academic work · advice · careers · dissertation · faculty · junior faculty · mentoring · midcareer · Uncategorized

How to be an external examiner

I’m going on sabbatical in six and a half weeks (who’s counting?) and as a result I’m on a mad throw-out binge trying to clear out my office for a fresh start.

I found, among many, many other surprises, a copy of the external examiner’s report on my own doctoral dissertation. I’ve blanked all recollection of this from my mind since 2004 and I was nervous as I sat to read it. It’s about two-and-half pages of single-spaced text, that’s really evenhanded in its assessment. First off, in retrospect I’m impressed that we got such a well-known external. Scott Bukatman was a get. Thanks, Heather! Second, when I posted about finding this, on Twitter, some people expressed a profound unknowing about what an external examiner’s report should be. And it’s true: no one trains professors to do these. I wasn’t trained. Many students are never allowed to see the reports (at the University of Waterloo, it is at the external’s discretion whether the report can be shared with the candidate, with a presumption of not, and if yes, only after the defence has taken place.) I have never seen a guide on how to write one, but sooner or later most of us with tenure will be examining theses, and this work is too high-stakes and too important to leave to chance.

Lucky me that I was the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies for three years. In that time, I saw every report on every dissertation, probably something like 20 in total. I had seen a few before that, including for students I supervised and whose committees I was on. I have also examined several myself, now, so I know what it’s like to write them.

The best reports are formative as much as they are summative–that is, they seek to teach as much as to manage the gates, if you will. Especially if revisions will be required, it’s important to be clear and proactive in expressing not just what the dissertation fails to do, or what it does wrong, but also in suggesting a path forward. Perhaps a dissertation clocks in at 500 pages–easy enough to say “This is far too long and it must be shortened”. But better to say instead “This dissertation is overlong and should be reduced in length. Chapters 2 and 3 largely repeat the same point, while all the other chapters are distinct from one another–perhaps the candidate could condense these two into one. Other chapters spend too much time rehashing what has just been written: substantially reducing the preamble for each chapter would make this a stronger dissertation, and a more appropriate length.” Don’t worry–there’s always check boxes where you essentially give a grade to the whole dissertation, so the force of your judgement will be very visible.

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Don’t let the cat help write the report; she’s really mean.

The best reports make detailed and specific reference to the text in framing their feedback on the dissertation as a whole. Such information, which normally the examining committee sees ahead of time, will give everyone a sense of the particular issues you might raise in a defence, and are later useful in guiding student revision. Saying something like, “This is written in a very flat style that makes the main argument difficult to care about” might be true, but imagine a candidate trying to understand what that means as she contemplates the 500 pages in front of her and thinks about how to address that criticism. More helpful might be something like, “The candidate employs passive verbs throughout, and sentences of nearly uniform length and construction, which makes this text less dynamic than it could be. Also, by mostly foregrounding the secondary criticism at the fronts of chapters, sections, and even paragraphs, the candidate is hiding her own ideas by placing them in much less prominent positions.” That is feedback that gives clear direction for improvement.

The best reports balance kindness and generosity with critique. When, as a professor of 13 years standing and frequent receiver of reports from Reviewer 2, I read the comments I’ve made up above, I am applauding my own pedagogical astuteness, but a candidate is going to receive them like this: “My external examiner thinks my dissertation is too long and I’m a bad writer and I don’t have any original ideas and I’m an idiot and she hates me.” I mean, that’s how I read Bukatman’s comments on my own dissertation at the time, but I see now, he was right about everything, and at the core, he was also very generous and full of praise though that was nearly impossible for me to see. It is your job as an examiner, then, to find some praiseworthy elements of the flatly-written, over-sourced, too-long 500 page dissertation you’re examining. Perhaps you can say, “The candidate’s secondary and primary research is clearly extensive, comprehensive, and well-nigh encyclopedic: this is to be applauded, and speaks to the great care with which this project has been handled.” Perhaps you can say, “Despite some infelicities of writing and construction, there are very clear original contributions to the field in this work: Cute Animal Studies will benefit from this deeply researched and minutely argued case for the Bassett Hound as ‘the next Corgi’ and I encourage the candidate, once suitable revisions are made, to share this work in a series of articles in refereed journals.” Perhaps you can say, “The candidate has show great skill in marshalling and explaining a hugevariety of sources in this work, evidencing a clear eye for both detail and a strong instinct for categorization.” Those portions of your review which aim to praise should have no clauses that undermine this praise–no buts. You have plenty of other sentences for that.

