School’s Out: A Postdoc’s Life
(Year I)

March, 2011 · By Justin Bengry

Wow, is it really the end of the (Canadian) semester? Well, almost. Classes end next week, my students’ final is a week later, I’m at a conference by the end of the month, a stop at home, and then Europe one more week after that. Whew…not a moment too soon!

Everyone here is feeling the strain, and straining for the relief that the end of term promises. The winter has been unseasonably cold and long in Saskatoon. Many of us are looking forward to research trips abroad. And of course, grading responsibilities and other duties tend to hit hardest at the end of the term.

Reflecting on the year behind me though, I’ve gained so much at the University of Saskatchewan. I’m surrounded by generously supportive colleagues who have never wavered in helping me adjust to the unfamiliar life of a junior scholar. I can’t speak highly enough of our Chair, support staff, History Department faculty and grad students, and my fellow postdocs, all of whom have welcomed me and answered innumerable questions and requests with poise and kindness. My postdoc supervisor, a kind and gentle elder scholar, has become a mentor and friend. And with their collective help I’ve gained professional experience, credibility, increased my publishing output, and laid the foundations for a potential future in academia. I owe them more than I can express, and this blog post is in part a thank-you.

But this year has also been a challenge, and I definitely feel I’ve needed the entire year to settle in to Saskatoon. When I arrived I looked forward to having the best of both worlds as a postdoc: I could interact with the faculty while still relating to the graduate students. In reality, it wasn’t so simple, and the postdoc doesn’t immediately fit in either group. That’s the part you have to learn on the ground. A postdoc is (at least at first) a solitary experience. It takes a painfully long time to build up relationships and connections in a new department when you’re neither student nor professor. I’ve felt completely welcomed in my department from the first day, but it really is only in the last month or two that I have really felt a part of the department.

Teaching plays a big role in building relationships and sustaining that feeling of being part of something. My own work and research is largely independent, but teaching is a collaborative exercise. I’ve welcomed the advice of current profs, discussed teaching strategies with grad students, and simply been in the department more as an instructor. Without teaching this term, I might be further along in my research and revisions, but I’d also be more dislocated and detached from any intellectual or other community at the university.

A postdoc, however, really is the most incredible opportunity, particularly these days as competition for professional positions in academia becomes ever more fierce. But future employment aside, a postdoc is also an amazing opportunity to evaluate your own goals and values. How does academia look from the inside when you’re no longer a student? How does it feel to be at the front of the class with no safety net or anyone to defer to?

The smartest things the organizers of my current postdoc did was to make it two years long. If it were ending now, I’d feel as if the rug were being pulled out from under me just as I was gaining balance. I’m incredibly fortunate, having built these connections and friendships, professional skills and intellectual output, still to have a second year to continue forward. So, here’s to A Postdoc’s Life, Year II!

(To be continued…)

This blog was originally published on History Compass Exchanges on
31 March 2011.


A Postdoc’s Life: Can you publish too much?

October, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

I’ve written before on the issue of publishing, and whether graduate students should actively publish their work. Consensus would seem to show that yes, they should, so long as they do so strategically and effectively without compromising the timely completion of their own degrees.

But what about postdocs? We’ve already finished our degrees. We don’t necessarily have a concrete deliverable (dissertation) expected of us at the conclusion of our contracts. What should postdocs consider when thinking about publishing more articles, or even a monograph?

This is a concern of mine for several reasons right now. I have two peer-reviewed articles already in print, another that is forthcoming, and I am thinking about submitting a fourth. At the same time, I want to start thinking about whipping my manuscript into shape to get that all-important first book out there. I’ve been soliciting advice on both these issues for some time, and have been given a great deal to think about, and to balance, as I try to navigate my postdoctoral path.

The first issue is actually not unlike that encountered by graduate students. If you are spending all your time churning out articles, reviews, and other writing, you might not leave yourself time to revise your manuscript. Now, of course this varies from discipline to discipline depending on the relative importance of articles and monographs, but in history, a book counts for a lot. And if you never get to it, or you end up giving away all your chapters as articles, you are potentially jeopardizing future opportunities that a book might offer.

