Sunday, January 17, 2010

Alternative Career Tracks?

There's been a lot of discussion lately about job market issues. Tenured Radical started it by (in a response to Suburban Dean) suggesting some ways that academic departments might change. Others responded.

Historiann responds in brief, though her comment section discussion is very interesting.

Dr. Crazy talked about her experiences at a 4/4 job, and warns against idealizing those jobs or expecting tt folks who have them to feel guilty.

Clio Bluestocking talked about feeling lucky to have survived the market and gotten her job, though it doesn't offer tenure.

Sisyphus at Academic Cog does a great job talking about the difficulty of retraining issues, and also about thinking in broader terms.

I want to expand a bit on a comment I made to Sisyphus at Academic Cog, though it's also in response to reading some of the comments elsewhere. It's been an interesting discussion, and while I'd like to make real suggestions, the budgetary issues seem way too big for me. I don't know where to begin with the budget issues on my own campus, much less across all universities. Here goes: get more money; hire more people to tt or at least long term contracts instead of overusing cheap grad student labor; reduce PhD programs all around while making sure that "non-Ivy" students get equitable opportunities, and make sure that those programs provide solid funding, some teaching experience, and good career counseling. Oh, and world peace, potable water for all, no more polio.

When I'm queen of the world, things will be different. Until then, though...

I was struck in the comments by how many folks talked about their professors telling or not telling them various things. (I'm not blaming people for listening to their professors, but noticing it.) Professors of PhD programs are privileged in all sorts of ways, and certainly many seem incredibly wise and smart and all-knowing.

I returned to school via a community college, took a year there, decided I wanted to study more English, with an eye to writing or maybe teaching at a community college with an MA (because I had NO clue, except I knew the community college instructors I had were excellent and inspiring). I was allowed to enroll at a regional university program despite my less than inspiring undergrad grades as a biology major, and took a year of undergrad courses, basically doing the English major classes.

During the second part of that year, I did a presentation for a class, and afterwards, the professor said something about what a good job I did (thanks to my Peace Corps experience!) and how I should think about going on for a PhD program.

I'd never thought of a PhD program before. But here, a young, very smart and caring assistant prof suggested it. And when I talked to another prof I respected, she encouraged me, too. Neither thought to tell me how absolutely horrid the market was, though the assistant prof had just gotten her job. Nor did the other students in my GRE study group hear differently from the profs who were encouraging them.

So, yes, I believed. My professors encouraged me, and I believed. And I went on and eventually got lucky.

It was during my first year in a PhD program that I began hearing from more advanced grad students about the horrors of the job market. Later, yes, the faculty in the program talked about limiting grad enrollments, and did, at least for a couple years, reduce enrollments. They also talked about doing a better job with funding.

Here's what I want to offer to the discussion of alternative career tracks.

Students need to recognize that professors are flawed human beings. You may think we know about how to get jobs, but what we know is that we got a job. We may have some clues about how that happened, but our knowledge is really very, very limited. We may know about how our own hiring goes, but we probably don't know a lot about how other departments' hiring goes (broadly). We may know a couple people here and there, but I doubt most people know the ins and outs of other departments very well.

And we generally know even less about getting jobs outside of academia. Most tt faculty went to college or university, did really well, went to a grad program, did really well, and then got lucky enough to get a tt job. Few of us have worked in other fields extensively. (Yes, some have, but most haven't.)

We are flawed human beings who want to think that we made a good life decision to go to grad school, move across the country for a job far from family and friends, and so forth. Our ego may get in the way a bit when we see a student who seems "like us," who seems to love what we love and who is thinking about going on, becoming our academic offspring, so to speak.

But there are jobs out there that have nothing to do with academics that are meaningful and rewarding. Yes, jobs outside academia are tight right now, especially tight, all around. But our undergrads are managing to get interviews and opportunities. And academic jobs, while meaningful and rewarding, are not one hundred percent perfect, any more than other jobs.

How, then, do you go about preparing for and getting one of those jobs?

Get to the career center and look at what your school (or your alma mater) offers in terms of career counseling and help. My school, a smallish regional university, offers amazing resources. I had no clue about these sorts of resources when I was an undergrad or a grad student. (Seriously, my family's response to my job concerns was that I could always be a secretary until I got married. I rebelled and joined the Peace Corps, and never turned back.) It's only since I've been advising students and encouraging them to go to our career center that I've learned about the wealth of resources. There are people who are really good at helping our students find and apply for jobs, prepare for job interviews, and help them with career decisions. These people know way more about those things than I ever will.

Look at the ways that the AAC&U talks about the value of a liberal arts education. Those folks talk about the liberal arts as building skills, rather than being vocational. And we ask our undergrads to think about the skills they're building through classes, activities, projects, and such. At least, that's what I've been learning as an advisor. We don't tell students to talk about being a lit major, we tell students to talk about what they've learned and how what they've learned will help an employer. Here are some of the biggies:

Analyzing information and data (textual, numeric, graphic, etc)
Synthesizing information
Communicating (written, oral, etc)

Even if you're resistant, and aiming for the tenure track, thinking about your skills will help you when you talk about advising or teaching in interviews.

And if you take one of those other jobs, you can take comfort in knowing you're likely to change careers a couple of times, so if you don't like where you're starting, you're likely to find something else. That's how most peoples' careers work. You can also take comfort in knowing that you'll probably make a lot more money. Maybe you'll contribute to feeding people, or making sure the lights come on. Maybe you'll arrange aid to Haiti or help people find appropriate health insurance.

