and the occasional derisive shout. And those mostly come when I’m reading the letters written for women. If women scholarship, fellowship, and job applicants knew how biased their letters were, they’d be horrified. So too would the letter writers be, given that these letters are largely the result of unconscious bias. And it’s not that the referees are reluctantly writing so-so letters for so-so applicants. These are great applicants with mostly good letters that are completely undercut by unconscious bias–by noting that X manages to be an excellent researcher despite having three kids at home; that Y is nice, polite, and compassionate; that Z is very nurturing toward her supervisees. Want to know how referees tend to talk about these qualities in a man? A is an exceptional and innovative researcher. B’s collegiality allows him to set up and effectively manage productive research collaborations. C is an exceptional mentor whose support has allowed xx students to take up graduate positions at research-intensive universities. Men get more glowing adjectives too–superb versus good, outstanding versus competent–and are less likely to have their accomplishments undercut by hedging or faint praise.

Since I mostly work with grad students and postdocs, I see how unconscious bias works early in the pipeline to keep women from securing the research funding–or admission to a top-notch graduate program–they need to get their research careers off on the right foot. But the problem if anything gets worse as women progress through their careers. We all remember what happened with the CERC program (one of the impetuses behind the start of Hook & Eye)–not a single woman was awarded one in the first round of distributing these super Canada Research Chairs, and as of right now, only two of the twenty-four chairs are held by women. The CERC equity practices are mostly a joke, but the Canada Research Chairs program is doing a little better. They’ve gone so far as to add a big section to their “Letters of Reference” instructions to address the issue of unconscious bias, and to direct letter writers on how to avoid it.

I’ve adapted their language for application instructions attached to the scholarship and fellowship competitions I run, but I know very well that doing so is not nearly enough (not the least because it is very difficult to get faculty to read more than they absolutely have to, never mind act on it). I see unconscious bias at work every day, but how do I, as a research administrator, do something about it? How do I help my students and postdocs get themselves good letters, knowing that they’ll never get to see the letters and judge for themselves? How do I teach their referees how to overcome unconscious bias when they’re writing? How do I tell senior faculty and scientists that they’re exhibiting unconscious bias without pissing them off or making them feel defensive? Figuring out how to tackle these problems–to do what little I can to challenge systemic sexism with what little power I have–is so necessary and so hard. I do what I can–I call my students and postdocs attention to it, I put directions on how to avoid explicit bias in writing for referees and ask them to read it, I advocate to the Tri-Council funding agencies that they put anti-bias practices and guidelines in place (although the ones that already exist are mostly useless), I call the attention of the adjudication committees I work with to instances of unconscious bias when they’re assessing applications. It’s something, but the problem is enormous, especially considering that the unconscious bias that shows up in reference letters is the same unconscious bias that has infected the CERC program, is the same unconscious bias that skews teaching evaluations.

But I want to, and need to, do more. Because we all know that there are exceptional women who should have gotten that scholarship, should have gotten into that graduate program, should have gotten that job, should have gotten tenure, should have gotten that chairship, but didn’t because her smarts, capability, and excellence were undercut by unconscious bias. Any thoughts, dear readers, on what else I (and we) can do in the work we do every day?

#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · best laid plans · new year new plan

Back to School for #alt-academics

This Labour Day marks my third fall of going back to school as an #alt-academic, although it’s the first year when I’m not actually working in a school. Still, I work in a teaching hospital, and our annual rhythms are much the same–we’re still gearing up for an influx of new undergraduate and graduate students joining us for their first year of doing research with one of our faculty, we’re still getting ready for the fall funding rush, and I’m still wrapped up in my usual rounds of reviewing postdoc applications and prepping for Writing a Winning Research Proposal 101 sessions. And I’m so glad.

It may seem like a little thing to be worried about giving up, but my life has been ruled by the academic calendar since I was four years old. I’ve spent just one year of my adult life working outside of the structures of a school or university, and that was at Oxford University Press, where we still largely observed the academic calendar because all of our writers and buyers did too. Labour Day is my New Year’s Day, the marker of the beginning of a fresh new year with no mistakes in it (as Anne Shirley would say). And being in an #altac position where–even if there’s no back to school for me–the spirit of back to school still reigns is such a comfort. Some things don’t have to change.

But some things do change. And the transition from summer to fall brings some extra challenges for #altac folks who are trying to maintain a semi-active research profile while working full-time jobs. My collaborative projects mostly went dormant over the summer, as everyone turned their attention to large-scale writing projects, research trips, and holidays, but they’re all ramping up again. Hook & Eye is back, and I’ve also got a dissertation chapter, plus some other writing/editing/teaching projects all requiring lots of attention (and completion) in the next couple of months. I’m lucky, though, that I’ve moved from a position that saw me supporting research funding and professional development programs for 6,000 students and postdocs to one that sees me doing the same for about 1, 200–I can do more for fewer people, and my job doesn’t spill over into the rest of my time the way it once did. Like Erin, I’m deliberately moving away from the fastness and hyperproductivity that neoliberalism so loves towards a slowness that that lets me “have intellectual fulfillment as well as a home [I] love coming home to.” 

