What are the pros and cons of trying to become an English professor in Toronto for a fiction writer (and how feasible is it)?
June 20, 2011 2:02 AM   Subscribe

What are the pros and cons of trying to become an English professor in Toronto for a fiction writer (and how feasible is it)?

About me:

—I'm 28 years old, between my 1st and 2nd year of a 3-4 year MFA in creative writing in Alabama. I will be either 30 or 31 when I finish.

—I'm from Kingston ON and have spent the majority of the time between the ages of 18 and 27 in Toronto. I went to the University of Toronto for undergrad. Pretty much all my friends live in Toronto. My network is here (I'm back for the summer). I like it here a lot and I would like to settle down here eventually. The 3 years between ages 18-27 that I didn't live in Toronto I spent traveling all over the world, and, between those experiences and my current experience in Alabama, I feel like I've had enough of moving around and would like to settle down in Toronto—ideally, as soon as I'm done my MFA.

—my main ambition/interest is writing fiction, but I'm aware the odds are against me making a living off that (ever) and basically non-existent 2-3 years from now. And I've been reading things that suggest that the "don't do a humanities PhD" meme that's been going around applies only the the US and not Canada, and furthermore that an associate professor in the humanities in Canada makes something like $110-130K/year.

Which leads us to:
—If I was going to try to become a prof and so do a PhD, I'd like to do it in Toronto, which I think would mean either at UofT, York, or Ryerson (or Humber? or George Brown?) although I know a guy who's doing a PhD at Western but lives in Toronto, so perhaps something like that would be possible. McMaster or Waterloo might be okay.

—My undergrad grades aren't amazing, and my transcript looks kind of weird: in my 3rd year I did sort of poorly and then dropped out, and came back to finish the degree a couple years later. My marks when I came back are good and in English in particular are all As. My GRE scores, which I wrote to apply to American colleges, on the other hand, are very high, but googling seems to indicate Canadian universities only care about GRE scores for international students. My grades at the University of Alabama are very good, so far.

—Unlike some fiction writers, I like theory a lot and am good at it. I have a solid background in philosophy and (mostly pretty untheoretical) English from undergrad, and am getting I think a decent grounding in more theoretical kinds of English classes (narratology/cultural studies) at grad school. Although I'm learning this stuff in the US and so it's US-focused, I read Canadian lit studies stuff on my own time. I'm not sure what I would potentially like to focus on if I did a PhD, and I know (or assume) you don't necessarily have to specifically Canadian focus just because you're studying/teaching English in Canada, but I do happen to have an interest in Canadian writing and the Canadianness of Canadian writing, so I figure that can only be a good thing.

—However, as I said, writing fiction is my main interest/ambition. I have no particular ambition to be a great critic, and, although I think I'd be good at it (one professor last semester said I should try to publish the essay I submitted to that class), I'm worried it would consume all my time and energy and leave me with no time/energy to write fiction. HOWEVER, any other job may (and in fact has in my own past experience) eaten up my time/energy just as much, possibly even moreso. Part of what attracts me to the idea of being a professor is the possibility that it may be one of the least draining jobs I could get; I'd also probably enjoy it more than almost any other job; and it would keep me in the world of people who care about books and writing, which I'm finding, down in Alabama, to be a good thing for my writing.

1. Do you know what the job market is like for English professors in Toronto?
2. What about other academic fields that aren't "English" but are related? The York Centre for Culture & Communication comes to mind. Job prospects going that route?
3. How difficult would it be for me to get into a PhD program at UofT or York, my grades being what they are? (3.27 CGPA in undergrad, I believe; let's assume for the sake of argument straight As throughout my MFA.)
4. How is the funding for English PhD students in Toronto/Canada? How is it in the US?
5. If I could get into a (prestigous? non-prestigious?) American PhD program, would that help me get a job in Toronto (/Canada?), or would I be seen as not having the relevant CanLit knowledge to teach English in Canada? (Or, conversely, how bad of an idea would it be to go to a US school if that was the only way I could get funding?)
6. If I decided I wanted to try to do this, are there things I should be doing in the next 2-3 years, while I'm finishing my MFA, that would better prepare/qualify me for this career path? The faculty at Alabama have already said "try to take as many literature [as opposed to workshop] classes as possible and get good grades in them."
7. Or.... bonus question, bypassing the PhD thing altogether, do you know what the job market is for teaching creative writing at the university level in Toronto, something I could presumably do with just my MFA? (I assume much smaller, which is why I'm thinking about the whole PhD/English professor route.)

