#alt-ac · dissertation · from dissertation to book · writing

Why I Want to Publish My Dissertation (Even Though I’ll Never Be a Professor)

When I decided in 2012 that I’d never go on the faculty job market, progress on my dissertation stalled for, oh, three years. Sure, I took a demanding job in research administration not long after, which made dissertation writing harder in practical terms. But my real issue with dissertation writing was psychological. Without a good reason to finish this proto-book I was pretty sure no one was ever going to read, I couldn’t find the motivation to make progress on it. Sitting down to write was mental torture.

After I’d been in research administration for a couple of years, I came to the conclusion that while I didn’t care all that much about finishing my dissertation for its own sake, having the PhD as a credential was going to be necessary for the career path I was envisioning for myself. I moved into a similar but less overwhelming job with a walking commute (which helped a ton), and over the course of the next year I finished writing the last two thirds of my dissertation. All told, it took me almost exactly eight years to get my PhD: I started the program the day after Labour Day in 2008 and I defended four days after Labour Day in 2016.

It’s been six months since I defended, and after a long period of waffling, I’m actively pursuing the publication of my dissertation. One press is awaiting my proposal with interest, and I’ve got conversations in progress with another. The proposal will go out by the end of the month (I’m writing both it and this post on a little DIY writing retreat I put together in mid-March), and we’ll see what happens from there. I’m a little surprised that this is a path I’m going down, because like finishing my dissertation, I was resistant to the idea of publishing it for a long time.

It’s not the idea of holding a book I’ve written in my hands that I don’t like. In fact, I like the idea quite a lot–I got to do it recently with this beauty, and it feels awfully nice. It’s the idea of reentering the dysfunctional and exploitative academic systems that I purposefully removed myself from when I decided not to become a professor. I will perform a frankly offensive amount of unpaid labour to get this book out, labour that won’t even be compensated by academic capital that I can use on the job market. (I’ll have it, but I have no need or place to use it.) The press and editors I work with will be underpaid for all of their work. The book, if it does really well, might sell 500 copies. It will be too expensive for most people to buy, and the university librarians I so respect and love will have to balance purchasing it against their shrinking budgets and the demand to buy ever more expensive science journals. It might come out in paperback eventually, which will help make it more accessible, but people will likely have forgotten all about it by the time it does.

So why am I doing it, given all of these good reasons not to?

It turns out that I care enough about this research–this person, really, as I write about one woman, poet, publisher, and professor Jay Macpherson–to make all of that not matter. Macpherson came to Canada as a refugee in 1940. She was part of what we now know as the ‘war guest’ program, the one that placed British children who were in danger of being killed or injured by German bombs in Canadian foster homes. Separated from her family, not well treated by her foster family, terribly lonely, and terrified about the fate of a world that seemed on the verge of apocalypse (is this sounding familiar?), she started to write. And her poems helped her–and can help us–think through how we deal with living under the threat of annihilation, our culpability as members of a society that ignores and abuses children, what happens when we don’t see ourselves in the books we read, what its like to navigate one’s own queer desire in a heteronormative and patriarchal society. Perhaps most importantly, Macpherson wrote her way to a place where her poems became a gateway to a better imagined world, one where finding the common roots of our stories, myths, languages, and loves could break down the barriers that lead to violence, war, alienation, death.

Macpherson’s poems weren’t always so hopeful. After the loss of a great love (which I think was a combination of a total loss of poetic inspiration and the end of her relationship with Northrop Frye), she went silent for nearly twenty years. Her second (and last) major collection, Welcoming Disaster, calls upon her old myths and some new ones to think through how to rebuild one’s world after a personal sort of apocalypse. And yet, despite everything she suffered–being abandoned, abused, marginalized as a woman scholar and poet, cut off from her gifts–she never became wholly disillusioned. If anything, Macpherson turned her energies even more strongly toward using her verse to make the world better, to helping those with less love or power or hope than she had. She spent the latter part of her career mostly writing political poetry and protest songs aim at righting the wrongs she saw in the world.

It was the fifth anniversary of Macpherson’s death yesterday, and it’s time for more people to know these stories than me, to absorb them into their own personal mythologies and use them, as Macpherson did, to remake the world in new and better forms. That might not be very many people, given the reach of an academic monograph, but I want it to be more people than just my committee and me.

