Alexandra Guerson earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto. She’s currently a part-time faculty member at New College, University of Toronto, and occasionally takes up sessional work at U of T’s history department and at York University. Find her online and follow her @aeguerson.
A tenure-track job at a research institution is often seen as the supposed goal of a post-PhD job search. What was your experience? What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?
I won’t lie. Teaching history at the university level was the reason I decided to do a PhD. I knew there was no guarantee of a job at the end, particularly if I wanted to stay in Canada. My undergraduate supervisor had told me she applied for more than forty jobs after finishing her PhD, only two of which were in Canada. I had also been involved in a couple hiring committees as an undergraduate student, which really opened my eyes in many ways. I was prepared psychologically to switch careers if I had to.
What was your first post-PhD job?
Before I finished my PhD, I got a contract to teach at the University of Toronto’s new International Foundation Program (IFP) as a sessional instructor. A month before I was supposed to start teaching, I won a two-year postdoc in France. It was right in my field of research and I would be part of an international team of researchers working on a EU-funded project that was quite high profile. Unfortunately, despite saying in their ad that the start date was negotiable, the institute that hosted the postdoc was unwilling to let me start after I finished the year with the IFP. It was important for me to find a positive work environment, and I did not like the way the institute changed what they had advertised and were inflexible. It gave me a bad vibe: there was no attempt to try to give me a reason why they wanted me there earlier than advertised.
Also, I was quite excited to be part of a brand new, innovative bridging program at New College, one that was attracting a lot of attention around the university and beyond. The coordinator of the program gave me carte blanche to design the course I wanted to teach and he was quite open to my ideas. Still, my supervisor advised me to take the postdoc since research is always more valued than teaching at universities. I disagreed and turned it down. Many felt I was crazy for turning down such a prestigious postdoc for a sessional job. I would have loved to go back to Europe, but I was also excited about the potential of the IFP. It was the first program of its kind in Canada. I listened to my instincts. In the end, it all worked out for the best since my sessional job became a faculty position the following year and I learned a lot in the process. (And my supervisor now agrees that I made the right decision.)
What do you do now?
I primarily teach a full-year introductory history course to international students who have English as a second language. I also help develop workshops for the Writing Centre at New College and teach upper year history courses at the history department at U of T and at York University.
What kind of tasks do you do on a daily or weekly basis?
I write and revise lectures, design assignments, meet with students, supervise teaching assistants, attend curricular development and planning meetings, prepare workshops, write handouts, and work on my own research projects. I also read a lot to prepare for classes.
This year, I’ve also began a collaborative research project with a colleague so we have spent some of the year reading documents we collected in the summer. We wrote a big grant application in the fall and will be presenting papers in February and April.
What most surprised you about your job?
I guess what most surprised me is how much I enjoy teaching history to non-historians. Only about 20% of my students at New College are in the humanities and probably fewer than 10% of those will get into history. I believe the study of history is crucial to the development of a critical citizen. I don’t try to convert my students to the study of history—there are enough historians already—but I get very happy when some of my science students tell me they want to continue taking arts and humanities courses during their degree. I get a lot of fulfillment from that.
The other big surprise was what an amazing place New College is. I had only ever been to the college once in my whole graduate career and knew nothing about it. Built in 1962 (the college just celebrated it’s 50th), it is a very inclusive environment, where everyone, from the cleaners to the principal, is treated with the same respect and appreciation. It really suits my personality.
What are your favourite parts of your job?
Interacting with my students and watching them mature through their first year of university. I also enjoy being able to teach outside my area of research. It is challenging but it keeps me learning all the time!
And I love the collaborative nature of my job. I teach a history class that is supported by three language classes taught by ESL instructors. For the program to be successful, there needs to be a lot of cooperation between myself, the language instructors, and the coordinator of the program. The great thing is that we all care about the students and their learning. I have learned much from my fellow instructors in the IFP and have made new friends in the program.
What would you change about it if you could?
I would get an office with a window! Just kidding… Perhaps the only thing I would change is the size of my class. Right now we are at 135 students. While that size is still manageable for me in terms of lecturing, it does make it more challenging to plan events outside the classroom, like going to see a film.
Also, I would not mind switching my status from part-time lecturer to professor. Not because I have any issues with being a lecturer per se, but mostly because that status does not fully acknowledge the amount of research I do. I’m not sure yet to what degree it will affect my attempts to get outside funding for my research projects.
Otherwise, I definitely foresee changes in the future, but don’t know exactly what they will be! Right now, my job is the ideal job for me. But I would not mind doing more adminstrative work or work related to incorporating more digital literacy across the university curriculum. Digital literacy is crucial in our internet and computer-mediated age and is not really taught at any level of our education system. I find it appalling and would like to do more work beyond my own courses and the occasional workshop for students and faculty.
What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?
Be flexible. Network widely. Don’t be afraid to follow the less traditional path if it makes sense for you. Most of all, it is crucial that you do not feel like a failure if you do not get a tenure-track position. Look critically at what it takes to be a full-time professor. I feel a lot of us romanticize academic life and as a result there are a lot of unhappy people in academia. Many of my friends in graduate school confessed they enjoyed studying, doing research, and teaching but they could not stand the constant pressure and the way everything they did was evaluated and criticized. If all you want to do is do your own work and teach a few classes, the reality is that academia may not be for you. There is a lot more to a professor’s life than that. It might be more constructive (and fulfilling!) to find another job that may allow you to learn and teach.