June already!


in Daily updates, PhD thesis

A great deal has changed in my life since this site got broken in February.

Back then I was dealing with work as a teaching assistant for two courses, as well as a great many difficult personal issues and situations.

Now I am in the luxurious position of having the summer to work on my dissertation. In a pretty clear way, it’s actually the income-maximizing option when compared with trying to get one of U of T’s few summer TA jobs, trying to find some other work, or trying to do a lot of photography gigs. The biggest expense in a PhD is the forgone income from not working somewhere that would pay much more, and that semi-hidden cost accumulates the longer the program takes. Remaining a federal civil servant was psychologically impossible for me, given the pain of working on something I cared intensely about while only being allowed to implement policies that would completely fail to solve the problem (people working for Trudeau today don’t seem appreciably better off than I was when working for the Harper government). Still, there are plenty of jobs where in the last six years I could have earned several times my income from university funding and TA work, without paying tuition expenses. Furthermore, the work experience and career progression that would likely have involved is worth more to almost all plausible employers than the research skill development and demonstration from a doctoral program.

For those aspiring to academic jobs, there is probably also a degree to which the longer your PhD takes the less confidence potential employers may have that you will produce the prodigious research output which is the primary obligation of young professors. It’s a high bar, but a PhD is really still an apprenticeship: becoming a qualified academic researcher via a single relatively closely supervised project. All kinds of life and financial circumstances can stretch out that process, but given the incredibly competitive nature of the academic job market, you had better be making a lot of important connections, winning grants and scholarships, and publishing in journals important to your field while that is going on.

I don’t regret the time I have spent in the PhD at all because for me another five or six or seven years in university is a boon that could scarcely be hoped for. The University of British Columbia was the first place where I really felt I belonged in life and, despite all the frustrations and setbacks, the essence of that feeling persists for me here. When people ask about the wisdom of doing a PhD, I advise that they consider whether the experience of being in university is something they so greatly value that they are willing to sacrifice substantial lifetime earnings and financial security to get it. If the PhD is worth it to you in itself it may be a good choice. For most people, it’s not worth it only as a stepping stone to somewhere else, both because you are unlikely to ever get that tenure-track teaching job and (like practicing law) there’s a pretty strong chance you will hate it even if you end up there at the top of the academic pyramid scheme.

Despite the intention to focus on reading, research, and writing for my PhD, I am sticking with my long-term strategy of keeping multiple things on the go at once. For me, I think it actually leads to higher productivity because the specialized forms of exhaustion that can arise from pushing too long and hard on one task can be dissipated and managed by having other simultaneous projects. Equally importantly, a diversified set of tasks and obligations reduces the odds that everything will go wrong at once. And so I am working on some personal writing projects, doing some volunteering for the Ontario election and climate activism, trying to at least keep walking as exercise, and generally remaining open to opportunities as they arise.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan June 1, 2018 at 9:40 pm

Stuff you missed since February:

Making a new friend (not pictured)

Smashing my 5-day-old iPhone and making a collage

My only ever bug out

Easter singing (with a surprisingly political finale I chose to watch instead of photograph)

Commercial work

Parties a bit too adult for me (in the sense of settled careers and automobiles)

Seeing unique configurations of eminent journalists

Emotional walks

Volunteering for a new party

Teaching a historically-minded friend a bit about wampum covenants

Celebrated a friend’s retirement from the board of an organization he has devoted himself to

Better understanding how Massey College’s blank outer walls feel to the rest of the world

Walking to explore and for exercise

Milan June 7, 2018 at 9:32 pm

Another distinct luxury: a library open until 11pm on weekdays!

aardvark June 19, 2018 at 1:03 am

I recently stumbled upon your site and felt inspired to make a comment.

I agree (I’m also a junior academic) that doing a PhD solely for the credential — a stepping stone, as you say — is not the way to go: it is a lot of work and time that could be spent doing something else, and the kind of thing it qualifies you for (research or teaching jobs, generally) tends to be more of the same stuff you did while trying to get the PhD in the first place, but with even more bureaucracy and departmental politics.

At the same time, I would say the reason *to* do one is not necessarily because you want to be at a university (though I think there is nothing wrong with wanting that, and I personally like universities a lot), but because you enjoy the *process* of doing research, of self-directed working with controversial or new ideas, enough to deal with the grunt work/bureaucracy/low pay that inevitably comes with it. After all, you can be at a university as a librarian, IT person, accountant, and many other things without being an academic in the usual sense. And you can be a graduate/professional student in medical or business or law school without having to deal with some of the more arcane hoop jumping that PhD programs tend to require, and with a better job market in the field when you finish.

As a side note, my experience is that when hiring, academic departments don’t care that much about the total time taken to get the degree. It’s more important to have done good work in the thesis. Professional connections and good reference letters are also important, but you can establish some of those in your last couple years as a grad student. The point where you really have to produce a lot of tangible work quickly is the first few years post-PhD.

Best wishes.

Milan June 19, 2018 at 2:33 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful and informative comment.

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