Displaying items by tag: phd

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.


  • 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
Saturday, 11 June 2011 15:57

Post/Academic Shame

After completing my graduate studies and earning a doctorate in English Literature, I anticipated that I would feel a mix of exhaustion, relief, and accomplishment. I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming sense of shame that I would feel – and still feel in part today – that plunged me into a severe depression for several long winter months. Not following tradition, I did not have a celebratory meal and drinks with my supervisory committee after my defense. I was ill at the time and had called off the lunch that was planned. As the days and weeks passed from my defense date, I couldn’t bring myself to reschedule another time to get together. How could I celebrate my failure as an academic?

Despite excelling as a teaching and research assistant, being an active member within my department, and having highly praised writing/critical skills, I never managed to receive any external funding for my research. As anyone within academia knows, funding too often marks the perceived value of a scholar and without it, landing an academic job – and even other funding – becomes more challenging.

Being consistently poor and overworked inevitably caused me a great deal of stress. With each passing year, my work load and stress increased, while my pay decreased and my health worsened. By the end of my second year, I was suffering with chronic pain and I made the decision to leave academia once my PhD was completed. Still, there was always the lingering hope that maybe I could make it as a prof – if I was only lucky and clever enough to meet the right people and write the right things. I was not.

I felt deeply embarrassed for completing my degree. Why had I willingly endured so much hardship despite being acutely aware of the problems within graduate education and the miserable odds of succeeding in the academic job market? Knowledge was not power. It was like I was the victim of an email scam, but worse: I saw the scam for what it was and gave away my credit card information anyways.

The shame I felt was both startling and oppressive. I refused to look at the bound copy of my thesis and my PhD diploma was thrown into my lowest desk drawer (where it still sits, unframed and unlooked at). Everything about my 6+ years of combined graduate studies told me that success was only one thing: a tenure track job. To be sure, some faculty members gave lip-service to measuring success in other ways, but everything about the education and professionalization process screamed “tenure matters.” Even though I knew a university position was not for me, the parameters of what constituted success remained the same.

I know that graduate school is not an even playing field, regardless of the oft-spouted ideals of equality held by the majority of my Humanities peers. When measuring my academic production against many of my (well-funded) classmates, I fall short. While they were able to write and publish articles, I was dragging myself to doctor’s appointments. While they were out buying more books or traveling to another conference, I was struggling to pay the rent and accruing debt. There is nothing fair about graduate school … and I feel like a dupe for thinking that there might have been.

So here I am, nine months out, marginally self-employed and wondering if it was all worth it. The “no” that sits at the bottom of my gut shames me. I should have known better, I think. Or maybe I have bad luck. Or maybe I didn’t try hard enough. Or maybe the whole graduate system is actually broken. Maybe it relies on the shame, fear, and self-loathing it produces in those of us who don’t measure up, who don’t get funding, and who don’t get the tenure-track dream job to keep it going.

In my shame, I have been silent. It is not that I lack the intelligence and creativity for academic work – I am, in fact, quite confident in my strong analytical and communication skills – but I am physically and ethically unable and unwilling to participate in an institutionalized system of education that ignores the suffering of its workers.

I think that if the graduate school survivors who have been over-looked, under-paid, marginalized, and forgotten start feeling good about succeeding despite it all, we might evoke some change. If we can recognize that the failure lies not with us, but with a system that operates on economic and psychological exploitation, we can begin to push for change outside of the academy. If we can find the courage to voice our dissent loudly and widely in the public sphere, perhaps those inside might finally hear us.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
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