#alt-ac · #post-ac · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · grad school · job market · mentoring · openness · PhD · reform · student engagement · students · transition

From the Archives: Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me During My PhD

The new school year is well underway, and so is the work I do with our Career Development Committee, a group of graduate students, postdocs, and research associates (who are very much like the STEM world’s version of contract academic faculty). The CDC’s mandate is to provide career development education that helps students and fellows find awesome non-academic careers, and they’re very good at it.

Their big fall event, Career Night, is happening tonight. They bring in 10 alumni or other graduate-trained people in their networks and then do what is in essence a series of short informational interviews. This time, we have everyone from an assistant provost to an academic acquisitions editor, with people from regulatory affairs, government policy, small-business ownership, research administration, and industry science also in the mix. A small group of students and fellows chat with one of the invitees for 25 minutes about their graduate training, their career path to the present, and what advice they have for others looking to move into a non-academic careers, and then they switch, and switch again.

By the end of the night, each person has had a chance to talk with three professionals, and to mingle and network with as many more as they want during the open part of the event. I wish I had access to a similar event during my PhD, and that I had gotten some of the good advice I know my students and fellows are going to get during Career Night. I know I’m not the only one, so here’s what I hope people learn tonight that might also be useful to you, or your students.

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1. Be Realistic, and Open, About What Comes After Grad School

In the recent America-wide survey by Duke University graduate student Gregory Brennen, the data showed that 83% of graduate students started their PhD expecting to become a tenure-track professor. This is in stark contrast with the current data on how many PhDs actually end up in tenure track jobs—most estimates suggest that fewer than 50% of PhDs end up in any kind of academic job (that includes contract teaching) and that only between 15% and 25% ever secure tenure track jobs. Given this reality, graduate students need to prepare for, and embrace, the multitude of possibilities open to them after they complete their degrees. And they need to remember that being an academic is just a job, and that the are tons of interesting, fulfilling jobs doing other things. Mine is a good example.

2. Make Strategic Decisions About What You Do During Your Degree

 

As a friend kindly reminded me after I kept claiming that I got lucky in ending up in my job, we make our own luck. What seems random is actually, when you look back, a series of strategic decisions that lead to a whole host of post-degree opportunities. In my case, that strategic decision was to take a research assistantship in lieu of teaching during the fourth year of my PhD. While many PhD students fund their studies by teaching, and that’s a wonderful opportunity for people who are looking for careers in education, that may not be the best choice for people who are looking to do other things and need a different set of skills. These other opportunities are also extremely useful academically. Research or graduate assistantships are a big one to consider, as is doing an industry-partnered internship with Mitacs. So might be going on an international exchange, or selecting a graduate co-op program (which UBC now has in English, and Aimee tells me Waterloo is going to develop.) In my case, the research assistantship, researching graduate student professional development programs, let me develop the skills, knowledge, and experience that got me my job as a Research Officer.

3. Take Advantage of the Resources Available on Campus

As grad students, it’s easy to believe that most of the student support services available on campus are there for undergraduates, but that is emphatically not the case. There are a myriad of resources available on most campuses to help graduate students make the most of their degrees, to help them navigate the academic job market, or to help them transition out of academia or into an #alt-ac or #post-ac career. The Career Centre is a great place to start, and they can provide assistance with academic and non-academic job searches; Advancement can often connect grads with alumni in the fields they’re interested in; most Canadian universities now have graduate student professional development programs that offer a whole host of workshops and seminars; Mitacs offers a full suite of free transferable skills workshops; and many faculty members can, sometimes surprisingly, provide guidance and support in the search for jobs in and outside of the academy. It can be scary talking to faculty about plans to abandon the tenure track–believe me, I know–but the culture of silence around #alt-ac and #post-ac transition isn’t going to disappear until we all start talking about it.

4. Consider Creating A Shadow C.V.

One of the most important things graduate students can do to demonstrate to people outside of the academy that they have the needed skills is to have evidence that you’re capable of working outside of the academy. Especially for PhDs, the assumption that we’re overeducated and lacking in practical skills can be hard to overcome without demonstrated outside experience, and having at least one example of non-academic work experience to put in a resume can go a long way toward helping graduate students mentally connect the skills they’ve honed as a graduate students with those that crop up on job postings, and to help overcome the feeling that there’s nothing they’re qualified to do but be a professor. People have started calling experience developed alongside academic work, but not included in academic documents, a “shadow C.V.” In my case, I took a year off between my Master’s and my PhD to work in publishing and continued tutoring and editing throughout my degree. Other people I know have done summer placements, taken part-time jobs, done industry-partnered internships, or created web-based consulting and writing firms that allow them to work on their own time.

6. Learn How to Talk About Your Skills and Research to People Outside of Academia

Academese and English can sometimes seem like two different languages, and this is a major barrier to people with graduate degrees trying to make their qualifications and research make sense in contexts outside of the academy. It’s only natural. Communicating highly specialized research to non-academics isn’t a skill that most academics at any level practice all that much, other than the inevitable attempts to explain your work to your mother, or to someone you meet at a party. This is certainly changing, though. But opportunities to practice do exist, and graduate students should take advantage of them: compete in the Three Minute Thesis; take workshops on clear language writing; practice translating research into non-specialist language. Doing this can seem very non-intuitive for grad students, especially for those who have been academe for a long time, but once they learn how to do it, the relationship between what they do as academics and what shows up in job postings often becomes painfully obvious, as does the potential impact of their work outside the academy. This is, as a side benefit, and increasingly strong focus for many granting agencies, a number of which also now require clear-language or lay research summaries.

