Displaying items by tag: academia

The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts has a special issue coming up on "The Canadian Fantastic" that looks like a lot of nationally specific scholarly SF fun. Since I couldn't find the CFP on the 'net, here it is for your perusal:

Towards the end of “We Have Met the Alien (And It Is Us)” (1985), Judith Merril concludes “after months of immersion in Canadian futures, that there is something one just might call a Canadian consciousness, and that this unique sensibility of accepting-and-coping might just have something of value to offer to the uncertain future of a planet in perilous pain” (23).

Although Merril was speaking of Canadian science fiction, Canadian authors saturate the entire range of those fictions we broadly label the “fantastic”: R. Scott Bakker, Sylvie Bérard, A. M. Dellamonica, Charles de Lint, Cory Doctorow, Candas Jane Dorsey, William Gibson, Hiromi Goto, Phyllis Gotlieb, Nalo Hopkinson, Tanya Huff, Guy Gavriel Kay, Yves Meynard, Spider Robinson, Geoff Ryman, Robert J. Sawyer, Karl Schroeder, S. M. Stirling, Jean-Louis Trudel, Elisabeth Vonarburg, A. E. van Vogt, Robert Charles Wilson, to alphabetize only a few of our northern stars.

This Special Issue of JFA on “The Canadian Fantastic” invites participants to consider Merril’s “Canadian consciousness” in those diverse realms of the fantastic. To submit a proposal, please send a 300 word abstract by February 15, 2012 to both:

Christine Mains: cemains(at)shaw.ca
Graham J. Murphy: grahammurphy(at)trentu.ca

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

I am writing again after a back-injury kept me away from my desk for over 2 weeks. During my recovery period, I had a lot of time to do some reflection on the past few years. As part of that process, my thoughts naturally turned to my time in graduate school and to the decisions that I made about leaving. I have no regrets, except I do wish that I had been able to evoke more change to the PhD process while I was there. Even now, over a year out, I still find myself composing talking points about ways to change the PhD system to make it easier for graduates to transition into non-academic jobs when they done with their degrees (because, once again, an academic job is a fading reality for the vast majority of PhDs these days).

Usually, I address both graduate students and faculty, but this time, I want to engage solely with the faculty members who supervise and teach graduate students. For the system to change, both students and faculty need to work together. Here are 5 simple ways that graduate faculty can help their MA and PhD students transition into the larger world of non-academic work:

1. Set up a LinkedIn profile. Networking is one of the most valuable tools for anyone looking for a new career. LinkedIn is free, easy to use and manage. After spending a decade or more in higher education earning their degrees, many PhDs do not have an extensive list of networking contacts. If faculty join – and connect with as many academic and non-academic professionals that they know – they can then provide valuable potential contacts for informational interviews, job offers, and career support.

2. Follow-up with the new MA/PhD grad at 6 months from degree completion. Reconnecting with a past graduate student only requires a quick email. Not only will the grad be reminded of the support that faculty might provide them (i.e. networking, letters of recommendation), it will provide faculty with a clearer picture of where their grads are ending up post-degree.

3. Announce graduate non-academic successes. I’ve said this before, but changing the discourse of what constitutes career success for PhDs is essential. In departmental meetings, faculty need to take the time to share with their colleagues the new jobs/career developments of their past students. If all the talk remains focused on only the academic placements of grads, then a closed environment will remain (which is damaging to graduate students, most who face a substantial period of unemployment at the end of their degrees).

4. Talk to current graduate students about their future plans. While this bit of advice might seem like a no-brainer, I have met many new PhDs who were completely unprepared to leave academia. Their supervisors never had a sustained conversation with them about what to expect upon completion of their degree. Many grad students are anxious about what awaits them after their defense, so faculty need to take the lead in starting the conversation of “what’s next.” Just by being open to talking about non-academic jobs will help ease some of the grad student’s anxiety – and if their supervisor is on a networking site like LinkedIn, they can at least start the process of networking for themselves.

5. Be familiar with the Career Services offered by the university. Obviously, faculty cannot be career counsellors themselves, but they should know exactly where to send their graduate students to find the advice and career support that they might need. If faculty are uncomfortable or feel unequipped to discuss non-academic careers with their students, then knowing the name of the career counsellor who specializes in working with MA and PhD students is the next responsible option. Faculty should openly encourage their students to make use of whatever career resources (seminars, networking events, etc.) the university has to offer.

