Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Game On. The job hunt has begun.

(Guest post from anonymous blogger. YMMV.)

It’s appropriate that my first post is written today as it is also the day that I am submitting my very first academic job application. It would have been better if I could have written a post prior to this to introduce myself a bit, you know, provide a little context, but like so many of you out there, I am a procrastinator.

I suppose I should be more clear: I am incredibly busy with professional and personal projects; I stay up late, get up early, get distracted, and yes also find myself watching videos of baby goats for hours. Sometimes it is hard to get it all done in advance.  So now you know.  Considering that I am blogging anonymously, I suppose the less you know about me the better.

Here’s what you should know about me: First, I am on the job market this year. It’s my first year out there and I am scared. I think this is pretty typical and I hope to talk about this more in a future post. Second, this is a test year on the market. What does that mean? Well, I guess it means that I am getting my feet wet, testing the waters if you will. I could finish my dissertation this year and dive into a postdoc or swim off after the sparkly narwhal that is a job right out of the gates, but I have my water wings on. If it doesn’t work out, I can float around in my university’s pool until kids’ swim is over about a year and a half from now. Why does this matter? Because it changes the way I apply for jobs. Only being ABD and not having my PhD in hand means I can shoot for the moon but I’ll probably just land on that smelly hunk of cheese in the dumpster behind the department.

Taking a test year on the market is a contentious topic in the academic blogosphere and seems to depend a lot on your field (for some links to what’s out there scroll on down to the bottom). There are good points on both sides, which I will summarize as such:

  • Committees sometimes summarily dismiss all ABD candidates so you don’t stand a chance. This seems more common in the humanities and less so in the social sciences and bioanth in particular but it is something to keep in mind.
  • A trial run can be demoralizing (since you may not be at your most competitive).
  • You are taking valuable time and energy away from finishing your dissertation and your post-doc and write up applications (things which you may have a better shot at getting).
  • You might get a job that isn’t quite what you wanted, isn’t in a place that you wanted, or maybe isn’t as good as you wanted and take it because . . . well it’s a job.

  • You will gain valuable experience in preparing an application.
  • You may even generate some buzz about yourself and get experience with a job talk.
  • It will force you to think about your research in a package-able and ultimately more manageable way.
  • You have a chance to gain important insights into the weaknesses of your application and can address them for your second go at the market the following year.
  • You may actually get a job . . . I hear this is great motivation to finish.
  • You can avoid getting steamrolled by student loans without a real salary and the adjunct death trap altogether.

This last point for me is pretty critical. Not because it is my situation just yet, but because it is a pretty dire one that a lot of academics are finding themselves in today. By taking a test year, you give yourself a greater shot at getting a job. You maintain the benefits of your institution while applying (library, research, and professionalization resources) and you still have your affiliation with your graduate university, making you a better candidate. AND you get two years to find something!!!

I am going for it. I have already decided to make a go of the trial by fire year. My reasons for doing so are both structural and personal. My program has provided me with floaties but I am pretty ready to swim on my own. My publication record is okay but it could be better. My dissertation is in good shape and I could finish it in a few months if I had to (this is a must if you want to go on the market). I have a lot of support from my adviser and department to apply (another must as your adviser and committee will be vouching for your capability to finish the dissertation in time to start the job you are applying for. If they aren’t on board, don’t do it). But most importantly, there are a lot of great jobs out there right now for bioanthros, especially for a biocultural like me (we can save this discussion for another day). I just feel like I can’t afford to not try for them.

My parting words to you today are these: If you are taking a trial year, go big or go home. Find your dream jobs and apply for those. Don’t apply for a job that you don’t really want but would be tempted to take just because you think nothing else will come along.  Just don’t put your self in the position where you have to make that choice. Think about what you want from your career and go after it (Think about what this really means to you. It might be more than just getting a tenure track job). Your chances of getting the job might be less but the trial year provides you a safety net. If you shoot for the moon, you might just get it. If you land on the dumpster cheese . . . well . . . there is always next year.

Links to relevant articles about going on the job market ABD:

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wait, I’m not a grad student anymore?

Guest post by Dr. Cara Ocobock:

I thought my final year of graduate school which consisted of finishing and defending my dissertation, applying for jobs, teaching, planning a wedding, and then planning a move would have adequately prepared me for my first year as a faculty member. I figured the differing demands on my time and attention would be similar to what I would face in an academic job. Now when I look back, I realize that my final year of graduate school was basically summer vacation.