Still, mine is affective labour–I work the job I do because it lets me help grad students and postdocs more easily make their way through, and out of, the academy. So too is my research and writing affective labour. Because I care, I work to make unheard voices heard, whether it’s the voice of a poet silenced by sexism and rumour, or graduate students, postdocs, and contract academic faculty silenced by those who don’t want to believe that the academy is failing its most vulnerable. If I was looking for an easier time of it, I could scale back or call it quits on my research, but so long as I feel like I have the opportunity to do some good, I’m not willing to give it up. I also need the balance of the 9-5 and my academic work to keep me happy. It turns out that having one to turn to when I need respite from the other is exactly what suits me, and what keeps me productive. It’s what keeps me from falling back into the writing paralysis I described in my “I Quit” letter, and what lets me have that intellectual fulfillment I want.

My transition into the new year isn’t as abrupt as it is for some. I didn’t have the “normal” academic summer (i.e. the summer of those with the privilege of a well-paying tenure-track job or graduate stipend) of setting aside the usual routines of the school year for four months of all research all the time. I took a week off work to finish up a dissertation chapter and get some projects done around the house, and another to visit family and research sites in London and Copenhagen. Most days, I did what I do every weekday–wrote from 6-8, walked to work, worked from 9-12, wrote from 12-1, worked from 1-5, walked home, made dinner, did household or fun or social things, went to bed, and did it again. Turns out that this routine, at least for me, is the prescription for avoiding summer guilt and the end of summer hangover. My summers as a full-time academic were clouded by guilt–either that I wasn’t working enough, or that I wasn’t enjoying downtime because I felt guilty about not working enough–and capped off by an orgy of shame about the distance between my beginning of summer goals and my end of summer accomplishments. My goals for this summer were minimal–get my writing routines completely embedded so that they were automatic. And I did that, no shame hangover required. It’s a good way to start the new year.

I’m featured in the October University Affairs cover story, and it paints a rosier picture of #altac careers than I think really exists. They’re not the cure-all for the ills of the academic job market, nor a reason to keep PhD enrollments high. But even so, I’ll be damned if I can’t help as many people as possible make their way onto the #altac track. It is such a good place to be for those of us who don’t want the tenure track, but don’t want to leave the rhythms and routines (and research) of the academic life behind. For that reason, I’ll pick back up with the #altac 101 series shortly, and I’ll talk more about how to succeed off the tenure track, about the gendered aspects of job searching, and about how scientists, social scientists, and humanists are in precisely the same boat when it comes to the ills that plague academia. I’m so looking forward to another year of H&E, and of you.

Happy new year, dear readers, and see you soon.

image credit: death to the stock photo // cc

#alt-ac · #post-ac · learning · transition

I Don’t Know What I’m Doing, and I’m Okay with That

I’m nearing the end of the second week of my new job at the SickKids Research Institute, and I’m starting to feel a little less like I know nothing. I’ve scoped out a great place to eat lunch, I’ve figured out the coffee situation, and I don’t get lost anymore on the walk between the hospital and the Institute. I understand the acronyms most of the time, and the way that the Institute is organized mostly makes sense, and I’m getting a pretty good sense of all the things I need to be keeping on top of.

The view from my favourite spot on the 19th floor. Better when it’s not pouring rain.

But I still feel so strange.

Despite my vast experience with impostor syndrome–which, funnily enough, almost completely disappeared once I moved onto the administrative side of academia, but plagued me on the scholarly side–I’m generally used to feeling like a competent, knowledgeable person. At York, I was the go-to girl for information and policy clarification and getting stuff done. I was very good at my job, and I left with lots of success under my belt. But now, I feel incompetent, unknowledgeable, not at all on top of my game. I have to check with my admin assistant on the answers to basic questions. I need to ask for context and the history on just about every program and initiative our Centre currently has running. Every face is new, every system just enough different from the ones I was using before to trip me up, every action deliberate and thought out rather than automatic.

It’s really good for me.

Aimee wrote awhile back about becoming a student again when she entered yoga teacher training, about the doubled-consciousness that comes from remembering what it’s like to be on the other side of the desk. There’s lots to be said for experiencing what it’s like to be the new person, especially when a good part of my job is figuring out how we can make the transition to SickKids a more seamless one for our students and postdocs. Trainees, as we call them in science (and living in science world as a confirmed humanist coming from a humanities-focused university is a whole other level of new that I’ve yet to fully process), have to figure out how to negotiate all of the various structures and policies of SickKids when they come over to work at one of our many labs. And those structures and policies are just different enough from the ones they’ve already learned to negotiate at their university to trip them up. I know, because they’ve tripped me up, despite having successfully figured out how to navigate four different universities since I first started in higher ed fifteen years ago. Understanding what it takes to figure out the complex structures of the Institute and how to effectively work within them is going to make me way better at identifying and responding to the needs of the trainees, especially the need to make all of this more transparent and easily navigable.

Aside from letting me serve our trainees better, feeling like a total n00b is just plain old good for me. I come home every day feeling completely juiced up about all of the new information I’m learning, whether it’s mundane or a big deal. So much so that after about ten meetings on Tuesday to meet and hear from various people with whom I’ll be working, I came home and almost immediately fell asleep–my brain needed to process that badly, despite the fact that it was my birthday and I quite wanted to do something fun. As a gal who loves to learn, I’m in heaven. And not knowing quite where to step makes me step carefully, really pay attention to what’s going on and where I fit into it, be considered rather than (probably unadvisedly) jumping right in. It’s also rather nice to have a work story to tell my husband that he hasn’t already heard fifteen times.

