Thursday, April 4, 2013

On the trauma of the dissertation and making academic work "count"

My facebook feed is filling up with friends and colleagues bemoaning their choice to do a PhD and status updates that express hatred and anger about their dissertations. I felt this way too during my very long revision process. I think most people have moments of deep regret at some point on the road to completed dissertation. Moments of doubt and loathing seem more the norm than the exception.

In discussing the emotional impact of the PhD with one of my colleagues - also a recent graduate - we noted the difference in attitude post-PhD and post-MA. We left our MAs believing in ourselves. We carried an arrogant confidence that we knew everything and could do anything. Getting a job after my MA was no problem. I was bold. I spoke with authority. I've watched friends complete MAs and hit the ground running filled with a sense of immense accomplishment.

I contrast, at the end of the PhD, everything seems to be thrown into question. A PhD teaches you that maybe you don't really know that much at all, that all of your knowledge can and will be rigorously questioned at every turn. PhDs self-deprecate too easily. We say things like, "I don't have any work experience," or "being a grad student sure beats getting a job." We characterize ourselves as being outside of the real economy. But the truth is, no one gets a PhD without working. Be it for pay or not, we have experienced real work. Research, writing, deadlines, teaching, all-nighters, life-balance negotiations, alienated friends and family -  our PhD work lives have had their toll and have allowed us to develop a number of crucial skills, both academic and non-academic.

Now, I know I'm generalizing here. Not all MAs leave their degrees to happily land a dream job, and not all PhDs struggle to come to terms with the inadequacies of their dissertations. Some people write awesome dissertations and land awesome jobs. But for many PhDs, there seems to be a prevailing negativity about their work, their life choices, and their prospects. We are our own worst enemies. In discussing my degree with a group of acquaintances, I joked that I was struggling to find work because I have "no work experience." Now one of those acquaintances mentions the fact that I have "never worked" each time we meet. Because I made a self-deprecating joke, there are now people in my life that believe I have never worked and somehow, because of my fancy education, expect to get a good job without ever having to "work" for it. Of course I have worked and I continue to work, very hard in fact. The point is, we are too quick to characterize our PhD lives as non-work. By self-deprecating, we feed the stereotype of grad-school as a bad life choice. This reinforces anti-intellectualism and makes it harder for us to articulate our skills in relation to the job market, which is admittedly bleak these days.

In part, we could solve this problem with better professional training. Not all PhDs will land academic jobs. This is a fact that grad programmes need to come to terms with. Knowing how to compile an umpteen page CV will not get us a non-academic job. We need a system in place that allows us to articulate things like academic publications and major research projects as "real work" that counts for something in the private sector.

How do we make academic work "count"?

6 comments:

  1. ps: forgot to give a shout out to Aimee Morrison's post http://www.hookandeye.ca/2011/11/degree-is-job-modest-proposal-for-phd.html which she wrote last year before I was blogging for hookandeye. Aimee's "modest proposal" really helped me rethink my own experience of the PhD as non-work.

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  2. I agree that you learn a lot during the PhD -- esp. stress resistance (if you make it). When I look at typical crises -- yup, there are a few: http://www.organizingcreativity.com/2010/05/dissertation-crises/

    And yes, there is a need for information on who to present one's skills to a non-academic audience -- hopefully better than this PhD Comic: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1138

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  3. I'm curious, Danielle, about what you think about this ... when you were doing your PhD, would you have been interested in meeting with PhD grads of your program who had gone on to do cool jobs, to find out from them what turned out to be the key factors that got them in the door at their first job/what skills were most important when they launched their business/etc.? Presumably, such people would be a good resource for departments who want to develop something that will help people plan for a range of careers. But if everyone is coming into grad school thinking "academic career", will such information be regarded as a distraction or an annoyance by grad students?

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    1. and yes, i would have wanted to know more from phd grads who had translated their academic skills in such a way that they were able to obtain private sector employment. i'm not ambivalent about my academic work, I love it. and i wish we didn't need to be so strategic about marketing ourselves in the private sector, but i think this is a reality that grads are facing and it is important to be trained for it.

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  4. I think most grad students are aware of the need to diversify their career trajectories. Even though I never really intended to have anything but an academic career, I still wanted to have some kind of transferable research skill development (maybe a research co-op) that would help me get a job in industry if the academic route didn't work out. However, when I expressed this desire, I definitely received resistance from some faculty members who might have perceived this as giving up on the academic life. Given how much of a distraction teaching is from an academic career (we all know sessionals who no longer have time to publish), I would think that a research position in the private sector would contribute more to an academic portfolio than teaching. I also think too much of our work ends up accounted for on our resumes as simply "PhD in x-discipline". That doesn't really allow as to account for the masses of research, literature reviews, research design, academic publishing, editing, etc. that are our primary skills and which are not generally visible in our job experience (in the way that teaching is very visible).

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  5. Two reactions:

    1) Mindset. I have heard many grad students (half-)jokingly say that they chose grad school to avoid the "real world" or real jobs, or because they had no marketable skills. To a degree, this is self-protective self-deprecation - we disparage ourselves before someone else can. But it may be a symptom of underlying dysfunction, and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    2) I wonder if the term "grad STUDENT" reinforces the idea that PhD training is an extension of undergraduate school, rather than the early stage of a career. The activities of grad training (in humanities) for the first 2-3 years do look and feel like an extension of college -- classes, seminars, reading assignments, summaries, presentations, papers returned with teacher's comments.

    I would love to hear about grad pedagogy techniques that would shake up those norms and make grad school feel more like preparation for work, less like a continuation of college.

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