The other issue, the one that caught me more off guard, is timing. When should you seek to get a book contract? When should you aim for your book to be published? (Remember of course that from submission to publication we’re still talking in terms of years of lag time and continued revision and preparation).

I was advised by one professor to seek out a book contract as soon as I could. It would make me more competitive for future postdocs and that golden dream, the tenure track assistant professorship. But, she warned, once I had the contract, linger on it and negotiate as much time as I could before final submission and publication. The danger, she advised, was having a book in print before getting that first job. Disrupting the natural order of things in this way could have multiple effects.

Of course a book, particularly a successful one, is a great boost to one’s professional credibility and could increase chances of landing that job. But, it could also backfire, she worried, advancing one too far down a career trajectory without yet even having a career. If a book is a common requirement for tenure, she warned, having a book in print before getting even a first job could disrupt the normal hiring process.

Similarly, another professor at another institution warned me to avoid publishing my monograph too soon. He worried that, depending on the institution where I might be hired, the requirements for tenure would only count from the time I would be hired. Pre-employment publications could help me land the job, but might not be counted toward advancement and promotion once hired, effectively necessitating the speedy production of a second monograph in short order!

So, here I am enjoying the first months of my first postdoc. I don’t know whether this will be followed by another postdoc, an academic job, or paths I haven’t yet fully considered. But I am considering writing my book proposal and starting down the path toward its future publication. For those of you in this position, or those who have lived through it, what have you been advised? What are your plans? Are you anxious about publishing too much, or too soon?

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
25 October 2010.


It’s a Postdoc’s Life

September, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

I’ve landed! I’m a Saskatooner, no, scratch that. I’m a Saskatoonian. Hmmm, not sure about that one either. I don’t know yet what we call ourselves here. But I’ve got an apartment and a local café. I know where to buy wine (critical) and how to find my office (essential). No more the uncertainty or instability of an unemployed academic for me. No thank you! I’m now officially a postdoctoral fellow in History at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. The “Paris of the Prairies”…my Lonely Planet guide tells me.

Blogging has taken a back seat for a couple weeks in favour finding an apartment, buying furniture, and getting to know my department. But now I’m back with a new focus on post-doctoral life, projects, and survival.

The first thing I’ve discovered as a postdoc is that you have to hit the ground running. The term only started a few days ago, but already I’m on track to give the first talk at the department’s research seminar in a few weeks. I’ve also been brought on as the Saskatchewan organizer of a yearly bi-university, multi-provincial graduate history conference. This in addition to giving a paper in Montreal next month, and submitting a journal article in November. No rest for the wicked!

The second thing is that no one knows quite where the postdoc fits in the academic pecking order, or what benefits the postdoc can derive from this unsure status. And of course it varies from department to department, university to university. With apologies to Britney Spears for the paraphrasing: I’m not a girl grad student, not yet a woman professor. So, neither student nor faculty, I’m still working on finding out who to ask for conference funding, or how much of my extended healthcare is covered.

But after 6 months of uncertainty and break from academia, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m thrilled to be back in an environment I know and thrive in, with kind and generous faculty support, and welcoming colleagues who have already made me feel at home in Saskatoon.

And Wikipedia tells me that I’m actually a Saskatonian now.

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
9 September 2010.


On Luck, or How we Succeed in Academia

July, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

I’m in a more contemplative mood of late.A single event has changed the trajectory of my life. I was ready for one path, preparing for the struggle and strain of starting again, and then…and then I got lucky.

Among those of us applying for a particular job or postdoc, any one of several dozen applicants would be perfectly qualified and able to fulfill the terms of almost any appointment. Still, impressions at an interview, good or bad days, and nerves at a teaching demonstration or job talk all influence the final outcome. And none of these are static indicators. A lot comes down to luck.

I’m thinking about this more lately because of the great luck that has befallen me. After living on credit cards and borrowed money, increasing my debt, and sinking further into despair, a lifeline was thrown to me. Luck has chosen to take me to the University of Saskatchewan for a two-year postdoc.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t feel that I lack control over my life. I’ve created the conditions in which luck could find me. I’ve worked hard to get here. I’ve published, taught, and made connections across three countries. I’ve bled to get here.