In a meeting with our senior manager recently, I remarked on how odd it sometimes was to be on a career trajectory so different from the academic one. If I were to be making a 5-year plan as a new assistant professor, it would probably read something like “be doing the same job I’m doing now, just with tenure.” But now, what I could or want to do five years from now, within the SickKids organization or elsewhere, is far more open and uncertain. Like being the new person in the office, that can be a little scary, but it’s also really exciting. I don’t know what I’m doing five years from now, and I’m totally okay with that. I’ll take it over feeling like there’s nothing I can or want to do any day.

#alt-ac · academic reorganization · administration · contract work · enter the confessional · jobs · risky writing · solidarity · strike

Crossing the Lines

I’m taking a break from the #Alt-Ac 101 series this week to talk about the York University and University of Toronto strikes, a topic near and dear to my heart. Despite those strikes being weeks old by this point, I haven’t felt able to address them until now, in large part because I work for York University. More specifically, I work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, for a Dean who is a key member of the employer-side bargaining team. It has felt distinctly unsafe, in and out of the office, to take any but the party line on the current “labour disruption,” as the university likes to call it. Indeed, any language I use about the strike in the office is prescribed by the university. But I will be a York University employee no longer after today–I’m moving over to the Hospital for Sick Children, where I’ll be running award and professional development programming for the students and postdocs in the hospital’s research division–and so I can now speak as I like.

I had been a PhD student for all of three months when we went on strike in 2008. York University’s CUPE 3903 represents graduate students and contract academic faculty, and it was largely for the benefit of the latter that we went out that year. We knew precarity when we saw it, we knew that the system could do better, and we knew that we were the ones who had to force it to. We struck for months, in the bitter cold, and while we did the university shut down almost entirely. The only cars coming onto campus were those of staff members, or delightful friends bearing sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and scrap wood for burning. We continued bargaining, although when no agreement could be reached we were legislated back to work and into a new collective agreement. We did at least win some gains in the conversion program, which saw contract academic faculty positions converted to tenure lines. I ended the strike feeling exhausted and disoriented, although far savvier about what lay ahead of me if I ended up becoming CAF myself, and far closer to my program colleagues than I had been before the strike started. I had to trash my parka, because it was so deeply impregnated with smoke from the fire barrel that I couldn’t get the smell out. After months of eating them cold and soggy out of a mittened hand, I could never face the Grad Cafe’s channa masala wrap again. 
This time around, I’m crossing the picket lines daily, because I’m forced to. If I don’t, I lose my job. Students have been given the right to refuse to cross, and faculty can stay away as long as classes continue to be suspended (and are making a case that being forced to resume teaching without TAs compromises academic integrity, and so refusing to is a matter of academic freedom), but I have no choice. I walk quickly, with my hood up, my headphones in, and my hands in my pockets. I want to join my graduate colleagues, to wave and shout encouragement, but from my side of the sidewalk I worry it would look like mockery or a threat. At the office, I’m required to refer to the strike as a “labour disruption,” to point students to statements like “Regrettably, two units of CUPE 3903 representing Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants (Units 1 and 3), rejected the University’s offers and remain on strike,” when the only thing I think is regrettable is the lack of solidarity among units. I sit in my office and watch my colleagues be threatened with gun violence on the lines via YouTube, and follow along on Twitter as Senate, amidst strenuous opposition, decides to resume classes while the strike is ongoing. I watch the lines of cars get longer and longer as more people try to enter campus. I watch tempers flare. I watch administration decide that resuming classes is more important than resuming bargaining. I watch the employer-side bargaining team withhold, withhold, withhold until the night before the strike deadline, when miraculously something resembling a decent offer shows up on the table. I watch administration invite Unit 1 and 3 members to return to work despite the fact that they are on strike.

What neither university seems to understand is that this strike is not really about wages. Nor is it about seniority, or benefits, or childcare, not really. It is about the fact that graduate students and contract academic faculty, in Canada and elsewhere (see Boyda for a New York perspective) recognize that the academic employment (and teaching, and research) system is broken. It is about the fact that they feel as though they are the only ones who are going to attempt to change it. It won’t be tenured faculty. It won’t be undergraduate students. It will be graduate students and CAF, or no one, and their chance is now. This is their chance to say “you want to pretend that I only work 10 hours a week and prohibit me from taking any outside employment? Fine–pay me enough to live on.” This is their chance to insist that at least a few of their ranks–a minuscule number, considering that York employed nearly 1800 CAF last year (as compared to not quite 1400 t-t faculty)–have the chance to enjoy at least some measure of job security. This is their moment to seize what is a miraculous surge in positive public opinion and require our universities to be accountable, to step up, to do better. 