  • First, I can no longer spend 98% of my time in pajama pants or jeans. I know this may sound silly, but having to look semi-professional on a daily basis was a more difficult adjustment than I had expected…also expensive!
  • Second, I have had to completely readjust my perception of time. During graduate school I used to think I needed at least a four-hour block of time to accomplish anything meaningful. This strategy worked because I had that freedom in my schedule. I no longer have those gloriously long, uninterrupted stretches of time. The majority of my days are now filled with classes, meetings, research students, office hours, and colleagues. Because of this, I have had to master the art of fifteen-minute productivity. Those short bursts of time in between various responsibilities are golden nuggets of writing and editing. It was difficult and frustrating to adjust to this at first. I felt like I never got anything done since I could only write a few sentences at a time. I soon realized those sentences here and there quickly added up during the day. It also served the purpose of keeping whatever I am working on fresh in my mind throughout the day and from day-to-day.
  • Third, the constant pulls in different directions also meant I had to shift focus quickly. This has actually helped me a great deal. I rarely have the opportunity to stare at uncooperative data for hours on end, which invariably lead to me banging my head against the table and seeking out the nearest tub of ice cream. Being forced to frequently change gears prevents me from getting frustrated with what I am doing. So much so, it has now become a conscious decision to step away from what I am doing when I notice my thoughts wandering or frustration rising. Rather than bashing my head, I continue the productivity in a different direction.
  • Fourth, I needed to lose the guilt I felt when not working. When I was a grad student, I would feel incredible guilt when I wasn’t spending every waking moment (and even the sleeping moments) not working. I would feel guilty about not working, which made me feel horrible about myself, which made it near impossible to work, which increased the guilt, and so on and so forth into the spiral many of us are familiar with. We need balance in life. Let me repeat…WE NEED BALANCE.  Working out, reading science fiction or the latest Krakauer book, occasionally seeing our loved ones, and taking 20 minutes out of your day to build a Lego while watching reality TV shows I am too embarrassed to name. This is the list of things I do that are not work related. And they are necessary. They make a better person if for no other reason than they allow me to turn my mind off, allow me to recharge. I have dropped the guilt and embraced the time I take for myself and for my loved ones. And that, in the end does affect my work output… for the better.
  • At the moment, there isn’t a “Fifth” because I haven’t figured it all out, and I doubt I ever will. For example, I still haven’t learned how to say “no” when asked to take on extra work – and this includes saying “no” to myself. 
I am sure all of you reading this have your own incredible insights on the transition from grad student to faculty – please share in the comments section.

This is a constant learning process, and honestly, I fail all the time. But, those failures inform, I make the correction, and I move on knowing better. Despite all the changes I have had to make as a faculty member, I still delight in those rare days without classes and meetings where I can go un-showered, stay in my pajama pants, and just write.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Not where I want to be

(Thanks to an anonymous contributor for this new BANDIT blog post!)

I was one of the lucky ones. I got a tenure-track position before I had my PhD in hand. When I got the offer I should have been ecstatic, and part of me was. The other part of me was terrified and dejected. Terrified because I would have to be a professor and I didn’t know how. Dejected because this was not the job I wanted. It was neither the institution nor the department I would have liked. Teaching is the first and foremost focus at my institution, with research being a distant second. Though I was also assured that there would be room for research, I knew that this job would not be able to support my goals. But, I was in a damn good position that others would trade me for in a heartbeat, and yes, I realize how much of an asshole I sound like complaining about this. However, I am not where I want to be, and that is a situation we can all relate to. I accepted the offer and girded myself for the challenges ahead.

I, like everyone starting a new job, hit the ground running. I wanted to do all I could to make myself an asset. It has been a lot of work…A LOT OF WORK! I had to prep courses I had never taught before, crank out manuscripts from previous research, attempt to establish my own research program with little to no support and space, and throw in a few service things as well.

I was chugging along surprisingly well. I received excellent teaching evaluations after my first semester, I managed to submit a manuscript fairly fast, developed a community science outreach program, and took part in an exciting, new research project. I started to feel like I belonged, and that maybe this was a job I could see myself at long-term. I was hitting all the marks I needed to hit and establish my research program. I was silly to be upset by this job early on! I was riding high on thoughts of the future. I was starting to make plans! Big plans for research and community outreach! Then the whispers started. I was starting to hear talk that other faculty members thought I was conducting too much research and attending too many conferences, which must come at the expense of my teaching quality. This lead to several contradictory criticisms about my teaching style. This devastated me, probably more than it should have, and it completely popped that bubble of hope I had just formed.

