On September 26, 2008, we launched Career Sense as a conversation, or as a forum among academics across Canada about professional issues unique to them. For University Affairs, Career Sense was an experiment of sorts. Online technologies have provided a valuable way for a community with shared interests to come together and share their thoughts. Career Sense was to be one such resource.
Indeed, over the past 19 months or so some good conversations have emerged through reader comments. For instance the open forum on reference letters and the discussion on making the best of a dismal job market each generated some interesting, and sometimes contentious comments. The post which was e-mailed out most often was my open letter to John Milloy, the Minister of Training Colleges, and Universities. And 407 people responded to polls about various topics in the posts.
However, more times than not, the blog didn’t get the degree of participation that would have created the conversation it was intended to generate. I discussed the general lack of reader response with a colleague of mine who writes for The Chronicle, where readers more actively comment on posts and articles. She mused the perhaps the difference was “an offshoot of all our [American] town meetings, talk radio and Internet news – people are very engaged.” Hmm – maybe it is a cultural thing – Canadians might be more insular than Americans in this regard. Maybe it was the content of the blog itself – although the topics covered were so broad, that it would be difficult to isolate the variables there.
The reason why I had been excited by the prospect of the blog is because so many of the graduate students and junior faculty I have advised over the years share a sense of isolation, and trepidation that the issues and challenges they face are because there is something wrong with them. I was hoping Career Sense would help to dispel this myth somewhat. I also hoped that the shared love all of us in academe have for learning and knowledge could be reinforced and validated.
Perhaps then, a blog isn’t the best venue in Canada for academics to share their perspectives, insights and concerns with each other. I know that the folks at University Affairs are looking at the whole career resource section to consider how it can best serve the needs of the increasing, and diverse population of Canadian academics. In the meantime, this will be the final post for Career Sense.
As for me, I have been working with academics on career-related issues for over a decade. For the past five years or so I have been writing on these issues for University Affairs in articles, through the Dr. Jobs column and Career Sense. This is a conversation I am personally committed to both as an academic and as a professional career advisor. So in some other format or venue, I’m sure our paths will cross again in the future. In the meantime, I’ll be working on my dissertation.
Thank you for your support and participation in Career Sense. I hope you found it informative and it gave you a better understanding of what you are facing as an academic in Canada. Until next time, be well.
Last week, the American Federation of Teachers released the results of a job satisfaction survey conducted of part-time or adjunct faculty across the United States. Those surveyed did not include full-time, non-tenure track faculty or grad students whose part-time teaching positions are connected to their graduate training.
Predictably, most respondents said they teach primarily because they like to – not for the money, which in the States can be as little as $2,500/course. Part-timers who taught only one course were more satisfied than those who were dependent on part-time teaching for their livelihoods, especially in public universities. Access to health insurance was what most were dissatisfied with, but perhaps President Obama’s recent coup may alleviate some of that dissatisfaction. Overall, the survey results show that part-time teachers make up a very diverse group, with a broad range of needs and attitudes.
Recently, Inside Higher Ed wrote an article about the survey results. For me, the most interesting part of the article was the readers’ comments. These aptly illustrate the diversity and complexity of the issues this survey raises. One of these issues, I can’t help but notice, is the inability of academics to agree on what’s at stake. Until there is a degree of consensus of what the core priorities of the university are, the data provided by surveys such as this one will fail help solve the problems they identify.
If you have not yet landed your first non-TAship teaching position, I would urge you to read the article (as well as the reader comments). You may also want to take a look at the links below for other discussions about the pros and cons of being a part-time faculty member in the university system. They will give you an understanding of what you could realistically expect to face should you be unable to land a tenure-track position during your first season on the market.
These articles may also reveal a few possibilities for designing a parallel career to finance your teaching and scholarship activities until you are able to successfully transition into academe on a full-time basis. Who knows – maybe by then you will join the ranks of academics who pick and choose the parts of academe they most enjoy through one-off appointments and leave the other headaches to the “lucky ones”!
One of the biggest stumbling blocks many PhDs seem to face when seriously considering a non-academic path is the fear that they will find themselves in a position that they could have gotten without a PhD. This is a prime example of what I’ve dubbed the “bragability factor” which is an insidious influence on the decision-making capabilities of exceptionally smart people.
