Five Years On

On this day five years ago, I walked across the stage at DeMontfort Hall to receive my PhD in Museum Studies. By many metrics, I no longer count as an early-career researcher, or qualify for a post-doctoral degree, so I thought I would take this opportunity to sum up my experiences of the early career track with you who are just starting (or even considering starting) the PhD journey. I have shared a few snippets on this blog earlier, but will summarise and reflect on my experience in this post. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. Hopefully, however, you will find it useful to read about one person's experience.

After my viva in 2012, I moved back home to Canada, and received a short-term contract at a museum I formerly worked at during my undergrad and after my MA. I was grateful to my former colleagues for continuing to support me, but was looking for other opportunities.

Fortunately, I was offered some teaching opportunities immediately after my contract ended. My position was that of a "sessional"; this refers to an academic instructor on a short-term contract to deliver a certain number of courses. In the US, sessionals are called adjuncts. I was reasonably well renumerated, but I never knew until about a month before the start of term whether I would be issued a contract, and what classes I would be teaching. This meant an enormous number of hours preparing lecture material, often the night before the lecture itself, and a learning curve in terms of classroom management techniques for large lectures and small seminars. For some courses, I had colleagues who were teaching other sections of the same course - they generously shared some of their materials with me. However, mostly, I was on my own to choose textbooks, compile slides, compose exams, and prepare marking rubrics. As a sessional instructor is only brought in when there is no permanent staff available, their position is very precarious. I chose to spread the risk by teaching at multiple institutions. I was fortunate to mostly get assigned classes at times that didn't conflict, but it was very stressful. At one time, I was teaching in different cities on different days of the week, merely to stay employed and to spend some time with my husband; during another semester, I was teaching four classes at three institutions. I did not have benefits like medical insurance or pension, nor was I entitled to any vacation or days off. I was passed over for several full-time, permanent positions that did come up in the departments for which I was teaching, and was told that this would continue to happen - once a sessional instructor, always a sessional instructor. The departments were more interested in hiring the mysterious sexy stranger from an external institution, than promoting the staff they had. However, I did enjoy having flexible hours and also establishing networks with colleagues in different post-secondary institutions.

While I was teaching, I was also trying to keep my hand in academically. I spoke at a couple of conferences, and found a little bit of time to write some journal articles. I was fortunate in that my sessional contracts included some professional development money which I could put towards maintaining various memberships in professional associations, or even travel to conferences. I also did some short contracts developing curricula for new courses, hoping that this would improve my chances of getting a tenure-track position.

Ever in search of that elusive permanent job, I applied for any positions that seemed vaguely in line with my experience and skills. This wasn't necessarily always advisable - no doubt my resume was frequently rejected because I was over- or under-qualified, or simply relying too much on my transferable skills. But, as the years wore on, and my prospects for advancing in academia wore thinner, I applied for jobs simply to feel hope, and not get stuck in a rut of desperation and dejection.

In the spring of 2016, I applied for a curatorial job at a museum of the size and scale one step below a national museum. I had grown so used to rejection that I was stunned when I was invited for an interview. I did not think that the interview went well, so I was even more stunned when I was offered the job. Later, I was informally informed that while I was not the candidate they were hoping for, I was the best of the batch they reviewed. This position is a permanent full-time job, with benefits and a civil service pension, in the same city as my husband (we were maintaining a long-distance relationship on and off for years). Despite having to focus on developing and caring for a large collection of objects, and exhibits thereof, I am nevertheless also encouraged to continue publishing and teaching as a means of public engagement, and so I have maintained my casual teaching relationship with the university in town, and continued to write academically. While budget constraints have meant that I have not been able to travel to conferences recently, this is not a permanent state of affairs.

You may think this is a happy ending: she got The Job. But I have to say that, while I have been very lucky over the last 5 years to be almost continually employed, and am lucky to now have a good permanent position, nothing is ever perfect. For example, this is not the academic job I had my heart set on, even though academia acted like a bad boyfriend. As in every job, there are good days and bad days, highlights and favourites, slumps and busy work. Life means compromise.

I suppose the moral I want you to take away from this blog post is that life never turns out quite as you expected. Getting a PhD in Museum Studies will not doom you to a lifetime of unemployment, but it may not end with you having a smooth set of promotions to your dream job, either. As in any aspect of life, try to collect as much experience as you can, and to stay as flexible as you can. There are many definitions of success, and you just have to find the ones that work for you.


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