All my original feelings came back...this is not the place for me. This place does not provide an environment that actively supports research and dissemination as well as teaching. However, that was quickly displaced by the fear and self-loathing that so many academics face. “Maybe my teaching is suffering.” “Maybe I am doing too much research.” “Is this going to affect my contract renewal or tenure and promotion?” “Perhaps this is the best job I can hope for.” “But, wait, I don’t even deserve this job!”

I had a rough winter. I wanted to give up, and even considered leaving academia. As I often do, I wallowed in self-pity for about a week, but eventually pulled myself out of it. I decided to turn the sadness into anger, and let that anger fuel me. 

I used that anger to write a couple of internal grants that would support my research and dissemination. I worked hard on them and had a number of colleagues review them for me. I was awarded those grants. I then decided to get my research in my institution’s media outlets, to make the university, students, faculty, and administration aware of the work I was conducting. I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get faculty, administration, and students outside of my department interested in my research.

Riding off of that, I developed two brand new research projects. One will be an internationally collaborative project, which will take a ridiculous amount of time to get off the ground. The other includes an army of undergraduate research assistants, promoting a more hands on educational opportunity. Both may be pooh-poohed by members of my department, but both will be highly regarded by others at my university and hopefully other universities as well.

So I couldn’t be accused of neglecting my teaching, I completely redesigned how one of my courses is taught based on student feedback. Granted, I had to go through a number of different channels to do so since my institution does not afford a great deal of intellectual freedom in teaching. However, the class will be taught this semester in a manner to make the information more accessible and enjoyable for students.

Eventually, the anger fizzled out. And when it did, I realized something.  I accomplished a lot in my first year. Having to fight for work to be valued by my colleagues has made me work harder. Am I where I want to be yet? No, but where I am now has made me a better academic. The desire to be in a different position motivated me to do things and inspired me to take risks I would not have done or taken before. These struggles have made me stronger, and that bubble of hope is slowly growing again leaving me with this mentality

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

U of Missouri Health Insurance Fiasco and the Exploitation of Graduate Students

(Huge thanks to guest blogger, Colleen Young, a PhD student at the University of Missouri. Thanks for speaking out!)

Like most academics, I didn’t have the summer “vacation” that many non-academics purport we have. Meaning, I worked. Hard. All. Summer. I’m going into my 3rd year as a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and this summer was the furthest from sipping a fruity drink on the beach that I’ve ever had. I took a language course for my area of research, worked on my dissertation proposal, and wrote as much as I could on papers that continually get pushed down by the ever-increasing weight being added by just about everything else required as a Ph.D. student (*deep inhale*). And (*exhale*) I don’t have a break. This academic year is going to be one of my most demanding years (I do fantasize that it gets better). In preparation for this tumultuous year, I sat down at my desk on Friday, August 14th, to clear my inbox.

Sifting through dozens of emails, my eyes caught one unique subject: “Changes in Student Health Insurance Subsidy for Graduate Teaching and Research.” As I read the email, I grew frustrated and angry (however, I just learned about the sympathetic nervous system in gross anatomy, so I also relished this intimate educational moment). The subject was surprisingly deceptive: The content of the message did not describe “changes,” rather it announced ending student health insurance. The content of the message is also deceiving: the administration claimed that their hands are tied as the IRS will not “allow” them to provide insurance subsidies to their graduate students as we are classified as employees. #ThanksObama.

We’ve all taken the GREs -- sorting through these word problems wasn’t difficult for any of us. The university was not offering Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance to their graduate students, so the IRS threatened to penalize them. Rather than providing us with ACA-level health insurance for full-time employees following the employee mandate, the university decided to cut all of our insurance and hand us 55% of the stipend we should be receiving for one semester as compensation. What are they going to do with the extra ~$4,000,000 from the health insurance budget next year? Hire another football coach with a $4,000,000 salary? Graduate students, as employees of this university, should be provided with ACA-level health insurance that full-time employees receive, and at a lower cost because we make less. But, the administrators refused to solve this simple problem for their graduate students.

