Monday 19 February 2018

The Market, Part One

Snowy Day in Cottage Grove, WI
When I initially set out to write about my experience on the job market I figured I would do a quick blog, give some advice, and then wrap it up. As I sit in my office on this snowy day in late February, though, I realize that what I have gone through the past six months can't just be summed up in a quick advice blog. I don't claim to be any kind of expert on the job search or academia in any way; instead I follow the advice of those who are experts in the field, like Karen Kelsky, Ph.D. who runs The Professor Is In and wrote a book by the same name. While I don't claim to be any kind of expert, I do realize that the work and struggles I've faced over the past six months in my job search may be helpful to relay to others who are unfamiliar with this field or perhaps are starting on a similar journey to my own. As I reflect, I have realized that my current decisions do have a lot to do with decisions that I've made over the past ten years, opportunities that I've been given, and the realities of the academic market. So, in what I'm now planning as a three part series, I will begin my first post by giving some background on the realities of working as a Ph.D. in the humanities and discuss my personal journey that has gotten me to this point.

Here we go.

The Academic Market

Within academia it is no secret that secure jobs for Ph.D.s are few and far between. According to the most recent MLA Report on the Survey of Earned Doctorates, these are the statistics of job acquisition specifically of Ph.D.s in history and the humanities in 2014 (the most recent collection of data reported):

"Of the 1,533 doctorate recipients in letters in 2014, 1,293 reported their postgraduate status. Of that number, 47.1% reported having definite employment at the time of graduation, 7.1% had definite postdoctoral study, and 41.9% were seeking positions."

In a field where over 40% of graduates are looking for jobs, it is clear that a Ph.D. is no guarantee of employment. This issue is compounded by the number of Ph.D.s who graduate in a year. Professor Sharon O'Dair says:

"In its annual reports, the MLA separates doctorates in literature from those in rhetoric and composition, creative writing, and speech and rhetorical studies; if you total all of those, the current numbers are closer to 1,200 per year."

An article in The Atlantic discuss the amount of time it takes to earn a Ph.D. in the humanities. In this article, Laura McKenna says that data collected between 1994 to 2014 insinuates that humanities Ph.D.s are taking a median time of 10.70 years. McKenna goes on to say:

"Consequently, more than 12 percent of Ph.D.s complete their doctoral programs with over $70,000 of combined undergraduate and graduate student-loan debt."

Things aren't looking great! On top of these statistics, though, there are countless stories of fatigue, overexertion, and gendered, raced, and socially marginalizing realities in the academy. In her article "Why I Collapsed On the Job," Katerina Bodovski tells the story of working to the point of literal, physical collapse once she got a job. She writes:

"My job description stipulates that I should spend 60 percent of my time on research, 30 percent on teaching, and 10 percent on service"

Yet, Bodovski talks about a reality of spending nearly 100 percent of her working time on tasks that would fall under teaching and service, yet her job depended on her keeping up with the research component of her work. This created an untenable situation that she could no longer physically or mentally cope with prior to her physical collapse. She is back at her job now, but she says that she wrote this article because she "lost the ability to help herself" and she wants to warn others against that same silent, sneaky fate.

Now, I include all of this just to set the stage for the job market that I willingly chose to enter in August of 2017. I was made pretty well aware of these realities during my first semester of my MA in English Studies at Illinois State University. In that semester I took a required course called ENG 401: Introduction to Graduate School. My professor was Dr. Christopher Breu, and I have since called him "the professor that tells the truth." In that class, he told us, this work is not worth doing unless you love it. He, obviously, does love it, but his point was that the quality of life, return on time investment, and compensation of most jobs does not equal the time and effort put into obtaining the degrees necessary to do this work unless we intrinsically value the work itself.

My Personal Journey

Downtown Bloomington, IL
While I did not go into the field of Rhetoric and Composition unaware of the challenges that exist, but I probably did come in slightly naive. I made the decision to continue in my MA program even after taking Dr. Breu's class, and then halfway through I applied to Ph.D. programs. My decision had been made, but it was not always easy. I remember nights during my MA of sitting up late at my computer just crying that I'd never get my work done, let alone get through my program. I remember moments waiting by bus stops on ASU's campus choking back tears because I didn't know if this was the right choice.

