Not long ago, the presumption was that all who were pursuing Ph.D. studies were headed for tenure track positions. Not so today. The estimates of the percentage of Ph.D.-holders who land tenure track positions are literally all over the map, suggesting the difficulties in coming up with such a statistic, but what we do know is it is far lower than 100%. The number of Ph.D. graduates has increased over time, and the level of institutional resources supporting post-secondary education—including the hiring of new faculty—has declined, for some regions more than others, and for some disciplines more than others.
While the decline in financial support for post-secondary education is a topic worthy of discussion in its own right, the prospect of highly educated individuals entering other career streams is not necessarily a bad thing. Those individuals can play important roles in knowledge-based economies and progressive civil societies, and they already have been. This is particularly true of environmental sociologists, who offer perspectives, knowledge and skills that are critical to not only studying but directly addressing the formidable ecological crises we face today.
It turns out, many student pursuing doctoral studies in environmental sociology agree. A large number of these students, after all, entered this field of study because of their concern for the environment, and some of those students recognize that academia is not the only route to facilitating social change, and may well feel their energy and skills are better-suited to fostering change elsewhere.
I had the opportunity recently to sit down in a cafe with one such former student, who is now employed in a government natural resource agency. Dr. Wayne Crosby completed his Ph.D. in environmental sociology at the University of Alberta in 2013, and has been working for government since 2012, before he completed his degree. In our conversation I learned much about all that environmental sociologists can offer to society beyond the Ivory Tower, and how important it is for members of graduate programs in environmental sociology to provide better support for students like Wayne. Here, in barely abbreviated form, is our conversation:
Debra: When you were in school what did your future look like to you?
Wayne: Well, my intention was to work in academia, pursue the tenure track path, to be able to do research and teaching. That was the plan.
Debra: At what point did you start to see a change in those plans?
Wayne: I guess it would have been about halfway through, during the comprehensive exam process. Given the nature of that process, it really forces you to think about, what do you know, why are you doing this? As well, after participating on a number of committees, that sort of gave me a sense of how academia works, that started to raise some concerns for me about, ‘is this the place where I’m best suited to focus my energy, give my skills?’ And I started to think that academia maybe wasn’t the place that I wanted to expend my energy in seeking environmental change. Partly because the tenure track position, it’s a difficult path, even if you’re lucky enough to get on that path, and I found that academia still remains rather insular, the material that’s generated, the way we write, we are essentially speaking to our peers. I started to question, ‘am I really going to influence the kind of change I hope to influence within an academic institution?’ I felt that wasn’t right for me, so now I’m in a government context.
Debra: How did you make that happen?
Wayne: I started to network, and chat. I’m a believer in putting one’s intentions out there, so I did, to key people who I see as mentors, or people I respect, I voiced what my interests are. And another professor knew of someone in government who was going on maternity leave, and he connected us, and so we met for coffee to chat about it. And I was pretty honest in that meeting, I said that government was never my intention, and I have a pretty critical lens on government, but she convinced me to throw my hat in the ring. That was before I finished my PhD, and I got the job.
Debra: So, the satisfaction you didn't find in academia, are you finding that now?
Wayne: I do in the sense that I’m closer to the decision-makers, the people who at the end of the day decide what’s going to happen. And that’s important to me for two reasons. One is to be able to influence those decision makers at a high level, but also to learn how decisions are actually made. The latter was what really motivated me to stay in government. It’s a very different process than how I understood it before I went into government.
Debra: Do you perceive that environmental sociologists have roles to play in government and elsewhere?
Wayne: The lens, perspectives, and information they bring to issues is absolutely needed, and requested, at least where I work. But then, my co-workers often don’t want to hear what I’m telling them. So I’ve been spending some time trying to figure out that disconnect. They know they need to understand the ‘people’ stuff, but then they say ‘no no no, that’s too complicated,’ or ‘it’s not government’s responsibility to deal with that stuff.’ We [environmental sociologists] shed light on aspects of society that are very politically sensitive at times; it’s not always politically advantageous to pursue some of these issues because they are controversial, sensitive. They impact people’s lives; they’re meaningful. And people working in government bureaucracies often steer away from issues that can get them into too much hot water from the point of view of the public. There’s also a lack of understanding of what environmental sociologists can actually bring to the table [and what they can’t] in terms of the type of information we provide. So, I don’t even call myself an environmental sociologist at work, it’s not in my title.
