Blog Carnival: My Post-Ph.D. Story

Jacquelyn Gill over at The Contemplative Mammoth blog has put forward a great idea for the month of May: a “Post-Ph.D. Blog Carnival”,  for bloggers to tell their stories of what they did after finishing their Ph.D. degrees. As she notes, there are, and will be, a lot of stories of people leaving academia in disgust or disillusionment after completing a Ph.D.. But there are also stories of people who stayed, and there’s value in learning about wherever Ph.D. graduates end up. I’m one of those who stayed in academia, and this is my post-Ph.D. story.

To understand my post-Ph.D.story, you have to understand the context of the story. I’m proud to be from a family with some incredibly smart, skilled and determined people – but when I was growing up, I think the only people I knew who had university degrees were my elementary and high school teachers. After finishing high school, I ended up working in journalism for several years. But after dealing with one too many terrible bosses, I moved to another city with my boyfriend and took a pay-the-rent job at a trust company. I really enjoyed that job, but I also realized that I would likely need some post-secondary education to broaden my prospects for any kind of work. So I signed up for some accounting courses at the local college, because knowing something about accounting was useful to the job I was doing. I thought that maybe, eventually, I would get some kind of  certificate or diploma.

At times I felt like Rita, from the movie Educating Rita, in this strange and very different world of post-secondary education, where everyone seemed much more confident and comfortable than me. I was in my mid-20s and had way more work experience than most of the other students, but that really didn’t seem to count for anything. And then I took my first organizational behaviour course – and it was a revelation. The theories explained to me why my previous bosses and workplaces had been so dysfunctional even though the work itself was often a lot of fun. And I was hooked.

I transferred back to a university in my home area and eventually completed a bachelor of business administration degree with a double major in business and English. A degree in business and English, with concentrations in organizational behavior and Old/Middle English, made me pretty much unemployable – even though I thought it was a great range of skills –  and I didn’t really feel like fighting for a job in a terrible job market. So I went on and did an MBA at the same university. I did the thesis option within the MBA program, and found that I really liked doing research; I also worked as a teaching assistant and found that I enjoyed teaching too.

As I was working on my master’s thesis, my supervisor and another professor suggested to me, independently of each other, that I should think about doing a Ph.D. I had certainly never thought of myself as someone who could get a Ph.D., but I knew there must be something in it if  two people whose opinions and judgement I trusted were suggesting the same thing. So I read up on “how to choose a Ph.D. program” and “what to expect in a Ph.D. program” and sent off applications to three Ph.D. programs in business. Much to my surprise, I was accepted by all three. The school I chose offered me early admission and a very generous financial support package, and even though I had to move to a city two hours away by plane, with notoriously cold and long winters, off I went for the next four school years.

 

Pembina Hall at the University of Alberta. It's now an administrative building, but it was the on-campus residence for older students when I was a U of A student. I lived there for the last full year I spent on campus. (credit: University of Alberta)

Pembina Hall at the University of Alberta. It’s now an administrative building, but it was the on-campus residence for older students when I was a Ph.D. student at the U of A. I lived there for the last full year I spent on campus. (credit: University of Alberta)

When I entered my Ph.D. program, there were five full-time tenure-track openings for every candidate. By the time I went on the job market four years later, there were five candidates for every full-time tenure track position. Post-doctoral fellowships are not common in business schools, and industry jobs – especially ones with decent pay – are even less common in my field of specialization (organizational studies). So even though the academic job market was dismal when I started job hunting, I didn’t look at anything except faculty jobs. My dissertation was about journalists, so I applied to both business schools and journalism schools. I had some really interesting discussions with journalism schools, who were quite interested in my qualifications –  but since my Ph.D. wasn’t from a journalism program, it was difficult to find a position with a fit between my organizational studies training and the journalism curriculum. As a result, the positions I ended up looking at most seriously were in business schools.

My Ph.D. program was relatively new, and because of that there was a lot of implicit pressure for graduates to get a job at a “good” (high-profile and prestigious) school, to enhance the reputation of the Ph.D. program. However, by that time  I had seen a jaw-dropping amount of phony posturing and annoying academic behaviour from faculty members at those kinds of schools – and frankly, I hadn’t spent more than seven years in university just to end up working in the same type of toxic organizational culture I went to university to escape. And while my research was really interesting and worthwhile research, I knew it wasn’t likely to get published in A-list journals. I didn’t want to go through the BS of fighting for tenure with work that I knew was good, but which others might discredit because it was published in the “wrong” journals.