On the other side of the Ph.D., though, I've had time to reevaluate and really consider what it is that is important to me. Also, because of some wonderful advice and the amazing support of my husband, I have had the privilege to be able to consciously skirt around some of the time and financial struggles that many face. When I was applying for graduate school one of my professor's at Olivet Nazarene University, Dr. Rebecca Belcher-Rankin, told me that I should never earn a degree without an assistantship. I took that advice very literally, and I chose my schools based not only on where I was accepted and had strong programs but on the assistantships that they could offer. That brought us to the cornfields of Bloomington-Normal, IL and to the beautiful desert of Tempe, AZ.

I took one year off in between my BA and starting my MA. I had gotten married the August following my BA graduation in May, and I took that year to spend time with my husband, to adjunct at my alma mater, and to apply for graduate school. I applied to maybe ten schools' literature programs, and I was accepted at Illinois State University, University of Colorado-Denver, and Northwestern State University. I received an assistantship offer from ISU, so I went there. It was a fairly easy decision to accept the offer of a paid for, two year program. It turned out to be a great choice because after one semester in the literature focus of the English studies major I decided to switch to the Rhetoric and Composition focus, and I could do that without losing any time or credits. That made the decision to switch concentrations easy, and that is probably one of the best decisions I've ever made because it set me up to study texts and people that I am really passionate about and opened up more job opportunities than those that are typically available for literature Ph.D.s.

The decision to accept the offer to get my doctorate was a little more tricky. We were living in Bloomington, IL, and I applied to three schools for my Ph.D. This is far fewer applications than one would normally send out, but I only applied to schools in places that my husband and I both wanted to live, and I really had the sense that if I was meant to get my Ph.D. then I would be accepted at one of the three schools. During my final two semesters at ISU while I was taking classes, teaching, and writing my thesis, I was applying to these schools. I applied to the rhetoric and composition programs at University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Madison-Wisconsin, and Arizona State University. I was not accepted at Boulder, I was waitlisted at Madison, but I received an acceptance and full assistantship (i.e. I didn't pay tuition and was paid a stipend to teach) from ASU. I cried when I received the acceptance, and that reaction showed me that this really was what I wanted to do.

Outside of Phoenix, AZ
Wade found a job in Tempe, we packed up our house, and we drove out to Phoenix, AZ in July of 2014. We couldn't have picked a hotter time to move, and I began to truly understand the phrase "baptized by fire." I liked my program and started to feel at home on the campus but then about halfway through the fall semester I hit a wall. The temperature was hot, and it wasn't getting cooler, and I suddenly felt aimless and very far from home. I also felt pretty physically sick, and panic started to overtake me every night. At one point, I truly thought that by Christmas of 2014, we'd be packing up and moving back to the midwest.

This was a tough but necessary turning point for me. I had carefully considered my decisions and options up until this point, but these weeks of what I call my "Extensional Crisis 2.0" (the first one was in college in 2010) made me truly evaluate and decide what it was that I wanted. Wade was my rock. At one point he had to come home from work to literally help me get out of bed. That was how weak and anxiety ridden I was, but with his and others' help I slowly started to get better. I went to a naturopathic doctor, took a food test, and started to eat differently, which helped my body heal. I also started doing yoga everyday, and I began to use and diffuse essential oils, which helped my anxiety abate. These physical changes, coupled with the decision that I would finish that first semester and then reevaluate, got me to where I needed to be. In fact, by the first weekend of November I came home to WI for a friend's wedding, and though I enjoyed my time in the fall breeze and with family, I was ready to go back to the desert after the week was over. By then time my plane touched back down in Phoenix Sky Harbor I knew I was home, and I knew that this was really what I wanted to do.

Helping Myself

When I went through my first existential crisis in college, I needed a lot of help. I credit my then professor and mentor Dr. Kristy Ingram with being the lifeline that pulled me back. She offered me sage advice, gave me dinner when I didn't eat, and was a listening ear as I questioned and debated really, everything I'd known to be true. I will be forever grateful to her for that.

