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In my opinion

Thoughts on hiring committees and humanities PhDs

Part two of John Osborne's response to Tim Pettipiece's article on sessionals.


This is reprint of a blog post by John Osborne, dean of Carleton University’s faculty of arts and social sciences. It has been reprinted with permission. Be sure to read part one of this two-part series as well.

Last week I began to respond to Timothy Pettipiece’s op-ed piece in the current issue of University Affairs, noting the dearth of new tenure-track faculty positions being created at the moment, and the underlying financial factors which have created that situation. As I opined elsewhere, in a response to Ira Basen’s CBC Radio documentary entitled “Class Struggle”, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to hire 100 new faculty members tomorrow; but that would require an additional $10M in my base budget, and that simply isn’t going to happen unless tuition fees are completely deregulated nationwide or the provincial government finds new pots of money. The funding simply doesn’t exist. In recent years I have been ecstatic if the faculty’s annual budget simply remains unreduced, and this year that did happen after a number of years of small cuts, but an actual increase would be unheard of … unless accompanied by some revolutionary measure to increase income on a massive scale. But none of this will assuage Dr. Pettipiece or his colleagues. They want full-time positions, and to be treated with dignity and respect … and at a minimum they certainly deserve the latter. That is something that it is surely within our grasp to deliver.

Two more aspects of Dr. Pettipiece’s column merit comment, and the first is his charge that hiring committees, which he deems “some of the most inscrutable and often dysfunctional entities in the academic world”, place an excessive value on “an elite American degree”. He does have a valid point. Hiring at Canadian universities over the last half century has been fairly poor in terms of following “best practice” norms for recruitment, but the good news is that it is improving rapidly, at least on this campus. Forty-five to 50 years ago, my decanal predecessors would travel to England each summer with job offers in their pockets, and recruit newly-minted PhDs: no hiring committee, and no process other than possibly a quick interview. And while this did bring some excellent young scholars to Carleton, it is not a process that is defensible. Not that search committees, left to their own devices, necessarily do a better job … and I recall a certain all-male department at the University of Victoria in the late 1980s which had to be told very bluntly by the provost that the next hire would necessarily be a woman. They ran to the press to complain, but fortunately the university administration held firm. Nationality also was and remains an issue.

Because the shortage of Canadian-trained academics in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in massive hiring from Britain and the United States, search committees composed of faculty members from those countries often tended to “look homeward” when it came to hiring new colleagues. In my own first academic position (Victoria), I was the “token Canadian” in a department of seven; and when we made the next hire my colleagues assumed that the senior members would all travel to the national meeting of the American professional society in order to undertake interviews. They seemed quite perplexed when I mentioned the corresponding Canadian society and wondered if we could also look there. None of them had ever attended that meeting, and some didn’t even know that a Canadian society existed. It was not exactly a surprise when Americans were hired for the next few positions, all lovely people who became great friends and colleagues … but that’s not the point.

In the mid-1980s, as president of the Canadian professional society in my discipline, I wrote letters to two prominent Canadian universities to protest the appearance of job advertisements in American and European journals, ads which had not even been posted in Canada. Neither university deigned to respond, and both proceeded to hire non-Canadians. What irked me most was that a Canadian colleague who taught at Erindale (now UT Mississauga) told me that the chair of the corresponding department on the St George campus had once explained to her that her Canadian (and indeed U of T) doctorate was good enough to teach where she was, but would never be acceptable for the main downtown campus. It made my blood boil, and just to think about it still does … and indeed this discrimination against Canadians, incidentally also manifested in curriculum across the humanities, was one of the main reasons for my decision to take on an administrative role. The only effective way to change departmental practice was to become the chair … so I did.

Although Dr. Pettipiece’s charge accords with some of my own memories, I do think we have come a long way in recent years, although in my time as dean I have experienced some angry faculty members who could not understand why they were prevented from serving on a search committee for a faculty position to which their own graduate students were applying. Apparently they believed that “conflict of interest” concerns should not apply to them. At Carleton we now have written procedures for the work of search committees, and more attention is also now paid to federal legislation about hiring “foreign workers”. But university cultures change very slowly, and there is still much work to be done on this file.

