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More Thoughts from an “Old” PhD

Having a best-before date on your PhD compounds the systemic obstacles that are placed in front of non-tenure-track faculty. 

December 6, 2012

Before our regularly-scheduled blog post, I’d like to invite anyone and everyone to join us on Twitter for #digibakeday on Saturday. I’m going to be up to my eyeballs grading, but I’m taking breaks to bake and share to kick off the holidays. Hope you’ll join us.

Over at HASTAC, there was an post promoting a new Postdoctoral Fellowship in Digital Humanities. But, of course, you couldn’t apply if you earned your PhD before 2010.

This, obviously, is not new. Postdocs are supposed to be for “early career” academics. Unfortunately, careers are taking longer and longer to get started, leaving more and more capable academics behind. One of my friends on twitter suggested a wording so that the date didn’t matter, instead focusing on your job status (the way she had worded it would have also excluded me, as I have held a tenure-track position, but I still think that it is a better approach that simple choosing a date).

One of the other challenges of just choosing a date is that many PhDs take time “off” for various reasons, including starting a family. In Canada, for instance, if you had a child subsequent to receiving your PhD, you receive more time to apply for their national postdoctoral awards. But what if the interruption was because of a sick spouse, parent, or child you already had? Or if it was because you needed to pay rent by working in “non-academic” jobs? Or any number of other reasons. Two years seems to be the magic number: if two years out of earning your PhD you don’t have a postdoc or a tenure-track job, you’re out of luck.

Compounding the issue is that this postdoc is in the digital humanities, an emergent field where many PhDs need more support and experience, given the traditional nature of most of our degrees. I have written again and again about the lost generation of academics, especially in the face of the digital turn. How can someone teaching at three different institutions to make ends meet ever hope to reorient themselves?

But there are a number of other systematic forces that work against “old” PhDs in the job market. The first is quite simply where most of us work. My institution is neither prestigious nor well-known. Following the advice to use my institutions letter-head in my job applications may in fact be working against me. I would have been better off on the job market three years ago when I was adjuncting at a more prestigious institution (although I was teaching only one class). This also is a challenge because I am at an institution that doesn’t yet value Digital Humanities scholarship or pedagogy, so I am working alone.

The second is, again, the heavy teaching load. A 5/4 writing intensive course load is brutal when it comes to grading. Between that and course prep, office hours, and other responsibilities that come with this teaching load, I have very little time to apply for jobs, let alone learn what I need to in order to put into action my ideas for a digital humanities project. With a book manuscript due in less than a year, I have to no time for, well, anything that will help get me a job in this market, not to mention doing any sort of meaningful digital humanities work.

What I teach isn’t doing me any favors either. I am looking for positions in literature; it’s what my PhD is in and where my passion truly lies. But I have taught nothing but writing courses for the past three years, and the majority of my teaching once I completed my PhD have been various levels of undergraduate writing courses. This makes convincing a search committee that I am dedicated to graduate education and upper-division literature students more than a little challenging. I fear that I have taught myself out of any chance at a tenure-track position.

I have suggested on Twitter and elsewhere that we need to start creating opportunities specifically targeted to those who are off the tenure-track but aspire to be on it. Summer fellowships, research opportunities, even alt-ac paid internships would be beneficial for the careers of those of us who are caught in the vortex that is the terrible job market and have been there for an extended period of time. Rather than advertize nationally, target the adjuncts in your own local area. Or, set up a network of virtual (paid) opportunities.

Those of us who are off the tenure-track are in no position to change the system to our benefit. But if those who are in positions of some influence start thinking differently about how they allocate funds, decide on working and professional development opportunities, in particular in regards to the contingent faculty in their own back yard, things might get better for all of us.  


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