Oh, and when I'm done my MFA I will have at least 4 literature grad classes under my belt, probably more like 6 or 7, and will have taught ENG101 (intro composition), + probably 1 or more 200/300-level lit classes, + probably 1 or more 200/300-level creative writing classes.

I realize this is a somewhat obscure/hyperlocal+specialized question. Any help appreciated. Thanks.
posted by skwt to Work & Money (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The '"don't do a humanities PhD" meme' is not a meme. It's a real thing. And it's probably better stated as: beware of aiming for a career in academia in the humanities. The odds are overwhelmingly against you, your PhD may be lengthy and demoralising and will certainly be poorly paid, and if you're lucky enough to get a permanent job 15 years after beginning your PhD then, unless you are one of the best few people in your field in the world, you won't get to choose what state, country or even hemisphere that job is in. That's the "meme".

This is no less true in Canada than it is in the U.S. I can say this with some certainty as someone on an academic career path. Canada is no different to the rest of the world. The academic job market is international. If it were different in Canada, everyone in the U.S. and the UK would be trying to get jobs in Canada. We're not. We're all trying to get jobs anywhere that will have us.

1. The academic job market is international. Read this article to see how the North American humanities job market works (and then mentally correct for the fact that this was written ten years ago, and things have gotten tougher since). It's not clear what you mean by "market". "Vacancies" for permanent jobs in academia are filled immediately, almost by definition, so it's not like City A has 10% of its professors jobs unfilled and City B has 5% unfilled. The market is pretty much the same in Toronto as it is everywhere else, which is to say, the odds aren't good. If you restrict your job search to a particular city, the odds are astronomical.

4. The default advice is to move around at every milestone of academia (undergrad—PhD, PhD—postdoc, postdoc—Tenure Track). This can depend on the specifics of your research interests though.

7. The creative writing teaching market might be smaller in absolute numbers than tenured professorships (although I doubt it to be honest), but in its favour, it doesn't involve 7-10 years doing a PhD, and a further 7 years on the Tenure Track before you get there, and probably is better suited to maintaing your own parallel career in writing.
posted by caek at 3:06 AM on June 20, 2011 [7 favorites]

I am not in English (but I am in a related discipline). I am also not in Canada. I can't answer most of your questions, but what I can speak to is the difficulty of combining an academic career with geographical restrictions.

Because of my husband's job, I am limited to a single city and the commuting range around it. This means between four and ten universities, depending on whether I'm willing to live away from home during the week and only come back on weekends (which I'm not really, but I got desperate enough last year to consider it).

This means a tenure-track-equivalent job in my discipline within my geographical range is advertised maybe once every three or four years. They generally have around 300-400 applicants. We can all do the math on that one. Short term (one year fill-in) teaching jobs are advertised most years, often two or three a year. So I've been able to patch together work. But short term (adjuncting, visiting, etc) jobs pay crap. The best year I had I made $30,000, but generally it's more like $15,000. And because you are generally preparing a new course, teaching it for the first time, or taking over someone else's lecture notes at the last minute, it can be pretty brutal (i.e. NOT "not draining").

The situation might be better in English lit, or in Canada, or both, but I suspect not.

The way to deal with geographical restrictiveness in the academy is to be a research/publishing superstar, and to get national grants that you can hold where ever you are. That's what I'm trying to do now.
posted by lollusc at 3:07 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry, this: "This means a tenure-track-equivalent job in my discipline within my geographical range is advertised maybe once every three or four years" was ambiguous. What I mean is that every three or four years, one job is advertised. Other years, there are no jobs to even apply for.
posted by lollusc at 3:11 AM on June 20, 2011

Best answer: you should try to become an english professor is being a critic is your absolute passion, not because you think it will give you time to write fiction. it's not just about being able to write a good critical essay. you know those people, the ones who are organizing conferences, starting their own journals, networking like mad, putting out tons of material, all the time? and who are absolutely brilliant? you know how you kinda want to kill them? they're the ones who will make it.