Definition of the “bragability factor”: the pressure experienced by people who’ve shown great potential to always be progressing in a manner befitting of what everyone expects of them. Left unchecked, it is the fear of not maintaining this “bragability quotient” that can lead to “imposter syndrome”. This is an unfortunate ailment that seems to plague the very people deemed least likely to suffer from such insecurities.
For a successful new academic considering non-academic options, there is a tacit imperative to maintain their “bragability quotient” at least at the level they established while doing their PhD. This is where they scored the big research awards and enjoyed a certain degree of publishing success. However, without any directly relevant experience in a field outside their own academic program, it is quite possible that their first job might feel more like a demotion than an opportunity.
What is required is a reframing of the situation, which is provided compliments of Basalla and Debeluis. They point out that an initial job in a new field should be thought of as more of a paid internship, rather than on par with a tenure-track position. Regardless of your intelligence or your potential, you will need time to learn the ropes. And it is quite possible that at this stage you could be working in tandem with colleagues similar to your students. But think about it from Basalla & Debeluis’s perspective – how hard would it be for you to outshine any of your students in an otherwise equal playing field? After taking the time to acclimatize to your new context, and to demonstrate your abilities to your new employers, it will not take long for you to catapult quite impressively into your new field.
If you are starting a non-academic job, you can ensure that you progress as quickly as possible by requesting regular performance reviews every three months during your first year, with the possibility of promotion and/or salary increase should these be favourable. But do keep in mind that this may not be common practice at every company. However, if they are offering you a position, they will be anxious for you to accept: you are the one they want, and that gives you some negotiation power. In most cases, they will want to ensure you stay with the organization for the long term, so they will be as anxious as you are to pass through the training stage as quickly as possible.
Leaving academe can be a daunting prospect but, as many PhDs will attest, rewarding in the long term. Try not to let the fear of a short term plateau in your path dissuade you from pursuing an otherwise attractive option. You will discover how good you really are relative to the general population once you get established, and by then, a few months in “internship” mode won’t seem so significant.
We are getting close to what many academics consider the best time of year – conference season. Next to teaching, it’s the most common response I get to the question, “What do you like about academe?”
However, the joy of subsidized travel is not without its stresses. Between preparing for the last few weeks of classes and slogging through huge piles of grading, finding the time to finish (or start!) conference papers can be hard.
As a result, you can sometimes arrive at a much-anticipated conference feeling rather disheveled – hardly an ideal position to put your best foot forward in a tight job market. You could leave an unfortunate and lasting impression to prospective committee members at a major conference, effectively sabotaging any hope you have of being invited for an interview later on. However, with some determination and a well-organized game plan, you can make your pre-conference preparations as painless as possible.
Here’s a checklist to help you prepare for this year’s conferences early enough to allow for the usual contingencies that can derail the good intention of many academics.
- Make conference preparation a top priority.
- Put some real time and effort into your PowerPoint slides, if you are using them. If you are not graphically inclined, get someone who knows the software to help you put together informative, nicely paced and attractive slides.
- Double-check with conference organizers to make sure your technical requirements can be met. Always back up your presentation on a USB stick in case disaster strikes. No matter what platform they say they are using, test your slides on both a PC and a Mac to catch any formatting discrepancies.
- Check the program for presentations or presenters that overlap with your areas of interest. Send them a short e-mail introducing yourself, explaining the connection between your areas, and suggest getting together for coffee while you are there. This will ensure you have some folks to begin networking with even before you arrive. But remember, once contact has been made, it might be perceived as odd, if not rude, to miss said person’s presentation unless you are presenting at the same time.
- Double-check your presentation wardrobe. Is it suitable for the expected weather and level of formality?
- Go through your presentation, with slides, in front of a sympathetic audience of colleagues, friends or family. This is invaluable for making last-minute improvements and will help you feel more confident when the real deal rolls around.
Conference season can be a wonderful opportunity to make valuable contacts and showcase not only your research and presentation skills, but also your ability to interact with your peers confidently and with poise. By taking the time to prepare carefully, you will get the most out of this year’s conference season – and probably enjoy yourself more too!
A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece on ensuring the quality of your reference letters when you’re applying for academic positions. This week I’d like to address the issue of asking for references when you are applying outside academe. This can be a difficult process for both you and your referees – particularly if neither of you have much or any experience in the non-academic workforce.
Unlike academe, non-academic job references are usually given over the phone. Typically, the applicant will be asked to provide at least two references, usually after the first, or in some cases second, interview. Here are a few tips that can help you select and prepare your referees so they can provide the strongest support possible.