Our universities, the people they are made up of, can do better. 
But not by forcing their graduate students to choose between their education and their jobs. Not by using rhetoric that suggests that the only students who matter are the undergraduates, when graduate students are students too. Not by putting them in danger on the picket lines by inviting thousands of people to cross them daily. But by recognizing that once, they as administrators were the graduate students they’re vilifying, the CAF they exploit while hiring ever-increasing numbers of questionably necessary administrators (me included). They can do better by recognizing their own privilege, and their responsibility as those with power to enact change. They can do better by attempting to understand, rather than dismissing. They can do better by getting back to the bargaining table and bargaining in good faith. 
I’m not going to miss crossing the picket lines. But at least now I can speak about it, instead of just watching. 
#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · flexible academic · jobs

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Identifying and Describing Transferable Skills

While you’re starting to get a sense of what you might want to be doing as a job, whether it’s through self-assessment or informational interviews, you’re also going to want to start getting a sense of the places where your skills match up well with the ones required by positions or fields that you’re interested in. Doing that seems like an easy task–just compare the skills you developed in all the various aspects of your PhD to the ones listed in the job description.

Except that it’s not easy, at least not at first.

We don’t tend to talk about skills in the PhD, unless you’re an administrator like me, and then sometimes that’s all we seem to talk about. The course outcomes for graduate courses tend to be knowledge based, not skill based–learn a new field or subfield, not a new set of skills. And unless we have really extraordinary course directors, or a supportive teaching centre offering training, the vast majority of us aren’t being taught how to identify the skills we develop in the classroom either. This reluctance to teach PhDs to identify the skills they’re developing while they develop them is compounded by the often myopic perspective on what the skills developed in graduate school are for–often, they’re only imagined as being good for use on the tenure-track. So even if we are able to identify some of the skills we’re developing, we often have trouble seeing the places where those skills could be put to use in other careers.

The good news is that these problems are very solvable, and quickly, too. All it tends to take, for a lot of people, is having someone translate the things they do regularly as a graduate student into the language of skills and competencies. This is an exercise I do often with PhDs in the context of professional development workshops or career transition coaching: I have them list the things they do all the time to me, and then I repeat back those same things, but in the language of skills, the language that shows up on job postings and in resumes. I’ll give some examples below, using the job description for my current role as an example of the language in which skills might be translated.

Things I did in the PhD
Job Skills
Teaching tutorials and giving conference papers
superior oral … communication skills,” “tact and diplomacy,” “public speaking skills”
Founding and managing a peer-reviewed online journal; co-coordinating my department’s annual colloquium; taking a lead role on my program’s steering and social committees
excellent organizational, planning and coordination skills,” “demonstrated ability to exercise initiative,” “strong leadership and team building skills”
Writing articles and papers
superior … written communication skills”
Leading tutorials and sitting on department tenure and promotion committees
effective interpersonal and public relations skills,” “tact and diplomacy,” “discretion and [ability to] maintain confidentiality”
Researching and writing a dissertation
strong research and analytical skills,” “articulating and assimilating complex information,” “computer proficiency”
Writing scholarship applications and project reports
excellent report and proposal preparation skills”

All of the language in the right-hand column is taken directly from the position posting for my current job. And I didn’t skip any–the skills the posting asked for were all skills that I’d developed during my graduate training. I just needed to learn how to think about what I did in the PhD in terms of skills and expertise. Admittedly, my job is in academic administration, which might make you think that the skill set needed is skewed more closely toward what we develop in the PhD. That is true, a little, but I’ve recently done this same exercise with people looking for jobs in wholly different fields from academia, and it still works. Employers might not looking for people who are experts in 19th century French literature. But they are looking for people with communication skills, with the ability to process and communicate to others high volumes of complex information, with the ability to create project plans and see them through, with the ability to work with and for a wide variety of people. PhDs learn how to do all of those things, and often much more.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out or describing your transferable skills, here’s what I suggest: if you’ve already done a couple of informational interviews, go back to your notes and see what kinds of skills your interviewees identified as most important. Write them out, then look to your experiences in the PhD and see in what part of your graduate training you developed those skills. If you don’t have a sense yet of what skills might be important to a field you’re interested in, or you’re still exploring fields and positions to see what might be a good fit, you can do this in reverse: identify the skills you developed during your graduate training, and then look at lists like this one find positions or fields that are looking for those skills.

Finally, I’d like to say one thing to anyone reading this who is starting to think about non-professorial careers but still believes, deep down, that being a professor is all that they’re cut out to do: it’s not true, not even a little, despite the fact that the culture of academia leads you to believe it is. For some people, that belief–along with a genuine love of the job–is what keeps them in precarious employment situations like those that have precipitated the ongoing strikes at York, University of Toronto, and UNBC. But being a flexible academic is far less about acquiring new skills than it is about identifying the ones you already have. So get to it!

#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · jobs · PhD

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Informational Interviews

In a recent conversation with a PhD student, the topic of informational interviewing came up and the term elicited a blank stare. For people focused on the tenure-track career path, informational interviewing is often not even on their radar. But if you’re still trying to figure out what career path or what type of work environment–business, not-for-profit, academic administration, government–might be right for you, informational interviewing is a powerful research tool. I call informational interviews research, because that’s what they really are. They are not, as some might claim, a disingenuous way to impress people who might eventually give you a job. They are, however, a great way to start getting a real sense of what jobs are out there that might make you feel happy, balanced, challenged, intellectually stimulated–whatever it is that you’re looking for in a career.

