Grad Students of McGill, You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Chains

At the end of my third year as a doctoral student my funding ran out.  I have lived in a beautiful apartment in Villeray for 40 continuous months.  I didn’t want to lose my spacious digs.  Hardwood floors, an extra bedroom that I use as a ‘home office,’ newly renovated everything (including Ikea kitchen): this is the best place I’ve ever lived in.  It’s also the most rent I’ve ever had to pay by myself, but I’ve done it with the help of a few TA jobs on the side.  My funding package was modest, nothing special or elite, just some good hard headed budgeting and a lot of hard work and I was OK.

TA jobs alone won’t pay the bills.  I’ve had so many jobs in my life that long ago I lost track.  I’ve been a fast food worker (high school), a fish counter, an interlibrary loans technician and a cartographer.  I’ve worked for minimum wage more times than I care to remember.  I thought I’d left all that behind.  After all, I’m a doctoral student at McGill!  I should be able to get a pretty good job on those credentials alone (even if I’m not quite done).

After a little digging I soon found that several (not insurmountable) barriers lie in the way of the easy-and-good-paying-work-for-almost-done-PhDs.  Actually, there are three.  First, potential employers see you differently.  I’ve found that many potential employers seem to have the idea that someone in my position can get a job easily, so they convince themselves they don’t need to feel as bad if they don’t give me the job.

Second, your own standards go up.  The reason for this is that doctoral students get pumped up by thinking about being professors and getting good jobs that we sometimes forget the basic everyday things in life that keep us happy.  Also known as finding the work/life balance, the ‘work’ part of it primes us for elite status employment at the same time as the ‘life’ part continues along the same as before.  We still have heating bills to pay, kids to feed and our own fulfillment to look after.

I treat my PhD like a job.  I get up every day, no exceptions, and go to work at regular working hours like everyone else.  The difference is that in a regular job if you excel, innovate and make improvements you get a promotion and a raise.  If you do those things as a PhD student they send you on your way (with rare exceptions).

Third, it is incredibly hard to find a job in academia.  Donald Hall (2002, Ohio State) has something to say about all of this in his book “The Academic Self.”  Self-perception and self-identity are tricky things.  They do not get any easier to sort out in grad school or beyond.  I have found it worthwhile to make the time to reflect on myself and the position I find myself in.   And when I’m done reflecting I’m ready to take action.

That’s why I got a minimum wage job.  It only lasted five weeks at the end of summer.  The mindless work was meditative and it cleared my mind and gave me some extra spending money.  At the same time I’m continuing, as I await my defence date, to apply for those ‘dream jobs.’  I had to give up the job packing tea in a warehouse because my TA and student duties conflicted with having another job.  Anyway, packing tea is not where I want to be for the long term.

And looking for that ‘dream job’ is going pretty well so far.   I’m at the second interview stage with a couple of schools, and first stage at another two, on top of having a postdoctoral proposal in the wings (to be announced February by SSHRC if I got the funding or not).  All the skills I’ve been building for three years, confidence, time management, giving talks and presentations, writing, all come to bear so heavily right now that my life sometimes feels like it is at a breaking point.  For example, next week I’m flying to South Korea for an interview.  This will be the subject of my next ‘Grad Life’ blog tentatively titled ‘Seoul City’.  I’ll keep you posted.

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