And that’s why, despite the fact that I’ll never be a tenure-track professor and there are all sorts of reasons not to, I want to publish my dissertation.

(Thanks to Lisa Munro, who is also doing the same kinds of thinking, for inspiring this post.)

#alt-ac · altac · flexible academic · grad school · jobs · PhD

Oh, The Things You Can Do (with a PhD)!


Can you believe it’s already the middle of January? As we race full speed ahead to the end of another academic year, lots of soon-to-be finished graduate students are thinking about what comes next. My latest article for Chronicle Vitae shares some strategies for identifying the skills you develop during graduate school and translating them into the language of job postings, which can help you identify the kinds of jobs you can and might want to do:

Employers might not be looking for experts on 19th-Century French literature or CRISPR-Cas9. But they are looking for people who can speak and write effectively, process and communicate high volumes of complex information, create project plans and see them through, work with (and for) a wide variety of people, identify gaps (in knowledge, processes, understanding) and propose how to fix them. Ph.D.s learn how to do all of those things, and much more. 

Check out the full article over at Chronicle Vitae!

Original image: Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!, by Dr. Seuss
#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.

#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.

***

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?

#alt-ac · altac · boast post · defense · PhD

When In Doubt, Buy Office Supplies (or, I Got My PhD)

I spent Saturday morning swimming in a soupy blend of emotion and leftover adrenaline. I don’t think I spoke much. Mostly I just read the Black Panther comic my husband had bought for me earlier that week, curled up in my favourite living room chair, and exclaimed quietly every time our eyes met: “I did a thing!”

I did. I did a thing. I did a big thing.

I got my PhD.

Dr. Dalgleish, happy and tired post-defense.

I’ve been so grateful for the family and friends who wanted to hear the story of the defense, because telling the story over again has let me consolidate in my mind what is a genuinely treasurable memory, one that has already become a touchstone. My defense was a joyful, fun, challenging, exciting, euphoria-inducing experience–probably the best single academic experience of my career. I had fun!  My committee made me think hard about how and why I’d done the work I had, and made me think more and differently about my place in the field. I shared in my post last week my worry that my day job has made me less effective as a researcher, but the defense proved that it was actually quite the opposite. Having a career in addition to my research practice has made me more confident, better spoken, more thoughtful, more stylish in my writing, less cautious and conventional in how I perform my research, far better able to articulate the value of my work, and far better able to craft a research practice that has real value in and out of the academy. I walked out of my defense completely over the moon, and that’s a feeling that I hope stays with me for a long time.

Aside from my happiness and pride at accomplishing something that was hard work and took a long time and demanded a lot, there are other things the PhD has given me that I don’t want to lose: the structure that having a large ongoing project lent to my days, the time I carved out for research and thinking and writing, the sense of purpose it lent me, the broad set of skills I developed, the confidence in my abilities, the friendships with fellow researchers and writers, and the deeper and more nuanced understanding of the world. I want to use this time, while I’m still on the high of having finished, to be intentional about crafting the next phase of my life, one that holds on to all of the space I’ve made for thinking and reading and writing. I also desperately want and need to reshape my life in ways that are more balanced than it has been recently, in ways that leave room for creativity, spontaneity, embodiment, exploration. Not having my dissertation fill so much of my time makes me both exhilarated by the possibility, and a little panicked about how best to make use of all the time not having it on my plate has opened up.

When in doubt, I buy office supplies. On Sunday, I picked up some lovely paper, some new highlighters, and more ink for a beautiful fountain pen I was gifted as a defense present. I sat down at the dining room table on Sunday afternoon, and I drew what I wanted my first week post-PhD to look like, the week that I’ve been dreaming about for years. I drew it with my new fountain pen, and beautiful paper, and all the colours of highlighter I could find. I took my time, and I thought about the things I wanted this first week to have, the week that would let me begin as I mean to go on.

