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Career Advice

The struggle of the young professor

Is working full-time in academe an illusory ideal?

BY GIANLUCA AGOSTINELLI | JAN 23 2020

“Hang in there,” she says, taking one last gulp of her coffee.

Staring at me through her crooked, black glasses, she could be any administrator who has given me the same, scripted advice following a positive – but unsuccessful – job application.

I think about each time that I’ve heard those three words. I suppose I should be immune to their cutting effects by now, but no matter how numb I am to their sound, they continue to pain me.

For several years, I have been working, across many educational institutions, limited-term, short-term, contract, casual, part-time, occasional, sessional, and partial-load instructional gigs in hopes of, one day, landing a teaching-track or tenure-track position at a postsecondary school. Each of these stints has, undoubtedly, offered a tremendous amount of rewarding, classroom experience, but none has afforded me the financial security, health benefits, and peace of mind which I seek.

“Your chance will come. Be patient. Just keep putting in your time. Hopefully, there’ll be another opening in the future. People have to retire eventually, right? Trust me: just hang in there, okay?”

After a few years, these bland, cookie-cutter statements of consolation become, for the aspiring academic, the white noise of a standard – but no less uncomfortable – debriefing session. Many times, I have been told by my interview panelists, colleagues, and administrators that I was, on paper, “the best candidate” for the position, but was not offered the job because I have too little “full-time experience” teaching courses and developing curriculum at the postsecondary level.

When one cannot secure a full-time, permanent job because they have not worked enough full-time, permanent hours to qualify for said job, I question whether academe is, indeed, a legitimate, meritocratic field, or whether it is, like its careers, an illusory ideal. I lament the palpable, bitter irony – the impossibility of experience – which plagues this professorial paradox, and wonder, truly, how other young professors are navigating this cyclic and seemingly constant Catch-22.

I know that I have chosen a challenging, uncertain career path that, in a field continuously facing funding cuts, is marked by lack of stable, full-time opportunities. However, I am worried that, as universities and colleges across Canada become increasingly corporatized and reflective of the business model of education, its frontline educators will suffer ever more the ongoing effects of a commodification of labor. Most at risk, I think, is the next generation of aspiring professors: the millennials who, like me, are so desperate for relevant work experience and seniority that they’ll agree, often begrudgingly, to take on any kind of teaching contract, regardless of its conditions.

Such a process, I have noticed, creates a large, competitive pool of young, eager candidates, who can easily and quickly replace those educators that, a few semesters or years into their so-called vocation, begin to feel the effects of emotional exhaustion and burnout and, in turn, call it quits. I devote my life to education because I believe, honestly, in helping students succeed. I knew, from an early age, that I wanted to be a teacher and follow in the footsteps of all those wonderful educators who inspired – and continue to inspire – me. This passion, however, can be blinding.

Readers, I imagine, will argue that I am not alone on this front and that most educators working in precarious situations are doing exactly what I am doing – if not much, much more. And that is precisely my point: we, particularly as young professors, try to remind ourselves that, “this, too, shall pass.” Even when our employers inform us that, despite our exemplary work ethic, strong curricula, and impeccable teaching evaluations, “it is what it is,” we nod and, instinctively, think of different ways that we can do more and work better for our students – and for our workplaces.

In The Slow Professor, Dr. Berg and Dr. Seeber call on scholars to address and resist the culture of speed that, in today’s academic institutions, places increased demands for productivity and efficiency on faculty. Though I admire their push for a “slow movement,” I doubt the possibility of being able to adopt it, and cannot help but wish that I could feel what it is like to be overworked as a tenured faculty member. I worry that, as a part-timer, I may not have my contracts renewed and lose the positions into which I invest so much time and effort. I realize that many careers offer no permanence but, faced with low-paying, dispensable, precarious labour, I often jest that it may be best for me to work at a Wendy’s. I do not expect a pot of gold or handout for having five degrees but, after 24 successive years of education – 11 at a university – something’s gotta give, right?