you want to write fiction--write fiction. i just attended my younger sister's BA graduation, and it got me thinking about how unprepared humanities students are for anything other than academia. (i have an MFA too, btw, in poetry). i think it's a real shame. there ARE other jobs out there in creative fields that would be less demoralizing / poverty-inducing / nomadic than going for a professorship.

like what? well, i work in advertising. it's pretty cool. i have friends that are grant writers, editors are online news sites, filmmakers, photographers, elementary school teachers. some that work in publishing, but on the marketing side. now, if your ultimate goal is to write fiction, what you want is a job that's not super demanding in terms of time, and pays enough to live comfortably, maybe even enough to save a chunk of cash that you could live off for a while. if your goal is just to work in a creative environment, there is a lot out there.

i'm writing a novel right now. i get my ass up at 4am and write before & after work, plus all weekend. who knows, eventually this could become my fulltime job. you actually have a better shot at becoming a successful fiction writer then a successful english prof. i may have just pulled that out of my ass but it sounds about right.
posted by apostrophe at 5:49 AM on June 20, 2011

good lord, i need an editor for my post. it's early. plz excuse grammar/typos.
posted by apostrophe at 5:51 AM on June 20, 2011

I'm genuinely curious as to what things you've been reading.

My partner's first book won the top award from the International Council for Canadian Studies, but when he went on the Canadian market? Zero, zip, zilch, nada, rien. There's just not enough jobs.

If Toronto is important to you, a PhD is not the answer.
posted by besonders at 6:04 AM on June 20, 2011

"Part of what attracts me to the idea of being a professor is the possibility that it may be one of the least draining jobs I could get"

This is wildly incorrect. Being a barista at Starbucks would probably be less draining, have clearly-defined hours, and -- unless you absolutely won the tenure-track lottery -- pay better and have better benefits. (And if you're on the tenure track, it's definitely not one of the "least-draining jobs you can get.")

A tenure-track community college job opening in philosophy at the CC where I adjunct recently drew SIX HUNDRED applicants from all over North America and the world. Including from people in the absolute top Ph.D. programs. Starting salary was around $35,000, I think? That comes with a 6-7 class teaching load every semester, plus college service, plus at least some minimal expectation of minor research/publishing.

Remember that writing-intensive courses, like lit courses, are also super grading-intensive because you have to read so many damn essays. I only teach 3-4 classes a semester as an adjunct, and once grading gets into full swing I barely have energy to THINK, let alone write anything.

If getting a Ph.D. and pursuing a professorship is what you want to do, you should do it; damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, at least if you're fully-funded. It may not work out but at least you'll have passion getting there. But if it's a side-note to something else you want to do, it's really the worst idea ever.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:23 AM on June 20, 2011

To answer part of your question, I have an MFA in writing and literature, which I am glad to have gotten because it was a good experience and improved my writing. But you really cannot get a university teaching job with an MFA in writing. You might be able to once you've had a couple of books publishes, but with an MFA and a little teaching experience you can probably get a job teaching composition (freshman-level essay writing) at the community college level, part-time, which does not pay enough for one person to support herself on unless you teach a crazy heavy load--when I was adjuncting, I had colleagues who were teaching as many as 8-9 classes at as many as 3 different colleges, though I personally never went beyond 5 or 6 at two schools.

To answer another part of your question, if you do decide to go to grad school, you will probably be able to get in with your good grades in English and (if you apply to US schools) good GRE scores. Most people get funded in their first year or two, in my experience. Most of them will be teaching, so taking a reduced course load. The year I started my graduate education in English Lit there were two of us incoming students who had fellowships that allowed us to take a full course load and not teach. Because every college freshman has to take composition and the faculty don't want to teach it, it is easy to get TA-ships doing that. A common path for grad students in my department was to teach undergrad English courses until their departmental funding eligibility ran out in a couple of years, then teach the composition classes (taught through another department) for a couple of years until their university-wide funding eligibility ran out, then teach composition at the local community college while finishing the Ph.D.