And so I penned in time to read in the living room with Moose the cat. I drew in time to go running and swimming and yoga-ing, to remind myself that my body is something other than a living jar for my brain. I put in time to walk and listen to podcasts, time to cook, time to work on the novel I started at the beginning of the summer and some non-dissertation academic projects that are in the pipeline. I penned in time for relaxing and self-reflection and projects around the house. I drew in time with my husband, my family, my friends, and more time to sleep that I’ve allowed myself in a long time.

A very colourful week.

It’s a beautiful week, not just on paper but in practice. It’s a week that’s chock full of all the things that to me say a good life, one that’s full of intention and effort and expanding my horizons. On paper it looks a little like panic, a little like trying to keep the uncertainty of the future at bay by locking the present into tiny boxes, but to me it looks more like intention, like putting down on paper how I want my life to be, the life that the PhD gave me.

My external examiner mentioned that she’d read my “I quit” letter, and she jokingly told me that she thought that letter was a lie. She’s right. I didn’t actually quit. I’m just swimming in a different lane of the same pool. And the water’s fine.

#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.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · administration · day in the life · enter the confessional · risky writing

Questioning that #altac label: a quit letter update

My role here at Hook & Eye has changed some over the years I’ve been writing, especially when I moved to the part-time PhD track nearly three years ago to take up the first of my full-time academic administrative positions. I started with H&E as a graduate student writer, as Boyda and Jana are now, and my posts were written primarily as and for members of the graduate student community. But then I became our de-facto representative of the #altac track. At the time, my move onto that track seemed like a huge one, one that signalled a major break with academia, or at least with the tenure-pursuing part of it. A few months into my first admin role, I wrote my own contribution to quit lit, a post that remains one of the most read in Hook & Eye‘s history. As I wrote in that post,

And so, I quit. Not as completely as some–I’m still enrolled in the PhD part time, I’m finishing my dissertation because it’s a story I’m committed to telling, and I work at the same university as the one I’ve been doing my doctorate at–but I’ll never go on the tenure-track. I’ll eventually have a PhD, but I’ll never be an academic. At one time, if you had told me that, it would have broken my heart. Now, it’s just my reality. It took me a long time to believe this, but being an academic is just a job–and I have one of those, one that I love.

Some of that is still very true: being an academic is just a job, and I have one of those, and I love it. I will eventually have a PhD; indeed, I should have one sometime within the next few months if all goes to plan. But I was wrong in declaring that I’ll never be an academic. No, I’ll never go on the tenure track. But an academic? I never stopped being one of those, and I probably never will.

And not only on my own time, for my administrative job is eminently academic in all sorts of ways. Yesterday was a pretty representative day in the life, and here are a few of the things I did:

  • Submitted a grant application I’ve spent the last few weeks writing in collaboration with my team at work
  • Worked through the edits suggested by the copyeditor at the University of Toronto Press who is finalizing a forthcoming edited collection in which I have an essay
  • Circulated a new piece in Partisan magazine to which I contributed about the passing of Canadian poet and critic D.G. Jones
  • Collected and skimmed some new resources for a course I co-teach in the summer at the University of Victoria
  • Made progress on revising the introduction of the book-length research project I’m finishing up
  • Spent time advising, encouraging, and sharing information with students and postdocs
  • Started reading a collection of essays I’m reviewing
Looks not unlike a day at work for my professor friends, doesn’t it, minus perhaps some classroom and grading time? And yet my job–my life–gets a whole other kind of label, and a very different response from the more conservative elements of the academic community. Because people like me are not professors or academic scientists, we’re altac–separate, and to some, lesser. I’ve quite happily adopted this label myself–I co-edit a series for #Alt-Academy, tweet regularly using the #altac hashtag, have a large group of friends and colleagues who likewise consider themselves on the #altac track. And yet, the label still sometimes rubs–when an audience member at the MLA this January asked about the problems with the #altac jobs label and alternatives, I answered with audible snark that I’d love if we could just call them–and tenured ones–jobs, full stop.
I have a job.
I am an academic.

