Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

By: Joshua Newman

In December, Inside Higher Ed graciously brought me down to the Modern Language Association conference in Philadelphia to meet with grad students about non-academic careers. On the flight from Toronto, I busied myself with reading a book called Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire. No, this was not an attempt to distinguish myself from my other MLA-bound passengers who had their noses in Cixous and Keats. It was something I picked up at the airport in the hopes that it might have some nuggets of wisdom that I could use at this stage in my own career.

In it, author Mireille Giuliano writes that life is lived in episodes and phases. This is especially the case for career changers, particularly academics who end up parachuting into a non-university sector job.

This is something that the newly-minted Ph.D.’s that I chatted with at the MLA seemed to understand: Life as a Ph.D. is just one stage of a life that may resemble more of a patchwork quilt than a slow and steady climb to academic career fame.

And yet, it seems as though a broad discussion about post-academic careers is slow to catch on. While Ph.D.’s scramble to assemble a “Plan B,” little more than hand-wringing seems to actually be going on in many university administrative offices. Yes, there are some universities that are trying to provide a modicum of helpful advice, offering two-hour resume-writing clinics and the like. Others, like the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada, take the task a bit more seriously by offering week-long workshops on non-academic careers.

But where is the vigorous discussion about post-academic careers that is long overdue? The facts about the state of the job market are in, and everyone knows how dire the academic job prospects are. Yet little action has yet to be taken inside most professional associations, departments and graduate schools regarding meaningful alternatives.

It is alternatives that should be stressed because trying to stem the bleeding in the academic job market is futile. No amount of union action, funding reallocation or campus protest is going to change the fact that the very nature of the university itself has changed. Tenure is not what it once was. The reliance on contract labor that persists now is not a temporary, recessionary stage. It is is simply a part of a larger pattern of labor market restructuring across North America that has been in place for the past two decades. The very fact that 70 percent contract labor in a department could be considered a tipping point — yes, 70 percent — speaks volumes about how deeply and fundamentally the shift towards contingent labor has set in to the university.

The persistent failure to truly face just how much universities are exploiting casual labor frustrates me. I also feel totally dismayed when I read comments such as this:

Despite everything, some students remain stubbornly optimistic. Joshua Newman, a political science Ph.D. candidate at Simon Fraser University and president of SFU’s Graduate Student Society, believes the academic job market is experiencing a “temporary low” and will soon turn around. “If teaching is your main goal and you are willing to wait it out, as long as you keep up a heavy research agenda and publish as much as possible, then finding a job is just a matter of time,” says Mr. Newman.

How does this kind of attitude square with the Ph.D. I met at the MLA who was from a prestigious west coast university, on her second book contract and still had not landed a tenure-track position? How much time, how many years of making peanuts and how high do the opportunity costs have to go before a trained professional throws up her hands and quits?

Lest anyone think I am simply being pessimistic, let me set the record straight. I am a notoriously glass-is-half-full kind of person. In fact, I have been accused, here in the august pages of this magazine, of being overly optimistic. But Little Miss Sunshine draws the line in the sun-kissed sand right here: Don’t hold your breath for those academic jobs. Instead, start planning out your non-academic career now.

This is not about having a bad attitude. It’s about looking at the cold, hard reality. In the Canadian case, here it is, in the starkest of terms: in 2007, 4,800 people in Canada earned their Ph.D.’s. How many jobs were waiting for them that year? 2,616. Yeah, about half. But of course, competition for those jobs was not just restricted to those who got their doctorates that year. It was shared among foreign Ph.D.’s, Ph.D. students still finishing their dissertations, and several earlier cohorts of Ph.D.’s who were still job-hunting. Plus, the competition for fewer jobs is becoming greater and greater because graduate enrollments are up: in Canada, graduate enrollment was up 62 percent in 2007-8 than 2001-2.

The difficult, crummy truth is out there for everyone to see: You can be the smartest, brightest, most-published person coming out of your degree program and STILL end up without an academic job, simply because the positions aren’t there. So why not seize this moment as an opportunity and not an occasion to dig yourself into adjuncting hell?

I’m not against optimism. I’m not against holding out for what you really want. But I am against the drinking of the academic Kool-Aid. The idea that being a tenured faculty member is the only way to achieve personal and professional satisfaction, or that a university classroom is the only place where one can teach, or that non-academic careers don’t offer intellectual stimulation is, quite simply, rubbish. It is a hasty conclusion drawn by people who have never worked outside of academia. Come on! Why are you going to listen to those people, anyway? Put your analytical, scholarly hats on for a moment: the idea that non-academic jobs are somehow “less than” is an idea that is fostered by … academics! It is not a view that is grounded in research (and if it is, please forward this research to me c/o this magazine), it’s not founded in experience, and it’s counter to the happy, post-academic work reality of thousands and thousands of Ph.D.’s.

I’m not suggesting that now is not a time for political action. It most certainly is. The unions that are fighting for something approaching fairness in the hiring and compensation packages of adjunct professors are doing critical work. If you are doing that work, I applaud and support you. But I would also suggest that you — individual little you, not political-hat-wearing you — spend an equal amount of time and energy cultivating your own “Plan B” career.

If you are currently spending any time at all fighting political battles in your department or university, divert 50 percent of that energy to planning your non-academic career (how? Read this book). If you watch TV for more than 5 hours a week, spend 50 percent of your TV time building your non-academic network (how? Read this article). If your university is undergoing a hiring freeze, spend one hour a week reading a book about non-academic résumés (like this one). If your university canceled a hire, spend two hours a week brushing up on non-academic Web sites (like this one). If your university laid off or did not re-hire any adjunct faculty, spend three hours a week doing information interviews (information what?). If folks in your department took early retirements and slashed your photocopying budget by 50 percent, see a career coach.

Then, do the most important thing you can do when you get your non-academic career: tell everyone you know. Scholars out there have to know that there is life outside the ivory tower that is far more personally and professionally satisfying than adjuncting ever, ever could be.

Comments (2)

  • Joshua Newman
    May 8, 2012 at 10:25 pm |

    The above quote attributed to me is, unfortunately, taken outside of its full context. In that interview with University Affairs magazine in 2010, I started by saying that anyone who decides to undertake a Ph.D. because they believe it will improve their job prospects is going into it for the wrong reasons – and I stand by that statement. Doctoral research is, in my opinion, more about personal growth and a search for knowledge than it is about employment opportunities. There are plenty of truly excellent professional degrees and vocational programs for those who want a satisfying career and a near-guaranteed income. I myself left a lucrative career in mechanical engineering to pursue a Ph.D. in transportation policy, mainly because I am genuinely interested in my research topic and because I (perhaps naively) hope to maybe make some small kind of difference. Just about everyone I know thought I was crazy for doing it and yet I have absolutely no regrets.

    I admit that I don’t recall what exactly ended up appearing in the published version of the UA interview, so this comment is more intended as clarification than anything else.

  • Blog Editor
    June 8, 2012 at 7:31 pm |

    Thank you as I have cited you above. Great job and appreciate the clarification.

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