Nov 07 2014

A Degree of Futility in Fiction

Category: NovelsBob Hanke @ 11:24 pm

A Degree of Futility

by M.P. Fedunkiw

An Interview by Sabine Dreher

M.P. Fedunkiw is an award-winning writer who obtained her PhD in 2000 and has taught courses at three Toronto-area universities for more than 15 years.  She has been invited to writing workshops at The Banff Centre (2012) and Humber College (2011) and is now writing plays and novels.  A former journalist for The Globe and Mail, The London Free Press, and Maclean-Hunter, she was also part of the team that started The Discovery Channel in Canada during the 1990s.

With post-secondary tuition rates at record highs and full-time posts at record lows, many students are questioning the validity of graduate degrees.  They risk spending their lives as underemployed sessional instructors, going from contract to contract, or being passed over for jobs outside the academy because they are deemed “overqualified”, “intimidating” or “too expensive”.

A Degree of Futility is the story of three friends, Lily, Simon and Greg, as they finish their history PhDs in Toronto at the turn of the millennium and enter the toughest job market ever.  There are advantages including independence, travel, and Oxford postdocs and down-sides, such as no job security, low wages, and lives put on hold. The three friends must look within themselves to find out if it was worth it to sacrifice relationships, family, established careers, and even sex in pursuit of academic careers.

What made you write this book?

It struck me that the glut of unemployed and underemployed PhDs was finally making news in the general media and that was an indication of how bad the situation now was.  Articles in Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, and The Economist were echoing what the academic press had been saying for years – only a tiny percentage of those with arts (and more recently science) PhDs were getting full-time work.  I’d written non-fiction and stage plays until then and thought a novel would be an interesting challenge to bring the issue to light.  I’ve always enjoyed reading novels that are based in a university setting including Small World and Changing Places by David Lodge and Zinger and Me  by Jack MacLeod – doing an arts PhD is such a solitary experience it was great to read about people who were in the same boat.

Is there any relationship to your own experiences?

They say, “Write what you know” and that did offer me a framework.  Although there are elements that I share in common with Lily or with Simon such as living in Oxford during my postdoc, the joy of writing fiction is that your imagination must be engaged to keep the story moving, especially with three different characters.  The other joy of fiction:  no need for footnotes!

Do you feel betrayed by the system?

Yes and no.  Most graduate students who stick with their program long enough to get the PhD believe they will be the ones to snag the rare tenure-track jobs.  I tried to be competitive by publishing my dissertation before I landed the job, by doing a postdoc at Oxford rather than staying in Toronto and by having teaching experience.  But then I learned the numbers – doing web research earlier this year, I found there are more than 1.5 million graduate students (both Masters and PhD candidates) in Canada, the US and the UK; I also read that approximately three percent of arts PhDs get full-time employment.  We all know that there are not 1.5 million full-time jobs out there and the longer it takes the greater the number of fresh new graduates join in the competition.  The other catch is that the pay scales are keyed to experience and publishing – if you have more teaching experience or publications on your CV, you risk pricing yourself out of the market when compared to someone who is ABD or just finished.

What advice do you have for prospective PhD students?

(1) Do the PhD because you love the topic, not for the job – which may never come.
(2) If possible, stay out of debt – finishing a doctorate takes more time than you think and if you’re teaching one or two courses for years after finishing, paying off debt, eating regularly and paying rent on time will be almost impossible.
(3) Have a back-up plan – best thing I did was have work experience and a journalism degree to fall back on when the tenure-track job never materialized.

What are you working on now?

Another novel, this one about a girl growing up in Toronto in the 1930s for a young adult audience and a new play about two women, one a London-trained doctor and the other a young Canadian who meet while volunteering in Serbia during WWI based on research I did for another play and a paper almost ten years ago.

About the Book

A Degree of Futility (2014) is available for order through all major online book retailers, including FriesenPress’ bookstore, Chapters/Indigo, and Amazon. The eBook is available for iTunes, Kindle, Kobo, and GooglePlay.  The trade paperback is also available at Indigo’s Yonge and Eglinton location in the fiction section.  Sample chapters are uploaded as audio files on her website.