What is an informational interview, for those of you who reacted with the blank stare? A brief meeting, usually between 15 and 45 minutes, with someone who has a job in which you’re interested. You get to ask the questions, and the questions are usually aimed at finding out more about how that person got into their career, what their field/position/industry is like, and what their working life is like day-to-day. While general advice about informational interviews suggests that you should reach out to anyone in your network (or in your network’s network) who has a job in which you’re interested, my advice is for PhDs to be a little bit more focused, at least at first–see if you can find people with your degree, in your field, and start out by talking with them about their jobs. It can seem impossible to imagine yourself in any career but a professorial one when you don’t have any examples of what those other positions might be, or any information about how a person with your degree might go about moving from academia into something else.

If you’re really and truly unsure about what else you’d like to do, cast your net wide. Look to those sources of information I mentioned in my last post–your program, your university’s alumni office, your LinkedIn connections–and make a list of people with your degree in all kinds of industries that you might want to talk to. Cold calling people for informational interviews can be surprisingly effective–people like having a chance to talk about themselves–but it is often more effective, and less intimidating, to get someone you know to set up an introduction. I belong to the Toronto VersatilePhD group, and we’re offering each other introductions within our respective fields, and to people we know outside of them. A member of my PhD program has set up a Facebook group where we talk about what we’re doing with our degrees, and somewhere similar is a great place to find targets for an info interview.

Once you’ve set up an interview, spend a little time doing your homework. Find out what you can about the person and what they do so that you’re not asking questions that can be easily answered by Googling and you’ve got more time to ask the important questions. Decide what questions you’d like to ask–this list can get you started, but think about what it really is that you want to know about their career, and their working life. If you’ve done a skills or preferences assessment already, these can guide you to the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask, and the kinds of answers you’re looking for. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably want to know about how the person transitioned from academia into their current career. You might also want to ask about the skills the person uses in their working life, and about the skills gaps (if any) they felt they had when they moved into a non-academic career and how they addressed those gaps.

When it comes to the details, treat the informational interview a bit like you would a job interview. Dress nicely, although not as formally as you would for a job interview. Mind your Ps and Qs. Respect the amount of time you agreed on, even if you’re having a great conversation. Get yourself some business cards–yes, even if you don’t have a job–and exchange them with your interviewee. And write a thank you note when you’re done.

After a few informational interviews, what you’ll hopefully have in hand is this: a really good sense of some careers and positions in which you might be interested, knowledge about how to move into a new field, key terms and lingo from that field you can use in job documents, the names and contact information of friendly faces who might just call you up if a job comes around, and confidence in your ability to interact with and impress people in a wide range of non-academic fields. All that for the price of a cup of coffee.

If you’re looking for some more advice or information about informational interviews, check out the links below. And what about you, dear readers–how many of you have done informational interviews? Did you find them helpful for your job search?

#alt-ac · academic reorganization · adjuncts · collaboration

After #NAWD What Do We Do?

Last Wednesday, February 25th, was the first National Adjunct Walkout Day. The initiative started in the United States and despite participation in Canada as well as other countries the majority of media attention was to American working conditions and American participation in the project. Inside Higher Education has a comprehensive piece on the emotional success of #NAWD, in a different genre, Gawker covered the walkout, and the warriors at Democracy Now! addressed the walkout and adjunct working conditions. In Canada, rabble.ca published a very smart piece by Aalya Ahmad, and there was some coverage elsewhere, including ongoing support from colleagues at ACCUTE who generously republished my love letter to Contract Academic Faculty. If you weren’t on a publicly active campus, Twitter was the place to really see action happening. Here’s a shot of the first two tweets that come up when you search #NAWD

On the campus where I am underemployed there was more teach-in action and education happening that public protest. Colleagues of mine–mostly tenured colleagues–at Dalhousie took time to speak to their students about what Contract Academic Faculty are (mostly PhD-ed colleagues who are as qualified as tenured professors), how they function in the university (in precarious teaching-heavy positions that are tenuous at best), and what they are paid (I can’t even).

But that was last week. What do we do now that #NAWD is in the past? The issues have hardly passed, and now teaching assistants at the University of Toronto are on strike. Like so many other dispersed issues-based actions it can be difficult to maintain public concern and collective momentum  on the Internet and in your daily life (think Idle No More, think Occupy, think anti-fracking protests like that in Elsipogtog, think, in a different context, the outrage over Ghomeshi, Dalhousie Dentistry’s ‘Gentlemen’s Club,’ and other serious issues that have responses constellate, for reasons of practicality, on social media).

Well, here’s a shocker: there are no easy solutions and all ideas take work. However, I do have some practical suggestions for maintaining momentum in your daily life, in your academic context, and in Canada. I’ll identify suggestions for tenured colleges, Contract Academic Faculty from sessionals to limited term folks on salary, and for interested students.

Contract Academic Faculty: 
Talk about your working conditions in a clear and factual way. Building support means building diverse communities of people from different working conditions. It is hard. It takes time and energy. Anger only gets us so far, so keep your anger, but refine it. Make it clear, cogent, and compelling. The facts, if you will, and the narrative needed to understand what it is to live those facts.