The best reports are attentive to the institutional norms of the host university. Each university has rules about formatting, about length, about what the different “grades” you can assign mean in that institutional context, about timelines, about length and detail required in the report, about responsibilities for attending a defence. Scrupulously attend to these, even if no one tells you what they are–it’s easy to Google this stuff, and you save needless back and forth if, for example, you are about to fail a dissertation for being too short at 150 pages, but that is considered well within the acceptable range at the university in question. A lot of stress arises from cross-institution mis-communication. This is especially true for international projects. Look it up. Save someone (possibly yourself) from a lot of gray hair and stress.

The best reports are complete and handed in on time. Period. Someone’s tuition, graduate career, and professional opportunities are at stake. At my university, most pragmatically, there are hard cut-off dates for graduation requests, as well as staggered full- and partial-tuition-refund deadlines. Please do not dally. It can cost thousands of dollars for the candidate.

The best reports are long enough to offer meaningful feedback. Usually, these can run between three and six single-spaced pages of text. That’s a good guideline.

For junior report writers, the best advice I can give you is to read as many reports as you can get your hands on. Ask if your department has any you can see. Ask your friendly colleagues in your department or in your field if you can see reports they’ve written. Exposure to a range of (anonymized) reports will go a long way to help you accustom yourself to the genre. The stakes are very high, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t admit you don’t know what you’re doing–it means you have every right to ask for guidance. I hope this little guide helps. Faculty who’ve done this a lot, do you have anything to add?

Next week, maybe I’ll write about how to conduct yourself at a defence, if you like?


Funny story. I have read probably six dissesertations in part or in whole since July. I was getting salty about it, and went to recalibrate my own expectations by looking at my own dissertation, which has sat unmolested on its shelf for more than a decade. I was looking to have a moment of hubris pricked–what I found instead was that it was way better than I remembered it and after discussing it on Facebook with a wide variety of people, I’ve lightly rewritten and sent it off, all 85,612 words, to an academic publisher. So, honestly, you never know what benefit you’ll get from reading other people’s dissertations, is the upshot of this wee anecdote.

altac · careers · research

Settling In, Setting My Sights

pexels-photo-289327When I decided not to pursue the tenure-track career path, one reason was my exhaustion with upheaval and change. I’d moved a dozen times in five years, gotten married and then divorced, changed jobs and schools and houses and hairstyles and partners and was just ready to be a bit more settled. I was not interested in leaving the place I wanted to stay long-term to take a postdoc in goodness-knows-where in hopes of getting a job back home.

What can I say? I’m someone who craves routine and stability, and I love being in my 30s and able to give myself that.

And I finally have. This fall is the first since I started my Ph.D. that significant change is not on the horizon. No new degree. No dissertation defence. No personal upheaval. Just the same great job I’ve had for nearly three years, all things Ph.D. wrapped up and put away, a house and a partner and pets in a city I love, and most of my family and friends within an hour’s drive. One book (a biography of Jay Macpherson that started its life as my dissertation) under contract and another proposal (for a book on life and work after the Ph.D.) under review.

And so I’ve finally got the headspace, and the stability elsewhere in my life, to figure out what’s next. I’ve got a solid foundation on which to try new things, build new skills, branch out. I did a good job of figuring out how to be a professional and a graduate student, but I did that knowing that being a grad student had an expiry date. Now I have to figure out what a career as a researcher/writer and professional looks like, in the long term. Like Erin, I’m thinking about five and ten years plans.

I’m also thinking about the obligation of artists and writers–an umbrella that includes academics–to be political. What does that look like as a researcher who writes mostly about poets and poetry in the 1950s? What does that look like when I bring my feminism and allyship to work? What does that look like on Hook & Eye, where the personal has always been political? I have ideas, and plans, and I’m looking forward to seeing where they take me–take us.

So welcome to a new year of H&E, and to our beauty new site. We’ve got a new look, a ton of new voices, and some new projects up our sleeves. It’s good to be back.

