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The Associate

Graduate students and their futures

“Career: The ground on which a race is run, a racecourse.”


This Fall I begin my second year as graduate chair. You would think that, having directed a master’s program earlier in my career, I would have known better than to volunteer for the job. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to be back in grad school, an environment which at its best is like Harry Potter meets The Newsroom: idealistic, impassioned, articulate. (And which at its worst is like Harry Potter meets The Newsroom: self-righteous, dorky.)

But being grad chair is a lot of work. Whereas universities administer undergraduates centrally, more grad programs are run at the departmental level. We have greater responsibility in matters from timetabling and room bookings to student recruitment and funding. What’s more, being grad chair requires full immersion – and at three distinct time scales. Graduate students tend to be more involved in the day-to-day life of the department than undergraduates are. They are a year-round presence; in my department, there is just a 10-day lull between the submission of final grades for one MA cohort and orientation for the next. And with graduate students’ programs so directly tied to their futures, those of us involved in those programs may be offering support and letters of reference for years.

Our sense of responsibility scales even longer. Good, long-term job prospects seem so dire for would-be scholars. In 2010-11, the most recent year with complete stats, there were 33 full-time history appointments in Canadian universities, down from 105 appointments five years earlier (admittedly, a high-water mark). Things have hardly improved since then. Young graduates experience this, while tenured faculty like me – like picnickers at a Civil War battle – witness it from a broader perspective and a decidedly safer vantage point.

It is little wonder that graduate programs have responded by getting much more involved in career development of late. In my own department, we now run a series of workshops and seminars throughout the school year on topics such as building an online presence, publishing strategies, conference-going, turning the thesis into a book, applying and interviewing for academic jobs, and finding a career beyond the academy. Career talk makes its way into many of our courses, too. This is a far cry from my own graduate school experience, where in retrospect it seems professional development was expected to happen by osmosis. As Thoreau wrote, we were to gain wisdom by experience, that is, failure. Today’s graduate students are not just more career-minded, they are taught to see graduate school as the first stage of that career.

This is all to the good. And yet.

This summer I was fortunate enough to participate in a week-long workshop in Australia for environment history students there. They discussed their doctoral projects, their sources, methodologies, and questions in great detail, and yet I don’t think the word “career” ever came up. Although these PhD students face job markets in and beyond academe that are much like our own, their focus was entirely on their dissertation. Whether this is indicative of Australian/Canadian academic cultures more broadly I have no idea. The point is that the atmosphere was so much more positive, encouraging, joyful than I see back home. I came away wondering whether, in teaching graduate students to consider their research in career terms, I wasn’t accidentally turning the spotlight from the research itself – and, worse, draining it of some of the joy that makes the research and the career worth doing.

“Career” is defined first in the Oxford English Dictionary as “The ground on which a race is run, a racecourse.” It started as a fixed site of action, and only in time did it become something we expected to influence, to develop. There is liberation in that evolution but there is also pressure and, beyond a certain point, hubris. We should help students develop their career, but we should also remind them that much will be outside their planning, and that top-notch work is the best insurance, as well as its own reward.

I began my career – that word again – drawing inspiration from Van Halen, which famously became famous by being the metal band that smiled. I would be the professor who smiled. (If you require your inspirations to be more highbrow, I offer you painter Robert Henri: “Paint like a man coming over the top of the hill singing.”) As I grew older and felt increasingly responsible for the careers and lives of young scholars, I smiled less often. But that does them and me no good. This fall, the department’s professional development series is in the hands of others. I am going to make it my job to be the graduate chair who smiles.


Alan MacEachern
Alan MacEachern is associate professor and graduate chair of history at Western University and director of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment. His column appears in every second issue.
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