I appreciate that graduate faculty are often overworked and overly stressed themselves, but I do believe that, just as they have a responsibility to support their graduate students in developing academic skills, they must also be conscientious of the dismal state of the current academic job market and help their MAs/PhDs transition into a non-academic job as required. Each of the 5 pieces of advice I offer above require little investment in terms of time and energy – and the potential rewards to students are substantial. If you have tenure and work with graduate students, you are in a privileged position – it is your professional responsibility to aide the next generation of MA/PhDs in finding their own paths to success.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Tuesday, 08 November 2011 19:48

Confidence in Transition

One of the greatest challenges that I face in my professional career today is finding and maintaining self-confidence. After years of struggling to meet the increasingly impossible standards of excellence in an institutionalized system of learning and work (also known as academia), my confidence is still, at times, shaky. Finishing my PhD while poor and chronically ill was an exercise in endurance (both mentally and physically). I emerged from academia feeling deeply disenfranchised with the university and doubting my ability to make the right decisions for myself. The years of failed grant applications, combined with my feelings of academic isolation, resulted in a level of self-confidence that wobbled at even a hint of perceived failure or unexpected difficulty. While I am secure in my abilities most days, there are still stretches of time where my confidence is merely a thin veneer on a sea of uncertainty and self-doubt.

I haven’t really been aware at how deeply my self-confidence had been shaken and misshaped by my time in academia. My self-doubt and uncertainty quietly crept into all aspects of my life. Last week, I was in the process of buying a membership to the SFRA and I had stopped myself, thinking “I should ask Andrew (my partner) first.” It suddenly struck me how ridiculous and unnecessary that was – I had been asking for permission for so many small things. I finally appreciated Andrew’s numerous pleas to stop asking him if I could put cereal/cookies/fruit/etc. in our cart at the grocery store. I had been embarrassing the man for months on end – it really doesn’t look good when an adult woman asks the man she’s with if she can get a loaf of bread.

I realized that I had unconsciously transferred the authority of the university system to my partner (and yes, the feminist-me is completely weirded out by that!). Without the comforting rules and procedures of higher education, I was searching for someone/something else to fill that role for me. Part of the reason why I am so happy now as an independent academic is because I don’t have to check with anybody else about what I’m doing – there are no proposals or meetings about my research and what I want to do with it. I like that freedom, but it is still sometimes scary to actually carry out. While I no longer have to organize committee meetings, I also don’t have a set group of mentors either.

Working for myself, then, has been a completely new challenge that has required me to reflect on not only how I work, but, more importantly, how I see myself as a worker. I always have thought of myself as strongly independent, but now that I am outside of an organized work community, I can see how much I have relied on other people to direct me (from simply meeting deadlines to figuring out a work schedule). Relearning to think of myself as an autonomous individual from the academy is a long and on-going process. For at least six months after my defense and submission, I thought of myself as a “new PhD.” When asked what I was doing now that I was done with my studies, I answered, “well, I just finished my PhD, so ….” Not much followed those initial words. In the sense that a good deal of my life revolved around the PhD process in work and social spheres, I was the PhD. I certainly am not unique in this case, but I haven’t found a lot of other people talking about this ego encompassing (eclipsing?) aspect of being in academia.

I have largely rebuilt my self-confidence and every week I get better at celebrating the small successes that indicate I am indeed on the right track. My partner is happier now that we can go grocery shopping without strangers giving him the side-eye and I am far more willing to venture into unfamiliar work territories. I think that the hardest part of transitioning away from academia has been having to reconceptualize what constitutes work and success – and, if the past few months are any indication, I’m doing just fine on my own. Now to work on patience ...

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

I haven’t had a lot of time available for writing and scholarly projects this past month – other work commitments (aka. my job) kept me from pursuing all of my SF and academic interests. It has totally sucked. Like many other things during my transition from PhD student to self-employed independent scholar, the depth of that suckiness has caught me by surprise. I don’t think that there was ever a time in my entire graduate education that I lamented: “I want to write but I have no time!” Instead, I rued the fact that I had to write, when I wanted to be doing just about anything else. Yet, here I am, absolutely thrilled to be finally have the time to focus on writing.

Yesterday, Julie Clarenbach (from Escape the Ivory Tower) interviewed me for a podcast she does for University Affairs magazine. I won’t give away any of the exciting details of our conversation – you’ll just have to wait for the podcast to air – but she did ask me about what it was like to be a scholar without a university affiliation. My answer was somewhere along the lines of “it’s awesome” and I started thinking about all the small (mis)steps and successes that I’ve experienced in the process of establishing myself as an independent academic. As I have yet to meet another person who also identifies her/himself as an independent scholar, I am totally making up it up as I go. I admit to feeling daunted, at first, by the “University Affiliation” field required for all academic article and conference submissions. Now, though, I have Independent SF Scholar proudly printed on my business card. Yeah! Here are some of my thoughts on how to turn into a successful “university of one:”

Identify the audience for your work. When you are in academia, the audience for your work is a given –the other 5 people in your field. Well, okay, maybe there are more than 5 interested readers (10?), but the relevant journals and conferences for your particular field of study are obvious. When you are an independent academic, however, you should be looking for audiences that exist outside of academe as well. For example, as an SF scholar, I have been integrating myself into the well established community of SF fandom. Large fan-driven conventions are excellent places to present your ideas and engage with other people interested in whatever obscure thing your dissertation was on. Trust me – far more people from SF fandom have read my thesis than people within academia. And, what’s even better, they tell me and give me compliments and ask questions (huge thanks!).