 

careers · job market · jobs · networking

Try on Someone Else’s Life

 
I get asked to do informational interviews pretty frequently, and I think they’re one of the best tools out there for doing on-the-ground research about the kinds of jobs people with similar backgrounds have and how they ended up in them. But it can be hard to convince other people of their value, especially people who are shy, uncertain about where to start with career exploration, or convinced that anything remotely resembling networking is gross. In my latest article over at Chronicle Vitae, I suggest reframing informational interviewing as a way to try on someone else’s life and see if it fits, using the idea of life design conversations developed by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett: 

After a series of these life-design conversations, Evans and Burnett argue, you will eventually have prototyped your way to a career (and a life) that feels right to you. You’ll sit down with someone, and find that imagining doing what they do — living how they live — feels … right. You’ll have landed on the career path you want to pursue in earnest. 

Check out the full article over at Chronicle Vitae!
 

Image, Anna Levinzon, Creative Commons

#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · community · networking

#altac 101: Building New Professional Communities

One of the scariest parts of choosing to pursue a non-faculty career was the idea of leaving behind my academic communities. I spent my PhD immersed in engaged, supportive, and mind-opening communities, ones that formed on the picket line at York, in my long-running writing group, and through a national digital humanities consortium that brought together Canadianists from all over the country. Those people made me and my work better, and even as I knew that some of the friendships engendered by those academic working relationships would change when I stopped being a full-time academic, I really hoped that my existing communities would continue to sustain me even as I moved into a new career.

Inevitably, what I’d hoped would happen both has and hasn’t. The people who meant the most to me in my academic communities are still in my life in meaningful ways, and I love how our relationships have deepened and changed. But now that I’m in my fourth year of my academic administrative career, and especially now that I’m done my PhD, those communities aren’t sustaining me professionally the way they once did. Networking with other humanities academics isn’t going to help me further my career goals in the way I need to, and these aren’t the people any more with whom I need to talk and share about current research, trends, and best practices.

Happily, however, I’ve managed to find and build a new professional community that meets my new needs as someone who works in graduate professional development and research administration. It took a little work, a little digging, and a little waiting for the community to build itself up around a fairly new career path, but I’ve now got an awesome group of people in my corner, and my inbox, who make me feel supported in my work, who help me be better at my job, and with whom I’m excited to collaborate. If you’re also embarking on a non-faculty career, or you’re someone considering it but fearful of giving up the kind of community you found and built as an academic, I’ve got some advice:

1) If there’s a career, there is probably a professional society for it, although figuring out which one is the best fit for your need and goals can take a bit of work. In my case, it took asking colleagues, talking to people in similar positions, and keeping an eye in the agendas of upcoming events. In the end, I figured out that if I need to talk graduate funding administration, I go to the Ontario Universities Graduate Awards Forum. If I want to connect with my fellow postdoc coordinators, I go to the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Administrators conference. Grad professional development? That happens at the annual meetings of the Graduate Career Consortium and the Canadian Consortium of Graduate Student Professional Development Administrators (CCGSPDA). These are the places where my people are now, and those people and places are awesome.

2) If there isn’t a professional society, you can make one happen. The CCGSPDA used to be just a small group of people who did graduate and postdoctoral professional development and had a LinkedIn group and semi-regular web calls. But then we got a name, and a Listserv, and an annual meeting, and official recognition by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies, and an official mandate, and a whole bunch of new members. We’re a proper professional association now, and the CCGSPDA has become the primary place where I network, share ideas, learn about what’s new and find collaborators.

3) Find the people like you outside of formal contexts. I run a centre called the Research Training Centre within a hospital-based research institute, at which about 1,200 graduate students and postdocs work, and there are at least a half-dozen research institutes in Toronto alone. And guess what? Almost all of them have some version of my Centre, and some version of me. We’ve all recently connected for the first time, and we’re going to start meeting in the new year to collaborate, share ideas, and trade war stories.