- Do your research – Make sure you research the organization to which you are applying – their mandate, priorities and reputation. Also, make sure you thoroughly read the posting for which you are applying in terms of the job functions and how these converge with the qualifications required. This will help you identify who can best speak on your behalf.
- Select your referees strategically – The strongest referees can speak specifically and positively about how well-suited you are for a given position. While your committee members may be most familiar with your recent research activities, you will need to decide whether they can adequately discuss other capabilities you have that may be relevant. If not, it would be prudent to cull appropriate referees from outside academe to help round out your list of references. If that’s not realistic, consider asking a faculty member or university administrator who can speak about your non-research activities. Here are a few questions to keep in mind as you select your referees:
- How supportive is this person of my decision to leave academe?
- Is this person knowledgeable about the position/field/organization to which I am applying?
- Can this person be easily understood on the telephone?
- Will this person be readily available to do phone interviews?
- Support your referees during the process – This point is the same for non-academic job searches as for academic ones. Ensure you provide your referees with the details of the position as well as copies of your CV or resumé. It can be helpful to write down specific aspects of your research activities, knowledge or skills that are most closely related to each position. It is also courteous to keep your referees updated on your progress.
Recognizing the differences between academic and non-academic recruitment processes will help you not only identify who would be best able to describe your strengths to a prospective employer, but ensure they have the information and support they need to do so.
A few articles from the last year:
- It’s Time for a New ‘Normal’ in Academe (April 2, 2009)
- Give Us the Dirt on Jobs (Jan 11, 2010)
- The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind’ (Feb 8, 2010)
Okay we get it – the emperor has no clothes! The regalia that PhD graduates have donned to symbolize the path leading to tenure and a livelihood of security, status and satisfaction has been exposed as idealistic at best. We now know this is an illusion that won’t materialize for the majority of doctorates in Canada.
One of the comments posted to the online version of “Give us the dirt on jobs”, written by a Dr. Weary, voices the frustration of hundreds, if not thousands, of graduate students who have been lured into academe with promises of tenure since the hiring boom of the 1960s. “I grow weary of reading articles that end like this one – ‘be open to other possibilities’. I’m open – let’s hear what these possibilities are.”
Oh Dr. Weary – I wish it were that easy. There is no conspiracy to prevent PhDs from learning about what others have done and how they did it, although it can certainly seem that way sometimes. One of the problems is that by the time PhDs are in the process of leaving academe, they are not very interested in forging strong alumni relationships. In fact, many don’t want to be in touch with their schools ever again. So how are these disenfranchised PhDs to be traced after they leave?
Attempts at surveys, referenced in the articles listed above, aren’t specific enough to identify what the graduate students are now doing. Stories do trickle back to schools through colleagues and faculty, but these tend to gloss over helpful details that could provide breadcrumbs for others to follow.
Books like What are Your Going to Do with That? provide great advice and stories to get the ball rolling, but as print media, it is limited and can lose immediate relevancy in a dynamic labour market.
There are those, including myself, who have supported graduate students and advocated on their behalf in universities across the continent for years. But until recently our efforts have been hampered by a systemic belief in an impending boom in the market for PhDs, which has contributed to a lack of funding for PhD career support.
The time has come for graduate student associations, student unions, graduate faculties and students to take a proactive approach to this issue. This is how McGill got funding for graduate-student career-support from the Quebec government: the students orchestrated a strategic, targeted lobby.
Increasing graduate student enrolment is a very high priority for both governments and university administrations. This is the perfect time to draw the line in the sand and demand that graduate students receive at least the same level of career support, services and resources that undergraduate students receive. Universities may find that this support will help them become a “school of choice” amongst the brightest new applicants.
I would strongly urge each of you to start assessing what methods of advocacy would be most effective in your institutions. Identify supporters amongst the faculty and administration. Use whatever venues you have available to you at the national and provincial levels: University Affairs, associations, governments, etc.
Canada’s biggest brain drain is not in losing our brightest to the States – it’s an internal hemorrhage of our PhDs into a labour market where they themselves have no concept of their worth or the contribution they can to make to our society.
One of the most popular career articles on University Affairs has been How to ask for a reference letter. The popularity of this article is evidence of the intense interest, and perhaps trepidation, at the thought of asking for reference letter causes PhDs.