But so have hundreds of others. Some of them are more qualified than I am for positions; some might be less qualified. But in this case I’m the lucky one. Some small thing distinguished me from them in this competition. It could have been key phrases in my proposal, the combination of areas I research, particular “synergies” with existing faculty members. I don’t know. But it worked to my advantage.

But this experience has made me think about the profession of academia, its randomness, and luck. I take credit for my hard work for five years to get here. I give credit to those innumerable friends, colleagues, and family who have supported me intellectually and personally even longer. But in the end I’m no different than 100s of other aspiring academics, thousands of other scholars, tens of thousands of other men and women who want to make a living engaging with intellectual questions.

The experience has humbled me. I’m lucky. I have security and stability for two years. My shoulders have dropped at least two inches with that assurance. I’ve started sleeping the full night through for the first time in months. It didn’t have to be this way. I was ready to forge a different path. Success is luck. And in this job climate and economic downturn, we all need a little more luck.

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
3 July 2010.

The Strange Case of Postdocs in Canada

May, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

Are they students? Are they staff? Universities in Canada can’t quite seem to decide just what exactly a postdoc is. To be fair a postdoc is in a strange in-between place; s/he is no longer a student, but not yet a professor (even though he or she may conduct original research and teach undergraduate and even graduate students). This might not seem such an important issue at first glance. But there are enormous work-related, benefits, and tax implications that hinge on the definition of a postdoc. And as a postdoctoral fellowships becomes an almost mandatory step toward tenure-track positions, the implications loom large for many of us.

After 10 or 15 years of post secondary education, for many PhDs the next step will be a postdoctoral fellowship. Not only do these fellowships potentially afford  time to revise dissertation manuscripts for publication, design  courses, and solidify professional networks, they act as another step forward toward tenure-track positions. Ideally they come without teaching requirements, but might include teaching responsibilities from one or two courses per year or more depending on the fellowship. But as faculty hires plummet, and PhD numbers expand, this step is becoming increasingly necessary in order to remain competitive.

So far this doesn’t seem so bad. We all know that academia is becoming ever more competitive and positions ever fewer. Nothing shocking there. The issue, however, is that for many postdocs the issue of defining their position is critical. Many postocs while not enjoying the tax benefits of students also miss out on employment benefits offered faculty and staff.

The issue came to a head last year when after Le Devoir reported that Quebec universities, which had offered postdocs the tax exemptions given to students, had been instructed by the Canadian Revenue Agency to stop doing so. Now disallowed from the benefits of students and without access to those of staff, postdocs got the worst of both worlds, along with a substantial, unplanned, and significant loss of income owing to increased taxes.

Many fear that in order to gain any tax exemptions, postdocs might be defined as some kind of student or trainee. The Ryerson Free Press suggests that a new category of trainee might institutionalize and formalize yet another time-consuming step to professional stability that does little to help postdocs, but everything to maintain universities’ access to qualified but low-payed labour. And both statuses might come with new fees and costs for debit-ridden individuals already strapped for cash in the years before achieving tenure-track appointments. Both the Ryerson Free Press and the Protect Canadian Postdocs site, in fact, are already reporting postdoc “trainee” fees being levied at the University of Toronto.

This issue has become so fraught that two scholars at Canadian institutions have created the Protect Canadian Postdocs website to follow developments and highlight the situation faced by postdocs at their own and other universities. Untenured, they choose to remain anonymous to avoid aggravating their university administrations and threatening their own careers. With less to lose, Tom Spears of the Ottawa Citizen last month likened some postdocs to “indentured servants, with lots of degrees.” Now many fear that in addition they may become cash cows for cash-strapped universities.

No doubt great benefits come with postdoctoral work that gives recent PhDs a foothold on the academic ladder. But postdocs’ relationship to universities needs to be explicitly determined to avoid even further creating an underclass of high-skilled, low-payed teacher-researchers in the Canadian academy.

A number of sites and online petitions have sprung up in protest:

Canadian Postdoc Tax Petitions

Petition to Maintain the Competitiveness of a Postdoctoral Researcher in Canada

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
6 May 2010.