Category Archives: Careers

#PostAc, #AltAc, #NonAc: this is what I’m doing.

Enough of the talk: do something! I am into my second year as Associate Dean and now it’s time to deliver on things that I have been talking about. (I almost wrote “operationalize” the “action item,” which just shows how stealthily administrator language has entered my brain.) Clearly, one of my responsibilities is to Make. Stuff. Happen. And I’d like to get one project up and running by the end of this year.

Job training for Arts graduate students.

It is abundantly clear that there are more PhDs graduating in Arts and Humanities programs than there are academic jobs available for them. In my view (and it is shared by many others) it is unethical NOT to make this clear to potential doctoral students from the very beginning. Further, it is our responsibility as their mentors (by “our” I mean all faculty) to help them develop—and be able to articulate and demonstrate—a range of skills and competencies (there’s that admispeak again) that will make them suitable for a variety of careers. We want them to succeed in life, and we want them to have fulfilling, well-remunerated occupations. We do not want them condemned to life as exploited, underpaid, benefit-less sessional or adjunct instructors with limited term contracts, possibly at several universities. Although lots of recently graduate PhDs go that route, I haven’t met anyone who would choose it.

Some people say that there has always been a shortage of academic jobs in Arts. Indeed, when I was a doctoral student in the early 1990’s it was all gloom and doom talk about there being no jobs for us. But, ya know, there were. I was interviewed several times, and within a relatively short time period (one year, during which I held a postdoctoral fellowship) I got a tenure-track position. I am not that smart or exceptional. Maybe I was lucky, but the fact is that I (and several of my friends from grad school) got the academic jobs that we wanted. To be sure, there was already talk back then about how we needed to think more broadly about what students graduating with a PhD in English could do with their degrees if they didn’t get an academic job. But there was no clear vision of what that might be. If I had been asked what I was planning to do if I didn’t become a professor, I would have answered: “um, dunno.” I remember attending one workshop where a guest speaker advised us to hide the fact that we had a PhD if we were applying for jobs outside of academia. Right. I spent all that time, effort, energy, and money to NOT celebrate and use my doctoral degree?

It’s almost twenty years later and things are different this time. Worse. There is more appetite for universities to cut costs (because their budgets are being cut by governments) by not investing in long-term tenure-track professors. We are expensive. There is already a two-tier teaching system in place with more and more graduate students and sessionals doing more and more of the undergraduate teaching. There is pressure to do more teaching online because once the professor has designed the course someone else can run it. Senior level professors are retiring (sometimes prompted to do so with buy outs) and not being replaced. Whole programs are being shut down or consolidated elsewhere. What is happening to the professors who were teaching in those programs? Here at Waterloo things haven’t been as bad as they have been in other places—we’ve been hiring tenure-track faculty over the last couple of years in Arts. But there’s no confidence that we’ll be able to continue to do so.

So, what are all of our Arts PhD students going to do when they complete their degrees? I don’t want them to give the same answer—“um, dunno”—that I would have given in the 90’s. I want them to be confident in and proud of what they know, what they have to offer, and what they can do right now. And I want them to be able to earn adult, middle-class salaries because they are highly educated adults. They have worked hard. They are smart. They are our next generation. They are our hope. Okay, enough of the preaching.

Where is the practical stuff?

It’s in development. I began with doing the research. I read many a report and survey that confirmed that not only do graduate students need more formal job training they demand it. Next, it was time to work on faculty who supervise graduate students, because the research showed that students look to their supervisors first and most consistently for career mentorship. So I prepared a presentation, which I have been taking to departments that have graduate programs. My aim is to get departments talking about the issue of graduate student training. It seems to me that there needs to be a culture shift in our departments and programs. Students need to be more realistic (many of them think they will beat the odds and get that dream tenure-track job). And they need to be thinking about what they would also like to do with their lives and what they need to do to get there. Supervisors need to be more open-minded. Too often professors in Arts are disappointed when students leave academia and pursue other career options, as if somehow the student has “failed.” Failed whom? When is getting a good job ever a failure? Sometimes professors can be disdainful of other careers, especially if there is business or profit involved (as if we aren’t highly paid professionals and also middle-class consumers). No more negative messaging, either explicitly or implicitly.

I have worked with our career services folks on developing workshops, info sessions, and other events especially for Arts graduate students. Sadly, one event (a “living library” where alumni come to campus for one-on-one chats with students about how they found their jobs) was so undersubscribed it had to be cancelled. Eight out of 600+ Arts graduate students signed up. See need to change student expectations and attitudes above.

I championed and led the organizing team for the 3-Minute Thesis competition; it too was a professionalizing activity. I heard faculty members pooh pooh the idea of a competition because they felt it “dumbed down” research. No, it makes research exciting and  accessible to more people. And it makes students work hard on their presentation skills, skills that they will need in almost any job. Certainly in any job interview. And, trust me, students who competed last year loved it. We’re doing it again!

To my mind, the issue of graduate student career training requires a multi-pronged strategy. What happens at the university level (Career services) needs to be augmented at the Faculty level (my office) and reinforced in the departments.

So what am I doing? I just struck a committee to develop an Arts graduate student careers training program. What will that look like? Well, I’m not entirely sure yet, but one project already in the works is a website that will function as a hub of resources and information. It will have a live calendar, to which anyone can add an event, announcing things like alumni panels focused on jobs and careers, workshops on topics such as how to write a resume, how to network, how to use social media in building your career, how to x, y, and z.

What do I hope departments will do? Design professionalization courses that take into account non-academic job options. Build co-op or other paid experiential learning opportunities into their programs. Bring their alumni back to campus to talk to their current students. Use their own networks (after all, we all have family members, friends, and acquaintances who are not academics) to bring students and jobs together. Help students figure out how to create their own networks. I’m a big advocate of Twitter and LinkedIn and other social media tools that enable the distribution of information and encourage people to talk to others whom they may never meet in RL (that’s Real Life for you newbs).

Wait! What if a student does want an academic career? What are we going to do for her? Well, we’re already doing a fine job of mentoring her for those careers. We’ve been doing that really well for a long time. Other career options? Not so much.

Others are talking and doing too. Just one example is the blog Hook and Eye.

Over the next few months I’ll report on how we’re doing. Watch this space!


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