7. Think About What You Really Want to Do

Many PhD students are committed to being professors without actually knowing what the life, and the job, of a professor is really like. Our archives here at Hook & Eye can be pretty illuminating. Parts of it match up closely with the starry-eyed dream, but others definitely don’t. Meetings are endless and often frustrating. Grading is a slog. The pressure to publish and get stellar teaching evaluations can be debilitating. Students are disengaged. Service takes up far more time that people realize, and there’s never enough time for research and reflection. Graduate students should be figuring out what it is they really love about academia, and thinking about other jobs that might let them do those things more. The book So What Are You Going to Do with That? includes some fantastic exercises, ones that helped me realize that the things I love to do and am good at doing–coordinating, facilitating other people’s work and success, communications, writing, mentorship–are key components of all sorts of #alt-ac and #post-ac jobs, including my current one.

8. Think About What You Really Don’t Want to Do

As PhDs, we’re indoctrinated to believe that we should be willing to give up everything for a tenure track job. At some point, I shrugged that indoctrination off and made a list of the things that were more important to me than tenure: I didn’t want to move, wait until I was 40 to have kids, spend most of my life grading papers, spend multiple years as a contract professor, or write things that no one would ever read. For me, those were pretty convincing reasons to give up on the idea of becoming a professor, which requires total mobility, limits reproductive choices, requires far more teaching than research for most people, and mostly values journal and book publications that most people won’t read. The most important thing I had to convince myself of–and that we must tell graduate students, over and over–is that choosing where to live, desiring to have a child without worrying about compromising doctoral work or chances at tenure, refusing precarious employment, are totally legitimate life choices that are okay to voice aloud, despite the tendency of academia to suggest that if you aren’t willing to sacrifice your whole life, even your whole identity, to being an academic, you’re a second-class citizen. It broke my heart, in a good way, to have a whole gaggle of female Queen’s students come up to me after my talk and thank me for saying out loud that my desire to have kids before I was 35 was a factor in my decision making. It is for many people, and that’s something that should be discussed openly.

The other important part of this equation is to get graduate students talking to people they know in academia and outside, and find out from them what their jobs are really like. So long as we perpetuate the belief that academia is the only worthy place of employment, and that a professorship is the only truly fulfulling and engaging job, graduate students will ignore a whole host of career possibilities that might be a much better personal and professional fit.

9. Don’t Conflate Who You Are With What You Do

This is an obvious one, and a hard one to avoid–but if graduate students can avoid the trap of believing that they are academics, and that if they don’t get to continue to be academics they’ll be nothing, they’ll save themselves a horrible and painful identity crisis if the time comes that the professoriate becomes an unobtainable dream. A professorship is just a job. It is not a vocation, or an identity, and graduate students are so much more than the single career option the academy tells them is worthy.

10. Enjoy the Ride
 

Getting paid to read for comps. Taking classes totally outside of your area because you can. Auditing things purely for interest. Debating theory over far too much wine. Style-stalking your favourite professor. Choosing conferences based purely on location. These are some of the best parts of grad school, and they should be relished, and they often aren’t because PhDs are too busy conferencing and publishing and professionalizing and shadow-CVing and comparing themselves to all of the other PhDs they know. Yes, those things need to get done (minus the last one) but statistically speaking, the chances of getting to stay in academia on a permanent basis are slim. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.

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So, dear readers, what do you think? What advice would you give to current graduate students facing the reality of a terrible academic job market? What advice do you wish you had gotten during your PhD?

advice · chaos · collaboration · community · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · grad school · job market · PhD

Surviving the Job Market

I’ve been a bad blogger recently. I’ve missed a Tuesday or two, and I’m generally the blogger posting to our Facebook page but I’ve been inconsistent with that, too. Thankfully for my inadequacies, my cobloggers are patient and forgiving, and H&E has been blessed with a rich assortment of guest posts lately, from dealing with the death of one’s mother as a professor to formulating a “critical theory of breast cancer” to communing with the spirits of one’s literary mothers. I’m grateful for the women who volunteer to share their stories in the public space of the internet, still and always a risky and scary venture. From my outpost in the land of guns and Trumps and confederate flags, I continue to value this warm, badass, brilliant academic community based in the land that has been so formative for my identity (the Canadian jokes amongst friends persist, even after over five years of American residency). We’ve been talking a lot lately about making visible the many tacit modes of emotional labour that underpin our responsibilities as professionals, and in some ways this entire blog is an exercise in emotional labour, a means of bringing to the surface the injustices, the frustrations, the inspirations, the fraught sartorial choices that constitute and define our lives as academics.

This year, I’m on the job market for the first time (not deluding myself into thinking it will be the last). In some ways I am coping better than expected, and in other ways I’m coping worse–I find myself avoiding campus and shunning society a little bit more than I’m comfortable admitting, because it’s sometimes hard to face questions from academic peers regarding how the whole process is going. I am paranoid about almost everything I put on the Internet dot com (as my friend calls it): will my academia.edu or Chronicle Vitae profiles prove liabilities if I don’t ensure they’re constantly updated and consistent across all my other application materials? If I tweet something silly or overly personal, will that happen at the same moment a job committee is checking out my “professional” Twitter account? Will this post jeopardize me in some way, somehow?

In spite of these fears, I thought I’d open up a conversation about how I’m surviving this harrowing season, and I would love other seeds of advice in the comments. How are you surviving the job market, dear readers? Let’s fight against the tendency to be competitive and silent and paranoid about the process, and help each other through the process, to the limited extent that we can.

Here’s how I’ve been surviving: 

1. Seeking advice from those who have gone through the process. Perhaps an obvious point, but your department should have resources for this. My department’s Job Market Handbook has been an indispensable resource that breaks down each of the steps and materials involved in the application process. If your department doesn’t have something like this, as well as a professor charged with going through your materials, shoot someone an email asking why not! In the meantime, this roundup of advice from JM survivors which was posted on the medieval blog In the Middle a couple years ago is still immensely relevant and useful. Most of you probably know about the resources and columns provided by The Professor is In, and Vitae (part of The Chronicle of Higher Education but specifically geared toward emerging academics), publishes a number of useful advice columns every week, such as this with general advice, this on whether one should mention babies in app letters, and this on navigating the #alt-ac path. There’s a lot out there, and I don’t pay attention to all of it, and I don’t agree with all of it, and some of it I actively shun. Just as important as seeking advice from those who have weathered the process, of course, is knowing when not to expose oneself to the resources available, because they can prove overwhelming, inconsistent, and/or disheartening.

