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.

Have you been watching the videos that have been posted from this year’s Career Corner at Congress? For those of you who didn’t make it to Ottawa, this is your chance to see and hear from some of the experts in academic career issues who spoke this year.

The other day, I was listening to David Ainsworth’s talk on career in the United Nations for PhDs. He’s quite a good speaker, and his talk is full of useful advice for PhDs longing for a career in this field. In the first clip of this talk, “Does my graduate degree matter?” Ainsworth emphasizes the need to carefully select the subject of one’s thesis. Hmmm – strategic thesis choosing – now there’s a Pandora’s Box of possibilities. (Text continues below)

At a time when there so much dissention over the status of tenure in the university system, and the supposed protection it affords scholars from the infiltration of market influences and other agendas on the ‘pure’ pursuit of knowledge, Ainsworth’s comment bears a second take. He promotes a pragmatic approach: “Designing your thesis on a topic of relevancy to a particular agency” [is a good way to prepare for a career in the UN].

But, one wonders, what if the premise or the findings of said research are critical of the UN mandate? Perhaps what is really being promoted is not so much expert knowledge of a relevant topic but also a diplomatic avoidance of irritating one’s future employer. All of a sudden pragmatism is sounding a little more sinister.

Of course, it could be argued, one is unlikely to want to work for an organization with skeletons in the proverbial boardroom, but that begs the question. It also runs far from of the point Ainsworth was trying to make. But nonetheless it deserves consideration, particularly in a hostile job market.

If you want to make sure you can transition out of academic reasonably seamlessly, either by choice or necessity, it would seem reasonable to suggest that having expertise in relevant areas would get you farther than the converse. Even in academe, some dissertation topics can be more desirable or less impressive than others under the scrutiny of selection committees.

It seems to be more a question of degree rather than of absolutes. How far can you let the priorities of your desired job market (academic or not) preside over your dissertation research before you cross the line dividing pragmatism from ingratiation?

How about you? If you knew that a particular topic was more likely to be viewed favourably by a prospective employer – academic or alternative – would you feel justified in pursuing that topic even if you really would have preferred a different direction, methodology, or emphasis?

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Congress – Day #5 home again

Posted on May 29, 2009 by

As those of you who follow this blog know, sometimes my comments about academe can be harsh. There are deep, systemic issues in an institution that refuses to change at the pace of the society in which it is embedded. I think it is important that we never ignore our own disorders while we are critiquing those of the world around us.

However, at times like Congress, I am reminded why I have loved being a part of the university system in the first place. After all, I have spent that last twenty years within the ivory tower. For all its faults, it is a wonderfully stimulating environment, vastly diverse, and full of people who care deeply and passionately about their contributions to their fields and to society.

While finances impact virtually every aspect academe, they are not the motivation behind what we do, and for that I am grateful. This is why I would never be happy in the private sector, I am simply not touched, moved or inspired by profit.

During Congress I was awed at how much of Canada’s most valuable resources were represented in the halls, classrooms, and courtyards of Carleton. For the five days I was there, the energy of concentrated thought and focused inquiry sparked like electricity. Yes there were politics, and one-up-manship, anxiety and frustration, but not much. Not enough to overshadow the postive energy of the thousands of scholars who took the pilgrimmage that is the annual ritual of academe in Canada. If you have never gone, do try to get out to Concordia next year. You have to experience Congress at least once.

University Affairs videotaped all the Career Corner sessions – hurray! – and these will be posted starting in the fall. So if (like me) you missed one or couldn’t make it to Ottawa at all, there is still an opportunity to benefit from all that was shared.

Now I am going home. Congress continues until Sunday, but I am done. After a wonderful five days I want to slip into my own bed and sleep deeply. Tomorrow I will start contacting the people whose cards are stuffed in my bag before I forget, as if!

Congress – Day #4

Posted on May 28, 2009 by

Today was the first day I’ve actually been able to sit back and attend sessions all day and it was wonderful. I’m also really enjoying interacting with the faculty in my program off university property – everything is so much more informal.

I’m the type of person that finds a whole lot of socializing really draining, so during the breaks I usually try to go for a walk or find an out-of-the-way place to chill for a bit. I find if I pace myself like that, I can handle a whole day around people without getting overwhelmed.

Some people find chit chat really stimulating – the more, the better. I’m not one of them. Don’t get me wrong. I love talking to people, and really enjoy pulling apart ideas in conversations. I find people really interesting and look forward to seeing them. I even enjoy presenting in front to people, and can do so with relatively little anxiety. But I have learned that too much of a good thing is … well, too much.