It is a great feeling to know that my years of research into feminist post-cyberpunk have not gone to waste. More than that, non-academic conferences are usually quite happy to have an academic speaker presenting a paper or included on a panel. Since a non-academic conference holds little weight on an academic CV, there are not a lot of academics willing to attend them. If you are going to be an independent scholar, engage with reading groups, cultural centres, and organizations that you think might be interested in talking with you and discussing your work.

Rethink what “being published” means. As a rule, the more prestigious the academic journal, the more impressed your department will be with your CV. Well, as an independent scholar, the name on the journal does not matter as much. In fact, I will even go so far as to suggest that you place academic journals lower on the scale of “good places to publish” if want to be a successful independent academic. Again, it goes back to the question of audience. For myself, I want as many people as possible to read my work and talk about my research. Getting a paper in an academic peer-reviewed journal is fine, but the potential number of people I can reach is limited. Plus, by the time my pithy article deconstructing race in the Smurfs* reboot comes to press, my attention – and that of my ideal audience – will have moved on.

While I have only been working at establishing my cred as an independent SF scholar for 6 months, I already have several publications on the go in various kinds of media (i.e. a freelance article for a well-known magazine, blog posts, an edited book collection, and a paper for 2011’s WorldCon). Considering that I was entirely unpublished as a graduate student, I am still impressed/surprised by the scope and success of my current output. I even recently received my first unsolicited invitation to an academic conference! Without the same pressures and stressors that attend the academic publishing process, I can be more creative and, as a result, I am finding lots of cool places to publish my work (and some of them even pay!).

Have exceptional self-motivation and self-discipline. If you are someone who needs your supervisor prodding at you to meet a deadline, being an independent scholar is probably not for you. When you are a university of one, you are only responsible to yourself. If you don’t care about the deadline for your article on zombies, who will? No one. Your great idea about how zombies are a modern day metaphor for the obesity epidemic will never make it public. If you are, however, a self-motivated learner who can stick to self-made deadlines, this is the ideal low-paying second job for you!

For myself, I do have excellent self-discipline in setting and making deadlines for my research and writing projects. Since I cannot devote all my working time to scholarly work, this means that I carefully set aside dedicated days for research/writing. Now, going to the library is a reward for having completed a client’s project (and not a procrastination technique). Being outside of academe means that you will probably feel isolated in your research at times. I say, turn that outsider mentality to your benefit. As an independent academic, you set the standards and pace for your work. You have the freedom to research, write, and publish whatever it is that interests you, without the worry of how it will impact tenure applications or the kinds of classes and grad students you have to take on.

- - -

While in grad school, I remember I used to laugh about the prospect of becoming an independent academic because it seemed like an existence as likely, and about as common, as a unicorn. I am still figuring out my niche in the world, but it is becoming clearer to me by the day that my heart still is an academic one. If I am not deeply engaged with critical work, I am miserable. Of course, like most people, I need a break from academic thinking and this is where I find balance with my “day job” (editing for academic and professional clients). For months now, I relish the breaks in between client projects – that is the time for me to indulge in the latest novel by my favourite feminist SF author, attend a conference (when scant finances permit), or write about the never-ending awesomeness that is cyberpunk. Being an independent scholar, for me, is about exercising my unique skill set and knowledge in order to become a contributing (and hopefully, one day, an influential) member in a larger public community of shared interest. As a university of one, my future looks bright and brainy.

 

*Have not actually seen the Smurfs movie nor written about. No money in the world would be enough to sit through that monstrosity of a "film." *Shudder*

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Tuesday, 20 September 2011 19:51

No Classrooms or Cubicles - A PhD in Transition

It is now a smidgen over a year since I defended my PhD thesis last September. I cannot believe how much change has happened (and most of it within the past three months). When I started writing for this blog, I was still dealing with my feelings of shame, fear, and failure. While it is certainly true that I still have moments of self-doubt, I no longer feel like I failed at academia. It has taken me a year to fully appreciate the depth of my unhappiness as a graduate student. I love the work of it (researching, teaching, and critical thinking), but I am not suited to the pressured environment of academe.