4) Don’t forget about Twitter, and find your hashtags. If you can find the accounts and hashtags people in your profession use, you’ve tapped into a broad and useful professional community that extends beyond the walls of your organization. Via hashtags like #altac, #postac, #withaphd, I can tap into a North America-wide community of people interested in graduate professional and career development in all kinds of contexts, and that diversity of ideas and perspectives makes me so much better at my job.

administration · altac · careers · PhD · research

We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About PhDs – or Rather, We Aren’t Asking Them Any Questions at All

When I interviewed for my current job we got onto the topic of alumni data tracking. My program had an exit survey on their website, one that suggested they were collecting contact information and checking in with PhDs in the years after they’d left our institution to see how and what they were doing. (It turns out that no one knew the form was there, and it hadn’t been used in many years.) We then got to talking about program evaluation, one of my favourite subjects, and about how we could start assessing if the professional and career development work we were doing–if they hired me–was having any effect on the post-PhD lives of our graduate students and postdocs.
“What we don’t need to do,” I argued in the interview, “is worry about the percentage of our alumni who get jobs after they leave us. In Canada, PhDs have the highest employment rates of any educational level. We know that PhDs get jobs after they graduate. What we don’t know is how hard it is to find those jobs, how long it takes, if those jobs are fulfilling and pay well and use the skills we’ve worked to help them acquire. We don’t know if the work we do teaching people how to develop their careers and transition into new fields works. The success of our programs can only be measured by our success in helping with all of those other things, because we can’t take credit for PhD employment rates. They’re great without us.” 
That employment data wasn’t what we needed, that we had it already and it told us something promising but frustratingly incomplete, was a bit of a revelation to the people who would become my new team, just as it is to the conference panels and PhDs and graduate chairs with whom I often share this bit of information. It shouldn’t be a surprise–this is Statistics Canada data, after all, there for anyone to find and analyze (and, with the reinstatement of the long form census, being collected once again). But my organization is clearly not the only one to still think that employment data is the place we need to start in understanding the lives of our PhD alumni and the value of our programs, academic and otherwise. As Gary McDowell writes in Science this week, higher ed is still furiously mining for what he calls the fool’s gold of PhD employment data. And what they find is fool’s gold not only because it doesn’t have much value, but also because it looks shiny but is tarnished at heart. In the US, the Survey of Earned Doctorates and Survey of Doctorate Recipients stands in for the StatsCan data that we tend to use up here, and like the StatsCan data, it tells us only so much. It tells us that PhDs are employed, and roughly where. But it doesn’t tell us anything about the quality or nature of employment that PhDs are finding, and that is ultimately what we really need to know. 
As an alternative to census data, the other popular approach at the moment is the old “let’s Google it,” and that’s the approach taken by HEQCO,* the Chronicle Vitae Academic Job Tracker project, and the American Historical Association. It’s not a bad approach when done carefully and well, as it at least does allow us to see what specific jobs people in different disciplines are ending up and, if we have things like CV data, the path they took to get there. The better studies, like the AHA and Chronicle Vitae projects (both, not coincidentally, run by Lilli Research Group), limit their Googling to sources that are arguably accurate and verifiable.** But people lie on the internet all the time, or job titles are misleading (is that Assistant Professorship a visiting or a tenure-track one? No way to know from your vague university bio, and no one has bothered to ask you), or people just can’t be found (this is especially true for people who move into non-academic employment).
And these data-collection exercises for the most part still don’t tell us what we really need to know (or at least what I really want to know): What kind–in qualitative terms–of employment are PhDs finding? What was it like finding a job? How long did it take? How much did you make in that first job? Did it use the skills you gained in your PhD? How long did it take you to get your first raise? To get promoted? Did you do any career development workshops in your PhD? Did they make you feel more confident in embarking on your post-degree job search? What is your employer’s perspective on hiring PhDs? And for those of us who work in graduate careers, professional development, support, graduate program reform: is our work doing anything? Are we helping people minimize the transition time between PhD and enjoyable, valuable employment that makes use of their skills? Are we reducing the emotional whiplash of being thrust out of the academy and into the non-academic working world? Do people feel confident in their ability to identify and deploy the skills they’ve learned in the classroom and the lab, in our seminars and in their own work to broaden and deepen their skill-sets? Are we doing anything at all? The TRaCE project running out of McGill University is taking steps in this direction, but major issues have already been raised with the validity of its approach and the data that comes out of it.*** 
The problem with seeking answers to these questions is the difficulty of reaching those who can answer them, and then making sense of those answers. Googling someone is easy. Reaching them by email or phone to ask those questions we want answered is far harder. It takes person-power and time and more money than any of us as individual organizations have. It also takes the buy-in of our PhDs, sometimes long after they’ve left our organizations, and that’s the place where these exercises often fail. Figuring out a baseline against which to measure our efforts is perhaps just as difficult–how hard was it to find a good post-PhD job before we started offering graduate career development programs? Did our PhDs find good jobs faster after we launched that internship program? How do we qualify or quantify what “easier” or “better” or “better aligned to my skills” looks like? How do we adjust for the fact that PhDs and postdocs, who are underpaid and undervalued during their training, might think a first job a godsend that years later seems like ill-fitting, underpaid grunt-work?
We don’t need more employment data. Quantitative data is not what we need. Perhaps my humanist is showing, despite the fact that I now work almost exclusively with STEM researchers, but this is a qualitative research problem. What we do need is contact information and to talk to our PhD holders–actually talk to them, systematically and en masse so that our data is comprehensive and valid and comparable against that useful but incomplete quantitative data–and ask them those questions I noted above. I wish someone had called me up and asked me these a couple of years after I took my first post-PhD job. I could have told them a lot. Instead, I use my experience–and that of the PhDs I talk to, every day, at work and online–to try to do more, and do better. Still, that’s anecdote, not data. We’re never going to be able to do our best in helping PhDs to find well-paying, engaging places to put their knowledge and skills to work in the world if we don’t start asking a whole lot of people the right questions. And start figuring out how to do that in a way that’s sustainable.
I’m in the midst of scoping out just this kind of project to be undertaken by the centre in which I work, and we’re hopeful that, if we’re smart and careful, we can come up with a model for PhD data collection that goes beyond the quantitative, and that uses qualitative data and its analysis not just to inform the work we do locally, but also to inform real change in how we go about the business of graduate and postdoctoral training more broadly. It’s early days yet, but stay tuned.
* For a useful take on the major issues with the HEQCO report, see Melonie Fullick’s Speculative Diction post. Her post on the Conference Board of Canada report, which contains the most comprehensive analysis of PhD employment data collected via the Canadian census, is also interesting and illuminating. 
** Researchers at the University of Ottawa are also doing some interesting work with alumni records and tax data that looks promising in terms of answering the money part of these questions, but that again only gives us part of the picture. 
*** For a thorough critique of the TRaCE project, I direct you once again to Melonie Fullick
#alt-ac · #post-ac · careers · grad school · ideas for change · modest proposal