2. Fighting against the temptation not to talk about it. Something as consequential as going on the academic job market after 7+ years of graduate education is difficult, in many ways, to talk about. It’s difficult because it’s so personal, because the journey is fraught with disappointments, because conversations with other academics in similar situations can sometimes feel inherently competitive, as though you’re both constantly comparing each other’s suitability. This is not always the case, and while it’s important to identify people whose attitudes make you feel small or under constant scrutiny, it is also important to trust that most of us genuinely want others to succeed, too. I treasure the commiserative conversations I have with my comrades who are also facing the deep dark chasm of the market, and have found that opening up and chatting about frustrations along the way, even when we’re applying for the same jobs (“did you see that one guy’s faculty profile?? What was up with that poorly worded application?”) can prove therapeutic.

3. Fighting against the temptation to talk about it all the time. Yeahhhh, you also don’t want to be that person. That person who is so subsumed in the process that he/she can’t talk/tweet/status about anything else, and is constantly steamrolling conversations with the minutia of application problems (which are legion). There are going to be frustrations and sometimes the best strategy is to just laugh at them silently, or slap a good ol’ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ onto the situation. Because the process is ridiculous, and often dehumanizing, and most of this is out of your control.

4. Learning to compartmentalize: I work out demanding but mostly realistic plans for each day, and I’ve discovered that committing myself to those goals means that I do not always have to respond to an email or message the second it arrives on my phone or in my inbox. This is a problem that we didn’t face as seriously 10 or 15 years ago: now that we can, with the touch of a few buttons on our smartphones, effectively insert ourselves into the cognitive space of anyone we want at any given moment, we as a society seem to have acquired new purchase over other people’s availability. And as women, we have the tendency to accommodate, to set aside our immediate problems and offer assistance to those who reach out to us. This is true on a personal level, but also a professional level: as Myra Green describes in a Chronicle article, female professors are approached more often than male professors for “confidential” conversations that largely deal with personal and emotional problems. Against my accommodating, social, and nurturing nature, I’ve been practicing prioritizing my own work and problems sometimes by saying “I’m dealing with a few issues at the moment, can I get back to you later?” (and then being sure to follow up later, of course). Schedule time to be with others, and cultivate relationships, but don’t feel you need to be available to other people all the time.

5. Learning not to compartmentalize my time (ok, now I might just be aiming for rhetorical effect with these list titles).  I have a handful of friends upon whom I rely quite heavily for emotional support, sometimes on a rather continual, running basis throughout the day through group iMessage threads. I like to think of these covert channels of communication as what Aimee has called “whisper networks,” characterized by sometimes gossipy, almost carnivalesque repartee combined with honestspeak regarding the difficulties we face on a quotidian basis. Having these outlets reminds me, further to #3 above, not to become wholly consumed in my own problems (even as they also offer me a safe space to express them). I recognize that this point pertains mostly to my own experience and might not be available to everyone, and this may just be a fancy academic way to characterize Having Friends and Being Able to Talk to Them. But I do think digital technology has allowed us to generate multiple, expanded networks of communication and commiseration, and perhaps if you’re feeling alone in your plight for whatever reason, you can touch base with a few friendly faces on Twitter who might be going through similar things. Twitter is great for this! 

6. Practicing the art of self-dating. Or, er, thinking about doing this more intentionally, to be more accurate. So far going on self-dates, for me, has been as simple as going for a solo walk along the river on a crisp autumn day, or “staying in tonight” and watching Difficult People on Hulu (sorry, Canada). I have aspirations to take a real self-date soon: going to a movie or the theatre by myself, or going vintage shopping. Dating oneself, rather than relying on others to fill out your schedule and your overall sense of self, can be a powerful notion.

7. Observing the whole process with compassion. I keep telling myself, “I am doing what I can in this present moment and in my present state as a scholar,” and sometimes that means, for instance, accidentally submitting the wrong version of a dissertation abstract that includes language duplicated across my application letter. As my veritable saint of a job placement professor, Vlasta Vranjes, expressed to me in a recent email, “it’s impossible not to fall into the trap of thinking that any little mistake will cost one a job–or, conversely, that one will get a job if one does everything perfectly.” On this point I will return to Amanda Walling’s comments in the In the Middle advice-post I linked to earlier: “It is not a meritocracy, or a referendum on your work as a scholar, and ‘fit’ is not code for that. It’s a bunch of flawed people making compromises with each other and with their administrators, and sometimes where you fit into that is just blind luck.”

I hope it helps to hear some of these things said out loud, and I welcome further comments, commiserative anecdotes, or advice.

best laid plans · body · busy · family · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · writing

From the Archives: The More She Sleeps

Last Wednesday our daughter was born. Every day since then has been a wonderful–and somewhat exhausting–blur of getting our bearings in this new life of ours. While I plan to write a post on navigating being pregnant and on the job market that’s not what is on my mind today. Rather, after a bleary night of feeding and rocking and trying to sleep, I’m thinking about my partner who has a writing deadline. I am thinking about all of you heading to Congress. I am thinking about the summer research and writing plans. And of course, I am thinking about this wee little person who is strapped to my chest while I type.

Here, in the spirit of writing and sleeping and finding your bearings, is a post that Aimée wrote about how writing is like sleep training.
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When my daughter was an infant she and I both often sported the wild looks, red eyes, flailing movements, and terrible mood swings associated with chronic lack of sleep. Every day was a battle, both of us to try to stay awake, only one of us with reason. Sometimes, of an afternoon, I wandered glassy-eyed through the local grocery store with her staring glassy-eyed out of the sling. No morning nap, no afternoon nap, and oh dear lord the colic hours approaching. Well-meaning friends, strangers, and cashiers of all sorts would cluck and say, to comfort me, “Well, at least she’ll sleep tonight for sure!”