If you are like me in this respect, you have probably learned your own techniques for balancing social time with ‘down’ time. I know some folks, especially young academics trying to integrate into the cliques of other academics at conferences can feel pressured to be ‘on’ all the time. The truth is there are probably more people, sometimes referred to as introverts, inside academe than in the general population. Ignoring your needs at conferences can make you start dreading them altogether, which would be a shame.

Today was the University Affairs BBQ for grad students. It came after I had been in back to back sessions all day. But before I headed over I took about fifteen minutes and just sat down in a bench quietly watching folks go about their business. It’s all I needed, and then was able to go to the BBQ and thoroughly enjoy myself, talking with some great grad students, and putting faces to the names of people I’ve seen in e-mails, but never met. I had a blast – but without that break beforehand it wouldn’t have been as much fun. I certainly wouldn’t have been up to the reception I attended right afterwards, or the showing of Denys Arcand’s Decline of the American Empire shown in 35 mm film followed by a Q&A with Arcand – which was fabulous by the way.

Conferences really are one of the best things about academe. By understanding what you need to pace yourself through the social and logistical demands of several days of intense activity you can leave a conference being glad you came, hopefully with a few new ideas and contacts to boot.

Congress – Day # 3

Posted on May 27, 2009 by

Today’s presentation on CVs and resumés was went pretty well if I do say so myself. One of the things about presenting on how to do something that almost everyone in the room has already done, is that there is a collective wisdom there that is greater than that of anyone person. By pooling our experiences and questions we were able to produce and really interesting resource (a video of the presentation) that will be posted online at UniversityAffairs.ca sometime this fall. I’d like to thank the people who attended for their active participation and interest – I really enjoyed the session and hope they did too.

In the interest of saving paper, I decided to post links and resources about CVs and resumés on the blog. That way all of you who couldn’t attended got a sense of what we talked about.

Remember, CV advice is part of the responsibilities of your supervisor and committee. Begin there for advice specific to your field. Your supervisor is less likely to be able to help with a job hunt targeting non-academic work, so in this case, try your university career centre or the links below. With the job market in its current state for the foreseeable future, flexibility is the name of the game. Have several versions of your CV and a resumé on hand for quick and easy tweaking on-the-fly. While you will often have more time to prepare for a tenure track appointment, contract work and non-academic contracts will often pop up unexpectedly. Sometimes just being the right person at the right time is all it takes.

Congress – Day #2

Posted on May 26, 2009 by

Today is a good one. Found a missing link in my research in the first session so by the time I arrived at Career Corner for the panel on academic blogging I was flying.

The panel was really interesting. If you haven’t thought much of using a blog to get your research out there and creating a community of people interested in the same specialized area as you, but which bores everyone else you know to tears, maybe you should. If you’ve never really seen an academic blog check out Henry Jenkins, the participatory culture guru at MIT. His blog is definitely one of the ‘go to’ sites for people interested in this area of research, and has helped establish Jenkins as the godfather of the field of popular culture.

The panel discussed issues related to posting unpublished ideas, establishing a blog, potential benefits and costs of academic blogging and a host of other issues related to blogging as both a research and a teaching tool.

I also conducted the first CV clinic at the University Affairs booth (#49) in the book fair. I critiqued CVs back to back the entire time. It looks like presonalized attention is in high demand these days. If you are at Congress, drop by tomorrow for the second (and last) CV clinic from 1:30-2:30.

There were so many people at the CV clinic that by the time I made it back to Career Corner for the panel on job opportunities in the federal government, I literally could not squeeze into the room. Hmmm, we’re in Ottawa and they are the biggest employer in town during yet another phase of almost no tenure track positions – go figure. Fortunately, my trusty and multi-talented editor, Phillip Todd, taped the entire session, which will be posted on the Career Resources section of University Affairs for your viewing pleasure this fall. I’ll let you know when it’s up, not to worry.

Tomorrow is going to be a long day starting with David Foot’s presentation at 7:45 in the morning – yes, you read that right. Then I am giving my presentation on CVs and Resumes – sounds boring to the uninitiated perhaps – but that’s because you’ve never heard my take on it! Besides, it’s at a much more civilized time – 10:30, at the Career Corner (279 University Centre) so feel free to drop by after your morning coffee if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Hope these posts are giving you the flavour of what Congress is like. If you didn’t make it this year – next year it’s in Concordia – try to make it out. It’s one of those rites of passage in academe.

Congress – Day #1

Posted on May 25, 2009 by

For the next 5 days I am going to be blogging from Congress 2009 at Carleton University.

I attended the President’s reception this evening. Lots of great food, libations, and a mass of fascinating conversations. This is what interdisciplinarity is all about. Not replacing the value of field-specific concentrations,  but enriching them immeasurably with ideas and concepts from other areas. The energy this synergy produces is positively electric.