Professionalization when "the profession" isn’t (only) what we’re aiming for

Like many, my graduate program has long had a mandatory professionalization workshop series–PWPs, as we call them–that all PhD candidates must complete before we’re allowed to graduate. Rachel Cayley wrote a useful blog post last week that distinguishes nicely between professionalization and professional development, and PWPs are very much about professionalization as Cayley defines it: they happen at the department level, are targeted at preparing grad students to work within, and eventually become tenured members of, our discipline, and are run by faculty. (My job at SickKids, in contrast, is about professional development as Cayley defines it, which happens at the institutional level, is generally aimed at less discipline-specific or narrowly academic professional skills, is often explicitly about non-academic career preparation, and is run by people like me). As professionalization, my department’s PWP series covers the usual stuff that one needs to succeed as a graduate student who is aiming to become a faculty member: conference papers and journal articles, job applications and interviews, teaching, writing the dissertation proposal, applying for scholarships, etc.

I somehow managed to miss out on one of our PWPs–“Professional Resources and Strategies,” run by our own Lily Cho, who also happens to be my supervisor–and squeaked it in on Tuesday, just in time to defend. Because I’ve been at York since 2008, I’ve been able to watch with interest the shifts in how it understands and addresses what it sees as the fundamental purpose of graduate education. I started out as a new PhD student in a graduate department that spoke of “the profession” as though there were actually just the one, in 2012 became a graduate assistant in the Faculty of Graduate Studies whose job it was to research professional and career development programs on campus and across the country, then in 2013 took a full-time job in administration and launched the Faculty’s university-wide graduate professional skills program. Back in 2008, the PWPs I attended didn’t acknowledge, never mind confront, the idea that we were training to become anything but tenured professors at R1 institutions. In her PWP, however, Lily spent quite a bit of time acknowledging that a workshop on strategies for professionalizing within academia occupied a fraught position given the awareness that only about 20% of us would ever enter that profession. It made for a useful and realistic but strange sort of workshop, and it made me wonder:

What does professionalization look like when “the profession” isn’t, or isn’t only, what we’re aiming for? And how do we balance the need to prepare all of the graduate students who are interested in that route for the academic job market and a future academic job in case they do end up in one, while recognizing that we’re professionalizing 80% of them for a profession they’ll never enter?

