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Time to tackle the culture question in PhD programs

Exploring the implicit ways that academic programs continue to promote academic career paths as most worthwhile.


My convocation ceremony was an intimate affair. I could even spot my family in the crowd. Though the audience was small, I was part of an unusually large group of history PhDs graduating that day. Fourteen were listed in the program, and about 10 attended the ceremony. Many of us were happy to be working in what some call an “alternative career.” Graduating with a PhD in history that day was an economic development consultant, a chef-school professor, a magazine editor, and a co-founder of a community outreach organization in Toronto. I was lucky to have landed a job about two months prior to my defense, as a manager handling university graduate professional skills initiatives. It was energizing to reconnect with others, and to be back on campus to celebrate our cohort’s accomplishments. But it didn’t take long for the celebratory mood to dissipate.

After the ceremony, the history department staff had organized a lovely reception for the graduates and their families. Many of the faculty members in attendance were interested to hear what I was working on and how happy I was in my job. “I research, write, advocate, liaise, teach, debate, create and learn,” I told them. I explained how, unlike during grad school, I spend my hours outside work (exercising, watching television, reading fiction) without feeling guilty about not working. I shared stories of what it was like to work with and learn from a group of incredibly smart, passionate colleagues with a range of interesting experiences outside of academe. My friends swapped stories about their new careers and their career goals, too. It appeared to me that each one of us was successful, happy, and excited about what the future would bring.

As the reception was winding down, I noticed a faculty member speaking to my partner and parents. When I joined the conversation he congratulated me and caught me up on the conversation I’d missed: he had been explaining to my family how surprised “everyone” was that I had “given up.” It went without saying that he meant I gave up on pursuing a faculty career. In other words, he told my family− who drove two hours through Toronto’s rush hour, dressed up in nice clothes, and bought me over-priced flowers to celebrate my success − that I was a failure. Of course, he didn’t mean it that way; his comments were meant to be complimentary. I later learned that he also told my family that I was well-respected, smart and hard-working. He thought I really could have “made it”, if only I’d tried to make it – if only I hadn’t given up. I was hurt, but not surprised, by his comments.

I share this story not to embarrass the faculty member in question, but to highlight the challenges we continue to face in attempting to overcome the challenges of the Plan A perspective in PhD programs across the country. No substantive change will happen as long as students’ mentors continue to express the idea, either implicitly or explicitly, that a faculty career is the only truly valuable career for the best and brightest, that everything else is a Plan B, or a fallback.

I do not want to minimize the effort that universities, departments and faculties (in collaboration with career centres, graduate studies offices, and student support services) are making to tackle this challenge. But I do want to highlight that any resulting changes to policy, curricula, and resources are ultimately only half the battle. Just as important are the language, culture, and expectations that PhD students encounter on a daily basis during committee meetings, departmental social events and in casual conversation in the hallways.

Although it is much more acceptable today for graduate students to speak openly about their non-faculty career aspirations – and it has also become much less acceptable for faculty members to say (at least explicitly) that faculty careers are the only worthwhile ones for PhDs – Plan A culture is bolstered by much more implicit means. It is strengthened by the eye-roll that too often accompanies words such as skills and professionalization in the academic context. It is sustained by disparaging remarks about university administration, where many PhDs end up establishing a career. It is reinforced by talk about tenure as the only system under which innovative or impactful research can be conducted. It is powerful enough that the faculty member who told my family I gave up probably didn’t even realize how his remark could be taken as anything but a positive comment about my promise and capabilities.

Plan A culture is also reinforced by well-intentioned professors who consider themselves especially responsible advisers because they obligingly tell prospective PhD students that there are no jobs. Such statements are both false and irresponsible. There are lots of great jobs and (more importantly) great careers for PhD students; the problem stems from our failure to recognize how rewarding non-faculty careers can be for PhDs, and how much value PhDs can bring to diverse industries and sectors.

The good news is that PhDs have been successful in finding rewarding non-faculty careers in spite of these challenges (see recent studies by HEQCO and UBC). Without a doubt, many were inspired by alumni who volunteered their time to participate in panels on non-academic career themes. Many were counselled by career centre staff who taught them to recognize their skills and opportunities. The lucky ones may have even had some discussion about transferable skills and alternative-academic careers in their PhD seminars. But a very necessary next step is to tackle the academic culture that shapes students’ expectations, goals, and sense of self. So, I challenge graduate advisers, faculty and department chairs to consider the implicit ways they shape their students’ perceptions of success and failure. They need to tackle this challenge so that PhDs outside of academia can celebrate their successes without implicitly being told they’ve already failed.

Angela Rooke
Angela Rooke is a manager of professional skills and postdoctoral affairs at University of Waterloo. She completed her PhD in history at York University in 2014.
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  1. Kris Radford / February 15, 2018 at 18:38

    Brilliantly put Dr Rooke. This very closely mirrors my experience – initially after finishing my PhD and leaving the academy I felt like an exile, but very quickly it came to feel like a liberation.

  2. H / February 15, 2018 at 20:32

    Congratulations ….your hard work paid off…others like me , with two master degrees one in medicine one in arts, face high power of discouragement to pursue a PhD literally from professionals who are supposed to support your journey towards achieving your goals, and the argument is ‘ why do you want to get a PhD? Do you know how difficult it is to get a job for PhD holders?’ one is a career advisor at the university!

  3. Joanne Adair / February 16, 2018 at 11:26

    What a well-written and thoughtful piece Angela! So honoured to be your colleague and having a chance to work alongside you.

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