Talk with colleagues about your working conditions in a formal way–do you have access to photocopiers, letter head, a mailbox, an office, the library? If not, let them know formally and ask for their help. Many tenured colleagues simply don’t know the material conditions of CAF work.

Talk with the union you are affiliated with, or would like to be affiliated with, and do this in collaborations with other CAFs in your academic setting. Can the union help? Shift its membership parameters?

Build metro-allegiances with other CAFs in your city, if this is a possibility. Networking can mean sharing job resources (I know. Sharing is hard enough in the best of times, but I tell you, bridges are better built than burned).

Join national organizations and make your voice heard. Its not so difficult! For example, if you’re a teacher of English you can contact me. I’m the CAF representative for ACCUTE. I’d be more than happy to represent our collective suggestions to ACCUTE and to CAUT, but I need help. Email me, and I will collate the emails, work with ACCUTE, and reach out to CAUT.

Don’t internalize your material conditions as personal failure. This is, admittedly, the hardest. It is the one I struggle with on a daily (hourly?) basis. It requires vigilance, vulnerability, and radical attitude re-hauls. Doing something proactive helps. Consider following Melissa’s new #Alt-Ac 101 series here on Thursdays, or reading blogs such as From PhD to Life even if you don’t plan to leave the profession.

Tenured Colleagues

Recognize–really recognize–that CAF issues are your issues. They are issues of sustainability for the department and discipline to which you’ve dedicated your life. You have more power than you think.

Strategize hiring at the CAF and tenure-track levels with your tenured colleagues. Can your department pioneer and advocate radical job ads? I don’t mean such as this tom foolery, I mean something more in the realm of job sharing.

Think in terms of curriculum development at the undergraduate and graduate levels. If teaching is the bread and butter of your department’s budget, how can you keep the dollars in sight while also thinking about what other successful departments around the country are doing to meet the changing needs of students? You can find is a good example of one department’s innovation from Lisa Surridge’s ACCUTE report “Humanities in the Crisis Zone.”

Can your department not only adopt ACCUTE’s CAF best practice checklist, but also create a bespoke one that addresses the material conditions of your context? I bet it can.

Some of my incredible colleagues at Dalhousie go out of their way to directly address the Dean, VPs, President, and Senate about budget cuts to hiring. They give me hope. I see how time consuming and emotionally exhausting it is for them, and I want to give them a great big hug every time I see them. Why? Because they are using their tenure on behalf of their departments, their faculties, their students, and their precarious colleagues. Consider how you and your department might proactively address the powers that be in a way that benefits your community in the short and long term.

Students

You have more power than you think! The trick is to learn which questions to ask and to figure out why these issues matter for you.

Ask for the numbers: how many of your professors are precariously employed?

Think: If a professor whose teaching you love is precariously employed, will they be able to write letters of recommendation for you? In other words, will they be at your institution next semester or next year? Chances are, no.

Ask: how much of your tuition goes to paying teachers?

Ask: When did your department last hire a permanent faculty member?

Ask: How often is your department’s curriculum revised in relation to current trends in the discipline, in the job market? And how are faculty in your department engaged in continuing to learn about trends in these areas?

Think: What kinds of campus venues are there for discussing these issues? Is your student association engaged in real and meaningful conversations about sustainable teaching environments? Is your campus newspaper?
_____________________________

Alright, readers. I offer these as good faith and genuinely-positive suggestions. Many people and places do some or all of these things already, but I think we in Canada need a more centralized and cohesive foundation upon which to build specific scenarios for individual learning environments (ie. your university or college differs from mine).

What other ideas, suggestions, and success stories do you have?

#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · jobs

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Figuring Out What Else to Do

In the spirit of Aimee’s academic how-to series, I’m consolidating past posts and generating new ones that will form a complementary how-to series on the #alt-ac job search and career. It should be noted that I’m not a career services professional, and you should seek those out at your institution, but my advice is informed both by my own experience and by the work I do with people in career services and coaching for graduate students.

Today, we’re starting from the beginning: once you decide not to go on the tenure-track (or not to finish the PhD, or to look for both academic and non-academic jobs), how do you figure out what the heck to do next?

The data on academics in non-academic careers is very clear: we don’t have a hard time getting into them. Despite the very limited amount of non-academic career support currently built into graduate studies, PhDs do very well at finding jobs outside of academia. With only 18.6% of us in full-time academic teaching jobs (and that includes contract work), the other 81.4% of us are finding our way into something else. And we’re doing it well–PhD holders have the lowest unemployment rate of any group of Canadians. But if you’ve been told, over and over, that you’re developing the skills to do precisely one thing–become a professor–and you stop thinking about other careers, it can be difficult, even intimidating, to start figuring out what other things you can and would like to do. Where do you start?

Whenever someone asks me this question, I refer them to So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia, which is now in its third edition. (My university carries So What as an e-book, and many career centres also have copies to borrow.) Written by Susan Balsalla and Maggie Debelius, PhDs themselves who now work inside and outside academia, So What covers a host of the topics to which new PhD job seekers might need an introduction: translating skills gained in academia into terms that employers can understand and value, career counselling, interview etiquette, etc. All of So What is highly useful, but of particular value are the self-assessment exercises that ask you to figure out what it is you really like about academia–the skills you like exercising, the activities you like doing–and then help you see other industries and positions that would allow you to do the things you like doing more. In my case, I figured out that what I really liked was non-academic/theoretical writing, mentorship, research that had use-value, and work that was aimed at helping others rather than myself. Perhaps my favourite thing about So What is the way it helps PhDs realize that there are a number of careers that might suit their strengths and interests better than being a professor, and the way it helps them identify what those careers are. For me, it helped me see that I might like to be a grant writer, or a counsellor, or what I am now, which is a graduate professional skills coordinator and research administrator–which suits me and my strengths better than being a tenured professor likely would have.

