No clear time horizon


in Daily updates, PhD thesis, Toronto, Writing

Here’s the converse of having fairly clear expectations of the future: suddenly having to start thinking about all sorts of long-term choices with no confidence about where in the world I will be after a certain date.

It may be that I will be leaving the PhD program and, in that case, I really don’t know what I would end up doing with myself.

When I was trying to leave Ottawa, I applied to jobs in the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. When none of those worked out, I applied to a bunch of PhD programs. Coincidentally, I was already living in Toronto when I decided to attend U of T.

Toronto is quite a high-cost city, but I am also in a pretty fortunate situation here, with a very nice place to live which can be afforded on even a grad student’s income. Being near Massey College is another plus (as is feasible bus travel to Montreal, Ottawa, Boston and New York), though my five years as a junior fellow come to an end by September. Affordable housing would be hard to find in Vancouver, which would be a natural alternative home. It has been a long time since I have lived there, my family is there or nearabouts, and it’s a beautiful part of the world (where important climate activism is ongoing). A third option is another big round of job applications, with the relocation decision to be driven by what comes up.

Nothing is certain at the moment. It remains possible that I will complete my PhD at U of T. From the perspective of the research itself, I am strongly inclined to stay on. Having done so much to develop a method for studying all of Canada’s campus fossil fuel divesment campaigns, it seems a shame not to carry it out. Theoretically, I could recast it as an independent research project, and potentially seek funding from NGOs that would be interested in the results. It may also be possible to reach an agreement with the university to write an independent research project and use it along with my courseworks and comprehensive exams to award a lesser degree.

One option to handle the next few months is to try to apply for summer TA positions, complete my current teaching work and grading, and prepare for the two conferences where I am presenting in the next couple of months. By the end of August, it will be definitively settled whether I am continuing with the PhD.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

. April 13, 2017 at 10:06 pm

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”

Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.

. April 13, 2017 at 10:08 pm

“But universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009—higher than the average for judges and magistrates.

Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs. “

. April 13, 2017 at 10:10 pm

“[D]rop-out rates suggest that many students become dispirited. In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off. And these students started out as the academic cream of the nation. Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.”

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