Eyebrows McGee is, as usual, right: both being a grad student and (from what I see among friends) being a prof are boundariless jobs. Your hours are flexible but the work eats up most of them, and there is always more you could be doing. It's not just teaching and grading and doing your own research; it's also committee meetings and departmental meetings and showing up for the Friday lunchtime lecture series and so on. People tell me that the years leading up to getting tenure can be even rougher than grad school.

When I was young, single, and childless, I used to sit around with my writer friends and complain about how our full-time jobs left us no time to write. In retrospect, having a straightforward full-time job with set hours, and no other responsibilities, was the best setup for writing I ever had. Adjuncting at the community college was one of those boundariless jobs, and very stressful; having kids not only takes up most of my time but dices it into tiny chunks that make doing any kind of sustained thinking work very hard. From the perspective of a middle-aged woman who has explored the option you're considering, I'd say that if you have to work full-time to support yourself you are better off with that barista job Eyebrows mentioned than pursuing academia.

I know you've heard this, but I can't emphasize enough that, if you do decide to pursue grad school in literature, absolutely under no circumstances borrow money to do it. It's such a crap-shoot job-wise that you can't count on it repaying your investment.
posted by not that girl at 7:32 AM on June 20, 2011

Part of what attracts me to the idea of being a professor is the possibility that it may be one of the least draining jobs I could get; I'd also probably enjoy it more than almost any other job; and it would keep me in the world of people who care about books and writing, which I'm finding, down in Alabama, to be a good thing for my writing.

Others have already given you solid advice regarding the grim job market and your unrealistic expectations regarding the ease of the job. Let me just address the last bit. If you do somehow win the lottery and get a good job in an English department in Toronto, you will be in a world of people who care about books and writing, but they will be critics, not creators. They will be writing books and articles about fiction, not writing fiction. These are not the same thing, and you may find that you have a lot less in common with your colleagues than you think. Think of it this way: if you wanted to spend your time as a filmmaker, would you get a job working with film critics? If you wanted to spend your time as a musician, would you get a job working with music critics? Or would you find a job that exposed you to other filmmakers and musicians?
posted by googly at 7:43 AM on June 20, 2011

Over the last several years, I have watched as a number of people in my social circle with literature PhDs try to find jobs. These are brilliant, passionate, well-published individuals from Ivy League programs who have been applying for any kind of full time job (tenure track, visiting, postdoc) available anywhere in the world (most definitely including Canada). Their experiences call to mind the following verse: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked..."

This course of action is unlikely to have the results you desire.
posted by unsub at 7:46 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another thing to keep in mind is that Toronto is a very expensive city to live in, and your salary as a starting-out English professor is unlikely to give you anything like a decent standard of living. I was earning a very decent IT salary when I last lived there, and I was still pretty close to living paycheck to paycheck a lot of the time, and it's only become more expensive since.
posted by biscotti at 7:52 AM on June 20, 2011

This is pretty simple. You want to write novels and you want to make a living. There are a few people who have jobs in academic English and write novels, but not many. I think what you want is to be a creative writing professor. How do you achieve that? Well, to start with, you kind of want to have a published book that people like. Which is your goal anyway, so great!

Now how are you going to make a living while you write your novel or collection of stories? That question's already answered -- you are already in an MFA program and you have TWO YEARS LEFT. If you don't have a manuscript ready to go by that time, you should reconsider whether fiction is what you want to do.
posted by escabeche at 8:16 AM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

English PhD candidate here. I have to first say that I'm completely aware of the job market and its difficulties right now, but I am not of the doom and gloom portion of this discussion (I should say I've been in academia in various forms since 2002, grew up in an academic household and have an MFA, an MA and (soon) a PhD). There are jobs. There are jobs for PhDs, MFAs and even MAs. Indeed. The problem is that they are not the jobs people want. Do you want to teach a 4-4 load with extracurricular expectations at a somewhat sketchy Midwestern college with a stated goal of expanding the online market? Then there is a job for you. Do you want to adjunct at a community college where the architecture is depressing enough to make you want to commit suicide, the students aren't native English speakers and aren't very good English speakers in general, and the load is 4-5 comp? There is a job for you. Do you want to wait and publish and work and network and go to conferences in North Dakota and work and work and work? Then there might be a 2-2 tenure track job for you. To say that there aren't any or that it is a lottery is not entirely accurate. It's a tight market -- but there are jobs. You have to adjust the expectation of what a job means.

