A week-long seminar for
PhD students and postdocs entitled
Preparing for Non-Academic
Employment fills up minutes after
it is posted.
the increasing reliance of cash-strapped universities on contractual
employees. And now, hiring freezes. All this is occurring at a time when
some provincial governments have been funding an expansion of
“The situation is pretty bleak,” says Ashley Burgoyne, a PhD candi-
date in music technology at McGill University who will soon be entering
the job market. “I’m aware the odds are bad, but I still have my heart set
on the university.”
Mr. Burgoyne believes that students, for the most part, aren’t well
informed at the outset of their PhD training about how few faculty posi-
tions are available. The responsibility for disseminating this kind of
information often seems to fall to faculty supervisors, which isn’t ideal.
“There is an inherent bias in that relationship,” he explains.
“I think it’s similar to the child-parent relationship. We always see the
best in our children and I think a supervisor always sees the best in his
or her students and often that’s helpful. But when I’m looking for what
the odds are that I’m really going to get a job, I don’t usually turn and
call my Mom.”
The lack of tenure-track jobs is “disheartening,” adds another stu-
dent. “I’m getting married in a couple of weeks and we will be moving
in with my parents,” says this PhD candidate who didn’t want his name
used. While completing his dissertation at one university and working
as a sessional instructor at another, he hopes eventually to qualify for a
tenure-track position. But he’s beginning to have doubts.
“I want to be a professor but I have to make money and I don’t want
to live with my parents forever.” He has a colleague who works as a ses-
sional at three universities to make ends meet, and that isn’t where he
wants to end up.
As for Dr. Stanford, after two years of fruitlessly searching for that
coveted tenure-track position, she has decided, somewhat reluctantly, to
apply for jobs in the biotech industry and in government. “At one point I
had to say: what’s more import, my research or my life? And I chose my
life. I need the stability of a real job. I need benefits.” Eventually, she’d like
to consider starting a family.
She understands governments’ desires to train citizens for Canada’s
knowledge economy. But, by and large, PhD students – aside from those
in applied streams – are taught to conduct academic research, says Dr.
Stanford. Any talk of non-academic career options is relegated to “one-
hour seminars” maybe once or twice a year. Little wonder, she says, that
students come away thinking that alternate careers are somehow a sec-
ond-rate option for those who can’t cut it in the academic world. In her
opinion, what’s needed is a cultural shift at universities that goes beyond
teaching students how to write a resumé.
Despite everything, some students remain stubbornly optimistic.
Joshua Newman, a political science PhD candidate at Simon Fraser
University and president of SFU’s Graduate Student Society, believes the
academic job market is experiencing a “temporary low” and will soon turn
around. “If teaching is your main goal and you are willing to wait it out,
as long as you keep up a heavy research agenda and publish as much as
possible, then finding a job is just a matter of time,” says Mr. Newman.
Some cannot afford the wait. John Wickett, a PhD graduate from
Western, took a job in the private sector in 1998, just as his postdoctoral
fellowship was coming to a close. “I had bills to pay,” says Dr. Wickett
who holds a doctorate in psychology. The shock hit him about six months
later when he realized he had left academia for good.
What made it easier in the long run was discovering that he enjoyed
working in the private sector. “I like working in the applied world,” says
Dr. Wickett, now senior vice-president at the Financial Planners Standards
Council. He wouldn’t go back to academia even if he could. Yet he has no
regrets about getting his PhD and would happily do it all over again.
His advice to aspiring scholars? A PhD education should never be just
about getting a job. “Go into it with your eyes wide open. Know what the
likelihood is of getting an academic job and,” above all, he adds, “be open
to other possibilities.”
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