Thursday, February 23, 2012

oh my god I was so naiive

A few comments, conversations, observations that have been circulating around me in the last week have made me realise that the fundamental reason why I am in the situation I am in now is: I didn't know what I was getting into.

Had I known, I would have done things MUCH differently.

And come to think of it now, this is the feeling that has plagued me pretty much since finishing my PhD. That there is/was so much I don't/didn't know about what an academic career really involves/d.

I dug myself out of the hole created, on the whole, by a system that is geared towards getting people across the line without much thought for what happens to them afterwards. While there are some folk in the system who are great mentors and prepare their students well for career success, it wasn't until after I finished my PhD that I found a great mentor. All of my post-PhD success I owe to this fabulous mentor. I had a very step learning curve in those years. Whenever I get the chance I also return the favour, by mentoring other people so they don't have to go through the same process.

But while it might be easy to blame my lack of mentoring for the struggle I have gone through, I now realise that the larger issue is that I just didn't do my research. In short, I had only the most naiive idea about what my career would look like.

I KNOW I was not alone in this. And I know that the system doesn't do much to correct those misperceptions. Why would it? More students equals more money. It's not in the interests of PhD programs to disillusion their new recruits.

Ultimately though it was my own naiive fault. Interestingly enough, it took running into a former undergrad from the same program to make this clear to me. This student had apparently had her heart set on the bright lights of an academic career. And then she went to a function where she had the opportunity to talk to staff about what it was really like. That's when she heard there were no jobs. Sensibly, she changed tack.

I finally reaslised - I didn't do that. I didn't take any time out to find out what it was really like. I knew from a very young age what it was I wanted to do, but didn't actually do any research.

I could say this is the fault of the career advisor I did ask many moons ago, who said in response to my uncertainty about how one goes about deciding what kind of a career one should choose "oh, you'll figure it out". That's it. No flyers, no brochures, no suggestion to talk to someone. Nothing. Not even a chat about the things that interested me. Just the promise that I would figure it out. Less than one minute and he was done. We didn't even sit down.

So I picked some courses that I thought I wanted to do. It turns out that I didn't like any of those, so spent some time as an undergrad flailing about wondering what to do. I eventually found something I like and have stuck with that ever since. But my visions of the future were always hazy. Because I didn't make any effort to find out. 

Anyway, so it was my own fault. I didn't do the research. This time round, I will take a different approach.     


  1. Don't be so hard on yourself. You have to remember that there's many more people with PhDs than there jobs in the universities. I thought that this was the case for a long time since it just did not add up as to the number of people who were grad students versus the number of faculty in the department. A few years after I'd graduated with my PhD I was also told that my suspicion was correct by a senior academic in another discipline but its a discipline connected to mine. He told me that I shouldn't think of myself as a failure since the universities needed to undergo fundamental structural changes since they had to realise that not all of their students with PhDs could be absorbed as academics...since the numbers just didn't add up.

    1. Thanks for the support - I do need to remember that I had my reasons for doing what I did and that I did enjoy what I was doing for a long time in any case. The system definitely needs to do more to facilitate career development of all kinds for students. It is such a large investment to make that it seems ridiculous that PhD programs are largely silent on the whole question of what comes next.

  2. I have a strong suspicion that the reason that everyone is so quiet about what to do next is because the profs in charge don't really know what else to do other than do what they do. But I do wonder this is because forcing them to think about what else their students with PhDs could do really means facing up to the fact that the system, as a whole, is broken and needs fundamental structural change.

    1. I agree. It's pretty clear that none of the profs I know would have the faintest idea about the world outside academia. There is a trend emerging across many less prestigious universities here though that final year undergrads do work placements, so it's not like it's an unheard of idea that there should be a connection between learning and work. It just doesn't seem to be making it's way in to postgraduate (graduate) circles yet. there's definitely an opportunity for someone looking to impress their department (and be a good mentor in the process) to start new programs in this area.

  3. I think your indictments of the education and career advisement system are spot on. For many, occupational education consists of "you'll figure it out" and little else, leaving students at all ends of the educational spectrum, from high school graduates to PhDs intellectually satisfied, but without the means to gain employment and build a sustainable career.

    Good luck on your journey to figuring things out.