But here’s the thing: her worst nights for sleep were the ones that followed the days that she didn’t nap. And, those weird days where she’d get 2 hours of day-time sleep? She’d conk out at 7pm for 12 hours.

My husband and I developed a saying, repeated like a mantra to everyone who completely misunderstood her sleep cycle. The saying is this: The more she sleeps, the more she sleeps. And it was absolutely true.

Writing is like that, too, I’ve been recently thinking. Looking around at my friends and colleagues online and off, the conclusion I’ve come to is this:

The more you write, the more you write.


I’m thinking particularly about the relationship of informal, lower- or different-stakes writing to the much higher-stakes academic writing, the peer-reviewed articles, the dissertations, and the books. Extra-particularly, I’m thinking about the role that blogging plays in my practices and productivity as a writer.

I have written a ton more, in a ton more venues, and a ton more easily* since I began blogging. That’s the truth!

In the early days of academics blogging, many in the professoriate espoused the belief that time spent blogging was time away from research. It seemed to me that the view of “writing” was very narrow and very parsimonious. Certainly, blogs (and op-eds, and public talks) were held in much lower esteem than the gold standard represented by the peer-reviewed article. And that’s fine, as it goes. But there was something else, too, almost as though many in the academy believed that we had each only a finite lifetime allotment of usable words, and that it was a terrible waste to let these spill out onto the screens over the internet rather than pages through the library.

[You may develop your own quasi-religious metaphor involving masturbation and spilled seed here, if you wish. I’m not going to go there.]

But in my experience, words don’t work like that. Words are more like kittens: the more you have of them, the more you’re likely to get. If you nurture a couple of them, they’ll soon start to produce more and more of them without much conscious effort on your part to increase their number. And so it is with my words: I nurture a couple of small ones, and suddenly every computer I have has open documents full of jottings for a book project or an article or a syllabus or a blog post or an op-ed, a crazy crowded mishmash of self-multiplying words and ideas.

Why?

For me, first, blogging has developed the writing habit. I carry that mental pencil and pad with me all the time, always busy trying to convert my experience into blog bait. I’m pre-writing, that is, all the time. And this habit spills over to my research: I’m always busy trying to convert my reading into article-bait. This is a habit I did not have before blogging.

Second, the feedback I receive from blogging (and media appearances, and public talks) offers nearly immediate positive reinforcement, and that makes me write more. When people tell me they think an idea is great, I’m more likely to push harder to write something more substantial about it; when people tell me the like reading my writing, I know that the work is not solitary or without a point or audience. Writing starts to feel good.

Third, informal writing has clarified my voice and made me a more confident (and, I hope, effective) communicator. Blogging (etc.) does not tie me in compositional knots relating to disciplinary jargon (or, worse, interdisciplinary jargon). There’s no onerous citation requirement. I don’t have to tone down my metaphors for an imaginary international audience. I write to please myself, largely, and as a result the writing process is pleasant, and the results are more conversational. For high-stakes professional writing, jargon is necessary, adherence to strict rules of citation is necessary, and (I think) some of the enforced clunkiness of writing style is a historical artifact that I can only chip away at one little piece at a time. But that’s all very tiring. High-stakes writing is an 800m butterfly swim in a tech-suit at the Olympics; low-stakes writing is skinny dipping from the paddle-boat at 11pm at the cottage. It’s fun, but I’m probably still building muscle and endurance.

I know that many of you have digital lives or write in public as well. I would be very, very interested to hear how you think your own “low-stakes**” writing has an impact on your “high-stakes” work. We could maybe change the prevailing narrative!

Maybe we’ll start worrying about the productivity of people who don’t fart around writing stuff on teh intertubes 😉

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* “easily” is relative. I still really hate writing. It’s just that the hating part is so much less debilitating than it was before.


** the degree of stakeness is relative to your perspective, of course: in my JOB, articles count more than blogging or public appearances, but this month I’ve had a) an article appear in a big journal and b) a five minute appearance on national radio and I leave it to you to guess which of these events prompted more hallway talk and productive debate about digital culture, more emails from friends and relatives, more phone calls, more Facebook posts, more debates, more Twitter RTs, and more “Wow, I’m impressed.”

#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · after the LTA · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · ideas for change · job market · teaching

New Letters of Reference for New Kinds of Academic Careers

University employment is changing. We all know that tenured faculty teach an ever-declining proportion of undergraduate courses. We know that there is a boom in piecework sessional teaching. There is also the possibly cheering / possibly more depressing development in the hiring of short-term and continuing lecturer positions, a kind of teaching-track full-time job, often focusing on writing instruction, that makes sessional work much more highly remunerative and stable.* This is a big change. By the start of the fall term, 4 of our faculty members in English will be Definite Term Lecturers, and 25 will be tenure-stream.

The kinds of “academic jobs” available are changing. And our application, interviewing, hiring, renewing, and assessment practices haven’t really caught up yet. Today, let’s talk about reference letters. Next week I’ll talk about application letters and CVs from candidates.

In my department, we’ve launched three searches for definite term lecturers this year (8 courses per year, 10% research component on writing pedagogy, 3 year position with possibility of renewal and move to continuing status) and two tenure track searches (standard 2:2 load, 40-40-20 split, research position). One of our associated colleges, St. Jerome’s, is also doing a search right now, for two more DTLs on roughly the same terms as our own.

I’ve read a lot of reference letters, if you put these six searches into one big pool. Many of these letters are lousy, in the sense of inappropriate to the position, bordering on the disrespectful to the candidate’s chances, and of the time of the committee.

First, the pool. Most of the candidates applying fall into two camps: first, rhet/comp and writing studies scholars, and second, literature PhDs. The first group is doing more than fine, and doesn’t need my help: there is such a boom in positions for these (mostly American and American-trained) candidates, that the odds are usually quite good they’ve got a choice of tenure-trac positions closer to where they want to live. I will not tell you how many of these candidates have rejected job offers from us over the last several years. But they are numerous.

