Higher Education

Surprise! Academia is not the same as hockey.



Dear Paige Ambroziak,

Academia is not the same as hockey.




PS. For the benefit of SoD readers, I will expand on this seemingly obvious idea and try to provide a nuanced argument that doesn’t rely on superficial analogies. You can read it too, if you want.


So let’s start at the beginning. The academic job market sucks. It sucked even before the financial crisis, and now it sucks even more as institutions attempt to save money through hiring freezes, attrition, and replacement of full-time faculty jobs with adjuncts. For most of us, this is old news. Everyone with an even marginally responsible advisor has been informed of the risks that come along with the PhD, and everyone looking for a job or watching friends and colleagues look for jobs is painfully aware of the bleakness of the situation. This said, those of us who choose to walk the path anyway have, in some way or another, made peace with it. This doesn’t mean, however, that we think it is acceptable or that we should not work to change the system for the better.

But obviously we had it all wrong! As Ambroziak so eloquently explains in her letter to the Chronicle, the whole system is just fine the way it is! We just need to remember that getting an advanced research degree is just like trying to make it in professional sports: years of blood, sweat and tears spent just for a slim chance of being selected from one’s peers to become famous and make millions of dollars a year toil for years in relative obscurity for middle-class wages that are often eaten up by loads of student debt.

Of course, It all makes sense now! We should view these 5-7 years of full-time professional training as an opportunity to indulge a hobby rather than expect them to somehow prepare us for a future professional life. After all, once we go on to our regular workaday lives we will always have access to the resources necessary to pursue research for fun, just like weekend hockey players. Oh wait…you mean university research libraries, journal access, and lab space aren’t accessible to the general public like a neighbourhood hockey rink?  And I can’t produce a research grant in an empty field with a hose?

Look, I’m glad Ambroziak likes to read, and that she has no intentions of entering the academic job market (that’s one fewer competitor for her peers to worry about). I’m even sympathetic to the general argument that higher education need not have anything to do with employment skills. But here we are not talking about the traditional liberal education that (ideally) provides undergraduates with a broad exposure to different fields and the epistemological tools they need to advance in any field of their choosing. We are talking about what is essentially a years-long apprenticeship wherein PhD students learn the ins and outs of working in the academy while they perform directed research.

I can see where one might get confused by the obvious similarities: those dudes have sticks.

If Ambroziak really just wants the experience of reading and learning in a structured, collaborative environment (such as one is supposed to find in graduate seminars), it seems awfully unnecessary for her to subject herself to all the other extraneous work and training that comes as part of the PhD (like unrelated RA or teaching work or the decidedly solitary comprehensive exams). It might even be considered crass of her to divert funding from another student who actually wants this training and plans to make use of it.

There is a growing movement of PhD students who, like Ambroziak, do not plan to seek traditional academic jobs upon completion of their degrees. Rather than put all these students through the (expensive and labour-intensive) process of a traditional PhD, why not develop a system that can accommodate their needs and desires while still allowing those who wish to continue on the academic track to do so?

If one of the most-frequently cited problems in reducing the overall number of PhDs to match the realities of the job market is the disastrous effect enrolling so few students would have on the seminar structure of most graduate programs, perhaps it is time to introduce a new type of degree that keeps enrollment numbers up but keeps the production of academic-track PhDs to reasonable levels. Such a degree would diverge from the traditional PhD upon the completion of all coursework: students desiring to continue on the academic track would then have to re-apply to the department based on their seminar performance and/or comprehensive exams. Students electing not to move forward (or those who are not selected for advancement), would be awarded an intermediary degree between the Master and PhD that certified their additional training. Such a degree could also serve as a useful release valve for those students who, despite their dissatisfaction with the academy, choose to continue on to the dissertation anyway due to the sunk cost fallacy.

We can call this intermediate step the Master+, or expand and standardise the already-existing M.Phil degree awarded by some institutions for all-but-dissertation status. Such a degree would then have to be re-framed in the popular imagination as a terminal degree for those not seeking professorships rather than as a consolation prize for PhDs who don’t finish, but ultimately it would provide an excellent option for many students seeking careers outside of academia.

But let’s have that discussion. Let’s look for solutions. With thousands of PhDs un(der)employed and living in poverty, this is anything but a game.

Featured image: Detail of 1901 hockey match at McGill University, Library and Archives Canada.

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal (paypal.me/dandonnelly) if you like his work!

1 Comment

  1. August 1, 2013 at 9:19 pm —

    This is a really important topic. People really don’t realize how much you sacrifice in pursuing a PhD. As you mention, most of us come out with debt and not much hope for paying it quickly. We also delay our full-time careers (assuming we manage to find jobs) several years, meaning we go without full-time benefits and are years behind our peers on retirement savings.

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