One of the things about doing post-graduate education is the moment when you come up against the reality of related future employment. Education means a variety of things for us, from being a means to an end to a passion project. If you’re a means-person the likelihood of you getting a job in your field is reasonably good – though not guaranteed – because the means is usually towards the end of employment so you’re crafting yourself to the market. But if you’re a passsion-person like me, the prospect of finding work in your field when you have a set of acronyms after your name can prove to be down-right daunting. Let’s face it, how many employers are looking for someone with extensive experience talking to people about sex … (excluding the sex industry)?
This isn’t to say that we should curb our passions in the face of narrow employment prospects. Just that we have to be realistic about the intersection between the education and employment sectors as they move away from education for education’s sake (which illustrates intellectual capacity, capacity to stick with delineated tasks for prolonged periods, independent work ethic, and so on) towards a more pure profit model – what did you do that we as employers can actually capitalise on beyond your having learned to be a good worker. You can see why passion-projects, despite their often adding greatly to the body of knowledge, can therefore be tricky with respect to future employment, because these things are not always (often!) transparent to employers. This is exacerbated in todays quantifiable world when your passion is qualitative and social-science or humanities-based. Try finding a job when you not only talked to people but listened to what they had to say, and didn’t count it. Unless you’re in marketing, there are very few spaces available.
So, what do we do? Do we NOT do what we are passionate about? Of course, this is the tension. Within the academy one of the first things we are told, particularly at Masters or PhD level, is to ensure that we chose topics of research that we are passionate about. The logic is that we are about to spend the next one to two to three to five to seven years smacking our heads up against said topic, and if we are going to do it we ought to at least enjoy the pain. And the logic is sound. Really, the P in PhD should stand for passion, because doing it for other reasons can really be a killer. So here we have the tension: between passion projects that keep us alive and up the chances of our completing, versus a job market that is focused on your product-potential – how much useable knowledge and skill can you bring to a profit-making environment? Hence why so many SS/H PhDs end up flipping burgers at Maccers.
One of the ways around this conundrum is to be aware of the international job market. In good old NZ there is very little opportunity to work in my field, whether by discipline (Gender) or by thesis (sexuality). The majority of universities there have cut their gender departments to save dollars and up profits (despite often high student uptake and overall popularity), favouring disciplines that get government and private sector funding, or have high international student demand – disciplines like the hard sciences, economics, marketing and so on. As NZ unis move this way, the death of small knowledge-for-knowledge-sake disciplines like Latin, and social impact disciplines like mine, get disenfranchised. Some of you may say, so what? Why keep a dept that researches Latin? Why keep Gender when NZ’s OECD rating for gender equality is so high? Well, these topics have changed history and society, and their potential to keep doing so is still alive. It does matter how accurate translations are, and understanding the etymology of language is extremely valuable. And as for gender, NZ has some of the highest rates of sexual violence in the OECD right along our high equality rating, and one that is highly gendered. Beyond their utility, closing down departments that broaden the knowledge pool regardless of their economics impoverishes society, and goes against the ethos of universities in general – ie to increase the body of knowledge.
OK, now that I’ve harped on, back on track. So clearly employment prospects in my native country are not going to be great. For many of us, this is the case. And why so many academics don’t work in their country of origin. With a shrinking academic job market, one that is being narrowed by economic pressures, it’s becoming something of a scrap out there. So we have to be prepared to chase the work. By plane, train or automobile. Because here’s where the irony kicks in. That passion project that can’t get you a job in so many places may be exactly the thing that gets you a job somewhere. The great thing about passion is that it is usually shared, and someone, somewhere might actually want to pay you for it. You just have to keep looking, and be prepared to move.
Of course, finding these jobs is really a bit of a rarity. Honestly, getting a PhD in language etymology and then being employed by Websters Dictionary doesn’t happen to everyone – though I know someone it happened to, so there you go. I’ve seen it, and it just happened to me. After 5 months of trawling through the job market (depressing) I got a job in my field. Make no bones about it, I know how extremely lucky I am, that I was in the right place (Sydney) at the right time. And that jobs like this only come around once in a galactic cycle. But then, my new boss was pretty pleased to have found me as apparently we gender grads are rare gems these days. So everybody won. Which just goes to show that that obscure thing you toiled over for years can actually prove to be productive, despite what economists and skeptics and nay-sayers may say. Obscure jobs may be rare things, but so are the academics that study them – eventually every old sock will find its old shoe.
It’s like a little ray of sunshine on a crappy day, isn’t it? To know that passion can still get you a job in today’s cynical market.
So next time someone rolls their eyes at you and asks you why they heck you would study that in todays’ world, have a wee smile. You know exactly what you are doing, and eventually you’ll be paying taxes because of it.