Thursday, March 08, 2018

Alternative Academic Careers

Today I read this article on University Affairs, about the culture of PhD programs and the unspoken assumptions about careers. It’s a well-written article and it made me think, always a good sign. It was not until I reached the end of the article and saw the author’s photograph that I realized I know Angela in real life, in a professional capacity. Dr. Rooke was (still is?) the post-doc office. I mean that she was the sole employee of the University of Waterloo whose responsibilities were 100% devoted to the post-doctoral fellows (PDF, in the lingo) at the University; her boss (as I understand it) is the Dean of Graduate Studies and Research, an office – at many universities – that has been primarily concerned with graduate students rather than PDFs. This is an artifact of the relative novelty and ongoing unstable nature of the position of PDF, a topic of uncertainty that is beyond what I want to talk about today.

The main point that Angela makes (I’m going to refer to her by her first name from here on out, because I feel like she and I have already established that level of professional interaction (in)formality) is that the culture of academic PhD programs is excessively focused on the singular outcome of PhD students graduating and becoming university faculty, to the expense of other potential career outcomes for successful PhD students. I have been embedded in such a culture for most of my adult life, I’m still in it, and my personal Plan A is still aligned with this culture: I wish to become a professor. I agree with most of Angela’s description of this culture and how it manifests in the offices and hallways of academia (though I have not had an experience like the unthinking rudeness of her PhD advisor at her convocation – that was unacceptably boorish of him, regardless of one’s opinions of PhD programs). What I don’t necessarily agree with her about is “ought” part; the “is” seems solid.

Clearly, there are some problems within graduate-student education that can be traced directly to the dominant cultural attributes of PhD programs and career-support activities. Again, I think Angela hits the nail on the head with her description. The expectation that PhD students are working towards an eventual faculty position, with the implication that alternative career paths are in some way less valuable or represent a form of failure, is certainly the main cultural milieu I have experienced as well. Statements to this effect are not rare from professors, administrative staff, students, and sundry others (i.e. PDFs – jobs and related issues are basically all we talk about). Angela argues we should be pushing for change here, and explicitly describing non-faculty career options – so-called, alternative-academic, or alt-ac careers – as of equal value to the longstanding central priority. I think this is unlikely to happen, and I’m not sure it’s worth expending my effort on. I’m not going to tell anybody else what to do, this is an explanation for myself, and what I feel about this issue.

Start with why I think it’s unlikely, or at least very, very difficult to alter this aspect of academic culture. Rudeness is not covered here – dumping on PhD graduates after they gain some satisfactory (to themselves! don’t justify your choices, you don’t need to!) employment because they did not achieve a faculty position is just ugly behaviour. Don’t do that.

With that out of the way, I’m imagining the mental gymnastics a shift like this might require of a faculty member advising a graduate student. You, the student, are discussing career options with me, the professor, in this hypothetical situation. You ask me what I think of alt-ac careers in general, or one possibility you have discovered in particular. My response is likely to be positive – there are indeed many excellent options for PhD holders, and adding some skills you think will be attractive and useful for such jobs is a great idea. But then you ask me if that job is one I hold in the highest esteem, I have to say no. I *like* my career, and my job. I expect I will like my job as a professor should I ever succeed in this endeavour. And I do regard anything else as a failure, because that’s what I call a goal unachieved and abandoned. I have abandoned goals I had previously worked hard to achieve but did not, and I call those my failures. What do you call it?

Let’s stick with me as this hypothetical professor (I like this little daydream). I have followed this path, the academic career path from graduate school through post-doc positions and now on the tenure track. This is the path I know. This is the path I wanted to take, that I worked deliberately to take. I’m not going to tell you that I regret my whole life, and wish that I’d found an alt-ac job instead. A PhD has been intended as a critical step on the way up the Ivory Tower for a long time, so questioning why somebody would go through the abundant downsides of gaining a PhD if they indicate they are uninterested in this goal is appropriate (as long as these questions are not done with the great rudeness so often seen). It’s like asking why anybody is working towards a goal they don’t have. If the goal is clarified to include (or be primarily about) a career and a life that would still benefit from the PhD but is not a faculty position, then the question is answered.

Angela specifically mentions disparaging comments about university administrators as one of the manifestations of the PhD-leads-to-Prof academic culture. I have heard such comments. And I have seen much discussion about the large increase in university administrators concurrent with the decrease in tenure-track appointments as teaching responsibilities are offloaded onto ill-paid short-term contract lecturers. Dumping on admin is a popular pastime at universities. Angela’s job is an administrative position, so I understand her objections when profs and others make broad, negative statements about her position. I have direct experience of excellent, highly positive interactions with Angela in her profession. I think she’s very good at her job, and that her job is useful and necessary at the university – the University of Waterloo employs hundreds of PDFs, they need to have somebody with responsibility for serving those people. But her job is new, and was created in a era of ballooning administration at universities. Why have so many positions been so recently created? Are all such alt-ac jobs good and necessary, and are the changes in university faculty appointments and teaching responsibilities unrelated? These are big-picture, broad-trend kinds of questions and for me are essentially rhetorical right now.