Debra: And yet someone hired you…
Wayne: Someone hired me specifically for that skill, yes. But there’s a disconnect between who’s hiring you, and management, where they are less comfortable with what you are bringing to the table. Or there’s just a limited level of understanding, and that’s a legacy of the fact that this bureaucracy has traditionally only dealt with natural scientists, engineers and technocrats. So there’s a specific, entrenched way of thinking, and coming in with a social science perspective really challenges that dominant discourse. A lot of it is, they’re just not exposed to that kind of thinking, and haven’t had a need to be exposed to it until recently.
Debra: Do you think your presence at the table has contributed to a shift in the discourse?
Wayne: Yes, definitely. As much as they jokingly tease me at times—they’ll say things like ‘oh, that’s just the sociologist going off’—they are starting to pay attention. For me it’s a communication challenge. How can I communicate the issues in a way that doesn’t sound too academic or not too left wing. It’s just a different perspective, but it poses more work for them, they need time to think about it and at the end of they day they just want to get stuff done. They often don’t want to hear what I’m bringing to the table, especially in tight timelines, they don’t want to hear it. I’m asking them to stop and think about things, and understand the implications of what they are doing. But when they are open to that, it is an amazing opportunity, and then you have the table. So my strategy is to plant seeds, when the opportunity arises, in a non-confrontational way, and the more of those seeds that I plant, eventually they stick in the minds of leadership. I find there’s about a two to three month lag, and then I’ll see some uptake, and they’re ready.
Debra: So what do you wish you learned in grad school, to prepare you for the job you are in now?
Wayne: I don't think grad school prepares you well for moving into this kind of role. Governments and corporations, they operate under a different type of process, different expectations and needs. So being able to understand the future of the institution one wishes to work in is important, so if there’s a way of preparing people to understand different institutional cultures and expectations that would be good. Mostly though, students need to take time to think about what skills they bring to the table, to think about what kind of information will be needed. Governments need people who communicate well, in front of executive leaders. If you don’t communicate well, you’re not going to get invited back to the table. And I think getting a taste of project management, day-to-day business cycles, an understanding of where revenues come from, and how that drives the work that takes place, those types skills are really useful. But understanding expectations is number one. It takes new hires from academia about a year to understand how the game is played in government.
Debra: So what recommendations would you have for faculty who are supervising PhD students? How can I better prepare my students, especially now, when we understand that not all or even many of them are going to end up in academia?
Wayne: I think it starts with having the kind of relationship with the student where the student feels safe and comfortable to admit that they don’t want a tenure track position. I’ve heard many stories of peers in the same boat, who are thinking about a career outside of academia, but say they would never confess that to their supervisor. Some supervisors don’t take that well. There’s this perception that if you say that, then how you are viewed as a student may change, you may not get funded for example; you’re not seen as someone who is in for the long haul. Maybe you’re not going to get as much attention. So after providing students with a sense of comfort discussing alternative careers, in order for a professor to be supportive, he or she should also be able to help the student clarify what their interests are, and what their strengths are, and how can they align those strengths with those interests. And then, try to connect them with intern opportunities, or positions that can give them some exposure, especially if they haven't had any work experience other than academia. I had worked in several positions before coming to grad school, so I had some experience. Giving them hands-on experience as much as possible will give them an idea of what it’s all about. There is still a part of me that likes academia and what it offers. I’ve chosen a different route, because I think my skills are better suited in other areas, but I have a desire to stay connected to that world, and I have been able to do that, just through networking. Ultimately, it’s very important for students to be self-aware, to take the time to think about what they really want to do, and why. If they can’t answer those questions, you may get yourself into some difficult situations.