And yes, it may suck that you spent 8.4 years (on average) getting a PhD in English rather than earning money right away, but you'll also have incredibly well developed skills, way beyond what an undergrad probably has. You can research, analyze, write, teach, speak in crowds. And, nothing will take away the intense pleasure you'll have in knowing what you've learned.

Some people would say my taking time to volunteer in the Peace Corps was a waste. I didn't like slogging through mud, and changed fields from biology to (eventually) English. But I didn't waste my time. I learned so much; I became a better and different person in some ways, and became more comfortable with my old self in other ways. I mostly enjoyed the process, and I couldn't have gotten where I ended up without that process.


  1. You may think we know about how to get jobs, but what we know is that we got a job. We may have some clues about how that happened, but our knowledge is really very, very limited. We may know about how our own hiring goes, but we probably don't know a lot about how other departments' hiring goes

    I think this is very very true, and most students don't realise it. (I didn't!)

    My profs were always realistic about the academic job market, and explained that I had little chance of getting a position, and even if I did, in Australia at least, tenure is a thing of the past, and the best any new hires can look forward to are renewable 3-year contracts.

    But what I still kind of blame them for is that the advice they then gave me about how to improve my chances was not really all that good, and I am only now realising that. They downplayed the importance of publishing ("the time to publish papers is after your PhD: just focus on getting through fast"). They told me that getting through the program without requiring an extension would count for something. (It doesn't: it probably makes things worse in my case at least.) They emphasised the importance of teaching experience. In some cases the latter might be good advice, but they all knew I was geographically challenged (stuck in my current location) and so should have seen that I would not be looking for traditional teaching jobs at the end, but for grant money, where they couldn't give a flying proverbial about teaching.

    I have had to realise that these people were giving the best advice they could. I thought they knew about hiring and opportunities and whatnot, but really as you say, they knew what got THEM hired (20-40 years ago), and maybe even were a bit hazy on that. I should have got external advice (from the research office, the careers office, etc) early on.

  2. This is a great post.

    I got some great advice about grad school from my undergrad mentor, a woman who adjuncted at the uni for 27 years. She made it perfectly clear from the start that I shouldn't plan on a college gig. In fact, I sort of assumed I *wouldn't* get a job when I first started my master's program.

    Along the way, some of my music profs were helpful, and some weren't, but at least they were all pretty realistic about the lousy job market.

    One of my former students, now a dear friend, got some TERRIBLE advice when she asked her undergrad advisor about what she should be doing now (in grad school) to improve her chances of getting a job after graduation. Her advisor gave her one piece of advice: since she is a beautiful woman, she should make sure to include a picture of herself with all of her job applications.

    I'm still shaking my head over that one.

  3. First of all - Styley Geek, I miss you!! It's nice to see you, if only in the comments...

    Second, I've lately found myself advising students to do a philosophy major, but not to go to grad school. I really do think that philosophy majors teach the right skills, but that being a professional philosopher isn't necessarily a good choice.

    It's also interesting to see that many people with an MA in philosophy think that they're competitive for community college jobs -- because the market is so terrible, an MA would have to have an unusual skill set or life experiences to get noticed among all the Ph.D.s....

  4. You might be happy to know that your PhD program, Bardiac, *did* continue to keep the class size down -- and fully funded -- after you left.

    Anyway, at least I know that none of my MA students can't say that I didn't give them all the reasons *not* to go on to the Ph.D. I give the hard and scary numbers at every "applying to grad school workshop" and at the beginning of our "intro to grad school" class. As a result, from an incoming class of 20 with about 15 saying they want to go on to the Ph.D., only about 3-4 actually end up applying, and I think of that as a good thing. And this is usually a decision they come to after lots of experience and thought in our 2 year MA program (and also taking into account the scary numbers). It's one of the things I think our program is good for.

    But there's another response to my warnings that could only happen at a place like mine (or yours, perhaps). A number of students think that I'm bitter because I "ended up" at RBU. (This gets back to me.) Are you freakin' kidding me??? Leaving aside our crazy administration, this is a freakin' dream job. I hit the jack pot and now I'm tenured, too. They just don't get it. The ones who erroneously think I'm bitter think they're going to get into Ivy Ph.D. programs and get Ivy jobs (and don't realize that my own Ph.D. program is a top ten program -- because, since it's public, it couldn't possibly be!), and they don't realize that the *Ivy* grads aren't guaranteed these things.

    So it's not just the professors with a limited view of things. But it's one thing to tell a prof at a top rank school that the rest of academia just isn't like his life -- it's a whole other thing to try to explain, gently, to a student, even a smart one, that they have no idea what the competition is like. I don't want to break their hearts or be a dream crusher. How do I teach them to be realistic (or to balance some realism with the dream)?

  5. Coming from a completely different career place, this is interesting reading. One thing that you don't mention (because you're modest, perhaps) is the bald fact that you worked your ass off to get where you are. Those others of us who knew you back in the day know how hard you have always worked and how dedicated you were to each endeavor you took on.

    I do believe that that work ethic you've always shown, that ability to focus on what you need to do to get to where you want to be, are quite rare and very valuable skills. And those are skills that don't seem to get taught, not formally at least. How do you teach skills like that? Are they things some of us already have a tendency towards and others have a hard road to learn? Is it dependent on our parents and their example? It's certainly a set of skills I'd like to have my own kids learn...