Much more problematic are the repurposed literature PhDs. I truly, truly sympathize with the desire to get an academic job, any academic job, and closer to the GTA rather than farther, and more stable rather than less. And many of these candidates are award-winning scholars with exciting dissertations and upper level teaching in their area. But their referees are sinking their candidacies before they even really get going.

The highlights are something like this (made-up examples, that get the gist):

  • “I have not had an opportunity to see X teaching, but her interactions with me have always been pleasant and professional.”
  • “I have not discussed teaching with X, but he is an excellent researcher, whose innovative dissertation suggests he will be a creative classroom teacher.”
  • “X was lucky enough to secure funding that removed her from the classroom, and as a result, her dissertation is already at a state to be submitted to an academic publisher.”
  • “The nuance that X brings to guest lectures in upper level courses in his research area demonstrate his readiness to devise innovative courses in your department.”

Stop this. The job ad says we need people to teach 8 introductory writing courses to students from across the university. The ad may indicate that the position may turn into long-term continuing: that is, it can be a career-job. It says there’s no research component, or a small research component based in continuing training in pedagogy. It stresses writing studies and writing pedagogy, or communications studies, or cognate research or training. The letters describe literary scholars with tenure-track dreams and training. They also, in blithely ignoring the terms of the ad, seem to indicate the writer’s and candidate’s belief that no special skills are required to teach writing across the curriculum. This is, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, insulting to the field, the job, and the search committee.

I imagine most of this is inadvertent. These are new kinds of jobs, with new kinds of ads, in new sorts of fields, particularly for Canadians.

I suggest:

  • Graduate supervisors? You need to go watch your students teach. You need to talk to them about teaching.
  • You also need to really encourage your literary students to take advantage of any and all teaching credentialling opportunities at your institution.
  • You need to devise new templates for letters. The research letter is a standard form, that is well-pitched to research jobs, but it’s not suited to all jobs, not even all jobs inside of academic departments

I’m thinking particularly of the literary scholars who are reframing their job focus from TT in their area, to other kinds of stable employment as teachers in departments. The writing studies and rhet/comp people are doing more than okay on this front. And I think our literary grads can become strong, credible, hireable candidates for the lecturer positions that are becoming more numerous. But it’s not obvious from the application materials. Yet.

What reference letters for teaching lectureships, focused on introductory writing or writing across the curriculum might look like:

  • Indicate the candidate is serious, at least for now, about taking up a lectureship like this one
  • Speak specifically about the candidate’s skills as a teacher
  • Of junior students
  • Skills like works well in a team, has good time management, deals well with student conflicts are prized as well

Look, I don’t have any such letters written for my students. I’ll be perfectly honest and tell you I never thought about it before I read something like 200 of them written by other people. I don’t know if I like the stratification of departments into tenured scholar/teachers of upper-level and grad courses, and writing-teacher lecturers with such high teaching loads and mostly junior / non-departmental students. But there are a lot more of one these kinds of jobs than the other. And some candidates really do seem quite happy to reframe toward writing and communication, and to relish the teaching, and to really want these positions. So I’d like all applicants (and there are LOTS of applicants) to produce better application materials for the jobs we’re actually hiring for.

It’s a work in progress for me. I’d love any advice or feedback you might have.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · grad school · job market · mentoring · openness · PhD · reform · student engagement · students · transition

Things I wish someone had told me during my PhD

I was invited, about a month back, to give a talk at Queen’s University to a mixed group of grad students, adjuncts, faculty and staff on hacking your graduate degree for maximum post-PhD flexibility. I hosted a similar session for some students at my university today. The point of the talk is that graduate students can make strategic choices about the opportunities they pursue during their degrees,  and that these opportunities can help them develop a variety of skills, a strong professional network, and a compelling body of work which can make it easier for them to pursue a variety of career paths inside and outside of the academy. What I wanted to do was have an honest conversation about the things I wish I had known during grad school, things that would have made my time there even more enjoyable and productive, and that would have made my eventual transition onto the #alt-ac track (both mentally, and literally) more seamless and painless. And how does one hack one’s graduate degree, you might ask? Here’s my advice. (Do note that it places the onus on graduate students, who were my original audience. The conversation about what faculty and administrators should be doing, and about why some of this shouldn’t be the responsibility of our PhDs, is for another day.)

1. Be Realistic, and Open, About What Comes After Grad School

In the recent America-wide survey by Duke University graduate student Gregory Brennen, the data showed that 83% of graduate students started their PhD expecting to become a tenure-track professor. This is in stark contrast with the current data on how many PhDs actually end up in tenure track jobs—most estimates suggest that fewer than 50% of PhDs end up in any kind of academic job (that includes contract teaching) and that only between 15% and 25% ever secure tenure track jobs. Given this reality, graduate students need to prepare for, and embrace, the multitude of possibilities open to them after they complete their degrees. And they need to remember that being an academic is just a job, and that the are tons of interesting, fulfilling jobs doing other things. Mine is a good example.

2. Make Strategic Decisions About What You Do During Your Degree


As a friend kindly reminded me after I kept claiming that I got lucky in ending up in my job, we make our own luck. What seems random is actually, when you look back, a series of strategic decisions that lead to a whole host of post-degree opportunities. In my case, that strategic decision was to take a research assistantship in lieu of teaching during the fourth year of my PhD. While many PhD students fund their studies by teaching, and that’s a wonderful opportunity for people who are looking for careers in education, that may not be the best choice for people who are looking to do other things and need a different set of skills. These other opportunities are also extremely useful academically. Research or graduate assistantships are a big one to consider, as is doing an industry-partnered internship with Mitacs. So might be going on an international exchange, or selecting a graduate co-op program (which UBC now has in English, and Aimee tells me Waterloo is going to develop.) In my case, the research assistantship, researching graduate student professional development programs, let me develop the skills, knowledge, and experience that got me my job as a Research Officer.

