After obtaining a Bachelor's degree in English and Mathematics Stephen Ney received his Master's degree in Theology and Biblical Criticism from Regent College, followed by a PHD in English from UBC. His research focused on literary history in colonial and postcolonial Nigeria. Since 2011 he has realized his dream to work in Africa.
Where and what is your current position?
Right after finishing my PhD I sought and found a university in West Africa where I could teach and research in my discipline. The University of the Gambia was perfect: less than 15 years old, with few PhDs on faculty and very minimal infrastructure, seeking to develop a culture of research and a more international outlook, in a hospitable and safe country where I was excited to adapt into a very unfamiliar culture.
Is your current career path as you originally intended?
Yes. This is what I want to do. Let me count the ways I'm doing what I’ve been wanting to: teaching at a small university where I’m not pigeonholed but can cover areas right across the discipline of English literature; sometimes even dipping into academic writing, theology, or cultural studies; helping build a culture of research at an institution that's not been research focused; keeping my thinking sharp and acting on issues of global justice and (under)development by living and working in a poor country; helping guide students and future leaders through the immense transitions associated with "modernization"; and generating and disseminating knowledge on literature and culture in an environment that’s new to me.
What did you enjoy the most about your time as a graduate student at UBC?
My main supervisors guided me well, and I felt privileged to work on aspects of my PhD with several members of the English department who were not actually on my committee. I like teaching, and the department did a wonderful job of training us in pedagogy with a series of seminars, a variety of teaching assistantships, and even a pilot project whereby senior PhD students designed and taught their own courses. Staying on campus at St. John's College, an international residential college, was really enjoyable and provided me with a global education outside the classroom.
What are key things you did that contributed to your success?
Asking lots of questions to local people who know how the culture and the institution work. Pulling indigenous languages, local narrative traditions, and national political issues into my teaching as much as possible.
What is your best piece of advice for current graduate students preparing for their future careers?
Consider opportunities outside of the richest countries, outside of where your professors trained, and outside of where your discipline's top conferences are held, in places where your skills might be in greater demand.
Did you have any breaks in your education?
Teaching at a junior college in the Philippines before my PhD was time well spent, allowing me to gain a clearer picture of the joys and challenges of working in a developing-world academic institution.
How did you find out about/obtain your current position?
It seems that to get an academic position in Africa you have to know someone who knows someone. In my case, I met some someones at the Canadian Humanities Congress in Montreal, near the end of my PhD. I was also helped by an organization called Global Scholars Canada that exists to help Canadian academics work overseas.
What challenges did you face in your graduate degree, or in launching your career?
If I'd been a bit clearer with myself about my career goal – about wanting to work at a university in West Africa – I'd have made inquiries earlier and discovered that my publishing record needn't be my priority. I'd have rushed a little more in finishing my dissertation and perhaps finished 6 or 12 months earlier, since the application process at universities in West Africa isn't as rigorous as in Canada.
How are jobs normally posted and filled in your organization or industry?
You’ve got to know someone who knows someone!
What do you like and what do you find challenging about your current position?
- hot lunch on campus costs about 75 cents
- many of my students grew up on peanut farms on the savanna without electricity and where nobody spoke English, and now here they are in a course on Chaucer. So much to learn from them! So much opportunity for innovation in pedagogy!
- the pay is bad
- planning ahead is hard: the government or the university admin tends to call a holiday with a day's notice, the electricity disappears for a day, or we can’t find a room to hold our lecture in