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    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


The Challenges of Shifting Gears, Pt. 1: Career Edition

It's not always easy to just move on from wanting a traditional academic position.

December 4, 2012

This post was actually meant to be posted next week, but on Wednesday, December 5, 2012, Versatile PhD will be live-tweeting The Annual Meeting of the Council of Graduate School’s sessions relating to PhD careers using the #vphdatcgs hashtag. You can also follow along using the #CGS52 hashtag. I thought it fitting that it go up today instead.

As people hear that they will not be interviewing this year at the MLA, as well as how large and illustrious the pool of candidates was, I’m beginning to see more and more discussion on my Twitter timeline about what to do next, including if and how to transition into either alt-academic positions or even leaving higher education all together. This is an issue that I am struggling with myself, as I re-evaluate (again) what it is I want to do, what it is that I value, and what it means to be successful.

Last year, the Occupy MLA Twitter handle started a small controversy (ok, they started many, but this is one of the first ones) when they tweeted that they hadn’t spent any number of years in graduate school to get at alt-ac job. Many people who would have otherwise been quite sympathetic to their cause called them out for basically categorizing alt-academic positions as second-class. Truth be told, however, I find myself feeling the same way sometimes (*ducks*). The culture in most PhD programs is such that we are brainwashed into believing that unless we get a tenure-track position (ideally at an R1 institution with a low teaching load and lots of research support and an illustrious PhD program, never a liberal arts, regional state u, or a community college), then we are failures.

This attitude was even worse over ten years ago (!) when I started my PhD. The bottom had not yet gone out of the economy and most of us had blinders on to the reality of the higher education job market that was already dominated by adjunct/non-tenure-track appointments. We were still told that the Baby Boomer professors would retire, Gen-Y was going to push demand for higher education, and that getting a job wouldn’t be an issue. This was the narrative we were fed, and it was the narrative we all believed. It was unspoken that we had to really f’ things up to not get a tenure-track position, that if we didn’t end up on the tenure-track it was either because we had chosen to slack off or prioritize other elements in our lives (and thus wasted the valuable time and resources they had “invested” in us).

Fast-Forward 11 years. We know what the picture is like, but I’m not sure that much of higher education has really changed the narrative and the culture surrounding PhD programs. I appreciate all of the talk around re-imagining what PhD education should look like going forward, but I worry that creating “new” degrees will simply create a new, parallel narrative: those that do the “new” PhDs are not interested in academic careers, while those who choose “traditional” PhDs will be those that step into tenure-track positions, continuing the narrative and culture within higher education.

And this doesn’t even begin to cover the stigma that is often attached to having a PhD, even within institutions. As put by Brenda Bethman (who works with PhDs in transitioning into alt-ac and non-academic positions) in a Tweet: “Can [be] harder [to] convince academy to hire “academic” PhD's for nonteaching job. Ironic, no?” Yup, it certainly is, and again it shows how dominant the narrative around getting a PhD can be, that even the institutions themselves are no longer able to imagine a PhD doing anything other than teaching (which is of course also ironic seeing as how most of us get zero training in pedagogy, either. So, we can teach with no pedagogy, but we can’t do institutional research or communications, when that is an integral part of our PhD training? What?).

And if higher education can’t see any value to doing a PhD other than to become a tenure-track professor, what hope to we have for the private sector? I got into a debate/discussion with some people on Twitter who were complaining about how hyper-specialized (and thus essentially useless and unemployable) PhDs were. I countered that PhDs are actually quite good at being generalists (heck, isn’t that what our comprehensive exams are about?) but present ourselves as hyper-specialists because that is what academia demands of us. Once we take the blinders off, many of us realize we have a broad and varied skill set that could and would benefit any number of industries.

But that’s the kicker: taking the blinders off. For many of us who are off the tenure-track (and I’m going to keep harping on this, so apologies), we don’t have much time to sit back and take stock of what we can offer, to see past the narrative that has so dominated our professional lives from both within and outside of the academy. I am guilty of it as anyone; I work really really hard at a lot of things in part because I still hope to accomplish the almost impossible task of achieving a tenure-track job. To give another example of just how prevalent this narrative is, my family would have entertained living apart for a tenure-track position, but (currently) won’t for an alt-academic position. Why? Because we still see tenure-track as “better” than alt-ac. It’s really tough, too, to get over the feelings of shame and failure that come along with the transition. So much of my life and my identity has been wrapped up in being an academic researcher and teacher.

I am in no way putting down alt-academic positions, nor working in the private sector. I am just saying that it isn’t as easy as it looks. Some of the challenges are systematic; some of them come from a place very deep within ourselves. As I struggle with the question myself of, what comes next? I am forced to confront these realities. They are not new, nor am I the first, but I won’t be the last either until we change the culture in higher education.


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