Since asking for references is an activity everyone in academe will have to face at one time or another, I’m sure there are lots or questions, concerns, even horror stories out there. I think I’d like to change things up a bit here and open the floor for questions and concerns about asking for reference letters.
All names will remain confidential unless you choose otherwise, and no one will be able to see your e-mail address when you send your questions and comments. Keep in mind this is a mediated board, so anything sent in will be vetted by the editor before it goes live.
About reference letters
One perennial problem is how to ensure well written letters are submitted on your behalf. I have spoken to many graduate student advisors who have run university dossier services (which collect and archive confidential application materials such as reference letters and official transcripts) and we have all seen letters that are not likely to help a candidate, and in some cases could actually hurt their chances in a competitive job market.
Here are some steps you can take to minimize the chances of one of your letters becoming a proverbial albatross around your neck:
- Always give your referees a graceful way to decline when you ask for their support: “I realize your plate is terribly full this term. Do you think you will have time to write a letter of support for my applications to XXX? I will understand if there is too much you have already committed to take on another responsibility of this type.” If they agree to write for you, you have a better chance that they will do so conscientiously.
- If you are concerned about one of your referees’ ability to write a strong letter, make sure at least one, if not two, of your referees are more experienced. You might even ask if they could provide a little mentorship to the potentially troublesome professor.
- Diplomatically “suggest’” what content would be most valuable in your letters. This should include reminders of particularly impressive work you have done, student evaluations and awards. These suggestions can help your referees focus their letters and avoid overly duplicating each other’s content.
- If your university has a dossier service (in Canada only University of Toronto and York University do), you will not be able to access your file to read what your referees have written. However, if you do have a serious concern, then talk to the service coordinator about having your referee or another member of your committee read over your file. They can let you know whether the file was acceptable as it was, or even what could be added to it to strengthen it.
Here are a few links to other resources on University Affairs about reference letters. I’ll be interested in hearing your take on it. I’m also looking forward to providing whatever insight and suggestion I can that might help you avoid an unnecessary explosion!
Great news – the Non-Academic Careers panel from Congress 2009 has been posted! This session features four grad students who were hired into the federal government through the Recruitment of Policy Leaders program.
One of the aspects of this particular session I appreciated the most was the discussion about the cultural aspects of working in the public service. The speakers describe the reality of working in an environment where no one but a publicly elected official has final decision making ability. Likewise, an ‘original’ idea is unlikely in a context where people have been thinking about how to solve the same problems for many years.
These two aspects alone would disqualify a career in public service from the lists of many PhDs I have known. It also raises an important, but rarely discussed aspect of selecting a career – choosing one where the cultural and ideological premises are in alignment with your core values.
This is also one of the aspects that can be most difficult to ascertain without spending at least some time in a work environment – or talking with people who have spent a lot of time there. After all, how many of you were dismayed to discover what academe was really like once you shifted from being ‘just a student’ to being an employee as well?
Having some idea about what you value in a work environment is critical to finding a position that you find satisfying. But this will take a little digging and a lot of ‘critical thinking’ – it’s not just rhetoric – it really does matter. Issues around who gets to make recommendations, what sort of ideas can be entertained, and what gets rejected, what is considered to be important and who makes that decision, whose ideas are more privileged and why – these are the just some of the issues that can make a position unbearable or a ‘dream job’. Surprisingly, what you spend your day doing, can pale in significance compared with these less tangible issues.
The learning: when scoping out a job – either inside or outside academe, do your best to unearth not just what gets done in that role, but how, with whom and under what conditions. And if you don’t like what you discover, dig deeper – why are things done that way? There could be very legitimate reasons that may not be apparent on the surface. For instance, the system of checks and balances in the government prevents a single civil servant with a personal agenda from having undue influence on public policy, which is a good thing – but may leave some feeling disempowered, or even voiceless. In other words, know yourself, and shape your career decisions around this knowledge rather than trying to squeeze yourself into a role that is less than a great fit.
A reader sent me a link to an article recently published by his supervisor, Jonathan Sterne, in the Journal of Communication Critical/Cultural Studies, “The Pedagogy of the Job Market” (6: 4, 421 – 424). This article should be required reading for all graduate supervisors.
His main point is the status of the academic job market in general is not a holy quest nor is a tenured position in a large research university the Holy Grail of academe (my metaphor). He goes on to offer seven principles to realign the position of the academic job market in graduate education and admonishes graduate supervisors for perpetuating this myth. He calls on them to be as critical of their own occupational environments as they are of any other human institution.
