Higher Education

Why I went back to school in Higher Ed

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”

There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.

I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).

One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.

But why Higher Ed?

As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?

Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.

*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.


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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. November 13, 2018 at 1:57 pm —

    Hi Dan,

    Welcome back – although I would have wished your return as Professor Dan.  I see your choice as one that is made more and more often across the PhD spectrum, where people that are well-trained and ready for academic positions, leave their fields simply because there is almost no chance of landing a position that they are (over?)prepared for.  At some point, it would be interesting to compare our relative experiences on the job market.  In my case, I was hunting an academic position for 6 years after PhD in the late 80’s-early 90’s.  In total, I applied for probably just over a 100 positions, interviewed at 8, and got one job offer (which I accepted and have been in, and loving, since 94).  A number of the positions I applied for, were reaches in terms of my qualifications and background, but what kept me going was that there were are at least about 15/year that I felt I had a decent shot for.  How does that compare to you?

    Even back then, people were dropping out because of the job market.  Part of the reason in my area was a changing landscape in terms of what ‘exciting’ science was perceived to be.  A good friend who would have been a great professor, gave up and went to law school instead.  One of the driving reasons was his feeling that the writing was on the wall for our shared discipline.  Everything that was hot required a strong component of molecular biology and genomics.  The technical aspects of this work, he abhorred.  So rather than chasing a lower-paying position that now seemed to require an uninteresting research direction, he instead chose an equally uninteresting alternative career, that at least paid much better.

    My analogy is getting one’s PhD is like crawling out further and further on a narrowing tree limb of discipline specialization.  My friend basically perceived that our limb was being sawed off behind us.  In an age where the quality of your science directly correlates to how expensive it is and therefore how large your research grants are likely to be, our low-cost science was doomed.  I managed to jump into a position probably in the last few years before I would have become an economically non-viable hire.

    So someone with my same postdoc CV, but graduating this year, might see maybe 1-2 faculty positions that they would have any realistic chance of getting.  To me, this is the great crap shoot of the PhD.  If you happen to be crawling out on a branch that is currently in vogue (bioinformatics!!!), there are a fair number positions you can compete for.  But dying and about to be pruned branches abound (taxonomy, natural history)  And it is tough to see at the beginning of your studies which kind of branch 6 or 7 years later you will find yourself stuck on.

    Again, to what degree was your change in career direction due to being trained for a job that has almost ceased to exist?

    Good luck, best wishes and hope you’ve found a sturdy new branch to explore!

  2. November 13, 2018 at 7:02 pm —

    Hi Peter! Good to see you.

    The trend in musicology (and especially in my little area of music before 1750) has been fewer jobs each year I’ve been on the market. There are usually only a couple of jobs specifically for early music people each year, and then usually 3-5 that don’t call for a specific subdiscipline, and I normally also apply to a few in departments that ask for something else but could still use someone like me.

    This year I have only been applying to really good fits in places where I’d actually want to work, which has been two so far. One EM and one open.

    There’s been a (comparatively) huge wave of jobs in American and popular music over the last several years, so that’s the hot new thing. Most departments creating new positions are looking for this, since it hasn’t traditionally been a part of the curriculum.

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