Thursday, November 19, 2015

#Alt-Ac 101 for Supervisors

While I've never been a supervisor of graduate students, a big part of my job is working with supervisors to give them the resources they need to ensure that their graduate students and postdocs succeed in and out of their research. And supervisors, I see you. I see how hard it is for you to not want for your graduate students what you found, the academic career you were told you were training for when you started graduate school. I see the ways you work to fight against the indoctrination that plagues both you and the people you supervise, that says that an academic life is the only challenging and worthy one. I see you struggle to know what to do, what to say, in the face of numbers like these: that only 18.6% of the people you supervise who finish their degrees will get full-time academic jobs, and about half of the people who start out with you won't finish at all. I see you avoid the topic of non-professorial jobs because you've never had one, and you don't know what one of those might look like or how you might best help your students and postdocs prepare for one.

I don't think that supervisors need to be everything to all people. I don't expect you to be career counsellors as well as brilliant writers, researchers, teachers. I don't expect you to know the ins and outs of every career your students and postdocs might be interested in. I don't expect you to stop doing the work of being a researcher and teacher you're doing. But I do expect you to acknowledge reality, and to do what you can to ensure that all of your students and postdocs succeed, not just those very few who follow in your footsteps. And I've got some practical ideas about how.

1. Talk about all kinds of career paths and valourize none. 

Ask your students where they want to end up. Ensure that they know the numbers, nationally and within your program, of tenure-track placements. Encourage them to think about a variety of post-degree career paths. Never talk as though the assumption is that everyone will become a tenure-track professor, and never denigrate non-professorial careers. Talk about all kinds of careers as equally valid, and equally valourous. 

2. Keep track of your graduates, and not just the ones that become professors. 

Know what your supervisees are doing with their PhDs. Be able to point to specific careers when your current students and postdocs ask what people with a PhD in their field could do. Know at least a little about your former students' transition stories, how they got where they are, what they did to get there, and so that you can help your current students decide what they should be doing to prepare for their post-PhD lives. You already know how to help your students prepare to become professors, but learn how to help them to become other things as well. 

3. Know where to refer your students when you're out of your depth. 

Almost certainly, your university has a graduate professional development program. It also has a career centre, one that has at least some capacity to support PhDs in their career development and preparation. It has people like me, whose job is to help both faculty and students navigate the changing academy and what comes after. There are also tons of skill and professional development resources open to students and postdocs looking to diversify their skill sets. Good ones to know about include: 
  • online professional development workshops in career development, communication, entrepreneurship, research, teaching & learning
  • Mitacs STEP: one and two day intensive workshops in leadership & management, communication & relationship building, personal & professional management, entrepreneurialism 
  • over 3,500 online skill development workshops which are free to people with library cards in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver and many other Canadian cities.  
4. Give your students and postdocs things to read. 

The number of resources out there for PhD-trained job seekers has grown exponentially since I was conducting my own job search, and being tapped into the higher ed web will help ensure that your students are aware of the realities of the academic job market and glorious variety of places PhD holders happily end up. Some good resources include: 

Some really, really do want to become professors, and some will. Some see their PhD as a six year contract job that can pay reasonably well. Some want to return to a past career with enhanced credentials. Some don't know anything beyond the fact that they want to spend a few years immersing themselves in a subject they find fascinating. All are valid, and all should be openly acknowledged. But faculty should also be aware that the culture of academia is such that many people who start not wanting to become a professor will end up internalizing that desire by osmosis. Do what you can to keep that from happening: 100% of people desperate for the thing that less than 20% will find is a recipe for misery. 

6. Be open about what a professorial career is actually all about. 

Your supervisees see you do very few things. They see you teach and supervise (them). They might see you do limited parts of the research part of your job. They read your finished publications. They rarely see the service, the paperwork, the administrative minutiae, the hours of class prep, the shitty first drafts, the lonely hours writing along with your cat, the struggle to stay funded and keep your lab running, the politics, the meetings, and on. Being an academic is a job like any other, with its good and its bad, and you owe it to your students and postdocs to ensure that they understand the reality (not the fantasy) of doing what you do. PhDs often choose to pursue a professorial career without actually knowing much about what that job will be like, and I've seen the reality of a professorial career be an unpleasant surprise more than a few times. 


  1. Outstanding post, Melissa.

    I'd only add: if your department isn't yet serious about doing things to make sure its doctoral students are prepared to hit the ground running in a variety of careers, go down the hall and give you Chair a kick in the butt. For starters, get in touch with all those PhDs you've graduated and see what sorts of careers they're having. Lots of cool ones, I'm sure you'll find. Then ask them what they wish they knew then that they know now.

  2. I am a professor who supervises a lot of students, and who has been a professor for 18 years. I'm also a graduate program chair.

    First of all, I respect you and your experience. I think that yes, there's lots of colleagues of mine who should know more than they do about alt-ac and about how to advise students.We've all got a lot to learn. I think that professors in positions of influence should listen to what non-academic counselors, advisers and other non-academic staff have to say about intellectual activity, the job market, and a lot of other things. So I am listening, especially to people who can tell us all about alt-ac and what it can mean.Others are as well. We need more in the conversation, for sure.

    But second, you don't see me, so don't think you do.
    You don''t see me because I (and a lot of people like me) did in fact do a series of non-academic jobs before I became a professor. You don't see me because you think that I, and other professors like me, avoid talking about non-academic jobs but actually, a lot of us do, although more of us should. You don't see me because you do not realize that more and more professors under the age of 50 (and that's me, by four months) actually do know that it's important to talk about non-academic career paths, and that we actually do try to counsel students (graduate and undergrad) about these paths, as much as we can, and that we try to refer students when we reach the limits of our knowledge.You don't see me, because I'm a grad chair as well as a prof. Those of us who are grad chairs and are anything like responsible are trying to think through alt-ac and what that means in a rapidly changing university environment. A lot of us actually do have the experience to do this, and we do care about this. And some of us actually do try to tell students what our jobs are REALLY like, but there's a lot of reasons why students don't want to hear about that, and I understand why. There's also very few places where professors can talk about what their jobs are like, because lots of other people call us privileged (which is true) and this silences us so that we can't talk about what our jobs are like (which is also true). I know that rhetorically, you are calling out to those who might not realize that we need to change, but I think too that those who read Hook & Eye want to change, and are part of changes that need to come to universities here, but also worldwide.

    My progressive colleagues and I would be glad to write here about what our jobs are actually like. But really, would anyone here believe us, or would they just think we're whining? I hear a lot online about how lucky and privileged I am...and it's true. So how can I and others talk about what it's like to work in our institutions, what are jobs are like for real, in a way that students and recent graduates can hear us? If you have an idea about how to do this, I am ready to hear it.

    Regards, Julie Rak
    Professor and Associate Chair (Graduate Studies)
    Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, Canada


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