This last point of Sterne’s is the closest I have ever heard an academic admit that this profession has a dysfunctional relationship with the term ‘career’ even when it refers to their own – some might say ‘especially’ here.
As a person who has spent more than 20 years in a university setting – 12 years in grad school (MA, ABD and PhD in progress) and 12 years in a university career centre, I have frequently run head-on into the unacknowledged prejudice of all-things-career-related which seems to permeate academe.
I have to be very careful how I introduce myself, or how I describe my background when I speak to academics, because as soon as I use the ‘c’ word, I can see the blinders go on, the frozen stare that says “I’m pretending to listen – but I’ve already made up my mind” and then they quickly change the topic. There is no glimmer of intellectual curiosity, no spark of recognition in a shared sphere of professional interest; nothing to suggest that anything someone for the ‘career’ centre could be involved in might in anyway be relevant to academe at all. In fact there are more than a few professors who would be much happier if career centres simply disassociated from universities altogether. Honestly, I’m not overstating this (too much).
At first I was just plain offended. But it happens so predictably that I’ve come to accept it as one of the great idiosyncrasies of universities. They will unabashedly recruit students by the thousands with allusions to high-status careers, but once said recruits arrive, they are fed misinformation, or no information about the likelihood of realizing their career dreams. To insert any connection between course content and it’s relevancy outside the ivory tower is unilaterally avoided.
Many professors aren’t at all sure where their universities’ career centres are, let alone, what they can do for students. I’m constantly astounded how out of touch faculty members are at universities across the country when it comes to understanding the roles of career centres their own campuses.
Historically, career centres were ‘placement centres’ and were essentially branches of the Department of Labour with the primary task of helping war veterans reintegrate to the workforce after upgrading their educations at university. But that was over half a century ago, and things have changed no less radically in career centres than in the rest of society during that time.
Here is my challenge: if you haven’t yet, seek out your university career centre – online and physically. Feel free to ask them about their philosophy of career development and how that impacts their practice. You may well find their programs and services to be much more grounded in theory and research than you ever suspected.
In the meantime, share Jonathan Sterne’s homepage with grad student who don’t have quite as enlightened supervisors as he obviously is. Thank you Jeremy for sharing Sterne’s article with me – I hope you appreciate how lucky you are!
Happy New Years folks!
I hope you all had a relaxing break. I, unfortunately, spent a good chunk of my holidays writing a paper – sound familiar?
I’ve been reading all sorts of synopses of 2009, and they all seem focused on the gloom and doom of the economic downturn (or ‘crisis’ if you are in the States). Of course, those of you in the job market, or about to be, know all about that.
It seems unproductive to start this New Year with the emotional baggage of its less than stellar predecessor. Instead, I’ve been trying to think up ways to re-frame things to focus more on what opportunities may now be more realistic, even preferable to attempting to find a tenure track position this year. Here’s what I came up with:
- Taking another year to finish your dissertation at a more leisurely pace. Many Ivy League universities are actually facilitating this option with innovative funding options like internship and bursaries. Talk to your dean and/or supervisor about this – imagine, not panicking at bedtime!
- Conference with abandon rather than worrying about finishing the dissertation in a few months! Go to fun places, but concentrate your energies on papers that have publishing potential so when the academic job market eases up, you’ll be more competitive than ever.
- Take a ‘gap year’. I know these are something younger students are encouraged to do, but if you think about, many grad students would benefit from having a year away from academe to reconsider their options, while exploring new ones. Of course there is the financial aspect, but if you don’t have a family to feed, it might be one of the last times you be able to hit the high road just because!
- If getting away from academe for a year is unrealistic in your situation, at least take some time to seriously investigate your non-academic options – preferably with the support of a career counselor or advisor experienced with grad students. That way if things don’t improve quickly enough for you, you will have an idea of what your next steps might be.
- Learning a potentially useful, or at least fun, skill. This diversionary tactic could open your eyes to a whole aspect of yourself you had forgotten about, or never knew existed. You will be surprised how much you enjoy doing something, anything, that does not involve research, or academic writing. It can be downright invigorating if not enlightening!
There will be so many incredibly well prepared candidates who will be struggling during this time period, that your ‘unconventional’ academic timeline will hardly be the anomaly that it might have been in the past.
At the very least, having a little time to reflect on where you’ve been, and where you’re going may well make your next steps more clear. Now doesn’t that sound like a good way to start a new year!