So what, exactly, was I quitting in my contribution to quit lit? What am I pushing back against as I question, more and more strongly, the necessity of #altac as a category? Looking back on it now, what I was really quitting was the part of academia that narrowly defines academic as professorial. I was leaving behind a community and an ideology that believed one could only be a proper academic if one had tenure, or was still seeking a chance at it. I was, although I didn’t know it then, moving into a very different community, one made up of academics of all stripes, people who contribute an immense amount to the project of academia in a whole host of ways, as researchers and advisors and administrators and program developers and every other role you can think of that we need to keep the academic enterprise afloat, our students taught and supported and readied to make their own moves into the world.

In a very real sense, I did not quit, for I am still working in the heart of that academic enterprise.
And there’s nothing #alt about it.

#alt-ac · day in the life · PhD · writing

How Did I Not Notice I’d Become a Writer?

As I do every weekday morning, I’m sitting at my little desk tucked into the corner of our spare room, writing. I wake up at 5:30 and write until about 7:45, and then I get ready for work. The soundtrack to my writing is my partner’s deep breathing upstairs–he won’t wake up for awhile yet–and my cat loudly wondering why I don’t come play with him. I don’t have to worry about any small people waking up to disrupt me. I just have to worry about getting my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard. 

I don’t keep track of how many pages I produce per day, but I do keep track of how many days of the week my butt gets in the chair. I’m a religious (albeit very idiosyncratic) bullet journaller, and writing is the first thing on my list every day. And that consistency is really helpful. In the last two weeks, I’ve submitted a chapter, gotten back (and completed) the revisions on another, and made progress on a third. My committee is really happy with the project, and so am I. I look forward to my writing dates with myself. Despite being entirely happy with my choice to become an academic administrator rather than an academic, I love the two hours a day that I get to be a researcher and a writer. I also love that that time has finite limits, and I think that’s what makes the difference. 
I am, you see, the person who is a grad dean’s time-to-completion nightmare. I started my PhD in 2008, and I won’t be done with it until the spring of 2016. I’ve been working on it part-time since 2013, yes, but I also finished writing my dissertation proposal in November 2011 and it took me until the spring of 2015 to get halfway done with the actual dissertation. Writing used to be torturous. I must have rewritten the second section of my first chapter fifteen times, easily. Writing was either so slow that I felt like someone was pulling words out of me with pliers, or so dammed up that the words stayed inside where they’d prick and niggle and reduce me to a quavering ball of anxiety and fear. I didn’t know how to learn how to write in a new style–as my dissertation is not modelled on others in my field–or for a new audience–for despite repeated warnings not to, I’m writing the book, not just the dissertation–without trying and failing hundreds of times. I almost gave up, so many times. I didn’t much mourn the loss of my writing time when my first admin job required hours and hours of overtime. I devoted dozens of pages of writing just to figuring out why I was writing at all. 
I can’t tell you exactly when that changed. Finding a different supervisor, one whose approach and interests better match what my research looks like now, helped a lot. Finally getting that second section right, and then knowing how to move forward, made a difference. Figuring out why I was writing, the reasons besides getting a PhD, broke down barriers. Without realizing it, I started to think of myself as a writer. I sit down every day and tell stories about being a woman writer in Canada in the 1950s, about how other people also figured out how to become people who have to sit down and create something out of words every day, and about what happened when they did. They didn’t find it easy either. They doubted, and nearly quit, and mourned their lack of community, and assumed that their most recent bout of writer’s block would last forever and they would never write again. They also went on to win the big awards and sell thousands of books and change the way we think about writing and the world. I’ve started to write down ideas for my next project, because these hours at my desk have become precious to me and I won’t give them up even once this is done. 
Doing a PhD–deciding to finish the PhD that I started, more accurately–has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Not in and of itself, but in how it made me get in my own way until I learned how to get out of it. Somewhere in there, I became a writer. The dark days seem very distant now, and I’m not precisely grateful for them, but it’s the best word I can think of. It was hard, but necessary, to stop defining myself as an academic when I decided to move into administration. It felt like giving something up. But I have more, am more, now. I have a job I love, and I became a writer.  
#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · advice · grad school · supervision

#Alt-Ac 101 for Supervisors

While I’ve never been a supervisor of graduate students, a big part of my job is working with supervisors to give them the resources they need to ensure that their graduate students and postdocs succeed in and out of their research. And supervisors, I see you. I see how hard it is for you to not want for your graduate students what you found, the academic career you were told you were training for when you started graduate school. I see the ways you work to fight against the indoctrination that plagues both you and the people you supervise, that says that an academic life is the only challenging and worthy one. I see you struggle to know what to do, what to say, in the face of numbers like these: that only 18.6% of the people you supervise who finish their degrees will get full-time academic jobs, and about half of the people who start out with you won’t finish at all. I see you avoid the topic of non-professorial jobs because you’ve never had one, and you don’t know what one of those might look like or how you might best help your students and postdocs prepare for one.