The other grad students who were in Lily’s PWP with me wondered this too, and they seemed to find her very considered attempt to do both things–acknowledge the realities of the job market while preparing people for that market–disorienting. A couple of them suggested dispensing with a discussion of those realities altogether, which certainly would simplify things. That’s essentially what we do at SickKids, in some very specific contexts. We do a lot of transferable-skills type professional development, but I also coordinate a thing called PI Prep School, which is a very comprehensive career development program designed to get people jobs as academic scientists (or principal investigators, i.e. PIs). It covers everything from preparing job documents to establishing your first lab, and includes a full day mock campus interview (awkward lunch with the hiring committee included). At the PI Prep School intro session, we talk very little about the job market for academic scientists, which is just about as bad as any other. Mostly, we just proceed as though everyone in the room who wants an academic job may very well get one, and work from that premise. It’s straightforward, and while it might be unrealistic, it does away with the uneasiness that the mismatch between purpose and reality seemed to create for some of the people who attended Lily’s PWP.

But PI Prep School is aimed at preparing people only for the very last part of being professionalized–the point at which you move into being a professional–and only those people who are interested in and committed to going that route participate. The people interested in learning how to do a good job talk either know what the job market is like and have decided that they don’t care, or don’t know and don’t care to know. A discussion of the realities of the job market they’re professionalizing toward could, and largely has been, dispensed with. But what about a mandatory workshop on publishing journal articles, or giving conference presentations, or teaching? To a certain extent, those workshops could be considered useful to all grad students because those activities are arguably a part of the graduate degree, although you could absolutely–if you had no intention of becoming an academic–never publish a journal article or give a conference presentation as a PhD candidate. But how do we–or do we need to–address the fact that these professional competencies, when framed in specifically academic terms, are attending to the professional futures of so few?

Some of the other participants in Tuesday’s PWP seemed to think that we don’t, but I’m not sure I agree. I was, like many people who began their PhDs alongside me, woefully unaware of the academic job market when I started, and only became aware as the market in my field–Canadian literature, never a very robust one to begin with–tanked very loudly after the economic downturn. My program made no effort (at least that I was aware of) to make its students aware of its academic placement rates, or of the other kinds of jobs its graduates were taking up after their degrees. PWPs talked about “the profession” without the scare quotes, as if there were only one, and contextualized the professionalization we were doing only as preparing us for that singular career path. I found the culture that approach promoted very damaging when it came time to figure out my own non-academic career path, and I’m certainly not alone in that. The old approach served very few, and my graduate program seems to have realized it. Lily’s workshop is evidence of that, and so too is the new #altac workshop the department is bringing me in to run as part of the PWP series starting in the fall.

I’d suggest that there’s a third way to approach this–not to professionalize as though entering academia is inevitable and the only option, or to get caught up in the seeming strangeness of professionalizing 100% of graduate students for a job 20% of them will have, but making professionalization a little more like professional development. One of the things that professional development for graduate students works to do is to make clear to PhDs the transferability of their skills to a fields and jobs in and out of the university environment. And while professionalization as Cayley defines it is about preparing people to be professors and academic scientists, what we teach in professionalization workshops and courses isn’t applicable to just that profession. Yes, the PWP on writing articles and giving conference presentations is aimed at helping us build our C.V.s, but it is also–and could, perhaps should, be explicitly framed as–preparing us to be effective writers and public speakers wherever we end up. Writing grants is a key part of being a faculty member in most fields, and a major topic in professionalization programs, but guess what? A major proportion of the non-professor PhDs I know work in research funding administration, writing, developing and administering grants (me included). Let’s talk about that in our PWPs. The same goes for Lily’s professional resources and strategies workshop: the same strategies that she suggested as useful for becoming an academic professional (making connections with people in your field, reading blogs by people who write about higher ed, keeping up on major trends, figuring out the dress code, going to the most useful conferences) are the very same ones that help you become a professional in whatever field you choose.