I’m not trying to argue Angela’s job is somehow unjustified or redundant. I’m talking about the thoughts that occurred to me while reading her article. I still want to become a professor, and I want to work at a university that respects and supports all of the other employees and students. I don’t want Angela’s job for myself, but I do want her job to continue to exist (and be occupied by her for as long as she wants to). I want a different job, one that lots of other people seem to want me to achieve – and are helping me – yet I find myself in an awkward position. I had to push the boulder up the mountain, as far as this ledge. I can push it further up, but my frustration largely stems from the apparent height of my mountain compared to the other mountains around me. This is a silly metaphor – the other mountains are the careers of other people on similar career-tracks. Honestly, I’m sitting in a comfortable office, no rocks nor mountains nor literal paths are within sight.

That brings me to why I don’t see myself expending much effort to push a cultural change. I’m still on Plan A, I’m still trying to become a prof, so if I tell people about other career options, I’m telling them what I think they should do, not what I want for myself. If I tell people to pursue alt-ac careers, it’s because I see some reason for them to do so. This could be because somebody has expressed a desire to escape the Ivory Tower. Or, less charitably to myself, it could be that I think of some person as a rival for scarce academic positions, a competitor to sneakily exclude from future competition. I hope I don’t do that.

That’s not to say that alt-ac careers are inherently less valuable than my personal Plan A. I agree with Angela that we should change this way of thinking, raising these excellent career options to the same level as Plan A for graduate students and PhD-holders. I feel like it would be dishonest for me to be pushing this change, because I want Plan A for myself, and I have heard many, many people tell me my dreams are foolish. I’d rather my dreams are not also causing problems for others.

I’m now reading too much into Angela’s article. She didn’t tell me I’m foolish, I just imagine these implications in my mind. Please don’t tell me my failures are not failures. They’re not your failures, they’re mine. I’ll keep them, and my not-yet-failed-nor-succeeded for as long as I can.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A few things jump to mind right away upon reading your post: the first is that I feel like you've misunderstood the author's recommendation for changing the "Plan A" culture, the second is my (short) response to your comment about the "ballooning administration" in universities, and the third pertains to your perspective on the "mental gymnastics" required for cultural change in academia.

1) The crux of the first point rallies around the implicit nature of the Plan A paradigm. Let’s look at the author’s final words in the article.

“So, I challenge graduate advisers, faculty and department chairs to consider the implicit ways they shape their students’ perceptions of success and failure. They need to tackle this challenge so that PhDs outside of academia can celebrate their successes without implicitly being told they’ve already failed.”

This is different than the hypothetical you wrote about whereby a student might directly ask you your opinion about what job is best. Rooke is trying to shed light on the indirect persuasion academics put on their students to follow a select career path. For example, when I read Rooke’s piece, stories were brought to mind of fellow academics who have not been offered opportunities because of their perceived ability to excel as professors.

The obvious example (to me) is the advice some of my colleagues have been given about when to plan a family and still be a successful academic. The narrative here hitching itself to the “publish or perish” one, whereby any gap in an academic’s publishing record equals damage to their career. There are many examples of this not being true for tenure track faculty, but more importantly, this kind of advice assumes that a tenure track position was the student’s goal in the first place.

Another example is the way that academics lose their minds when a “promising” undergraduate/graduate student is thinking of doing a Masters/PhD in the same institution as their previous degree, the narrative being that they will “damage their career” by doing so (false). While there are certainly academics who will swear that staying in the same school is anathema to gaining a tenure track position, again, it is the assumption that this is where the student wants to go that is the issue. This also serves as an example that this culture does not only apply to PhD students (and postdocs) and that academics are in the habit of corralling students into the faculty career path early on.

2) If administrative positions like Rooke’s are indeed ballooning at universities, perhaps it is a reflection of the short comings of past leadership (faculty) to fulfill the needs of their students.

3) Putting aside how much I hate that you used the statement “mental gymnastics” to describe what should be a cornerstone of being an adviser (namely flexibility and adaptability), is it really that hard for an academic to listen to their students? I’m going to reference myself here and say that I think that any academic worth their salt as an adviser would know that you cannot advise someone who’s purpose or goal you do not understand. I 100% agree with Rooke on this one, academics must "consider the implicit ways they shape their students’ perceptions of success and failure.” She’s not advocating for an Arabian Double Front, she’s recommending compassion. She’s not demanding handsprings, she’s championing active listening. Just a reflection of your power and influence, not a Maltese Cross.

I think that your story and the challenges you’ve encountered will be an asset to you when advising your future students (which you will absolutely have some day), but when it comes to the language, and expectations, and implicit bias towards students it’s important to remember, it’s not about you.