In retrospect, it is easy to understand how I believed that academia was the place for me. From the time I started kindergarten, school was a place of guaranteed attention and praise. The better I did at schoolwork, the nicer the teacher was to me. As I grew older, I figured out the most efficient ways to earn high grades and esteem. I was lucky that school skills came easily to me and I earnestly enjoyed learning. Moving on to university after high school was a natural progression. As an undergrad, it took me a couple of semesters to relearn the expectations and standards of work, but once I did, I again was in the sweet spot of “A’s and praise” that any high achiever knows and desires.

Approaching the end of my undergrad career, I really didn’t have any idea of where I was heading once I was finished. Then, in my final semester, the professor of an elective English course I was taking suggested that I apply for grad school. I can honestly say that I never considered pursuing an MA or PhD until then. In fact, I distinctly remember looking at the number of years involved in obtaining a PhD and thinking it absolutely ridiculous that anyone would stay in school for that long. I am practical person, but when I heard the words “you would make a great graduate student,” I forgot about all of my earlier reservations. With just that one phrase and resulting ego-boost, all my uncertainty about life after undergrad disappeared: I was going to grad school.

And in many ways, grad school was an amazing experience. I moved away from home and discovered that I adored living in Hamilton (which, I will admit, was a total surprise). I made friends who I now consider family. I fell in love. My mind was opened to new ways of thinking and being. I became a more patient, more open person. These experiences, however, were not dependent on my being in academia. Part of the problem, I realize now, is that I conflated being happy with my personal life with being in graduate school. Leaving academia, then, became an incredibly scary proposition: if I left, who and where would I be?

It turns out that I am actually far happier outside of the ivory tower than within it. This is still a shock. I always thought of myself as someone well-suited to institutions with their clear hierarchies and achievement levels. In hindsight, I simply did not have enough experience to know that I could excel elsewhere. The non-academic jobs I had while in undergrad were all office-work centered. I hated being in an office environment, doing the grunt work like data entry and cold calls. In my limited knowledge of the work world, I thought I had to choose between a cubicle and a classroom. Seeing that the classroom environment was far more engaging and rewarding than the cubicle, I could only imagine myself working for a university. Of course, once I was a grad student, the whole professionalization process took care of the rest of my career plans for me: MA, PhD, post-doc, sessional work, and finally, a tenure-track position. It was all laid out for me … and as I neared the end of the PhD, I began to feel trapped and resentful.

Leaving academia at the end of my PhD was difficult in a myriad of ways, but despite all the emotional turmoil, fall-out depression, and chronic pain caused by constant stress, I felt free. Free to pursue any job I wanted and free to reimagine myself as something other than “student.” I guess the point of this post is this: being in school from the ages of 5 to 30 stunted my ability to imagine myself in different work environments. I never had a guidance counselor in high school and I neglected to use the career services offered by my undergraduate university. It wasn’t until I finally left university that I began to do the hard work of asking myself: what do I want? If I had stayed in academia, I would be living a life that was familiar, but deeply unsatisfying. Outside of the academy, I no longer have a set career path ahead of me – and I actually like it this way. I feel like I am becoming something greater than what I was, than what I thought I could be. For the first time in my life, I have no clue what the next year will bring … and that is so damn exciting!

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

I wasn’t intending to write this post for another few weeks, but after a recent frustrating email exchange, I realized that I needed to write something about the still inexplicable presence of sexism and misogyny right now. I want to note some of the explicit and implicit incidents of sexism that I have experienced and observed in academia and fandom over the past few years.

During my time as a graduate student, I had to the deal with a certain amount of sexism that I imagine most other women in academia or similar professional institutions encounter. Generally, the sexism I encountered came from my male peers and not faculty (although there were certainly a few incidents at that level – and I have heard countless horror stories from female faculty about their own experiences with sexism). I think only once – *once* – did a male colleague openly admire my intellectual capability. I don’t think that I present myself as a blathering fool, but I can recall many times when a male peer looked at me like I was completely stupid.

So I came to expect disinterest and disregard from most men when it came to talking about my work with feminist SF (and also with posthumanism, corporeal feminism … really challenging and cool stuff!). I thought that once I got the PhD, maybe I would get some more respect – after all, we all experienced the same thesis writing process and we all passed the same tests with the same expectations – but no, not much has changed. The result is that I am hesitant to talk about my research or I down play its intellectual rigor, which is an unfortunate habit that I am trying to break (I have a supportive feminist man as my life-partner, who is always telling me to speak proudly of my accomplishments).

