In this edition of our career-advice column, we learn about the challenges and rewards of pursuing work in academia.
Name: Aisha Jamal
Job: Assistant Professor at Trent University and Instructor at Sheridan College
In 30 seconds or less, tell me what you do all day at work.
It differs from the summer to the school year! In the summer, I spend my time in the library or in a coffee shop, and I prepare classes, do research, and work on my own writing. During the school year, it’s a mix of teaching, marking, office hours, and meetings. At Trent, I teach German Studies, so I teach language and cultural history. At Sheridan, I teach in Media Arts, where I teach The Art of Cinema and Image Production.
When did you first consider pursing a career in academia?
Sometimes, I wonder if I ever stopped and made that conscious decision [laughs]. Right after my undergraduate degree, I applied for a Master’s at the University of Toronto, and they asked me to do my Ph.D. instead. So there was no break in between; I just kept going, and when I was finished I was trained, in a sense, to be an academic. Now I love it.
How did you pick your focus for your Ph.D.?
I did my Ph.D. on contemporary German cinema, focusing on filmmakers of an immigrant background working in Germany. It was a pretty natural choice for me, because I did my undergrad in International Relations and German Studies, but I was always interested in film—in undergrad I did an honours paper for my German Studies program on German cinema. So the two really came together when I decided to do my Ph.D.: the international-relations element—in terms of immigration and migration issues—coming together with the German-cinema interest.
What were some of the challenges you faced during your Ph.D.?
Discipline—I think that’s a big challenge for everybody. No one’s looking over your shoulder—it’s your own impetus that keeps you going. You have to figure out the tricks early, because there are actual things that you need to learn to get yourself to do this everyday. You need to figure them out, like making it a daily practice to go to the library or to some space that represents work to you. I never work at home, so it feels like a job—I go to the library each day and put in my hours. I also try to always make sure that I know what I’m going to do the next day. That way, when I wake up in the morning, work doesn’t feel like an insurmountable obstacle that I’ll want to avoid for three days.
When you finished your Ph.D., did you seek out an instructor position right away?
I actually started teaching while I was doing my doctorate, and two or three years into my Ph.D. I started doing my own courses, which I was allowed to design. I realized that one, I love teaching, and two, I’m good at it. That’s the aspect of academia I like the best, actually. When you’re finishing your Ph.D., you need to think about what kind of job you want and where you want to work. It’s important to keep an eye out for the qualifications that the schools that are hiring want. Right now, diversification seems to be very important—to be able to teach across disciplines. If you can find ways to incorporate different fields, that seems to be how you get jobs these days.
What was the job market like when you began looking for positions several years ago?
I think it’s still pretty rough. Finding tenure-track positions is really tough right now. My advice to anyone would be to think twice before starting a Ph.D. in certain fields—if you want to do anything in the arts or humanities, you should really think about it. If you have the love for the subject and you want to do a degree for the pursuit of knowledge, then that’s fantastic. But if you’re thinking of it as a step to a career, I would do some research. Universities are changing, and the emphasis is shifting to things like science and business. Right now, the positions that are available in academia are a lot of instructor positions, which are four-month or per-course contracts. It’s rare to find something longer, so I feel really lucky to have my position at Trent.
How do you manage the commute between Trent and Sheridan?
It’s my third year at both, and I almost went crazy in the first term of last year. There was so much back-and-forth between Toronto, Peterborough, and Oakville, but this year it’s much better. I’ve learned to ask for a certain schedule, so I teach all my courses at Sheridan in the same day, and then I go to Peterborough, where I stay and do all my teaching over four days. Then I come back to my apartment in Toronto. It’s hard, but it’s doable and, for me, there’s a large payoff to living in Toronto.
What qualities are important for instructors to have at the university level?
I think it’s important to be knowledgeable about the body of work, but also to be open. And to have the ability to have fun, both with the subject matter and your students, and to be approachable. The student-teacher interaction is one of the best parts of teaching.
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of your job?
You can get stuck in the bureaucracy of it sometimes—answering emails, doing administrative stuff. I don’t love early-morning classes; it’s really hard to have your brain function at 8 or 9 a.m. But I really like the flexibility of the job. I like that every day is different; it’s important to me that it’s not a 9-to-5 job, but that sometimes it’s 10-to-6 or noon-to-8. I also love teaching, and that you always seem to be in a world of ideas. There’s always some sort of intellectual stimulation, and that I really like.