When I hit my second existential crisis, I definitely still needed help. All of the things that I listed above were life savers and really shifted my daily routines and habits in positive ways that I still practice today. What I learned, though, was that I could either let this Ph.D. eat me alive, or I could begin to help myself, like Bodovski suggests above. I knew that I needed to find and then stick to my own path to be able to finish my degree.

My Meyers-Briggs personality is ENTJ. Now, I know some people (including my husband) don't see a lot of value in tests like these, but I love them. I think they reveal so much about myself and other people, and even more interestingly, the way that people react to one another. ENTJ stands for Extrovert, Intuition, Thinking, and Judging, and together that reveals the following:

Based on this personality type, it's clear that advocating for myself is not a struggle. It is actually something that comes pretty naturally to me, and something that I am not afraid to do. That being said, it wasn't something I'd ever really realized that I could or should do, specifically in a Ph.D. program where the path was seemingly already predetermined for me. I think it is no coincidence that this revelation came to me just as I was being immersed in feminist theory and pedagogy. I think that one of the reasons that feminist causes and discussions are so close to my heart now is because I saw the efficacy and necessity of them in my own life, even in a very privileged setting.

Once I realized that I needed to start acting on my own agency and as my own best advocate, I started to prioritize what I really wanted. The first thing that I knew that I wanted was to graduate in three years. My assistantship was for five, and I had up to ten (I think) to finish but based on goals that Wade and I had together, I wanted to finish coursework and my exams in year two, and I wanted to graduate at the end of my third year. I did do these things, but they would not have been possible without the help and input of Demetria Baker, the Writing Programs administrator, Dr. Maureen Daly Goggin, my chair, and Drs. Elenore Long and Patricia Boyd, my committee members. Their support and willingness to help me get through on that timeline is really what made it possible.

Next, I had to decide what type of institution I wanted to aim to work at. In higher education there are general tiers or rankings of institutions, which has to do with reputation, funding, and the research versus teaching expectations of the professors. Teaching load is assigned by how many classes a professor teaches in a semester, i.e. 2/1 means teaching two classes in the fall and one in the spring. The rankings draw upon The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education that lists institutions according to the highest degree level that they produce, as well as the annual (since 1983) publication from US News & World Report that ranks the top 200 or so schools of the approximately 2,500 accredited institutions of higher education in the United States. The rankings of higher education are somewhat debated, but Dr. Karen Kelsky breaks them down this way:

One academic reality is that scholars are never hired at a school that is ranked higher than the one where they earned their degree. ONU falls somewhere between a middle ranked SLAC and regional college. ISU has recently moved into the rank of an R1, and ASU is an established R1 school that is listed 60th overall on the Best Graduate English Programs list in the 2017 US News & World Report. If I had wanted to aim for a job at an R2, I would have needed to spend a significant amount of time and energy on publication. If I wanted to aim for anything below an R2, I felt that I could move more quickly through my program and focus on teaching certificates and experience.

After my long, rambling discussion, it's probably fairly obvious what path I chose. Though the market is getting more and more competitive and often even the middle ranked SLACs require multiple publications, on the advise of my chair and in alignment with my gut feeling, I decided to move quickly through my program and put publications on the back burner. I did keep up my conference activity, which is another component of scholarship.

Views from Fem/Rhet in Dayton, OH
I had two basic reasons for this choice. The first reason  boiled down tremendously to my undergraduate experiences at ONU. I've written in this and many other posts about the impact and influence that my professors at ONU had on me. My college experience was so exceptional educationally, socially, and for the work that I wanted to do in the future. I knew that this was the kind of place that I wanted to teach.

Secondly, while I do like to research and study, it is not my primary passion. I can do research, and I do like to learn and grow in new areas and ideas in my field, but researching is not what gives me energy and fuels my drive. At the Feminisms & Rhetorics conference this fall, one of the most influential moments was in the feminist workshop where they asked us to identify our feminist superpowers. I identified mine as "facilitator," and since the conference I have often thought of how much that rings true. And when I teach, I get to facilitate. Every new semester I get excited about putting together syllabi and preparing the classes for my students. I also like the energy of being with my students in the classroom and sharing ideas with them and truly learning from them. Teaching energizes me. Talking about ways to teach better and instruct better energizes me. I love to teach. And after all this, I know it's what I want to do! Thanks, as always, for reading.