Stephen Wittek, Assistant Professor

Stephen Wittek graduated with a PhD in English in 2013 and is now an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. 

Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?

The only thing I ever really wanted to be was a literature instructor, but I had very little idea of how universities worked or how to get into one. I grew up in a working-class family, the son of a single parent living in my grandparents’ basement in a small town. Nobody in my family went to university–in fact, my mom was the only member of the family even to graduate high school. I decided to go to journalism school because I knew I was good at reading and writing, and journalism seemed like a trade where I could apply those skills.

After completing a journalism degree at Langara College (Vancouver), I began to get a sense of how the academic world worked, and I had a sense that I could go further. Looking back, I suppose it was somewhere around that time that my interest in getting a PhD really began to grow. I moved on to the University of British Columbia for my BA, then to the Shakespeare Institute (Birmingham University) for my MA, then to McGill for my PhD and a postdoc.

Q: How did you end up in your current position as an Assistant Professor? 

After I finished my PhD, I landed a two-year postdoc with Paul Yachnin’s Early Modern Conversions project. I completed the first year, and then graduated to project manager. The postdoc and the management position helped to keep me afloat while I was on the job market. 

Q: How many academic jobs would you say you applied for?

My first year on the job market was 2013. I was ABD at that point. I applied for fourteen positions that year. In 2014, I applied for thirty-three. In 2015 I applied for nineteen jobs, and in 2016 I applied for twenty-eight. A grand total of 94 applications! It was my policy to apply for every job available in my field, irrespective of location or quality. My thinking at the time was that the experience of applying and interviewing would be valuable, even if I didn’t get a job offer. Moreover, if I got an offer for a job I didn’t want, I could always turn it down. I’d recommend the same strategy to anyone else venturing into the job market. Apply now, ask questions later!

Q: Was there ever a point when you thought about exploring a path other than academia, or did you ever get frustrated and want to try something else? 

In-between my undergraduate years and graduate school, I had an entirely different career in South Korea working in educational development, teacher training, and producing educational media. My wife is from South Korea, so our backup plan has always been to move back if my academic career hit a dead end. As things now stand, it looks like we will not have to move to Plan B. 

Q: Is there a type of mentorship you wish you had before starting the PhD?

As I noted, I did my MA at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-Upon-Avon in England. The way things work in England and North America are rather dissimilar, so I didn’t have a very clear view of how to go about applying to graduate schools and pursuing an academic career in North America. I had to figure a lot of things out for myself. I had no idea how tough the job market is. My naive presumption was that, upon completing a PhD, some sort of job would surely be available, somewhere or other–which is not always the case. On a similar note, although I had heard of postdoctoral fellowships, I didn’t really know what they were or how they worked. I remember being really shocked to discover that, upon finishing my PhD, there was this other one-or-two year thing I would probably have to do before getting a job. In retrospect, I think I really could have benefited from some mentorship before the PhD, rather than groping my way through the wilderness on my own.  

Q: What would you say that you value most about your time in graduate school? 

The first thing that comes to mind is time. Graduate school is a unique period in an academic’s development where one can dedicate exclusive attention to a single monolithic task: writing a thesis. There is lots and lots of time to read and think through things for yourself and learn to articulate your ideas. Secondly, graduate school also provides the invaluable benefit of connection and conversation with other scholars. I had a real treasure trove of friends and mentors at McGill. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that I would be a very different person today without the influence of those relationships. 

Q: What were your biggest challenges during your PhD and how did you overcome them? 

The first challenge is simply to write. After completing all of the introductory coursework, one comes face-to-face with a vast expanse of blank pages waiting to become a thesis. It is a bit scary. Unlike other sorts of work, it isn’t always easy to see progress. Very often, after a full day–or even a week–of very hard work, the needle has barely moved at all, and there are still so, so many blank pages waiting ominously for more labor. In addition, there’s also a lot of uncertainty. It is difficult to anticipate what one’s life is going to look like upon completion of the degree. In my view, the trick to managing these pressures is to breathe deeply, get to work, and continue taking baby steps forward, even if there is not a lot of evidence of progress. As long as one is continually pushing forward, the work eventually does get done.

Q: What were your biggest challenges after you graduated? 

The world of academic publishing–especially book publishing–was a whole new world to me. Publishers don’t look at a manuscript in the same way as a thesis supervisor or fellow scholar. They have an entirely different set of criteria. Learning to think like a publisher and re-structuring my thesis into something that would be attractive to an academic press was my first big challenge. 

Many thanks to Stephen for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find more about him and his work at Carnegie Mellon University.

This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication. Cover image courtesy of the Shakespeare VR project, directed by Prof. Stephen Wittek.