This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 8, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 2: Time, Place, and Opportunity.
“Mismatch #1: Context”.
It’s a great idea to address conflicts of context, the “external circumstances” that have an effect on our career successes, because a lot of self-destructive psychological baggage can come from the idea that one’s “failure” is entirely one’s own fault. And while it’s important to take responsibility for your own decisions, just as crucial is the ability to recognise when your (lack of) “success” is being influenced by factors beyond your control. These factors can include anything from personal issues with health and family, to a simple lack of appropriate positions or an over-supply of candidates in your particular academic field; they are “more about timing and luck than […] a comment on your worth as a person or quality as an academic”.
In spite of the sense of it, I feel quite ambivalent about this point. because if I looked at the list of contextual factors in my own case, I’m pretty sure I’d pick another path to follow. That’s not meant as a comment about my own capacity–more as a point about the nature of the academic job market, which has declined considerably in the past 25 to 30 years. One reason for this pinch is that the “production” of PhDs has increased; and another is that simultaneously, the proportion of tenure track academic positions has actually decreased as universities have come to rely on short-term contract faculty (or “adjuncts” as they are referred to in the U.S.).
So I do feel uneasy about the context in which I’m finishing my own PhD, one that I think is becoming more evident to more people, though I don’t recall that there was ever a frank discussion of prospects and odds during any of my graduate courses. While the PhD is not just about “getting a job”, I think career-development should be emphasised from the beginning in a more well-rounded fashion so that by the time students reach year 3 or 4, they have a better sense of their options and a balanced idea of what factors they can “control” in terms of later employment options. This could be seen not as simple “job training” but as a reasonable/thoughtful process in which to engage considering the significant commitments of time, effort and resources that are required to complete a PhD, and the shrinking chance of achieving a tenure-track faculty position. It could also help graduate students to develop awareness of their strengths and capacities, and to build the resilience and adaptability that help with creating and navigating through a professional career (in whatever field).