Transition Q & A: Jamie Pratt

Jamie Pratt received his PhD in philosophy from York University, specializing in ethics. He is now the research officer in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

A tenure-track job at a research institution is often seen as the 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 was a little over a year away from receiving my PhD when I came to the realization that an academic career was not for me, for at least three reasons. First, after several years of intense scholarly work in my field, I had fallen out of love with my area of study. Quite simply, I was bored. Once I received my PhD I remember suddenly feeling extremely relieved that now, finally, I could read whatever books I wanted without feeling guilty. Second, I came to the conclusion that I had nothing left to say about my area of study that was new. Not being clever enough to add anything of worth to it, I thought I should probably make way for other, better, philosophers. Third, I had watched the struggles of friends and acquaintances in my cohort to find academic positions in their fields while slogging it out for years as underpaid sessionals with no job security. Being slightly older than my cohort (I went back to school after having dropped out for many years), and being married to someone who had a career outside academia, the peripatetic life of the wandering scholar wasn’t really an option. And being the analytical sort, I crunched the numbers in my head and quickly concluded that a tenure-track position in philosophy was a lottery prize I would never win, and certainly not in Toronto. The problem was, I had no idea what my next step was going to be, and the mentorship in my department was non-existent for those who weren’t looking to “go on the market.”

What was your first post-PhD job?

My first post-PhD job did not go smoothly or last very long. I was as an assistant in the government relations department of a large teacher’s union (which shall remain nameless). I got the job through an employment agency, and I got it surprisingly quickly. My employers seemed pleased with themselves on snagging someone with a PhD, and at what they considered to be a bargain (even though the salary was much more than I had ever earned as a sessional lecturer). However, one of the interviewers seemed worried that I would find the job boring and would move on to something better. She was probably right to worry.

Now, “government relations” is just a fancy word for “lobbying,” and that’s what our department did. Although I was pretty much at the entry level and much of my job was administrative, it did allow for a certain amount of writing, policy research, and hanging out with politicians, if only as my boss’s nameless sidekick. However, being an ethicist by training, I was uncomfortable with some of the tasks I was given, some of which involved creative ways to get around Ontario’s election finance legislation. I also made the mistake of asking too many questions about what we were up to. And I had basic philosophical objections to lobbying and to the aims of our organization more generally. My boss grew to dislike me intensely. In short, they decided not to keep me on after my probationary period was up. In retrospect, I understand why, but it was a blow to my ego at the time.

What do you do now? How did you get your current job?

Currently, I am the Research Officer in the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University. How I got here is a bit of a long story, and I’m not sure how helpful it is as a model career trajectory. I was out of work for awhile several years ago, and I needed money, so I temped. York University has its own temp agency and they took me on. My first placement was in the bookstore, but coincidentally, my next assignment was in the very philosophy department where I had done my graduate work. I was an administrative assistant. On one hand it was extremely humbling to wind up back there as a temp, and this was aggravated by a couple of faculty members who, in a roundabout way, asked me how I had fallen so low. Ironically, I was still earning more than I had as a sessional and had no less job security, so although it seemed step down career-wise, in another sense it wasn’t.

However, the work was not very exciting, and frankly, at times there wasn’t much of it for me to do. Since I have a pretty deeply ingrained work ethic, I felt guilty about getting paid to do nothing, so I told my manager that I could do more. This seemed to impress her, and more challenging work and more responsibility came my way.

When that assignment ended, I was immediately given a new one, this time in the Dean’s Office, working for the Associate Dean of Faculty Relations. This position came with a raise and was a sensitive one, involving things like labour grievances and tenure and promotion among faculty members. From there I was asked to cover the research officer’s maternity leave (that in itself is a long story). After that a permanent research officer position opened up in the Faculty of Fine Arts, and that’s where I am now.