3. Take Advantage of the Resources Available on Campus

As grad students, it’s easy to believe that most of the student support services available on campus are there for undergraduates, but that is emphatically not the case. There are a myriad of resources available on most campuses to help graduate students make the most of their degrees, to help them navigate the academic job market, or to help them transition out of academia or into an #alt-ac or #post-ac career. The Career Centre is a great place to start, and they can provide assistance with academic and non-academic job searches; Advancement can often connect grads with alumni in the fields they’re interested in; most Canadian universities now have graduate student professional development programs that offer a whole host of workshops and seminars; Mitacs offers a full suite of free transferable skills workshops; and many faculty members can, sometimes surprisingly, provide guidance and support in the search for jobs in and outside of the academy. It can be scary talking to faculty about plans to abandon the tenure track–believe me, I know–but the culture of silence around #alt-ac and #post-ac transition isn’t going to disappear until we all start talking about it.

4. Consider Creating A Shadow C.V.

One of the most important things graduate students can do to demonstrate to people outside of the academy that they have the needed skills is to have evidence that you’re capable of working outside of the academy. Especially for PhDs, the assumption that we’re overeducated and lacking in practical skills can be hard to overcome without demonstrated outside experience, and having at least one example of non-academic work experience to put in a resume can go a long way toward helping graduate students mentally connect the skills they’ve honed as a graduate students with those that crop up on job postings, and to help overcome the feeling that there’s nothing they’re qualified to do but be a professor. People have started calling experience developed alongside academic work, but not included in academic documents, a “shadow C.V.” In my case, I took a year off between my Master’s and my PhD to work in publishing and continued tutoring and editing throughout my degree. Other people I know have done summer placements, taken part-time jobs, done industry-partnered internships, or created web-based consulting and writing firms that allow them to work on their own time.

6. Learn How to Talk About Your Skills and Research to People Outside of Academia

Academese and English can sometimes seem like two different languages, and this is a major barrier to people with graduate degrees trying to make their qualifications and research make sense in contexts outside of the academy. It’s only natural. Communicating highly specialized research to non-academics isn’t a skill that most academics at any level practice all that much, other than the inevitable attempts to explain your work to your mother, or to someone you meet at a party. This is certainly changing, though. But opportunities to practice do exist, and graduate students should take advantage of them: compete in the Three Minute Thesis; take workshops on clear language writing; practice translating research into non-specialist language. Doing this can seem very non-intuitive for grad students, especially for those who have been academe for a long time, but once they learn how to do it, the relationship between what they do as academics and what shows up in job postings often becomes painfully obvious, as does the potential impact of their work outside the academy. This is, as a side benefit, and increasingly strong focus for many granting agencies, a number of which also now require clear-language or lay research summaries.

7. Think About What You Really Want to Do

Many PhD students are committed to being professors without actually knowing what the life, and the job, of a professor is really like. Our archives here at Hook & Eye can be pretty illuminating. Parts of it match up closely with the starry-eyed dream, but others definitely don’t. Meetings are endless and often frustrating. Grading is a slog. The pressure to publish and get stellar teaching evaluations can be debilitating. Students are disengaged. Service takes up far more time that people realize, and there’s never enough time for research and reflection. Graduate students should be figuring out what it is they really love about academia, and thinking about other jobs that might let them do those things more. The book So What Are You Going to Do with That? includes some fantastic exercises, ones that helped me realize that the things I love to do and am good at doing–coordinating, facilitating other people’s work and success, communications, writing, mentorship–are key components of all sorts of #alt-ac and #post-ac jobs, including my current one.

8. Think About What You Really Don’t Want to Do

As PhDs, we’re indoctrinated to believe that we should be willing to give up everything for a tenure track job. At some point, I shrugged that indoctrination off and made a list of the things that were more important to me than tenure: I didn’t want to move, wait until I was 40 to have kids, spend most of my life grading papers, spend multiple years as a contract professor, or write things that no one would ever read. For me, those were pretty convincing reasons to give up on the idea of becoming a professor, which requires total mobility, limits reproductive choices, requires far more teaching than research for most people, and mostly values journal and book publications that most people won’t read. The most important thing I had to convince myself of–and that we must tell graduate students, over and over–is that choosing where to live, desiring to have a child without worrying about compromising doctoral work or chances at tenure, refusing precarious employment, are totally legitimate life choices that are okay to voice aloud, despite the tendency of academia to suggest that if you aren’t willing to sacrifice your whole life, even your whole identity, to being an academic, you’re a second-class citizen. It broke my heart, in a good way, to have a whole gaggle of female Queen’s students come up to me after my talk and thank me for saying out loud that my desire to have kids before I was 35 was a factor in my decision making. It is for many people, and that’s something that should be discussed openly.

The other important part of this equation is to get graduate students talking to people they know in academia and outside, and find out from them what their jobs are really like. So long as we perpetuate the belief that academia is the only worthy place of employment, and that a professorship is the only truly fulfulling and engaging job, graduate students will ignore a whole host of career possibilities that might be a much better personal and professional fit.

9. Don’t Conflate Who You Are With What You Do

This is an obvious one, and a hard one to avoid–but if graduate students can avoid the trap of believing that they are academics, and that if they don’t get to continue to be academics they’ll be nothing, they’ll save themselves a horrible and painful identity crisis if the time comes that the professoriate becomes an unobtainable dream. A professorship is just a job. It is not a vocation, or an identity, and graduate students are so much more than the single career option the academy tells them is worthy. 

10. Enjoy the Ride

Getting paid to read for comps. Taking classes totally outside of your area because you can. Auditing things purely for interest. Debating theory over far too much wine. Style-stalking your favourite professor. Choosing conferences based purely on location. These are some of the best parts of grad school, and they should be relished, and they often aren’t because PhDs are too busy conferencing and publishing and professionalizing and shadow-CVing and comparing themselves to all of the other PhDs they know. Yes, those things need to get done (minus the last one) but statistically speaking, the chances of getting to stay in academia on a permanent basis are slim. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.