I think the main concern I have here is this: you don't seem to have any motivation to get a PhD except to get a job in Toronto. I, too, have an MFA, but I chose to get my PhD because I wanted to get into literature and understand it and learn it and teach it. I love teaching. You seem to be unclear of your motivation. The thing that gets me every year (after year) is that young people come into doctoral or MA programs with the vaguest notion of how tenure works, what a course load is, committee work, publishing, etc.

You should not get a PhD if you are unsure of why you are getting it or if you think the academic life is easy/non-draining/etc. It will be clear to any hiring committee that you just want the job in order to have time to write your novel or poetry or criticism on the side. They will not hire you. Don't get a PhD so you can have a magical community of like-minded writers. Get a writing group. And get a job that pays the bills. And if you are pulled to academia because you can't imagine doing anything else, then go for it.
posted by mrfuga0 at 9:49 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

English professor here. I'm echoing those above who say the academic market is international - it's not by any means specific to North America. And the market is *incredibly* tight. I've been on several search committees recently where we got 350+ applicants for an entry-level tenure track position. Quite a few were actually moving from Canada because they couldn't find a job there. Applicants without several existing publications in a critical field went pretty much straight into the garbage.

I think you need to rethink the idea that you can be an English professor as a kind of "fallback" when what you really want to do is write fiction. Sure, you might be able to get a job at a community college or small school that is not research-focused (and therefore teaching-intensive, with a correspondingly high workload), but the schools you've mentioned above? No way - they'd sniff out that aspiration in about 20 seconds. You have to be totally committed to the profession. It's stressful, time consuming, demoralizing, and at the moment being demonized by the media.

You really need to talk to your MFA professors at Alabama and find out about the job market in creative writing - they should be discussing this kind of thing with you any way. But pursuing a critical academic career as a fallback is kind of a crazy idea.
posted by media_itoku at 9:57 AM on June 20, 2011

to follow up on apostrophe's comment, Toronto is the hub of Canadian publishing. all the major houses and a great many of the smaller presses are there, and though I cannot speak to other creative industries I'm pretty sure there's no shortage of the kind of work aopostrophe suggests as an alternative to a PhD. if your primary goal is to live in Toronto, I would recommend this route.

speaking as another fiction writer, I have been steadfastly avoiding any and all academic work because it is demanding and time-intensive and would leave me staggeringly less time for writing than, say, working part-time in a bookstore.
posted by spindle at 9:57 AM on June 20, 2011

Response by poster: I appreciate the responses, keep em coming.

escabeche, that's good logic, and is more or less my game plan, but, unfortunately, it leaves out the Toronto part of the equation.

mrfuga0, I don't think my motivation to get a PhD is unclear at all; it's exactly what you said it is: to get a (good) job in Toronto. I'm hearing that that's unrealistic though, and especially appreciate media_itoku's point that those schools would be able to sniff out my motivations.

I appreciate apostrophe's and others' suggestions for alternative job ideas.
posted by skwt at 11:26 AM on June 20, 2011

I think I meant your focus was somewhat unclear (re: "I'm not sure what I would potentially like to focus on if I did a PhD, and I know (or assume) you don't necessarily have to specifically Canadian focus just because you're studying/teaching English in Canada, but I do happen to have an interest in Canadian writing and the Canadianness of Canadian writing, so I figure that can only be a good thing"). Trying to get into a PhD program (which is also super tight right now) without a very clear intention as to what you want to do could be potentially detrimental.

As to "get(ting) a good job in Toronto" as your actual focus? Because of everything everyone else has said already, I really think that having your reason be so job- and region-centered won't serve you well in the end. You have to want to teach, want to research, want to publish non-literary (academic) works, not just go somewhere where the department just lets you go off and write in your spare time. Seriously, if that job exists, I imagine the applicant pool would be somewhere nearer to 3500+ rather than just 350+. These are, obviously, just my thoughts as a current grad student and academic brat (and I might add that I'm a dual doctorate in fiction and literature with no rose-colored glasses as to the job market for either).
posted by mrfuga0 at 12:54 PM on June 20, 2011

Response by poster: Fair enough. I'm glad to have the input. Thank you.
posted by skwt at 7:26 PM on June 20, 2011

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