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From PhD to Life

Striking for a better now, and a better future


Canada’s two largest universities — University of Toronto and York University — are affected by strikes. Last week, first graduate student teaching assistants and course instructors struck at U of T, followed closely by all contract teaching assistants and instructors at York University. (York’s CUPE 3903 Unit 2 — non-student contract faculty members — ratified the university’s latest offer Monday night; the other units rejected it.) The York administration shut classes down entirely; at U of T, some classes continue. Thousands of miles away, faculty members at the University of Northern British Columbia walked off the job in Prince George and at branch campuses elsewhere in the province last Thursday. The strike continues this week.

I was last a teaching assistant in 2009, and it’s been three years since I defended and submitted the final version of my doctoral dissertation. But I speak with graduate students and PhDs who work as sessionals or adjuncts on an almost daily basis. And, I was scheduled to travel to Prince George later today, to take part in a conference for graduate students at UNBC. That two-day event is now cancelled. I’m following the strikes as an interested outsider.

At U of T, the main issue is the guaranteed funding package for graduate students. Departments in the faculty of arts and science fund eligible graduate students — usually doctoral students —  to the tune of $15,000 per year, minimum. This amount includes earnings for TA-ships or related work. The administration will tell you that the hourly wage for a teaching assistant exceeds $40/hour. True, but this is an obfuscation: The rate of pay is irrelevant to most students who, after all, are full-time students. What matters to them is the funding package as a whole. Fifteen grand is several thousand dollars less than the cost of living in Toronto. Students are not always able to find or take on extra paid work, and many are prohibited from working more than 10 hours per week, as all graduate students are at York. (It is largely thanks to OGS and SSHRC that I was debt free when I finished my degree.)

English professor Paul Downes points out in an open letter to his colleagues that the troubles with the funding package affect humanities students most of all. They are the ones whose departments tend not to offer them more than the guaranteed minimum, he says. Dr. Downes calls on fellow professors to support the strikers, whose cause is largely the same as their own:

This strike is a symptom of all the things many of us are most concerned about: the shrinking public investment in education; the corporatization of the university; the marginalization of the humanities; the rise of one or another form of precarious employment; the widespread hostility towards organized labour; and the ongoing disaster of our inability to promise PhD students in the humanities a decent chance of securing a tenure-track job after they have helped us to teach our undergraduate classes, fill our graduate classes, enhance our reputation and professional status as research professors and sustain a vibrant departmental culture. This strike may not be the strike we wanted, it may be something of a blunt instrument, but it is the strike we have helped to produce and we have offered our students no alternative.

According to the “young academics” the Globe and Mail‘s education editor Simona Chiose spoke to, the strike “is the result of simmering anger over their future prospects.” No doubt.

On the weekend I read a memoir written by a former tenure-track professor at Colgate University. He recounts how, having recently lost his job — the English department was too top-heavy, his dean said — he went to see an old friend, to ask him for help.

“Maybe you could put me out on the road, selling books,” I said. “It’s not a question of whether or not I could sell books, is it? Because I mean, for years I’ve been selling books, I mean selling literature to students who don’t read.”

He looked like he was interested, but then he said, “The truth is that the people we hire here are in their early twenties, right out of college or business school, for the most part. I couldn’t even recommend you without looking silly. People would wonder what I was doing. It wouldn’t make sense.”

“Yes,” I said, “I understand.”

(Don J. Snyder, The Cliff Walk: A Memoir of a Job Lost and a Life Found, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1997, p. 77.)

The challenges Snyder faced in looking for a job are all-too-familiar to my friends and clients. It is often extremely difficult for new PhDs to secure meaningful, full-time employment that pays a living wage. This is true for academic and non-academic jobs. Recent graduates may spend years teaching courses on short-term per-course contracts, often for multiple universities at the same time, or moving far from friends and family to take up a one to three year postdoctoral fellowship or visiting assistant professorship position. (“Visiting from where? you might ask. From nowhere.“) Those of us who “leave” academia may find it takes four to five years to settle into a new career. To pay graduate students a pittance, sell them (if only by implication) on the merits of a tenure-track position, then offer them little assistance on the transition to secure employment . . . well, it doesn’t sit right with me.

Good wishes to those of you on the picket lines. I am with you in spirit.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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