Today I arrived just before noon and the campus was just buzzing under a brilliantly blue sky, tempered only by a cool north wind. It seems every time I look lost or start trying to orient myself with one of the ubiquitous campus maps, some helpful conference staffer comes up and asks if I need help – that happened at least four times today. I am, apparently, map-challenged.

I went to the Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing (CASDW) this afternoon. This is an awesome group that was galvanized after a Universities Affairs item earlier this year questioned the value of Writing Centres on university campuses. Very interesting session. Met a prof from Texas who is looking at the role place plays in the job search. She’ll be sending me some info and I’ll pass it along to you folks when I get it.

Tomorrow morning I sit on the academic blogging panel and run the first of two CV clinics at the University Affairs booth (#49) at the book fair, If you’re around, hope to see you there.

Counting down to Congress

Posted on May 19, 2009 by

With less than a week to go I’ve taken University Affair’s Five Tips to Make the Most of Congress to heart – here’s my list.

Come prepared

This will be a crazy week for me, so being prepared means scheduling out my days. I belong to three associations, have a bunch of Career Corner events to participate in and, believe it or not, a stack of essays to grade (marks are due the day after I get back). By reviewing the agendas of the different associations and planning out when the presentations and events most related to my interests are being held I should be able to make the most of time.

Socialize actively

I can do that. I purposely booked a room on campus to facilitate this very activity. I am also checking out all the receptions and social events that I can get into. Apart from free food and drink, these are places where lots of folks are looking for people to talk with and will be only too pleased to respond to any attempt to strike up a conversation. Hey, look for me at the Grad Student BBQ from 4-6 pm on Thursday (28th) in the Quad Beer Garden, introduce yourself, and I promise I’ll respond!

Go outside your discipline

That’s the whole point of Congress after all – to find convergences between disciplines and build relationships based on complementary interests. Student membership rates in associations are usually nominal, which is why I belong to three. It’s like indulging in an intellectual smorgasbord! Now if I could just figure out how to clone myself – hopefully some of the sessions will be videotaped.

Consider a longer stay

Well, I have extended my visit for a couple days longer than I need to be there for Career Corner so I guess I have this covered too. But really – if you don’t have to go back when your presentation or meeting is over, allow yourself the luxury of engaging in the largest celebration of higher ed in the country. It really is an amazing experience.

Don’t be shy

Well that’s a bit like saying don’t be short (or tall). I tend to be an observer – I like watching people – really. But there are few things I enjoy more than that feeling of excitement I get listening to a really great talk or even a new idea embedded in an average talk. So when that happens, I find it’s a lot easier to go up to the speaker later and ask them the question I didn’t ask during the talk – usually because it didn’t occur to me until later. There’s not a presenter in the world who gets tired of hearing that people enjoyed their ideas, it’s a great conversation starter.

Well I think I’m in good shape for Congress this year – hope you are too. Now, back to grading (sigh).

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The capstone of the conferencing season is, for many, the annual trek to Congress. This year it’ll be held in Ottawa, which is fantastic – it’s such a great city!

By now, you probably have your travel arrangements and accommodation all sorted out. I’ll be staying in residence myself – it’s way more convenient (and cheaper) than the hotels. It’s also a great way to meet grad students from all over the country and hear about what they are working on. This is one of the things I like most about academe.

With so many things going on during Congress, I made myself up a schedule for the five days I’ll be there. I belong to three associations and will be spending some time at Career Corner as well. The organizers (including University Affairs) have a terrific program of presentations and events lined up. I hope you manage to drop by and say “hi” while you’re there. I would love to meet some of you and talk  face-to-face for a change!

I’ll be participating in the Academic Blogging panel on Tuesday May 26 (10:30 – 12:00), and will presenting the CV or Resume presentation on Wenesday the 27th in the same timeslot. I figure with all the uncertainty out there, it’s a good time to start talking about how to translate academic milestones into achievements relevant in the professional workforce.

I’ll also be holding a couple of CV clinics where I can go over your CV with you one-on-one and offer some constructive feedback (that’s Tuesday and Wednesday between 1:30 and 2:30 pm). And, of course, I wouldn’t miss the Grad Student BBQ in the Quad Beer Garden on Thursday the 28th from 4:00-6:00!

Last but not least, I’ve made the leap onto Twitter and will  be tweeting from Congress (my username is @careersense – don’t be shy about getting in touch!). You can follow me from my Twitter page here as well as here on the blog (in the sidebar). If you’re just starting out on Twitter, or are thinking about using it, here’s a great article to get you on your way.

All in all, it’s going to be be a phenomenal conference, I’m really looking forward to this. It’ll be a great way to end a particularly stressful academic year. Of course, I have a pile of grading to do between now and then …