Just recently, at WorldCon, a man in the audience at my paper presentation challenged me on my academic standing. After I introduced myself, noting that I earned my PhD through studying feminist post-cyberpunk SF and am now an independent academic, he immediately began asking me what university level position I had attained (by listing the various tenure track positions as if I was unaware of them). I explained again that my academic career was degree terminal. The sexist nature of his query was commented on by a wonderful woman (an aerospace engineer – awesome!) that was also at the talk – we ended up noting the various incidents of casual sexism we witnessed during many panels at the con (from male panelists speaking over female panelists to outward deflections of relevant feminist issues). It seems that whenever feminist politics break into traditionally male-dominated communities, there is also a debate about whether or not the issues being raised are valid. Discussion is derailed quickly, as the status quo is eager to move on to other less upsetting topics.

In my position as a SF researcher and capital “F” Feminist, I’m noticing the same tired old responses being bandied about by those who are unwilling to recognize inequality and their implicit support of it. When I mentioned the previous and continuing contribution of feminist SF writers to the (post)cyberpunk genre at one panel, only one of the four panelists directly responded to what I had said. The more general response was to give personal anecdotes about encounters with female writers and edge the conversation towards more neutral ground. I am entirely annoyed by hearing the old line: “I know one woman [writer, editor, publisher, etc], so there is no gender imbalance [in SF publishing, fandom, academia, etc].”

I imagine that most people reading this post are the choir: you don’t need the sermon, you’re already preaching it. To any readers who don’t believe that there is significant gender imbalance in academia, fandom, or society at large: you are wrong. Feminists are not writing and speaking about gender and sexism because we are seeking a second opinion or validation. We are stating the existence of a problem and looking for ways to fix it. I feel that the gains made by first- and second-generation feminists are being undone – all while we are being told to sit down and relax. I definitely will be writing more about feminist issues (which for me intersect with anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-ablist rhetoric) in the future. I do believe that North American culture is at a cross-roads: as financial crises and war create a fearful public, the instinct for too many is turn back to conservative values and politics. If the feminist movement is to survive, we need to make sure that we don't stay quiet about the incidents of sexism -- both casual and egregious -- that we encounter.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Friday, 26 August 2011 17:10

Good-Bye Academia, Hello Fandom!

Good-bye academia, hello fandom! I know, I know. I technically left academia nearly a year ago at the completion of my PhD, but like in any massive breakup, there has been baggage. I have been working through my issues with my graduate education by writing on this blog. Overall, writing about my experience in grad school has been cathartic and has let me connect with others in similar positions. If anything, my disenfranchisement with academia has only deepened over time and I am entirely confident that I made the right decision to leave.

Still, the shadow of academe has loomed large over me this past year. Most of the people with whom I spend time I met in grad school and our conversations inevitably turn towards departmental politics and frustrations over our employment prospects. I have been waiting for the decisive break when I stop looking back and begin to move forward into a venture of my own design. I am happy to announce that Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention, in Reno (Aug. 17-21) was the break I was waiting for all this time.

I was uncertain as to what to expect of this WorldCon. My only other experience of intensive fandom was in 2009, when I attended WorldCon in Montreal. As I mentioned before, I was overwhelmed with people and panels during that trip and my presentation was less than stellar. Going into Renovation this year I set myself three goals: to talk to as many people as I could, present an engaging paper (leaving time for meaningful discussion), and to pitch my non-fiction book idea. On all accounts, I met with greater success than I could ever have imagined. I talked with writers and fans until I was literally exhausted. My paper presentation was awesome (Laura J. Mixon attended! More on that to come in another post) and we had a productive discussion about race in SF. My book idea was met with enthusiasm and sincere interest. To put in bluntly: I received more positive feedback during the 5 days of the con than I did in the entire 6+ years of my graduate education.

Part of the reason for the difference in response is obviously due to the fact that everyone at WorldCon loves SF/F, while I only met one or two individuals in academia who had a passing interest in the genre. As I noted before, SF is still a marginalized field of academic study. It just felt good to be surrounded by people who love SF as much as I do. Even when our specific interests diverged (because there are many different sub-genres in SF/F), the tone of conversation was one of sharing favourite authors and books instead of the never-ending academic competition of “who is better read.” I left Reno with a long list of books to read and a buoyed sense of self-esteem.

I am also acutely aware of the problems that exist within fandom. It is not a fairy-tale realm where everyone gets along and all of the world’s problems are solved. Sexism and racism are still issues that need addressing in SF/F fandom. Women writers, especially those who openly write feminist or queer SF, are still overshadowed by their male (heterosexual) peers. The marginalized presence and participation of people of colour at SF conventions is a site of great anxiety that is in desperate need of open conversation (one that is particularly pressing in my Canadian eyes). With these limitations in mind, I nevertheless feel that fandom is currently ready for significant change. As the generational split in fandom becomes more obvious (between the 50+s who have been attending cons since the 1960s/70s and the latest group of 20- and 30-somethings who bring with them the comic and gaming culture of the 1980s/90s), I believe that the conversations around the limits of fandom have the opportunity to evoke a real shift in the SF/F demographic.