I don’t think that supervisors need to be everything to all people. I don’t expect you to be career counsellors as well as brilliant writers, researchers, teachers. I don’t expect you to know the ins and outs of every career your students and postdocs might be interested in. I don’t expect you to stop doing the work of being a researcher and teacher you’re doing. But I do expect you to acknowledge reality, and to do what you can to ensure that all of your students and postdocs succeed, not just those very few who follow in your footsteps. And I’ve got some practical ideas about how.

1. Talk about all kinds of career paths and valourize none. 

Ask your students where they want to end up. Ensure that they know the numbers, nationally and within your program, of tenure-track placements. Encourage them to think about a variety of post-degree career paths. Never talk as though the assumption is that everyone will become a tenure-track professor, and never denigrate non-professorial careers. Talk about all kinds of careers as equally valid, and equally valourous. 
2. Keep track of your graduates, and not just the ones that become professors. 

Know what your supervisees are doing with their PhDs. Be able to point to specific careers when your current students and postdocs ask what people with a PhD in their field could do. Know at least a little about your former students’ transition stories, how they got where they are, what they did to get there, and so that you can help your current students decide what they should be doing to prepare for their post-PhD lives. You already know how to help your students prepare to become professors, but learn how to help them to become other things as well. 
3. Know where to refer your students when you’re out of your depth. 

Almost certainly, your university has a graduate professional development program. It also has a career centre, one that has at least some capacity to support PhDs in their career development and preparation. It has people like me, whose job is to help both faculty and students navigate the changing academy and what comes after. There are also tons of skill and professional development resources open to students and postdocs looking to diversify their skill sets. Good ones to know about include: 
  • myGradSkills.ca: online professional development workshops in career development, communication, entrepreneurship, research, teaching & learning
  • Mitacs STEP: one and two day intensive workshops in leadership & management, communication & relationship building, personal & professional management, entrepreneurialism 
  • Lynda.com: over 3,500 online skill development workshops which are free to people with library cards in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver and many other Canadian cities.  
4. Give your students and postdocs things to read. 

The number of resources out there for PhD-trained job seekers has grown exponentially since I was conducting my own job search, and being tapped into the higher ed web will help ensure that your students are aware of the realities of the academic job market and glorious variety of places PhD holders happily end up. Some good resources include: 
Some really, really do want to become professors, and some will. Some see their PhD as a six year contract job that can pay reasonably well. Some want to return to a past career with enhanced credentials. Some don’t know anything beyond the fact that they want to spend a few years immersing themselves in a subject they find fascinating. All are valid, and all should be openly acknowledged. But faculty should also be aware that the culture of academia is such that many people who start not wanting to become a professor will end up internalizing that desire by osmosis. Do what you can to keep that from happening: 100% of people desperate for the thing that less than 20% will find is a recipe for misery. 

6. Be open about what a professorial career is actually all about. 

Your supervisees see you do very few things. They see you teach and supervise (them). They might see you do limited parts of the research part of your job. They read your finished publications. They rarely see the service, the paperwork, the administrative minutiae, the hours of class prep, the shitty first drafts, the lonely hours writing along with your cat, the struggle to stay funded and keep your lab running, the politics, the meetings, and on. Being an academic is a job like any other, with its good and its bad, and you owe it to your students and postdocs to ensure that they understand the reality (not the fantasy) of doing what you do. PhDs often choose to pursue a professorial career without actually knowing much about what that job will be like, and I’ve seen the reality of a professorial career be an unpleasant surprise more than a few times. 
#alt-ac · administration · banting · change · equity · research · scholarships

The Challenge of Challenging Unconscious Bias

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

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

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

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

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

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