Before even beginning my PhD, I had doubts about whether a “traditional” academic career was the right path for me. Once in my program, it didn’t take me long to discover that academia was not where I saw myself for the rest of my life. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I certainly didn’t have the language to describe it, but I was interested in alternative academic (alt-ac) careers.
From very early in my degree program, I was open with my supervisor about not wanting to pursue an academic career after graduation. To her credit, my supervisor never questioned or doubted my convictions. Rather, she patiently guided and supported my goals. In my department, I was vocal about my post-graduation ambitions. I realize that my positive experiences may not be the norm and that there continues to be a pervasive silence surrounding the pursuit of alt-ac careers.
In part, this silence can be attributed to what I have come to understand and describe as the culture of shame or the process of shaming that happens to PhD students who wish to pursue “non-traditional” career paths. It is an unintentional, yet somehow intentional, process, woven into the culture of departments and the academic community at large. Shaming is an active, meaning-making process that constructs and instills value into the categories of “us” and “them.”
This piece is not about whether or not to pursue an academic career. Rather it is about the valorization of the former at the expense of other possibilities. Valorizing traditional tenure-track careers in academia over all other careers is exemplified in the department-wide emails that are sent out to congratulate recent graduates, current students and faculty members on new academic appointments, recent publications or academic prizes. These are in and of themselves incredible accomplishments, which should be celebrated and acknowledged. But what about goals and accomplishments that fall outside the confines of academia? In my experience, these stories of success remain unspoken and therefore unacknowledged, entrenching and reinforcing the pervasive silence.
Another way that the categories “us” and “them” are built up is through the always-present question of: Why? When I mentioned my desire to pursue alternative academic careers, one of the most common reactions was “Why don’t you want to pursue a tenure-track job? Why don’t you want to be an academic?” Now, it is entirely possible that behind these questions was genuine, judgment-free interest, but the opposite is also possible and, from my experiences, sometimes true.
What if the question were reversed, and we asked “Why do you want to pursue a tenure-track job? Why do you want to be an academic?” These questions seem comical and don’t get asked very often. But, given the current state of academic careers in universities throughout Canada and the United States, these reversed questions should perhaps be asked more often.
Over the course of my PhD, many students confided in me about their desire for alt-ac careers or their questioning of traditional academia. These conversations were cathartic, filled with a full spectrum of emotions, and always took place behind closed doors, as if what we were speaking about couldn’t or shouldn’t be spoken in public. Underlying these conversations were fears surrounding reprisal, a lack of acceptance and stigmatization. It is precisely this culture of shame and fear, which forces some into secrecy and silence, that needs to be broken.
Change is starting to occur, slowly. Just last year, I and some 50 other graduate students attended a lecture put on by the cultural studies department at Queen’s University, entitled “Hacking Your Graduate Degree for Academic, Post-Academic, and Alternative- Academic Careers.” The school of graduate studies has recently subscribed to Versatile PhD, an on-line resource for PhD students looking to transition from their degree into alternative academic careers. These types of initiatives serve as important and necessary tools in the deconstruction of the binary “us” and “them.”
My desire to pursue an alternative academic career is not a shameful goal, nor is it something that I feel should be hidden. Like all other goals, it should be supported and celebrated when accomplished. Institutional and departmental cultures and communities are not static entities incapable of change; they are continually evolving and transforming spaces. It is time to work together to ensure that all PhD students, regardless of post-graduation ambitions, feel validated, supported and part of an inclusive academic community.
Dr. Clow is a graduate of the PhD program in political studies at Queen’s University. She now works in the human rights and equity offices at Queen’s.