The university claims that they were not aware of this upcoming problem, stating that they were informed of the potential issue on July 21, 2015. However, the state of Missouri and the administration have known about this since 2013. The IRS initially announced that they would be changing their interpretations of employees for health insurance coverage in 2013. (Legislators in the state of Missouri actively refused to participate in the ACA by not expanding Medicaid. Further, the administration at Mizzou is sympathetic to the state’s resistance by choosing to wishfully wait for the ACA to be overturned, rather than figure out a way to provide adequate health care coverage for its students.) The administration was notified in early July of this year that the legislation would be decided on within the next few weeks. Faculty and students weren’t notified about any of this until 14 hours before student health insurance was cut.

This is an example of legislation taken with poor administrative oversight resulting in policies that explicitly exploit graduate students. Graduate students at Mizzou cannot claim they work more than 20 hours a week per teaching or research appointment (0.5 FTE). Further, “Student Employees should not be scheduled to work more than an average of 28 hours per week across all concurrent university jobs.” We are effectively pigeonholed as part-time employees. This limit was supposed to protect students from being overworked. However, students are given the burden of teaching and grading exams for overcrowded undergraduate courses without being compensated for going over 20 hours a week (and many students do). We have to work as many hours as it takes to get the job done. We work more for less pay, while not qualifying for health insurance that full-time employees qualify for.

Doctoral students are highly qualified people who are willing to make low wages (~$1000 to $2000 per month, sometimes less!) for 5 to 10 years, often working 60+ hours a week. We often could not possibly work, and indeed, at some schools, are often prohibited from working, additional jobs outside of the university. The loss of the health insurance support at Mizzou is 1.5 to 3 months of pay (which is almost always budgeted in for grants, so the health insurance fees paid are not solely from tuition revenue). Is it easy for anyone to suddenly lose that much pay?

Sadly, I’m not that surprised by any of this. Health insurance was about the last thing that the university could take away from its graduate students. And the administration never effectively communicates with any of its educators and staff. These are expected actions by an administration that continually exploits and treats graduate students with egregious disrespect. In the past few years, administrators at the University of Missouri have made clear their lack of commitment to graduate education:

  1. The student parent center was shut down (actually the roof of a balcony collapsed because of poor safety inspections and standards, and they chose not to repair or replace it). 
  2. Affordable on-campus housing was closed (see above ^). 
  3. Salaries have remained stagnant while the cost of living has increased. 
  4.  Fees are increasing while resources are being cut. 
  5. Tuition waivers for quarter-time Teaching Assistants were slashed. 
I am one of the few lucky graduate students; I received an external grant from the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program. My colleagues aren’t as fortunate. I have to watch many of my peers suffer, stagnate, and sometimes drop out. Average salary in the anthropology department is below the poverty line. (For a one person family unit, the poverty line in Missouri is $11,770 a year.) Out of the 31 graduate students in the department, 8-10 are offered 0.25 time TA positions that provide only $5,508 - $6,059 (M.A. – Ph.D.) a year; and 5-6 students are offered 0.5 time TA positions that provide only $11,017 - $12,118 (M.A. – Ph.D.) a year. That’s all our department can afford. The rest of the students must find work in other departments or off campus.

Our highest quality students seem to suffer the most. A friend of mine, and a student in the anthropology graduate program, Rachel Munds, had to find a second, off-campus job to cover her monthly expenses. She TAs on campus in the biology department more than 20 hours a week (she was hired as a 0.5 TA, but works well over what she is paid for), and works at PetSmart roughly15 hours a week. I’m appalled by how much Rachel has to work just to pay her bills rather than focus on her research…research that has been recognized at many levels. In 2013, Rachel discovered a new species of slow loris, Nycticebus kayan, and has worked on several articles on genotype–phenotype mapping and species recognition in primates. Further, if she doesn’t complete this research she will not be able to complete her degree. The standards of science, the documentation of evidence, cannot be met in hour increments between teaching, grading, studying, cooking, completing chores, meeting family obligations, and cashiering.

This is at no fault to the department. Anthropology faculty are continually working hard to find resources and oases of support in the desert of educational support at Mizzou. Last year our faculty worked on a plan to provide more tuition waivers for our graduate students. To do so, they created more 0.25 time TA positions, and worked closely with students to apply for external sources of funding. What did the administration surprise us with at the end of last year? They cut tuition waivers for 0.25 TA positions.