***

So, dear readers, what do you think? What advice would you give to current graduate students facing the reality of a terrible academic job market? What advice do you wish you had gotten during your PhD?

good attitudes about crappy possibilities · video

Saving the World

At a time when the question of why the humanities matter is repeated daily, when reports on the success of its graduates go unheeded, when program prioritization processes almost invariably reveal that arts and humanities programs are the last of the university’s priorities, when libraries and archives are being decimated by the federal government, it’s nice to be reminded that the humanities could indeed save the world:

being undone · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · good things · saving my sanity · video

Academic Spring

When the weather turned nice, briefly, this week, I dragged a colleague out to grab a cup of tea on campus, and instead of taking the tunnels and our coats, we walked outside. I breathed in the smell of melting snow and wet earth and dry sand and warm sun.

“Spring is my least favourite season,” I blurted out. “It just makes me so anxious!”

I surprised myself saying it, but it’s true! Since high school, I’ve associated this time of year with fast approaching deadlines for materials I’d been wildly procrastinating on for month. Spring is not new beginning for scholars: it’s a time of reckoning. I did my BA at York, which has eight-month courses, so spring was the culmination of everything, and that usually meant desperation, panic, and last-minute calculation of possible grade outcomes. Ugh. Of course, every April also meant packing up all my worldly belongings and moving back to Kirkland Lake for the summer: not really an awesome prospect. Deadlines and impending uprooting! Spring! What’s not to love! Similar angst accompanied my MA and PhD coursework years: constant apartment moving, and lots of deadlines, and waiting for results from SSHRC!

My colleague has worked as a sessional instructor for a long time: her spring, she notes, is marked usually by enormous piles of grading and total uncertainty as to employment status two weeks hence. Contingent labour in the academy, I imagine, must feel as mixed up about spring as I vestigially do.

We’ve written here before about the marvellous opportunities, the spring-like rebirth that September offers us. Well, I guess April can sometimes be the reverse.

I’ve got no reason to dread spring any more. I own my own home, so I’m not moving anywhere. I have a steady job. I do have a lot of conference paper deadlines, but I get to travel and that always excites me. I just reflexively panic, still, when the snow melts and the trees bud.

You too?

As an antidote to the spring heebie-jeebies, I offer you a video–a lip dub I made with my yoga studio friends and teachers at Queen Street Yoga. It’s full of sunshine and smiles and happy music, and it might make you smile as you grade / write / move / job hunt.

academy · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · grad school · ideas for change · job market · notes from the non-tenured-stream

On the trauma of the dissertation and making academic work "count"

My facebook feed is filling up with friends and colleagues bemoaning their choice to do a PhD and status updates that express hatred and anger about their dissertations. I felt this way too during my very long revision process. I think most people have moments of deep regret at some point on the road to completed dissertation. Moments of doubt and loathing seem more the norm than the exception.

In discussing the emotional impact of the PhD with one of my colleagues – also a recent graduate – we noted the difference in attitude post-PhD and post-MA. We left our MAs believing in ourselves. We carried an arrogant confidence that we knew everything and could do anything. Getting a job after my MA was no problem. I was bold. I spoke with authority. I’ve watched friends complete MAs and hit the ground running filled with a sense of immense accomplishment.

I contrast, at the end of the PhD, everything seems to be thrown into question. A PhD teaches you that maybe you don’t really know that much at all, that all of your knowledge can and will be rigorously questioned at every turn. PhDs self-deprecate too easily. We say things like, “I don’t have any work experience,” or “being a grad student sure beats getting a job.” We characterize ourselves as being outside of the real economy. But the truth is, no one gets a PhD without working. Be it for pay or not, we have experienced real work. Research, writing, deadlines, teaching, all-nighters, life-balance negotiations, alienated friends and family –  our PhD work lives have had their toll and have allowed us to develop a number of crucial skills, both academic and non-academic.

Now, I know I’m generalizing here. Not all MAs leave their degrees to happily land a dream job, and not all PhDs struggle to come to terms with the inadequacies of their dissertations. Some people write awesome dissertations and land awesome jobs. But for many PhDs, there seems to be a prevailing negativity about their work, their life choices, and their prospects. We are our own worst enemies. In discussing my degree with a group of acquaintances, I joked that I was struggling to find work because I have “no work experience.” Now one of those acquaintances mentions the fact that I have “never worked” each time we meet. Because I made a self-deprecating joke, there are now people in my life that believe I have never worked and somehow, because of my fancy education, expect to get a good job without ever having to “work” for it. Of course I have worked and I continue to work, very hard in fact. The point is, we are too quick to characterize our PhD lives as non-work. By self-deprecating, we feed the stereotype of grad-school as a bad life choice. This reinforces anti-intellectualism and makes it harder for us to articulate our skills in relation to the job market, which is admittedly bleak these days.

In part, we could solve this problem with better professional training. Not all PhDs will land academic jobs. This is a fact that grad programmes need to come to terms with. Knowing how to compile an umpteen page CV will not get us a non-academic job. We need a system in place that allows us to articulate things like academic publications and major research projects as “real work” that counts for something in the private sector.

How do we make academic work “count”?

faster feminism · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · heavy-handed metaphors

Another feminist metaphor involving bicycles …

You know how a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle? Well, I was riding into the office on my bicycle just yesterday, and I was thinking, instead, how riding a bicycle in traffic is like being a female academic. Consider it!

1. If you don’t occupy the space you are entitled to, you will be run over. 

I have one big left turn to make on my commute. From a a multilane road, across a three-lane one way road, and then over a sidewalk which is actually the way you are supposed to access the bike trail. It’s complicated. They’ve just repaved and redone that whole intersection, and one of the improvements was to extend the bike lane right into the left turn lane. But you have to be pretty ballsy to do the right thing, and move right into that big bike turning lane. The thing that makes it safe is to really occupy that space, not skooch off to the side. Take your right of way, don’t waffle at the cars that are looking to figure out what you’re going to do. 

Similarly in the academy: you can be in the academy, but if you don’t “occupy your lane” you might easily get run over.