Whereas I felt that I had limited impact on the same biases present in academia, I feel that I can perhaps create generative change within fandom. Someone had mentioned to me that it was a shame that I left academia as they need strong feminist women there, but I believe that the SF/F community needs them too. Instead of staying in academia and talking with a handful of colleagues who already agree with my politics, going into fandom introduces me to new people whose socio-political ideas are different from my own. While conversations around race, gender, ability, and sexuality, may not flow as easily as they would in a graduate classroom, the majority of the people I met at WorldCon are open to discussing (or, perhaps more accurately, debating) new ideas. The old fannish want to see fandom continue – and that means fandom must change to become more inclusive.

While I still don’t know with any certainty where I will be in terms of my career in the near future, I know that I want it to be within the SF community. Fandom offers me the opportunity to continue my research into SF and provides me with an eager and engaged audience for it. I can already map out some of the arguments that need to take place and I look forward to discovering new areas of contention (because that is where work needs to take place). I don’t want my life to be boring and safe. I want to live on my own terms and I want to be a positive and productive force in the world. SF, by its very nature as a speculative genre, coincides with my philosophy: to look ahead, to challenge and, hopefully, to change the future. So: Hello fandom. My name is Kathryn Allan, I’m a Feminist, and I’m just getting started …

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

I actually wrote the following post weeks ago, but I wasn’t ready to post it. First, I felt too exposed in this piece, and second, I know that is not, well, classy to discuss money with strangers. Well, to the hell with that – after reading Lee Skallerup Bessette’s and Amanda Krauss’ recent posts on class in the academy, I can’t think of a good reason not to post now. I’m not the only one!

I did not fully appreciate class differences until I went to university. I grew up in that Canadian grey area between working class and lower-middle class. There was always enough food and clothes (even if there were no brand names and often hand-me-downs), but money was a constant issue of stress and conflict. I overheard innumerable arguments about money and learned to adopt the attitude that “hard work doesn’t mean wealth” (which would come in hand in grad school). Throughout high school, I was aware of the fact that any post-secondary aspirations I had were my own responsibility to fulfill: I would have to pay for my books, transportation, and tuition. So I lived at home, made the 1.5 hour commute to campus, worked during my summers, took out student loans, and studied hard to win bursaries and scholarships. This is not an uncommon experience.

Still, it was during undergrad when I realized the socio-economic disparity between myself and many of my peers. The friends I made all came from families who were solidly middle-class or higher: their parents covered tuition, allowances, and living expenses. Visiting their homes was culture shock – everything was new, top-of-line, and (to me) indulgent. I remember looking into a friend’s freezer and discovering that they had three kinds of popsicles – and they were the “good kind” with swirls and real fruit (not the off-brand “freezies” that we had at my house). It is funny how such a seemingly small thing – a brand of popsicle – can speak volumes to class expectations.

I made it through undergrad with $20,000 in student loan debt and the idea that one day, hopefully, I would have a freezer full of the finest in frozen desserts. I imagined a future where I didn’t live month-to-month on a wage, where I could travel and buy the little extras that seemed to make life for my friends that much better than it was for me. Higher education was my route up and out of the working class. Or at least I had thought.

Entering graduate school was a whole other playing field in the game of class norms. I’ve never been very successful hiding my class background, mostly due to the fact that I don’t feel a need to, but I will admit to feeling insecure about my cultural knowledge amidst my new peers. I grew up listening to Top 10 lists on the radio and came from a house that never had cable TV or the internet. I read old Beetle Baily and Hagar the Horrible comic books growing up and didn’t see a symphony or opera until I was well into my university education. I felt distinctly unclassy next to my classmates whose parents were professors, lawyers, and engineers. I also felt really, really poor. And that feeling only increased as each year passed and my already well-to-do peers landed grant after grant while my applications were consistently rejected.

I think part of the reason I failed at grant writing is because I never truly got the hang of the necessary academic language. I’ve spent most of my adult life relearning the pronunciations and correct usages of the “big words.” I know all the important ones now, but I still don’t use them often. I strongly believe that communication should be as clear as possible – and much of academic language is too esoteric and convoluted for someone uninitiated in the discipline to easily follow. Professors always commented that my writing was “clear.” From some that was a sincere compliment, but from others it came across as a backhanded one. Through such small social and institutionalized codes of conduct, I was always aware of my class status. I sought out others who didn’t see my mispronunciations and gaps in cultural knowledge as signs of my unsuitability for academia (and yes – there were definitely a few individuals who gave me little intellectual credit due to these slippages). I found the silence around matters of money infuriating. In my experience, people who have money are always the ones the least comfortable talking about it – and academia is quiet as a tomb.