In addition to these financially taxing matters, the administration’s unconscionable actions leave graduate students stressed, without housing, tired, and, with less time to focus on our research, ill-equipped for the job market. The morale among graduate students is one of defeat. We work hard. We teach courses, grade exams, have lab responsibilities, do research, take exams, go to class, network with peers; we go home to families with spouses and kids and dogs and cats. And we don’t receive the support we need, and deserve. We’re expected to wine and dine as professionals, but we can barely afford to meet basic needs.

As conditions continually worsen here, students are speaking out about the administration’s egregious, unforgivable actions. A walkout and rally are planned for Wednesday, August 26th, if the university doesn’t address our demands. Students are sharing their stories about how traumatic an immediate and unforeseen loss of health care has been. In the Forum on Graduate Rights on Facebook, one student shared her experience with the loss of health care and with the administration:

“It appears that President Wolfe's Executive Assistant is simply sending generic emails in response to student concerns about health insurance, including my story detailing my miscarriage and having to desperately register for some form of health insurance while rivers of blood and my actual pregnancy were leaving my body… I understand he must be busy, but that was absolutely ridiculous. Is the administration completely heartless??” – Natalie Tartiere (Posted at 1:16 PM, August 20th, 2015 in the Forum on Graduate Rights on Facebook)

(After stories and news of the walkout spread, the university responded with a one-year solution to our health insurance, which stated they will “…defer implementation of its decision regarding graduate student health insurance. As a result, the university will pay for health insurance for eligible graduate students.” We are still planning the walkout and rally because they have not adequately addressed our health coverage with a long-term plan, nor have they addressed any of our other demands.)

Administrators, like President Timothy Wolfe, are exactly the problem. President Wolfe received a B.S. in business, and graduated from Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program. He has worked in sales and management positions at IBM and other companies. His résumé doesn’t lie – he is great at what he does – he is successful at managing this school system like a corporation. However, it is a corporation that is destined to fail because of a bloated (in size and salary) administration. Compounded with a lack of state funding for higher education, the expansion of administrative oversight is making failing businesses out of university campuses, and is taking away the ability for educators to do their jobs effectively.

Unfortunately, the exploitation of graduate student labor is not isolated to the University of Missouri, Columbia. Graduate students across the nation struggle to attain their degrees and support themselves. Graduate student loan interest rates are an outrageous 6%, much higher than undergraduate rates. Further, the few resources that are offered to graduate students usually do not extend to their families. Even high-ranking universities, such as UC Berkeley, don’t adequately provide for their graduate students and families. Celeste Henrickson, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the anthropology department at UC Berkeley noted:

“I remember from the Grad insurance at Berkeley that there was a serious lack of insurance support for families and significant others. I was really thankful I had neither at the time, but it angers me that the university was so unsupportive of grad student families. I guess they expect us not to have them, even though that is the exact age when many start a family?”

Providing graduate students with their basic needs benefits everyone. At a time when societal and environmental issues desperately need quality research for solutions, providing graduate students with their basic needs to conduct research and teach is critical. Further, allowing graduate students to partake in innovative research brings prestige and revenue to universities. There is tremendous emphasis at any university on research output and obtaining external funds to conduct research. Research that directly and indirectly benefits broader society. Research that factors into how the university ranks nationally. Research that keeps our students up-to-date on the latest ideas/findings in their field of study. Research that is required for graduate students to get a job after grad school. Graduate students execute tasks on research projects and are integral to the process of new discoveries. They are also critical for teaching the next generation of undergraduates. Graduate students need to be provided with the time and proper working conditions to conduct their research to the best of their ability.

A step forward for all grad programs would be to unionize. Many graduate programs are taking this necessary step, and are seeing the benefits of working as a collective body. Graduates students are a powerful, smart group. If we come together, we can push back. The very nature of graduate school means that there is an ever-changing pool of workers that must understand the challenges of the system and the administration they work for. Unionization will afford graduate students with the power to speak with one voice and the continuity needed to address all needs as they arise. We are employees. We are educators. We are students. We deserve to be treated better with a fair salary, and benefits. We deserve to be compensated for every hour that we work.

Alas, as I enter my second week of anatomy this Monday and prepare for a Graduate Student Walkout on Wednesday, I have a diverse understanding of what it means to have a spine. In addition to being an almost professional biological anthropologist, I have developed quite a repertoire of skills as an activist. My cause? Graduate student and educator’s rights.

-Colleen B. Young
Ph.D. student
Biological Anthropology
University of Missouri, Columbia
Cbyoung44 at gmail dot com
#GradInsurance #GradsDo