With fewer than two percent of jobs requiring a PhD in Canada, I would be a liar if I were to admit that I am not scared of underemployment or, worse, none at all. Perhaps I’m just being melodramatic. Hyperbolic. Real. I remind myself, always, of my privilege, and that I should be grateful for my opportunities and achievements. But something seems to be missing. As another term gets underway, I question, seriously, whether academia is, indeed, the right fit for me. I hate myself for regretting my choices, but know that I would be even more upset for believing, blindly, that it’ll all work out in the end if I continue to be patient. Is there hope for a brighter, more optimistic future in higher education? Will the precarious, professional landscape shift to allow for deserving, fully qualified, part-timers to share their passion and diverse, innovative skills? Or are we, the young professors of an up-and-coming generation, really just Ph.uckeD?

Gianluca Agostinelli is an English and communications professor at Niagara College Canada, as well as an education instructor and practicum advisor at Brock University.

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  1. Bob / January 24, 2020 at 22:26

    Maybe this is why US universities are overflowing with Canadian Ph.D.’s. Every time my American university posts a position, probably 20% of the applicants are Canadian. Too many educated people for too few jobs. Move on.

  2. Helen M / January 25, 2020 at 16:21

    I get nervous when I see “encouragement” like this. I am a full-time Assistant Professor on the tenure track… one of the lucky ones, I know. Now that I serve on committees and see how the hiring process unfolds (and have peers that serve on same committees in their departments), I can tell you that, in Canada, the longer you work in these part-time gigs, the less likely you are to land that tenure track position. This is not to be grim, but honest. There is an inevitable stigma that starts to form around CVs with a long list of short-term contracts. Unlike private sector, this does not translate to “more experience” in academia. This is entirely true for research universities like mine (because these contracts mean a lot of teaching and no time for research or securing grants), and perhaps only partially true for teaching schools. But as more PhDs grow increasingly desperate, even graduates from the top universities are turning to teaching jobs. This makes hiring candidates at the “sweet spot” of their career (a year or 2 out of grad school or a post-doc) an attractive and entirely available option for committees. At a certain point, “just hang in there” is bad advice.

  3. Ryan / January 27, 2020 at 12:45

    Having read this article as well as looked up Dr. Agostinelli’s profile, I hope some of the readers take from this article, the importance of understanding the academic job market prospects of the discipline you choose to study, as well as the importance of the university you choose to stay at. A PhD in Educational Studies from Brock is likely going to have a very different job market compared to a PhD in Business from the University of Toronto. Students are adults and should bear some responsibility when they make these choices. I’d also add for undergraduates out there, it’s important to try and study at different universities as you move through your degrees. Having all of your degrees (from undergrad through to PhD) at one university certainly limits the different ideas and people you will be exposed to, and it also may result in few contacts that could be handy come job market time.

  4. Darryl C / January 28, 2020 at 14:49

    A very good article that highlights the difficulties of securing full-time employment as an academic. The author highlights a number of difficulties that afflict any number of academics who are desperate for a tenure-track job but will never find one.

    My suggestion/advice is for him to look into securing employment with a school board as a teacher. I looked at his Linkedin profile. He has a B.Ed. – a degree with far more employment potential than any Ph.D. While jobs are scarce at the moment in Ontario, there are a lot of independent schools and overseas opportunities that would love to have a Ph.D. on staff to justify to parents why they are spending $30,000 a year or more for their son’s/daughter’s education. I’d also suggest looking at other provinces. I bet he would have a full-time job in a year or two.

  5. Kate Mardi Rose / January 29, 2020 at 00:03

    I really liked this essay, Gianluca. I think you are telling a story that needs to be told, and needs to be read, by emerging academics, but also those lucky enough to have full-time, permanent positions. Like me. And yes, there’s luck involved. We all know it. Higher education is not a meritocracy. Maybe it once was? But ask most academics and they’ll be able to point out 1, 2, (or 7) bullies, sexists, and dumb-dumbs. Where is the merit in that, we’ll ask ourselves over and over, the answer always eluding us. Publications and teaching experience? What about integrity? If your journey in higher ed doesn’t take you exactly where you had hoped (but I wouldn’t hand in my resume to Wendy’s just yet), you may look back one day and see that there was luck in that too. Thank you for reminding me of my luck and the privilege I have everyday when I weigh out on one side of the scale my pension, my benefits, and my salary, and on the other side my mental health and well-being. It’s a dark little privilege to grapple with this, and I see that privilege now having read your essay.