By Alison Toron
PhD, English, University of New Brunswick
Co-owner and co-operator of Nashwaak Noodles, Currieburg, New Brunswick
Among my closest friends, I am affectionately known as Dr. Noodle. This nickname represents the complicated tension that exists between my academic credentials and my employment situation: I successfully defended my PhD in Canadian literature in 2011, and I am currently self-employed as the co-owner and operator of a small business making and distributing fresh pasta. (I am also a new mom and a combatant with the MCAT, but more on that later.) My absence from academia is equal parts personal choice and the product of a dismal job market that offers so few full-time permanent academic positions that it’s almost laughable. My personal narrative of earning an advanced degree and then making a living that has little to do with said degree has led me to consider what it means to “use” one’s PhD, and more broadly, what this discourse reveals about our attitudes toward the general value of a graduate education.
I didn’t do a PhD in English to get a tenure-track job. I did it because I loved and was challenged by the work, I learned valuable skills, I gained self-confidence, and I was able to work with some brilliant and inspiring people. From a more pragmatic perspective, I did a PhD because I was fully funded by scholarship, effectively earning me a greater income than if I’d taken a different job for those four years. I also received a half-price tuition discount due to the fact that my husband is a full-time employee at the university in question. Also, quite frankly, it seemed like the next logical step after a Masters degree. Most importantly, though, I did a PhD so that I could get paid to read novels, and the bookish nerd in me could not pass up that opportunity.
During the course of my degree, I did everything right: I secured full SSHRC funding, I amassed many awards and scholarships, I excelled in my coursework, I published in prestigious journals, I gave presentations at national conferences, I made sure to get ample teaching experience and received glowing student reviews, I had a research assistantship, I did the requisite committee work, and I wrote an original dissertation that was nominated for a university-wide award, all within the recommended four-year period. A typically modest person, even I am impressed when I read my CV now. In short, I didn’t slack off, and I think it’s important to note that many, many PhDs are not working in academia NOT because they are somehow inferior researchers or educators.
Admittedly, my post-PhD plans were always vague. I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do, but I knew that in the long term, I wanted to stay in the home that my husband and I were renovating, where we were close to our families and his job. I had clear ideas of what I wanted from my life, but not my career. I knew the academic job market was bad, but I somehow thought things would be different when I got to the point of actually needing to find work. I was an overachiever and things had always worked out in the past, so why would this be any different? As my degree was winding down, I began applying for tenure-track jobs. And postdocs. And sessional work. And anything non-academic that I was even remotely qualified for. Then I waited. And waited. And… nothing. Nada. Not a callback. Not an interview. Not even a bite. I became more involved in the pasta business that was my husband’s brainchild but that I frequently helped out with. I attended career workshops to help me figure out what I wanted to do. Eventually we concluded that this lull in my professional life would be the perfect time to have a baby. My husband was able to take a parental leave, allowing us both to be home with our daughter and to continue with our small business (and to spend over a month last winter driving through the southern U.S., visiting family, exploring new cities, and soaking up some sunshine).
I write all this not so that you’ll feel badly for me (how could you when I spent most of the month of March on a Florida beach?). I love my life and I feel extremely fulfilled. I do, however, miss the challenges, rewards, and excitement of intellectual stimulation that form some of the best parts of grad school. I miss the people that make up that broad category known as the “academic community” (though not the anonymous reviewers for academic journals and the snarky questioners at conferences). Overall, though, I don’t really miss the academy. While I love reading, researching, and writing, I never felt passionately about teaching, despite the fact that I think I was pretty good at it. In general, the demands of academic life often left me emotionally, mentally, and physically drained. I still acutely remember the stress and anxiety associated with deadlines, lost sleep, self-doubt, and that nagging feeling that no matter how hard you’re working, you’re not doing enough.
However, I do feel… well… somehow asunder. When, like most PhD holders, you have spent most of your life deriving at least some of your sense of self-worth from your academic achievements, it can be difficult to adjust to a new reality that doesn’t involve constant reinforcement and rejection. I’m not bitter about the fact that even if I desperately wanted to, I might never find a tenure-track job in this country. I do, however, know many who are bitter, and rightfully so – when you spend a minimum of nine years of your life training for a position that simply doesn’t exist, you can’t help but feel a little cheated. I think many former grad students also feel a little frustrated that the academy continues to churn out mini-professors who may never have the opportunity to receive a fair wage that reflects their education and experience.
So what can the academy do to prepare its grad students for the fact that they may not “use” their PhDs in the way that they envisioned? First, they have to acknowledge the fact that given the current climate, it’s pretty likely there will be no tenure-track job waiting for them at the end of the degree. Hey, it might happen in a few years after slagging through some contract work and sessional gigs – but it might not. I think a frank and open discussion about this reality needs to be ongoing from the very beginning, even if that means scaring away a few potential applicants. It seems like many tenured faculty “know” the current academic employment climate is dismal, but they don’t really know – and how could they? Most of them did the straight-up undergrad-MA-PhD-job-tenure route (with maybe a postdoc or some sessional work in between). Although my PhD program did provide some resources regarding non-academic work, humanities graduate programs in general need to do a better job helping students see how the skills they are learning as grad students are indeed applicable in many careers. And – this is key – these grad programs need to work at removing the stigma associated with non-scholarly work. Although in both graduate programs I completed, there were some suggestions for what one could do with a degree outside of teaching and researching, I always felt that these options (especially if they had any whiff of business associated with them) were always treated as the tenure-track’s poor cousin. This needs to change. Let’s face it, what really matters in life how fulfilled you feel, not how much prestige is associated with your job title. Even the best tenured teaching position in the country isn’t worth much if you’re miserable and you know you’d rather be baking gluten-free bread or driving a courier van for a living.
As for me, I have no regrets, and I am grateful for all I learned during my graduate work. I feel like I “use” my PhD every day, even if tasks like ordering supplies, mixing dough, and interacting with customers don’t have much to do with feminist humour in contemporary Canadian women’s fiction. Because of my PhD training, I’m able to recognize and analyze narratives in all their guises, whether in the news or in my personal life. I can prioritize tasks and tackle large projects without getting overwhelmed (okay, without getting too overwhelmed). I am a better writer and researcher than I was pre-PhD. I’m not afraid to speak in front of large audiences. I know what a semicolon is and how to use it. And those finely-honed critical thinking skills certainly come in handy every time I read, think, write, discuss, argue, look, and listen. Moreover, if everything works out as I plan and I’m able to first go to medical school and eventually become a general practitioner (must… conquer… MCAT first), I think my PhD training will make me a better doctor. Who wouldn’t want a healthcare provider who listens carefully, evaluates available evidence, and communicates to you in an understandable and compassionate way? But in the meantime, I need to crack some eggs – Dr. Noodle’s got some work ahead of her.