UBC’s English department started a co-op program for doctoral students back in 2013. Jen and I first learned about it back then, and now, several years later, we were curious to see how it’s going. Here’s an update on the program, some lessons learned, and thoughts from one participant about how it benefits students. Thank you to Elizabeth Hodgson and Jonathan Newell; read their thoughts below.
Building a bridge to working beyond the professoriate
Elizabeth Hodgson is a full professor and associate head in the department of English language & literatures at the University of British Columbia. Her research field is the literature of the English Renaissance. She is the co-founder and faculty advisor for the PhD Co-op program in the faculty of arts at UBC.
My decade of work as an underpaid contingent lecturer at UBC convinced me of one thing: we have to offer our graduate students choices beyond the precarious work I found myself in. So in 2013, by then (miracle of miracles) a tenured professor, I and the English department at UBC launched a pilot PhD Co-op program to provide at least one alternative to adjunct purgatory for our humanities PhDs.
I knew by 2013 that I was not alone in my frustration: over the last decade, the U.K. has created its NewRoute PhD program, and Stanford has added work-study and non-academic training to its PhD. The Praxis Network connected several U.S. and Canadian universities trying to broaden PhD employment options. SSHRC has reported recently on this issue, and five national conferences and workshops have addressed the subject in Canada in the last few years.
But what we really wanted at UBC was paid work/training like co-op, not a reinvented doctoral program, self-help websites, unfunded internships, another short-term study, or DIY workshops. We wanted co-op because its programs integrate career-training into the world students are already inhabiting. We wanted co-op because it has an experienced staff who know employers and how to work with them to generate decently paid positions for doctoral students. And we wanted co-op because they take seriously the coaching, reflection, and feedback necessary for real career development.
So our PhD Co-op option was born, and for the last five years we’ve had 20-25 percent of our PhD students enroll in this program. Our students have worked on publishing projects for non-profits, training programs on-campus, community reconciliation projects, and databases for research institutes. One of our first PhD Co-op students is now working full-time with a web publisher; another has helped document the apology to the Vancouver Chinese community for the head-tax; another is designing web-portals for graduate students needing writing tutorials.
Students reluctant to experiment with alt-ac work has been our biggest challenge; having an efficient, flexible program and getting (and keeping) graduate supervisors on-board has been key here. Other universities thinking about an option like this need to secure professional staff support and engage senior admin to provide some start-up support: these were central to our modest success. But it will always be hard: PhD programs attract students who know how to do one thing very, very well — they’ve been doing it full-time since they were five years old. And PhD faculty have been doing that one thing for even longer. Thinking beyond will always be difficult. But if we imagine co-op training as learning to work, I am cautiously optimistic that we may be able to build the bridge we need.
Excellent and rewarding positions
Dr. Jonathan Newell is an instructor at Langara College and the University of British Columbia. His first book, A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937: Disgust, Metaphysics, and the Aesthetics of Cosmic Horror, is forthcoming from the University of Wales Press. His research has been published in Horror Studies, Science Fiction Studies, and Studies in Gothic Fiction.
I started my Master’s degree at Queen’s University in 2009, just as the Great Recession was decimating an already-battered academic job market. The mood was one of almost complete despair, and only a small number of my cohort went on to PhD programs, discouraged by the pervasive rhetoric of doom and gloom. I entered my PhD at 22 with minimal work experience outside of TAships and the odd retail job.
As one might imagine, my feelings about my prospects were far from optimistic. The work itself was never the problem – I’d won two SSHRC scholarships, I was publishing my first articles, I was giving conference presentations, I did well in my seminars, and I discovered I enjoyed teaching even more than research. It soon dawned on me, though, that I could do everything right — excelling at every challenge the PhD put before me — and still be left without the prospect of an academic career. As the years went by, my anxieties only mounted.
When I heard about the PhD Co-op program, I jumped on it immediately. Offering experience and skills training in practical fields that drew on my academic talents, the co-op program was a balm for the anxieties of precarity and the looming potential of unemployment.
I held two positions during the co-op program: one as special projects officer for the faculty of graduate and postdoctoral studies at UBC, and the other as a communications assistant at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute. Both were excellent and rewarding positions where I was entrusted with individual projects while also working as a part of larger teams. In the first position, my work ranged from organizing events and symposiums to producing reports, posters, brochures, and other materials; in the second, I redesigned the research institute’s sizeable intranet, maintained regular newsletters, and performed a number of other communication duties.
Along the way I developed new skills and refined existing ones: project planning and management; graphic design; web writing; and facility with Drupal, WordPress, Confluence, SiteFinity, Photoshop, and HTML. Above everything else, my time in the co-op program showed me that I had real career alternatives – that I could make a living doing something other than researching and teaching literature. The reassurance this provided markedly improved my state of mind in the final years of my PhD. Thanks to the co-op program I graduated without debt, more-or-less on time, and with an abundance of additional skills useful in a variety of careers.
None of this, however, dissuaded me from an academic career; I am now working at Langara College on my way to regularization as a permanent faculty member, and I have a press interested in my first book. The PhD Co-op program was never an escape ramp for me. But without it, I sincerely doubt I would have finished the degree at all. And now I really know that I have interesting options I can pursue whenever I want to.