It isn’t a major change, and it doesn’t require much of professors–not much more than figuring out where else academic skills could be useful and then talking about it–but it might solve the problem of professionalization when “the profession” isn’t (only) what we’re aiming for.

careers · flexible academic · grad school · moving

Guest Post: On feeling lonely and homesick

I recently left my steady job in university administration, my lovely flat and my favourite people behind to move across Europe to become the impoverished full-time PhD candidate I had dreamed of becoming ever since I began my doctoral studies. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt content with being by myself. I used to love the weekends alone at home, travelling on my own and spending some quality time at the library with none other than moi. Loneliness wasn’t a concept that made any sense to me.

The last time I can recall that I felt properly overwhelmed by a feeling of homesickness was probably when I was eleven years old and begging my mum to take me back home with her instead of dropping me off at summer camp. And there I was sixteen years on. In a room barely furnished smelling of cat pee, a city I had never been to, and worst of all (and this would send anyone over the edge), the Wi-Fi wasn’t working properly.

During these first few days, I felt as if I was floating through space with no sense of time or direction. I saw my entire future laid out in front of me: I’d never have friends again, I’d spend all of my days alone, I’d be constantly freaked out, never finish my thesis and eventually move back home where I’d remain unhappily ever after because of the opportunities I missed out on. It also made scared of the time post PhD – the what-the-hell-have-I-done-I-think-I’m-having-a-heart-attack kind of scared.

This move was supposed to make my life easier and not create a completely new set of paralysing problems. It made me seriously question whether this was a lifestyle I could sustain in the long run and I pictured myself having to go through this process over and over again when all I wanted was to pull the duvet over my head and never face the world again.

Very dramatic, I know. Fast forward: it’s now a few months into my relocation and I don’t spend all of my time alone. While I still struggle occasionally, I feel that I’m going to be just fine.

Here’s a few things that have helped me, and continue to help me:

It’s ok

It’s ok to feel whatever you feel. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed, helpless, sad, frustrated, freaked out, scared, worried, angry and out of place. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. Accept that your subconscious is complicated and while you think you’re ready, she might need extra time to adjust to the new environment. Be kind to yourself, have a nice meal, take a bubble bath, binge watch Netflix, buy lots of nail polish (guilty!), re-read your favourite book, call your friends and family – whatever floats your boat.

Be relatively organised

If you’re anything like me, you like to plan ahead and organise your life. While this is generally a good idea, because it might give you a sense of agency and security (it did for me), you might also run the risk of feeling completely overwhelmed by the eternity that is your future. Step by step. I tried to come up with a rough plan for the year (dates for chapter submissions, conferences and trips home) but apart from that I’m taking it week by week.

Be active

Force yourself to go outside, to do and see things. Explore your new surroundings, check out art galleries, museums and cafés. Do some exercise; endorphins are not to be underestimated.

Also show an active interest in your colleagues at work. You’re new (which sucks at times), so it’s very much up to to you to take initiative to form new alliances and remind people that you exist. Everyone is busy, so don’t let an apparent lack of interest in your person discourage you from approaching fellow students/staff members. I can’t stress enough how important real life contacts are.

Be realistic

You’re not going to be able to re-create your own life immediately and neither should you feel you have to. Pace yourself and accept that it might take a little while to find people you like hanging out with. In the meantime, cherish these precious first weeks of novelty and find a way to turn them into a generative and productive force for your own work – it might just be the fresh perspective you’ve been waiting for!

Be the light for someone else

I cannot help but think that this is the most important of all of my points. Do your best to move on from your initial feeling of complete and utter instability but don’t forget what it felt like. Let it humble you and make you more understanding of and kind to others who find themselves in similar situations. If you see someone who is new and struggling, offer your help, have a cup of coffee together and you in turn will also be one step closer to building a new social network.

You’ve got this!