And finally, I shall quibble with Dr. Pettipiece on one thing: his apparent sense of entitlement to an academic position. He laments that he has done everything that he was advised to do, and indeed that is no doubt true. But the reality is that only a tiny percentage of doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences will proceed to academic careers, based on the simple logic of supply and demand. What we need to do is challenge the thinking of those students regarding their future expectations, and be blunt with them that perhaps 10 percent at best will get university positions, while the rest will need to seek employment elsewhere, or else eke out an existence as sessional faculty. This is not a new phenomenon. When I headed off to London in 1975 to pursue my own doctoral studies, my academic mentor, Clifford Brown, warned me not to expect a faculty position afterwards. “There are no jobs in Canada for medieval art historians”, he opined. And so I went with no expectations beyond the knowledge that I had three years of SSHRC funding to facilitate what promised to be an amazing intellectual adventure. And indeed it was.

Fortunately for me there was one job in Canada in 1979, but it was the only one in my field for approximately a decade, and there have been precious few since … and I do acknowledge how phenomenally lucky I was to have been in the right place at the right time. Subsequently I have given that same advice to all of my own graduate students. Some take it, and at least one hasn’t. I am encouraged by the recent SSHRC-sponsored “White Paper on the Future of the Humanities”, which aims at raising this discussion more broadly on Canadian campuses. There are many excellent opportunities for those with humanities doctorates in both the public and private sectors, and “academic” careers need to be understood as the exception, not the norm, for those pursuing PhDs. But it’s going to be a long and hard sell.

John Osborne is dean of Carleton University’s faculty of arts and social sciences.


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  1. JCVeletta / September 14, 2014 at 08:45

    There is one solution:Canadian universities need to stop producing so many Ph.Ds. Please do not turn churn out graduates like the law schools.

  2. Anon / September 21, 2014 at 11:39

    Demography (echo generation graduated), the economy (retrenchment/public sector cuts), and social policy (the end of mandatory retirement) have all conspired to shut down the academic job market. This begs the question: why did the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities allow 200 new doctoral programmes between 2000 and 2010? Furthermore, if we’re all expected to use our ‘transferable skills’ to find something else to do, never mind spending years becoming experts on some subject, why not re-direct most of the money for doctoral programmes into something else, such as MBA programmes? At least, rather than grasping for transferable skills, we’d possess real skills that are actually sought after by the private/public sector.

  3. JCVeletta / September 22, 2014 at 15:11


    You touched on a very important point. I think some of these universities want to keep their research status, hence the over-production of Ph.Ds. This is a serious problem and their needs to be a consortium to address the issue in Canada. I hope the Deans are not taking this lightly.

  4. Mark Mercer / September 23, 2014 at 09:00

    John Osborne writes: “I recall a certain all-male department at the University of Victoria in the late 1980s which had to be told very bluntly by the provost that the next hire would necessarily be a woman. They ran to the press to complain, but fortunately the university administration held firm.” The provost in this case is interfering with what is properly department business. Moreover, he or she is encouraging the department to hire using an academically irrelevant criterion.

  5. eits / September 27, 2014 at 09:30

    The answer isn’t to “to stop producing so many Ph.Ds.”* as JCVeletta suggested or to “re-direct most of the money for doctoral programmes into something else, such as MBA programmes” as suggested by Anon. Part of the issue is that a substantial number of programmes are failing their students by neglecting to adequately prepare them for non-academic careers. Most science PhD graduates do not intend to stay in academia after completing their degrees, yet they still pursue them for the skill set and financial boost to their careers. Yet, there is this disastrous position in the Humanities that every good PhD student ought to be considering an academic career and that it is a ‘failure’ not to pursue it, that ‘it only takes one’ successful application, that ‘academia is a higher calling not a job’ and so forth. And it’s those attitudes that make it difficult for people to leave without seeing themselves as failures.

    *Though, that said, I do think that no department should ever take on a self-funded PhD student. Doing so is morally and ethically reprehensible, especially given the high attrition rates of PhD programmes (before even looking at employment rates of those who successfully complete). By restricting PhD student cohorts to those with full funding, student numbers would drop.