A good deal of my anger is directed at the high-earning faculty members who continue to encourage naïve young people, who may not have much financial stability or family support, to enter graduate education without informing them of the financial burden of such an undertaking. It is irresponsible and an example of the worst kind class ignorance rife in academe (not everyone can afford grad school or has access to professional networks that will ensure them of a job when they are done). I have little respect for faculty and graduate students who espouse leftist politics of equality and ability, and yet are unwilling to re-evaluate their own privileged class positions or sacrifice any of their income and time to help those less fortunate in their community.

Of course, not everyone in academia is the middle-class ideal or an upper-class snob – but it certainly is an easier place for those who can claim those statuses. For those of us who weren’t lucky to be born into wealth (and it is luck, not a right), we have to choose whether or not we should try and pass (knowing that eventually, our lower class backgrounds will be exposed). I guess I could have tried harder to get the language down just right and I could have avoided bringing up the shameful discrepancies in graduate funding so often. But I am proud of the way I conducted myself as a graduate student. If I had been anything less than myself, I fear that I may have been trapped in academia forever. I would have accepted the low pay, stressful workload, and uncertain job prospects and remained unhappy in a system of economic exploitation.

I never really expected to get rich from higher education, but I did expect better than what I received. I guess I expected an academic job when I first started my MA – after all, that was what I was told would happen. When I saw the possibility of academic employment as the mirage it has become for so many PhDs, I was suddenly grateful for my class background. I think it helped me see the academic system for what it is – I was able to develop a Plan B and not feel entirely crushed that I am not going to have a tenured job. Aside from one extended family member who holds a teaching degree, I am the first person in my family to reach this level of education. I am proud of that distinction, because it has not been easy to achieve.

University has not been the road to riches for me, but it has given me the opportunity to live my life on my own terms. With a PhD under my belt, I feel that I can go toe-to-toe with anyone (even if I still stumble on a word here and there). If I can survive grad school (while being poor and sick), I can survive any career challenges that lie ahead for me. I do not feel embarrassed by my less-than-middle-class background; I’m happy with where it has taken me. And besides, I still appreciate a really good popsicle.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

Ask a Humanities grad student about their employable skills and there is a very good chance that their first words will be: “research and writing.” I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I’ve heard this answer from people who are so much more than “research and writing.” Since the whole process of academic professionalization focuses largely on the practices of research and writing, many Humanities grads never receive acknowledgement of their other latent and trained talents. Most grad students also rightly consider their role as a teaching assistant as relevant experience, but again, they think of teaching in the context of academe. With only vaguely conceived notions about their skill set (which is entirely tied into academic work), it is not surprising that the idea of transitioning into a non-academic job can be frightening for Humanities grad students. However, as tenure track positions become increasingly rarer and the pool of applicants for low-paying, benefit-poor sessional work steadily grows, soon-to-be PhDs need to start thinking about their “Plan B” career options.

My first piece of advice: Look outside of your department. Chances are good that most departments don’t do a lot of talking about non-academic jobs, and if by some miracle a department does, it has limited resources in training its grad students for these alternate career paths. Every university, however, does have some sort of career counseling centre that is accessible for both undergrad and grad students. Go there. Put aside the “research and writing” mantra and explore the various career services the university offers.

I made several appointments with the career centre at my university: I learned about the value of “informational interviews” and tips on how to reconceive of my academic skill set as non-academic one (it’s all in the translation). I took a day-long “Career Planning” seminar over March break one year. It was like a group high school guidance counseling session: we were given personality, interest, and skill assessment tests (such as the Myer-Briggs and Strong Interest Inventory). A career counselor led us through a whole host of activities that highlighted our individual strengths and passions. As someone who had never gone through this kind of process before, it was exciting and enlightening (who knew that I had so much in common with forestry workers!). I came away from that particular seminar knowing two things: (1) academia is not my ideal work environment, and (2) I had an incredible list of employable skills that went far beyond “research and writing.” I still didn’t know what it was I wanted to do after my PhD, but I had greater confidence that I was not going to fall into some black abyss when I left academe.

In addition to using the career services at my university, I also began going to career training seminars arranged by the School of Graduate Studies. In particular, I attended free all-day workshops (for grad students and post-docs) offered by MITACS Step: Networking (run by the amazing Queen of Networking, Donna Messer) and Project Management. Talk about getting out of my department! I was the only Humanities person in the room both times. In the Project Management workshop, there was one Social Scientist, but otherwise, all the other grads and post-docs were from the Faculties of Science and Engineering. Not only did I benefit from the career training, but I loved talking to the other grad students. Within my own department, no one ever seemed too keen on my thesis topic (reading technology and the body in feminist SF), but the non-Humanities grad students I met during the workshops were quite interested and gave me a lot of positive feedback. One cranky Physics PhD student (and fellow SF lover) even told me that I “had the best job in the world” – it was a truly astounding professional moment, considering my usual feelings of marginalization within my own department. Stepping outside of my departmental silo exposed me to new people to add to my professional network and new ways of conceiving myself as an employable individual.

