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!