Another resource I recommend for people doing the fundamental work of figuring out what they could do next is Strengthsfinder 2.0. (My university library also has this one as an ebook, and yours might too.) Although not aimed at an academic audience, Strengthsfinder offers a more robust sf diagnostic and analytic tools than So What that are aimed at helping you figure out what you’re good at doing and what jobs would let you do those things. The book is complemented by online testing that generates reports about talents and strengths you might want to explore in more depth, testing I found both accurate and helpful. One of the many challenging (and awesome) things about moving into an #altac career is the flexibility and openness of the non-tenure career path; the challenging part is keeping an eye on where you are and where you’re headed, and assessing if those two things still match up with what you want from a career. Occasionally redoing the tests from Strengthsfinder (and So What) is a useful way to see how my skill set has changed as I’ve learned and developed on the job, and to assess where I’m at in my career development.

The last thing I’d suggest for people trying to figure out what to do after they’re done is finding the unit at your university that keeps track of what PhDs are doing after they graduate. Some graduate programs–more and more of them–are tracking the post-degree placement of everyone who graduates from their program with a PhD, whether they’re going into a tenure-track job or not. Alumni or advancement offices also often keep track of what PhD alumni are doing, and can often provide you with that information, or put you in touch with people in your field. Many universities, through graduate programs, the Career Centre, or the Faculty of Graduate Studies, put on regular career panels featuring PhD alumni in non-academic jobs. However you find the information, see if you can figure out what people with your degree, in your field, are doing now. PhD transition stories, like those that Jennifer Polk collects in her blog From PhD to Life, are also a good resource. It can be difficult to find out what PhDs in non-academic jobs are doing, simply because universities have tended to track only t-t placement rates, although universities are realizing the necessity of collecting this kind of data and large-scale post-PhD tracking projects are getting underway. But it’s a lot easier to figure out what you might want to do, what you could do with your degree, if you know what others who were once in the same boat are doing.

Next up, we’ll talk about what to do once you’ve figured out a job or industry (or a few) that you might be interested in and that might suit you: the informational interview, also known as research.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · balance

Do What You Love, Part Deux

Y’all know that I’m totally not into the “do what you love” thing. Not when it means that people, as Erin so eloquently articulated on Monday (and in Rabble!), do what they love at the expense of their present and future wellbeing. At least in part, DWYL is what keeps people trapped in jobs they love in systems that exploit and wear them down. It breaks my heart to see people I love trapped in this cycle, knowing that the solution is either to give up the job that they’re so very very good at, or find a way to fix a system that is very very broken. It’s February, and I have the SADs, and Erin says it better than I ever can, so I’m going leave that all alone and talk about the other kind of “do what you love.” And that’s doing things that you love, hang the academy (and our workaholic culture generally) that says we should only think and work and do.

Screw that, frankly.

Y’know what I’m doing right now? I’m sitting on the couch with my love under an HBC blanket watching Chef. We ate dinner together at the dining room table, no work allowed. I had wine, on a Wednesday. On my way to and from work today (and at lunch for awhile too) I read M.F.K. Fisher’s With Bold Knife and Fork, book thirteen on the food writing comprehensive list I’ve set for myself this year. I should have done a PhD in food writing, but I’m making up for it now. On Friday night, I had belated bachelorette party that reminded me how much fun it is to just dance. On Sunday, I spent most of the day in the kitchen, alternating between the stove and some articles I was editing. I made Marcella Hazan’s tomato-butter sauce (the best recipe ever, no exaggeration), poached pears with cardamom and orange, a giant pear bundt cake for my co-workers, beluga lentils with garlic and bay, an orange root vegetable soup spiked with vermouth and zata’ar, coffee ice cream, and Food52’s genius oven fries (which really are genius). We’re eating really well this week–pears with greek yogurt and muesli for breakfast, soup with lentils for lunch, and veggie meatball sandwiches with tomato sauce and provolone for dinner–without having to think about it, because I did all that thinking on Sunday. I get up early and start work an hour late so that I can write before I head to the office, but I also spend 20 of those minutes meditating and 10 minutes drinking coffee and hanging out with Moose for his daily “chair time.”