My second major piece of advice is this: Be patient and kind with yourself. Transitioning into a non-academic career is difficult after spending a significant chunk of your adult life training to be a professor. There are mental, physical, and financial wounds that will need healing. That takes time. I finished my PhD almost a year ago and I’m still in the process of reimagining my work-self and moving towards a successful and fulfilling non-academic career. I spent the first several months out of grad school feeling miserable and stressed about finding work right away. I came to realize (with help from my awesome and supportive partner, Andrew), that the kind of work that was available to me right away, was not the kind of work I wanted to be doing. Now, I have set myself small, attainable goals (i.e. launching this blog, networking, writing reviews, etc.) that will hopefully lead me towards a career editing/writing in the SF community (or to other unexpected, but welcomed, work). I know that this transition will not happen overnight, but I do know that I am a capable professional whose skills go far beyond "research and writing."

Looking outside of my department was the first step in moving away from academia. I am slowly building up a useful professional network as I engage with work that I truly love. I look forward to the future now that I am on a career path of my own choosing (instead of being locked into the process of academic tenure track work). Life is good outside of the tower ... I'm so glad that I decided to move out.

 

 

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

A few weeks after my defense, I sat down with members of my department for an “exit interview” where I proposed a brief list of suggestions and changes to the grad program. I composed the list carefully, making what I thought were relatively politically safe and low-cost recommendations. While a few of these points may be specific to the institution I attended, I believe that many grad programs would benefit from this advice.

Financial Aid (especially important for students without external funding):

  • Offer a one time $500 grant to students in the finishing stages of the PhD to cover thesis paper, printing, and binding fees.
  • Extend guaranteed funding to 5th+ year students and/or offer sessional teaching positions and/or guaranteed TA/RAships (that cover living expenses).
  • Offer a one time $200 grant to cover “professionalization” costs, such as buying appropriate clothes for job interviews.

(Non-academic) Job Training:

  • Appoint a Non-Academic Job Market faculty member and/or graduate student committee. Much like the Professionalization Committee, the Non-Academic Job Committee can hold talks, presentations, etc. on preparing students for the non-academic job market.
  • In addition to bringing in a representative from the Campus Career Centre, enlist employment professionals who specialize in helping academics transition to non-academic jobs.
  • Set up non-academic professional training sessions (i.e. a seminar in project management) for graduate students and/or explicitly encourage attendance to university-sponsored sessions held throughout the school year.
  • Bring in PhDs who are working in non-academic jobs to come in and speak about their career paths to graduate students.

Discursive/Culture:

  • Clearly state on the Department’s website the current rates of PhDs finding academic jobs – or at least link to external resources regarding employment opportunities.
  • Start talking openly about the current state of the academic job market in classes. Not to scare, but to encourage students to develop a ‘Plan B’ career path.
  • Openly support students who choose to leave academia at the completion of their degrees. Announce their successes during departmental meetings (much like how academic placements are currently announced).
  • Have supervisors stay in (minimal) contact with their PhD students for 6 months to a year after degree completion in order to better understand the job market and individual career paths.
  • Openly and repeatedly encourage graduate students to access campus-wide services (such as Career Services).

My exit interview went well and the faculty I spoke with were honestly interested in improving graduate experience. Apparently, (some of) my suggestions were addressed at a departmental meeting – the outcome? A PhD working in a non-academic job – who was finally not a spouse of a current faculty member – spoke to the grad students. A small start I guess, but in talking with PhD students still working towards completion, the same fears and silences around academic employment are intact. [Update: Since this article was written, my former department has established a permanent Non-Academic Job Resource Officer and website, and there is increased awareness and discussion of the career challenges facing graduate students.]

I personally feel that the largest changes need to happen within the culture of academe. Tenured faculty need to start talking to their students (undergrad and grad) about the state of the university. I appreciate the pressures on faculty to remain silent, but I firmly believe that is it unethical to encourage students to pursue an expensive and difficult graduate education without also giving them the facts about the grim prospects of academic employment.

Graduate students: Get out of the “silo” of your department. Look at the services your university offers. Bring in outside voices. Be sensitive to the disparity in graduate funding. Make connections with graduate students in other disciplines. Work towards academic employment, but design a “Plan B” for yourself too. Arrange for your own "exit interview" with your department or faculty - you might be done with your studies, but you can help those still struggling through.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
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