Veronika Schuchter is a Visiting Scholar at Nottingham Trent University (UK) where her doctoral research on contemporary women’s writing is supported by the Austrian Ministry of Science. When she’s not busy being a feminist killjoy, she enjoys painting her nails, writing postcards and jumping into puddles.

best laid plans · careers · emotional labour · precocity

Once More, With Feelings

This weekend, as I was scrolling through social media, I came across a post from a colleague at a university down the road. It was announcing a guest speaker — Harsha Walia, if you’re curious — and I found myself feeling that familiar sensation of vertigo. You know what I mean, the feeling that the floor is getting a bit further away and the room is darkening at the edges. This feeling had nothing whatsoever to do with the guest speaker or my friend who has posted about her arrival. Rather, that feeling of falling, or rather, of being dropped came from my archived emotions. Once more, the sharp realities of my own job precarity reared up and shook my foundations. If you’re wondering why the announcement of an activist coming to campus made me look, navel-gazingly, at my own conditions of labour you’re not alone. I, too, thought ‘what the hell is wrong with you, Erin? Why does this bother you so much?’

And it came to me, once again, my heartbreak on an eternal feedback loop: precarity means not having a place at the table. It means not being a part of the structural and institutional mechanisms that bring people to campus, that build curricular change, that afford you the luxury of teaching the same classes for several years (or more) in a row.

I hate writing about precarity. And yet I feel compelled. I haven’t written about it here for months (even though I am the Contract Academic Faculty representative for ACCUTE), and that’s been deliberate. I’m making something of an unofficial and unpaid career talking about underpaid and precarious work. While that is hilarious and kind of fun to say, the reality is that it is isolating, exhausting, and lonely. It puts strain on me and on my family. But as we creep towards the one year anniversary of National Adjunct Walk Out Day, I find myself here again, thinking publicly about some of the effects and affects of precarity.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means watching my brilliant and likewise precarious friends and colleagues try to innovate in their classrooms to make up for the fact that they can’t innovate in the long term on their campuses.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means watching at department meetings while the tenured faculty become more and more tired from shouldering the work that new hires would be able to help with, not to mention bring fresh energy to.

Being a part of the precarious labour force mean not being on the email lists that tell you when the guest speakers are coming, or when the grant deadlines are (if, of course, you happen to be eligible despite your precarity).

Being a part of the precarious labour force means pouring your energies into teaching the classes you get, rather than the classes you’re an expert in, and then watching your field advance while you struggle to make comma splices interesting to two hundred non-major undergrads.

Being a part of the precarious labour force also means you really do give a shit about those two hundred undergrads because, dammit, you’re trained as a Marxist and you understand how the material conditions of labour reverberate from you to them and back again.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means that if you’re in a contract position you’re trying to do that service work because a) it might be the only time you get to _________ (teach a grad class, mentor an honours student, do a directed reading, sit on a departmental committee, etc.) and b) because no matter how often you tell yourself differently, hope is a tenacious beast and maybe this service work will matter for reasons other than altruism.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means your colleague lose sight of your areas of expertise–if, indeed, they ever knew in the first place–because you become a ghost. In to teach your class, then elsewhere for office hours or to teach another class on another campus or to work your other job to make rent.

Being a part of the precarious labour force in Canada, where letters of reference are tailored to each job application, means worrying about the time your referees put in to writing these letters. It means wondering why the hell a job ad didn’t just say what it was looking for and save you and three to four letter writers the time and energy. And it means knowing that you’ll do it again next time; you’ll ask for the letters and imagine yourself into this different iteration of what you do, in hopes that someone on the committee sees you for who you are, for your potential, and for your commitment.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you get really bloody tired of people asking you about how the job market is, but even more scared that they will stop asking you. No one asking means no one thinking about you. No one asking rings loud, thought not clear.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means nothing is clear. Not your career, not your plans, not your life choices, not your work.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means making life choices regardless of your precarity.

Being a part of the precarious labour force does not mean you’re not interested in/ aware of/ participating in/ and constantly thinking about the work in your field and your own place within it. But it does mean that the feeling of scholarly loneliness is compounded.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means the politics of childcare, of being a woman, of being a person of colour, of being queer, of being differently abled, of being ______ are compounded.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you are quiet because talking about precarity is exhausting. It becomes what people think you are about, and then you become more exhausted, because honestly, aren’t we scholars trained to diagnose and close read systems?

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you’re a killjoy, because let’s not forget that killing the so-called joys of normativity is a world-making project. A necessary, if isolating and exhausting project.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means finding genuine pleasure in spite of the crummy conditions of your labour.

#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?