To summarize, there was a progressive succession of temporary placements until I came to where I am now, on a permanent basis. No placement was wasted, because in each one I acquired more and deeper knowledge of how my complex institution works, from many different angles. This acquired knowledge ended up mattering tremendously. Although it may seem like a meandering career path, I don’t think I could have done it by simply applying off the street. And in the greater scheme of things, it wasn’t that long a journey. In all, this journey “up the ladder” at York took about two years.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

I suppose my main task is to help faculty members find the money they need to do their research (in an environment of increasing scarcity). Ancillary to this is helping them find funding opportunities and helping them understand the funding requirements and restrictions of various funding agencies —and of our own institution. I help them work up proposals and create research budgets. I also help them spend the money once they get it.

In addition to this, there is a certain amount of committee work (e.g. to adjudicate our internal research funding competitions), and policy work. I also negotiate and mediate between faculty members and our institution for the use of our resources for research purposes, since the Faculty of Fine Arts has an extensive array of performance spaces, studios, and equipment (e.g. 3D printers, film cameras, lighting, digital media labs, etc.).

What most surprised you about your job?

I think what most surprised me about my job is what I learned about interacting with faculty members from my side of the desk. There’s a certain extent to which my position involves a kind of role-reversal in my relationship with faculty members. Before, I was the lowly grad student and they were the authority figures. Now in many cases I’m put in the position of enforcing rules and denying things to very high-performing and very entitled people. It takes some getting used to. And yet, there’s a sense in which I now also see them as people needing my help. Again, they aren’t the authoritative figures they once were for me. Some of them are surprisingly insecure, disorganized, and frankly not all that different from their own students.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I feel fortunate in that my position allows me to be involved in what our researchers are up to. I learn a lot, and my mind never feels like it’s turning mushy. This is important to me, because even though I’m not an academic, I still have my intellectual pursuits. I still write, I still present at the odd conference (I just do it for my own benefit now). My job allows me to feel connected with that world, but on my own terms.

What would you change about it if you could?

I’m always trying to find ways to lessen the red tape in what is a very bureaucratic environment. Less bureaucracy would make my job easier as well as allowing researchers more time to do what they do best. Procedure is understandable when there’s a rationale for it, but there’s too much process for the sake of process that comes from a “we’ve always done it that way” mentality. These are institutional constraints over which I unfortunately don’t have a lot of power.

Where do you see yourself down the road?

I see myself in a position that is more policy-oriented. Policy analyst comes to mind. My first step towards this is to go back to school (!). I plan to enroll in a Master of Public Policy, Administration, and Law program next year. It’s a professional program that I can do in the evenings. It’s sort of an MBA for public sector types. Also, research ethics is an area I could see myself in.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

I don’t feel I have any expertise in the job search itself. Most of what I have to say is relevant once you land that first job and parlaying it into something better. My advice is:

Be humble—there is not usually a quick and direct way up the ladder, so be prepared to spend some time in positions with little prestige or glamour. For every crappy task you’re assigned, think of how to describe it to future job interviewers as a piece of valuable experience you’ve acquired. I’ve been in many job interviews now, and interviewers have tended to be just as interested in my retail experience as my PhD experience.  Be patient—there’s a certain amount of time that must be spent paying your dues and proving yourself. You have to be prepared to start from the bottom. Be uncomplaining—bosses don’t like or trust complainers, but they do come to appreciate the quiet, steady person who simply gets the job done. These are the people they like to help advance. Be discreet—understand what you can say to whom, and what you can’t. And when in doubt, remain silent.

And finally, be clever—this is where the PhD comes in handy. Be quicker than others to come up with a solution when it’s needed, be able to fit small incidents into a bigger picture (in my experience few people seem able to do this), be able to offer your boss circumspect advice in highly political environments (and remember that every workplace is a political environment to one degree or another).

9 Replies to “Transition Q & A: Jamie Pratt”

  1. Thanks for this, Jamie! I’m interviewing for a similar position soon, and it’s great to hear your experiences of working it, and of transitioning to a different part of academia.

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