Tuesday, November 29, 2011

After the PhD job and before the next job: An LTA’s response to a modest proposal for the PhD


Let me begin by thanking my co-blogger: Aimée’s post has garnered more hits and more conversation than any of our posts in the last year! We average between one to three hundred views per post, yet as I write this “A Modest Proposal for the PhD” has almost 2,500 views. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say this post struck a chord!

I have spent the last few days thinking about how to respond to this post in a way that both acknowledges the limitations my friend has set for herself  opens the conversation further. As I see it, this is a post predominantly about current or soon-to-be PhD students, which is also addressed to the faculty-administrators shaping, mentoring, and managing graduate programs. Excellent! These are issues that need to be addressed, and they are clearly ones people want to talk about. However, as a limited term appointee, I don’t fit into either of those categories despite being connected to them both. 

I’m entering the conversation with a ‘Yes, and’ frame of mind. As a limited term appointee who looks like a faculty member, acts like a faculty member, and yet is decidedly not a faculty member, I feel compelled to say in response to the very sound advice offered to PhD students and faculty ‘yes, reform how you run graduate programs; yes, treat the PhD like a job, and don’t forget about those of us who did all of those things and remain in tenuous positions.’ In other words, what follows are some of the thoughts I’ve had in response to  Aimée’s post.

The Funding Conundrum:
Is funding important? Yes. Is it problematic? Definitely.

I had the very good fortune of winning a SSHRC doctoral fellowship in the second year of my PhD. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, as we all know, but it was enough for me to live on. I also received small scholarships from my university and, as was the case in Alberta (though not as far as I know in Nova Scotia where I now teach), I was the recipient of what were called Graduate Teaching Stipends. This meant that, as a PhD Candidate, I was paid substantially more than a sessional lecturer with a PhD in hand. Was I aware that this was problematic? Sure, but I happily took the money because I knew it allowed me to teach less and write more. And write I did. I wrote—or worked on writing (researching, reading, editing, fretting)—between 8-9 hours a day six days a week. And when I finished my dissertation and taught as a sessional for several thousand dollars less than I made when I was a student, I was prepared for the shift in pay scale. The extra stipend helped me finish my dissertation, just as it was meant to do.

But funding alone doesn’t guarantee timely completion. Indeed, I was one of the students with the lowest funding in my incoming cohort of PhD students. Having little to no funding for my first year was a huge motivating factor for me (read: I was terrified). For some students, having a massive amount of funding relieves the pressure of a timely completion, while for others it ensures timely completion. So, while I certainly think it is crucial to consider funding very carefully for all the reasons Aimée suggests (no guarantee of a job, crushing debt load), having funding in hand is only part of the equation. Faculty need to continue to make funding agencies and the government accountable for deciding what projects get funded and why. 

What happens after the PhD? Or, when should I jump ship?

As Aimée writes and as others echo in the commentary, if you want a PhD you should do one, and you should go into it with open eyes. Yes, people change jobs all  the time, and the PhD is just one discrete part of your life…

But! For those of us who have completed the PhD and are in  sessional or LTA positions, the situation becomes a little more complicated. Again, I’ll use myself as an example. I did not receive postdoctoral funding despite submitting every year I was eligible. Should I, or any PhD, have quit at that point? Maybe. But I didn’t, and neither did many of my peers. And now I’m in a position where I live contract-to-contract and work to compete for the few jobs that come up. Do I think about transitioning out of academia? You bet I do. Have I found the time to come up with a viable plan B? Not yet.

I have the great good fortune—and I mean that genuinely—to have landed in a department where my colleagues treat me as, well, their colleague. I go to department meetings, I teach courses, I supervise honours students, and this year I will be teaching a graduate course as well as supervising graduate students. All of these things are wonderful for my CV, and I want to do them because I love this job. However, I work approximately 90 hours/week. I work on weekends. I work this much because in addition to teaching 3-4 courses per semester I am also trying to keep my CV competitive. I’m competing against those folks who did are coming right out of their PhD, I’m competing with peers who have done one (or more) postdoctoral fellowships, and in this climate I’m also competing against faculty who are already on the tenure track and want to change universities. I’m not complaining here, but I do know that unless I keep up this breakneck pace I’m going to fall behind. As is every other sessional and LTA instructor who is still applying for long-term work.

My point is this: as several of you have noted in the comments section, these conversations about restructuring the PhD are necessary starting points. As we continue in our crucial dialogue, let’s please not forget to include those people who have made the choice to complete a PhD and, in some cases, to treat it like a job, yet remain on the margins of the profession.

Let’s keep this conversation going. Administrators, PhD students, MA students, undergrads, send us your thoughts in a post. We’d be happy to publish continued commentary!

