Thursday, August 26, 2010

On Plan B

Today I direct you towards a blog post by one of my more sparkly and spectaculoriffic conference buddies, Phil. Phil went to the (in?)famous Screen conference in Glasgow, and had an underwhelming time - a neat contrast to another friend who went a couple of years earlier and experienced/witnessed exactly the sort of mean nastiness Phil refers to.

The part of Phil's post, however, that jogged my own little mind was this:

It was nice that when I presented I didn’t feel like a total fraud, but the interesting thing for me is that it cemented in my mind – This is not what I want to be doing. I’d been thinking for at least six months now that I don’t want to go into academia when I graduate, at least not for a number of years. Watching people playing the game; networking, publishing, reading, like, books and stuff, I was struck with a very strong conviction that it’s not the life for me. That was interesting considering other conferences have had the opposite effect on me.

...great minds, eh?

I've also been having some doubts about whether academia really is for me. Pursuing a career where having a PhD doesn't even rate as a prerequisite, really - in order to get a foot in the door that thesis has to have been published, along with x number of articles in prestigious journals, you have to have considerable teaching mileage and put up with the thought that you constantly owe the university something. Sure, there are perks - working on projects and exploring ideas you're interested in, the potential for overseas travel and a spot of holidaying in conjunction with conferences and so on. But universities are changing in ways that, by all accounts, make them rather oppressive places to work at times - or, as Phil puts it "who needs money when you can be chronically underappreciated instead?"

For a while I, too, have been thinking of my options - work for the government being a biggie, maybe university administration, publishing, freelance editing/writing work, or even going back to ESL teaching. I think I would like something project-based, research-oriented. I'm not entirely convinced I need to even be that passionate/excited about the work I do, as long as I'm passionate/excited about who I am and what I do when I'm not at work.

But never let it be said that I just grumble about the system, I'm a problem-solver!

I think the academic disillusionment stems from the fact that in the Arts in particular doctorates are, by and large, seen as training for academia. The assumption is that while not everyone will make it, everyone will be hoping/aiming for a job in academia, and the ones who don't make it are sorry for their loss. Sure, we hear about developing our "transferable skills" and how very, very valuable we would/could/should be to both government and private industry, but overwhelmingly the sense is that anything other that academia (and the associated several years in casual tutoring limbo waiting for someone to retire or die, and for the university to decide not to cancel the position altogether instead of filling it) is Plan B, or a straigh-out F.

In some ways, of course, the mood is understandable. Postgrads mostly deal with people who have succeeded in chasing tenure, and it's only natural for them to give advice that validates their own life choices. But only a tiny proportion of PhD graduates do end up working in academia, and I'd personally like to see more formal acknowledgement of the fact. Not in an apologetic sense, and I don't think it means the only right thing to do would be to reduce the intake of research students - that ain't gonna happen, given graduating students bring funds to the university, so oversupply for academic purposes is guaranteed. What I want is for university administration to look at ways to make those elusive transferable skills less opaque, and support students' career-building more holistically. At UWA we have the rather handy Postgraduate Teaching Internship Scheme that helps PhD students in their academia-oriented professional development, and it would be great to see similar programs oriented towards work in government, private industry and so on. Much like the Arts Practicum, but at a higher level. I'd be willing to bet it could even speed up completions, given students would be more aware of the options available to them after finishing.

1 comment:

  1. Trouble is as far as Plan B goes I've been there and bought the T-shirt, so now I'm back to Plan A. To be honest I spend most of my time with my head firmly buried in the sand over how I'm actually going to run with Plan A though.