Moose + his people + the living room carpet he thinks we bought just for him = happy cat. 
It’s telling, though, that I still feel the need to write what comes next, to justify doing the things that light me up: I write, every single day. I work hard at the office, and we get a lot done. My side research and publishing projects are all well in hand. I’m presenting at a conference every weekend but one in May. I love that stuff. But it’s important to note that I love it in ways that I didn’t, or couldn’t, when I was labouring under the delusion that to do anything other than meet the demands of the academy was a waste of time. I wanted an #altac job at least in part because I wanted more of this–more of the revelling in a fridge full of things I’d made myself, more of delicious prose about meals eaten sixty years ago, more time with my guys, more control over my life. Almost without realizing, I got it. 
I treasure the people, the very many of my friends, who are so committed to their teaching, to their students, that they’re willing to do whatever it takes–teaching at three schools, going without an office or medical benefits, being on EI over the summer, living apart from their partners–to do what they love. But I also marvel at the power of the academy, the draw of that culture and its privileging of a single kind of love and worth, that makes me feel like the outlier in making the choices I have about work and life. I don’t know where that gets us, but it’s something I think about a lot. 
What about you, dear readers? How do you make room for doing what you love? What choices, easy or hard, have you made to get to keep doing what you love, at work or out? 
#alt-ac · #post-ac · day in the life · PhD · weekend

I Am Dayanara: Skill Building Through Role-Playing Games

On Sundays at 5:00 pm, I stop being Melissa and I become Dayanara. I’m a regular ol’ alt-academic from freezing Toronto who loves running and reading with a cat in her lap. Dayanara is the eldest daughter of an oasis-tribe chieftain in the deserts of Drujenna, her main job is international diplomacy and avoiding being kidnapped by bandits, and she wields a mean oaken staff. We don’t have much in common but our shared affection for caffeine and nice shoes, and that’s a big part of the reason why I love being her for a few hours every week.

Dayanara runs around with a pretty motley crew. There’s Owen, the burly enforcer with a usefully enhanced tolerance for pain (who is, amusingly, my gentle husband by day); Clodhopper, the inept keeper of the caravan’s inventories with a fondness for silly shoes; Lysander, the explorer and swordsman; Quisentus, his trusty sidekick of many hidden talents; Liesl, the not-terribly-perceptive tracker; and a host of other minor characters who appear and disappear as needed. And, of course, there’s the gamesmaster, who has ultimate say over the shape of our story and how our characters deploy their skills, talents, and possessions within the bounds of the story. At present, Dayanara has just worked with Lysander and the others to defeat a marauding group of banditti and is working, across a difficult language barrier, to communicate to these caravan-bound weirds what exactly she’s doing out in the desert.

When the six of us sit around my dining room table on Sunday night, if an outside observer were to ignore the dice and GURPS books everywhere, the scene might look not unlike any meeting that happens in or out of academia. There’s a lot of talk about what our goals and aims are, and what we can do to best achieve them. There’s a lot of compromise, either mandated by the role of the dice when you don’t have enough points to accomplish what you want to, or required by the gamesmaster, who places limits on what we can or cannot do in order to move the story in the right direction. There’s a “yes and” spirit not unlike in improv, where we all have to pay attention to what everyone else is doing and then try to move things forward by using their actions as a launching pad. And there’s a ton of collaboration, because most of the time all of our characters are doing something together, whether it’s talking, fighting, or strategizing, and we naturally understand that we’re more effective when we work in tandem.

It’s going to seem like I’m going off on a tangent here, but I assure you that I’m not. The American Historical Association and the Scholarly Communications Initiative have both done work in the last few years to identify the essential skills that PhDs should possess in order to succeed careers in and out of academia. The results of AHA focus group studies with with potential employers, university faculty and administration, and PhDs beyond the academy was a list of four key skills:

  • Communication, the ability to communicate to a variety of audiences and in a variety of media
  • Collaboration, the ability to work collaboratively toward a common goal, especially with those who hold different opinions or values
  • Quantitative literacy, the ability to understand and engage with information in numeric form
  • Intellectual self-confidence, the ability to quickly master information and form intelligent opinions beyond one’s expertise and to pivot among many tasks

In surveys conducted with the employers of people with PhDs, the SCI aimed to identify what skills and experience PhDs were missing when they made the transition into a non-academic workplace. The overlaps with the AHA findings were significant:


But perhaps even more interesting were the skills that PhDs believed they gained in grad school, and the places where there was a serious mismatch between the training needed, and the skills acquired:

Doing a PhD, it seems, isn’t very good at teaching us how to collaborate–although it does seem to do a better job than PhDs think it does, based on the fact that only 54% of employers believed that their PhD-holding employees needed collaboration training, while 91% of PhD graduates believed they were lacking it. But do you know what is good at teaching collaboration and interpersonal skills? You guessed it–role-playing games.

This is not to say that RPGs could or should become part of the PhD curriculum anytime soon, but just as there can be value in creating a shadow resume of work that doesn’t make it onto the C.V. but help develop employment experiences and skills, there can be value in creating a section of the shadow resume devoted to extracurricular activities that likewise help to develop those skills. I’ve been in my altac job for long enough that I’ve got other collaborative experiences that I can point to in an interview, and plenty of practice in working collaboratively under my belt. But back when I was fresh from the PhD, and looking for a job without a whole lot of experience? Being Dayanara, and being able to point (if only to myself) to my ability to collaborate with others to get things done, would have gone a long way toward making me feel like I had the skills I needed to succeed in a non-professorial job. And, as a nice bonus, the work I do wrangling faculty and getting multi-partnered initiatives off the ground makes me better at RPGing. I don’t have any plans to stop turning into Dayanara when the clock strikes five, and it’s nice to know that she and I are good for each other.