5 comments:

  1. This is an excellent follow up topic to Aimée’s post.

    Here’s a conundrum that faces faculty associations and administrators when the issue of exploited sessional faculty comes up. What about teaching only or teaching intensive faculty positions? On the plus side, the people who land those jobs will have some benefits and regular income; the departments will be able to count on the people in such jobs actually being available to students, and to have some continuity in the quality of instruction from year to year---the former doesn’t happen if people are getting one or two courses at a couple of different universities and spend half their lives in traffic between them, and the latter doesn’t if it’s one year contract workers rotating through. On the down side, there will be many fewer such jobs for recent grads who want to cling to the profession; it will generate (or exacerbate) a class system among faculty; it gives up on the important principle that what’s special about universities is that students are taught by scholars (however threadbare that principle appears in practice sometimes); and the pedagogical benefits might be outweighed by the larger classes required, since the costs per course would obviously be higher.

    So, for instance, as a faculty association, are you doing the right thing by creating a better living for 30 people now scrambling to land contracts year-to-year if it also means cutting off another 70? Erin, would you take a 30% shot at a permanent, teaching intensive or teaching only job, with benefits---a genuine faculty appointment, even if everyone would know that it wasn’t “really” a professor’s job, since it didn’t involve evaluation of your scholarship---if the 70% likely downside was that you were looking for work outside academia because the contract job pool would be dry?

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  2. Great--tough--question. Here's my quibble with teaching intensive jobs: they don't seem to leave room for (ie. pay for) curriculum development. So, if a teaching intensive job means teaching 5-6 courses per term with no time or pay to revamp those courses through...research, then I'm not so sure I see the position as a good one for the instructor or for the students.

    Would I personally take the job? Again, a tough question. Right now I'd say no, because I am managing (how?) a teaching intensive job alongside a DIY research career in hopes of that small percentage chance at a different kind of position.

    I'm not opposed to leaving the profession, I'm just unclear on when it is the time for an LTA or contract worker or sessional to make that call--and I'm also wondering how to do that.

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  3. I must say, I'm really appreciating this discussion. A few years back, while I was in the second year of my PhD program, a fellow student (who is nastily competitive) stated that all of these students who saw the degree as the end itself and not the means to an end were delusional fools. I felt hurt by this comment, partly because I believed that it was passive-aggressively directed towards me, but also because I feel there is nothing wrong with treating your degree as an end in itself.

    In my humble opinion, it is a very zen-like state to be in. Enjoy the now, because you don't know what the future will hold. As it turns out, my future was not to be a tenure-track prof with a rigorous research program. Rather, I'm a tenure track prof at a community college. The reason for this had much more to do with my inability to geographically relocate than my CV. But I'm really happy. However, this is a position that my snarky colleague would very-much look down on. Because my degree and work were a "waste of time." To be a psychologist for a moment (as that is my training) - I think that this sort of attitude is unhealthy. I think that the inability to "bloom where you're planted" causes a great deal of unhappiness. My colleague has spent the past 4 years hating the town that she lives in and all the people around her. She has spent that time working constantly and making no friends. To her, this time is merely a holding pattern until she gets to the 'real' world that she is meant for. Overall, I'd say that she's the one with the wasted time - not me.

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  4. I love Maepress's attitude, and completely agree. A University setting can also be a very negative, politically charged space, and there are people who do not want to deal with the b.s. and would rather enjoy teaching and working in a more relaxed environment, like a community college(in the U.S.) or a college (in Canada). I don't see it as a failure, if the person enjoys what they are doing. Better that than being a negatively minded work-a-holic with no personal life or friends. There are also schools abroad, especially in Asia that are looking for people with Graduate degrees to teach in private elementary, high-schools, or post-secondary institutions. If people are willing to recognize these other options as valid, and let go of the idea of 'tenure track' or 'failure' I think there would be a lot of happier people, better suited teaching faculty, and better educated students.

    I know, and know of, several people who have retired early from tenured or tenure track positions, or who happily made the switch to teaching at a college--I would rather be a happy, well-adjusted person, than a bitter pessimist. Sure, I would love to end up with a tenure track position when I am done my PhD (I hope to get in for next fall), but that is not all I have, or all that I am, so I am open to other options.

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  5. The discussion about teaching intensive positions needs to open up, not least to address concerns such as those Erin raises about time for curriculum development. It also needs to be recognized that there are people out there who would really prefer a teaching intensive appointment with a significantly smaller role for the kind of scholarship resulting in publications and so on and the options for the. Aree severely limited. Contractually limited appointments of 3 or 5 years are better than course by course sessional teaching but there is still very little progression or recognition of experience or whatever. And what do you do at the end of the contract?

    Of course 3-5 years is pretty good in any sector these days. If we accept Aimee's proposal that the PhD is a short term job, then. Maybe the LTA is also a legitimate next job. And that as Aimee suggests those in LTAs should be preparing themselves for next steps. Perhaps, like Erin, by pull,using to position themselves for a tenure track position. Or by gaining experience to transition into an alt-ac position in a writing centre, teaching centre, academic administration or whatever, or by gaining relevant experience to transition into a rewarding career outside academia

    Interestingly if teaching is what you love, teaching happens in all kinds of organizations albeit under other headings like training or facilitation.

    In discussion with a client of mine who has an LTA, I realize that it also helps if you save regardless of your salary. This might be related to Aimee's point about not going into debt. If you have enough money to live for 3, 6, or 12 months whey our contract ends you have more flexibility in making that next move.

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