So while I applied to top-tier schools, I also applied to schools that interested me because of what they did, not because of their “name”. My supervisors were very supportive of my choices, but I sensed that others in the Ph.D. program felt that I was somehow bringing down the reputation of the program  by even considering non-famous schools. But it was my career, and I had had enough work experience before academia to know what I did and didn’t want in a job, so I really didn’t care too much.

I ended up getting interviews at two universities, at opposite ends of the country. The first school was in my home area, which delighted me because I could live at home with my husband and we could be near our families. Our provincial government was expanding the post-secondary system, and there was a big demand for Ph.D.s at the newer universities to help build curriculum and programming. But the second school was in an area that I had always loved visiting. That school made me an offer for a two-year contract, with the potential for conversion to a tenure-track position in the third year, and my husband found out that he could get a two-year unpaid leave from his job. So we decided to go there for two years and see what would happen. The first school made me a good offer and told me I was their preferred candidate, but I turned them down.

Our two years at the other end of the country had some very positive features. There were some great things going on at the university, we made friends that are still our friends to this day, and we really enjoyed living in the area. But in the second semester of the second year, I was told that I would not be offered an ongoing position. I don’t want to get into the details of exactly what happened, because some of the good people who supported me are still at that school. But I would broadly describe it as a situation where individuals who had been in the organization for many years and were used to doing things their way felt threatened by a newcomer, and reacted accordingly.

I went onto the job market again – a market which hadn’t improved much since three years ago. To be honest, I was quite worried about my prospects. Without a complete explanation of what had happened at the university I was leaving, a potential employer could have mistakenly inferred that I wasn’t even competent enough to be offered a permanent job at a small and not well-known university. So this time around, I didn’t even bother applying to top-tier schools. I had an interview with one school in the same area, but I knew after the interview it wouldn’t be a good fit; I had an interview at another school in another region, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in that city. But then just as I was starting to really despair, the person who was hired for the position I turned down three years ago decided to leave, and the position was posted again. I applied for it and got an interview, was offered the job, and accepted it. And this August will be the start of my 20th year in that job.

Jacquelyn wants these post-Ph.D. stories to be a resource for “others coming up behind us”, which is a highly admirable goal. So I’ll wind up my own post-Ph.D. story with a couple of observations and suggestions based on my experiences.

  •  I was extremely lucky to do my undergraduate degree at a time when I didn’t have to incur a huge amount of student debt. And thanks to financial support from scholarships, fellowships and teaching assistantships, and a husband with a full-time job, I didn’t have to go into debt for either of my graduate degrees. I realize that this financial situation will not be the case for everyone, especially now with much higher tuition and living costs – but whatever you decide to do, please keep the finances in mind. Try not to burden yourself financially to the point where you don’t have many choices or options.
  • Try to be in control of your work as much as possible, and do work that you like. In the sciences, a lot of opportunities involve working in someone else’s lab and doing their experiments; that situation often doesn’t teach you much about conducting your own research. In both of my graduate programs, I could have finished my degree much faster by working on a faculty member’s research project – but I didn’t. The available projects didn’t interest me, and I wanted to learn research skills by working through projects on my own. Even with the added time and frustration those choices sometimes caused, they served me much better in the long run by forcing me to learn to be self-sufficient and creative in my work.
  • Know what you like and don’t like about work, and look for the qualities you like when you’re assessing a job or an employer. Don’t get trapped inside someone else’s idea of what’s important. Your preferences may possibly lead you to a job outside academia, and then you may feel like you wasted your education. But being in a soul-sucking job in an academic environment you don’t enjoy, just because it’s what people with your academic training are supposed to do, isn’t much of an alternative.
  • And if you end up in an academic job – don’t just be an academic. Do other things. Find people you like, hang out with them, and tell them what you do – it’s amazing what can happen. Having other interests reminds you that the world isn’t always just the cloistered and sometimes very navel-gazing academic world. Having a Ph.D. is great, but there are lots of other skills and qualifications – some also very difficult to achieve – that can also lead people into very interesting and rewarding work. We Ph.D.s are not always as special as we sometimes think we are, and it’s good to be reminded of that.

 

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