2. We are a minority; we have to act as a group because we are being judged. 

At that intersection? Many, many, many cyclists suddenly become pedestrians. They’re scared or impatient, trying to act like cars, so they suddenly move out of car traffic and start riding through the crosswalks and over the sidewalks, to shimmy their way through that ‘left turn’. When they nearly get run over, they yell at the cars and I wince: cyclists! You are in the wrong! And you are making drivers hate ALL bicyclists, and I myself want to run you over right now. Similarly in the academy: in direct proportion to women’s underrepresentation, the individual woman is judged as the exemplar of all. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

3. You need a voice. 

It is insanity to cycle in the city without a bell. In traffic it can recall to pedestrians that you are a vehicle and they should not jaywalk in front of you. It can remind cars that you are near them. On a mixed-use trail, you need to warn slower people ahead that you are behind them and about to pass. It is literally dangerous to not have a bell: someone’s dog meanders across the trail and you wipe out. A pedestrian steps onto the roadway and you are both injured.

Similarly in the academy: we all need to speak up for what is right, because if we don’t it’s quite rare that anyone is going to come directly solicit us for our qualms. If you don’t assert yourself, you may find yourself teaching at 8am on Friday until the end of time. Ring the alarm! It’s dangerous not to!

 4. We are in a minority; we need to behave better than everyone else. The stakes are higher. 

Cyclists face innumerable dangers on the roads, many from clueless or inattentive or hostile drivers. It’s all fine and good to occupy the moral high ground (“but I am entitled to three feet of the roadway, and it is the law that the car must find a way to get safely around me!) but if a car hits you, you are the one who dies. Cyclists need to be mor attentive, more aware of the laws, more deferential to the giant death machines, because we ar smaller, fewer, more vulnerable.

Similarly in the academy: women serve on too many committees, for equity purposes. We shoulder a disproportionate share of service work. Sometimes students want us to be their mothers. Sometimes sexism happens to us. We need to be vigilant and above reproach. It’s more dangerous.

5. Sometimes, the rules are not as clear cut as they might seem, and “equal” is not “the same.” 

Have you heard of the Idaho stop? It allows cyclists to roll through a four-way stop if there’s no traffic. It’s a law that recognizes that four-way stops are usually traffic-calming rather than safety measures, and that bicylces are not the problem there, and also that stopping and staring bicycles requires human power, not a tap of the pedals. To treat cars and bikes equally here means to treat them differently, on the basis of their different realities.

Similarly in the academy. Parental leave can be shared by male and female parents, but men don’t require pregnancy leave or lactation accommodation. Faculty who are parents require different supports from faculy who are caring for parents. We all labour under individual circumstances, and what is fair for one person might not be fair for another. It’s hard to create workable policy around that.

So there you have it. Ring your bells and let those wheels roll: the weather is beautiful, and all things considered, being aon my bicycle, even in traffic, feels pretty damn good right now.

academic reorganization · administration · bad academics · change · community · equity · faster feminism · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · job market · job notes · solidarity

The sweet spot to be cranky

Erin’s most recent post, on the gamble that is the leap off the cliff from graduate student to … whatever … comes … after … is compelling for several reasons. The awkwardness of the situation–of being neither here nor there, one of us or one of them, or the question of how to become member of a tribe as yet undetermined, the looming unknowns of money of travel of location, of permanence and impermanence or lock-in versus flexibility–stresses the body, the soul, the wallet. It hampers the vision of the future; it colours the present, usually in greyish tones. The gamble has high stakes; it plays out over years.

But I’m struck most forcefully by the bind that Erin articulates in the comments: how can she write honestly about any of this when she’s still in between? How to be anything but positive, a good team player, before all the teams are chosen and you’re still hoping to be picked? How to talk about teaching when your experience is thin enough that generalizations don’t protect the innocent or the guilty? How to take yet more risks when standing on the knife-edge between in and out?

Well.

I don’t know. She can’t, I guess is the short answer. Nor can many of you, those of you who are contingent or temporary or contractually limited, or who are students, and thus have very little weight to throw around. Maybe Heather can’t either: she’s Vice Dean now and her words have, maybe, too much weight. Maybe she’s bigger than herself, in the ways that those of us who lift up the institutional mantle to carry it forward necessarily become first person plural.

Who’s left, then?

Me, probably. Tenured, but still young. Wising up to the way the institution and the profession works, without yet having been sucked up into actually making the machinery operate as an administrator. I’ve often heard of the particular and heavy burden that the mid-career (that is, tenured) associate professor faces: a ton of committee work, some administration, a lot of peer review and evaluation. But I think it’s less a weight right now than a power. Can you even imagine? With tenure part of my responsibility is to promote those ideas I think are the absolute best ones, damn the torpedoes. And I’ll still have a job if I do draw enemy fire. Academic freedom protects the process and products of my research from any kind of interference, but the model of collegial governance under which universities are organized extends this privileged capacity to speak–this responsibility–to more mundane and consequential questions of how the work we do gets done, and by whom, and under what conditions or circumstances.

I’m in the sweet spot. Tenured and in full possession of my academic freedom, without the weight of all the necessary balancing of interests that a chair or a dean or administrator might have to deal with. I already serve on committees where I get to advocate for graduate students, for our curriculum, for what kinds of computers the labs should get, for whom we should hire. The trick now is to expand my view, to try to take in the interests of all those members of my department, my institution, who can’t express their needs with as full-throated a job-protected, academic-freedom granted volume as I can muster. And I can muster it, believe me, effective or not.

So. The job falls to the associates now: it’s our job to call bullshit, our job to notice when the emperor has no clothes, or when those clothes have been created from skinned graduate students and sessional labourers (figuratively, of course). We’ve got the biggest, least fractured, best protected voices on campus, and we should use ’em. We must use ’em.

Are you an associate professor? How do you see your role in speaking up for those without your privileges or access? Not an associate professor? What gaps in my knowledge should I address to better serve the interests of all the members of the university?

I’m in the sweet spot. And I’m willing to be cranky on your behalf. Bring it.