I don’t want my comments to come across as insensitive or uncaring towards people struggling to get a university position. I attended the first CHA panel about precarity in the historical profession. I felt a lot of sympathy for those who outlined their anger and disappointment with either not obtaining a full-time academic position or the stress they felt as they worked to find academic employment. I’m also not criticizing the many valuable suggestions put forth by Steven High in his earlier article.
I’ve followed the discussions around academic employment—specifically the lack of opportunities—for many years. I’ve read numerous essays written by people who obtained their doctoral degrees, but can’t find a job in their field. These essays are often personal. So, in that spirit, I want to relate my experience with precarity and a lesson I learned twenty years ago: Being a professor is just a job.
I started teaching part-time in a history department in 1997. I was ABD and still working on my thesis. I taught on the main campus and commuted to a satellite campus, when required. I filled in very quickly for a professor who, on two separate occasions, took a leave of absence. This necessitated taking on a full-time teaching commitment, prepping for new courses, and additional grading. I put my thesis on hold to help the department.
Eventually, a one-year full-time position came up. My thesis was a few months from submission. I had a publication forthcoming. I presented several papers, written book reviews, and worked as an expert in my field for several projects. I applied, but wasn’t even offered an interview. A much-beloved history professor at the university, one of my former teachers, and a dear friend I often remember broke the news to me as I worked late one night on campus. “You didn’t get the job,” he said to me. “You fucking should have, but you didn’t.” He then gave me great advice: “David,” he said, “being a professor is just a job.”
A few months later, I successfully defended my thesis. I was teaching part-time again and weighing two options: take a one-year position at a Maritime university or attend teacher’s college. I had earlier applied unsuccessfully for a tenure-track job at the same institution and reasoned that the one-year position would go nowhere. There was a demand for high school teachers at that time. I declined the one-year offer and went back to school.
I needed four more undergraduate English courses to get into teacher’s college. My Ph.D. was insufficient to qualify as a high school teacher. I enrolled in correspondence courses from the University of Waterloo. I completed my classes while I taught two third-year history classes. One year after completing my Ph.D., I was a student at the same institution that wouldn’t hire me and attending classes alongside former students. I was determined to complete my B.Ed. It offered a greater chance at full-time employment.
I finished my B.Ed. in May 2000 and looked for supply teacher work as my girlfriend (now wife) began her teaching degree. That summer, the same professor who offered me the earlier advice unexpectedly passed away one week before classes started. The university called me and I filled in for the man who supported me in my Ph.D., who got me my start in teaching, and who I considered a valued friend. I taught a full slate of courses, served on two committees, and revised an article for a forthcoming publication. When the university posted my friend’s tenure-track job, I applied with no expectation of success. And I was correct. Many organizations grant internal candidates an interview to provide them with the practice, but the department didn’t even extend me that courtesy. I did learn a great deal about the hiring process that I wasn’t supposed to know. The walls between university offices are thin, sound travels, and selection committee members talk about more than qualifications.
In a way, it didn’t matter. Several months later, I had half a dozen interviews at various independent schools. I needed a B.Ed. to be considered for these jobs, and the Ph.D. helped me get the interviews. Suddenly, my doctoral degree had value for the first time. I landed a job at an excellent school. I was anxious about the change, but I kept thinking of my friend’s advice.
The point of this long-winded personal anecdote is two-fold: to establish my bona fides as someone who has been there and done that, and to ask those struggling and suffering as they look for an academic job a simple question: Why not work somewhere else?
Those who are currently scrambling for a university position might disagree with my opinion. It is cliché to tell someone to take the road less travelled, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. In the comments of his recent University Affairs article, Paul Yachnin quite rightly observed that, “there is a world for talented teachers and researchers outside the academy, that the world needs them, and that we inside the academy need to work to discover and even help create career pathways beyond the academy.” Steven High writes about the need to make alternative pathways, too.
Creating new pathways, however, will only work if people are willing to walk down them. History doctoral programs need to turn out graduates who can do more than be professors. And those with a Ph.D. need to exercise a little agency. If the academy doesn’t want you, fairly or unfairly, you need to look elsewhere. Find something else to do. Swallow your ego, recognize that a Ph.D. isn’t a free ticket to a career if it even ever was one, and accept that you might require additional training to take a different path.
Perhaps a lesson I once taught my Grade 12 Philosophy students could help here. I always started my classes with a study of ethics and what constitutes a good life. I asked the class to study the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and one in particular: the cause of suffering is desire and ignorance. It sparked a good conversation with my Grade 12 students; perhaps it can spark one with Ph.D. graduates. Your desire for a particular job is making you suffer. You are ignorant of the other options available to you. Once you recognize this, walk away, and take a different path, the suffering will stop. The desire is gone because you’ll accept that being a professor is just a job.
Eventually, you might end up in a university position and realize it isn’t as attractive as you once imagined. Four years after starting my teaching career, I took a tenure-track position in the Faculty of Education at the same university that rejected me earlier: I won the golden ticket. But before the year ended, I gave up the much-coveted professorship. My wife was an elementary school teacher and could not find a full-time teaching job where we lived. Schools were being closed, and one principal told her it would take seven to eight years to get a full-time position, or twelve if she wanted to have children. I considered my wife’s happiness to be more important than a tenured position. I was on a leave of absence from my previous school to try out the tenured job, and they welcomed me back.
The one thing I never abandoned was being a historian. I recommend Donald Wright’s book, The Professionalization of History. His work can help us appreciate how the ascent of universities twisted the notion of who is and isn’t a historian.
I still research. I still write. I still publish. I’m still a historian. Being a historian is a mindset. Being a professor is just a job.
David Calverley received his Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa in 1999. He is the author of Who Controls the Hunt: First Nations, Treaty Rights, and Wildlife Conservation in Ontario, 1783-1939 (UBC Press, 2018). David is the Head of Canadian and World Studies at Crescent School in Toronto, Ontario (where he has worked for nineteen years) and is an adjunct instructor with Nipissing University’s Schulich School of Education. He has also coached Crescent’s Grade 4 Basketball Team to two CISAA championships.