Alt-Ac: Maybe We’re Already Doing It

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Almost a year ago, I wrote a post for the NASSR Grad Student Caucus blog called “Alt-Ac-Attack: Thoughts on Preparing for the Job Market.” At that time, our department was just starting to increase professionalization practices geared towards alt-ac options. In fact, I think the term was still new to me at the time. Since them, it seems like everybody’s talking about it, from grad students and faculty in the department to larger academic blogs, twitter conversations, and periodicals. The term, though it may no longer carry the same stigma that it did a year ago, is still not exactly positive (despite whether or not it should be). Yet, I found the recent panel about alt-ac careers not only useful but very uplifting. On the panel, held February 26th, we heard from Eileen Brumitt (Writing Center Director, Student Support Specialist, Act 101 Counselor), David Fine (Interim Assistant Director of Global Citizenship), and Elizabeth Wiggins (Visual Arts and Education Coordinator at ArtsQuest). I’ve collected some of the advice and experiences from each speaker that I found encouraging and helpful. The main impression that I got from each speaker (more or less) is that an alternate academic career is actually an okay goal, even a great goal. That is something easily said, but these speakers and their obvious enthusiasm and hard work made a stronger case than any I’ve seen.

 Grad School is the loneliest profession.

This statement is not true, but it often feels like it is. The deeper into it you get, the more isolating it feels, especially once you get past the communal learning of coursework, the frenzy of exams, and the initial excitement of the dissertation (I can personally attest to all of this). Sometimes that alone time is wonderful: just you and your project. Sometimes, however, it can be daunting and oppressive: just you and… your project. Liz talked about this and has written a really wonderful post about it on her own blog. Liz described missing the camaraderie of course work once she started her dissertation, so she pursued hobbies and interests at the Banana Factory (a community art center) that would give her a break and lead her to meet new people. Yet, as will be familiar to most of us, pursuing these activities involves a lot of academic guilt, like sneaking off and cheating on academic responsibilities. This is not a guilt that “normal” people have (or perhaps not to the same degree)! Liz, however, suggests following other interests, outside the academic community, especially when things start to feel lonely and helpless: work through that guilt because you never know where these activities might lead or what contacts you might make. If there’s one thing we’re starting to learn is that the grad school path is no longer as straightforward as it perhaps once was: there is rarely a straight PhD-to-tenure-track-job road to run. Both Eileen and Liz recommended going out and making friends, getting to know people, using all the online resources (twitter, blogs, etc) that can connect you to other experiences. Both speakers started out small in their jobs, going for the stability of the positions before the money and allowing those positions to grow into what they wanted them to be. This is not drastically different from what a lot of us already (quite happily) do as grad students.

If you love the craziness of being a busy grad student, there are other jobs that require that same energy.

FC0843178124Both Eileen and Liz said that they, like many of us, are happiest when juggling multiple tasks and wearing multiple hats. Both said that, when trying to think through their typical work day… they couldn’t because they don’t have a typical day. Irregularity presents challenges that keep the job interesting. For many of us, this is not unlike our current academic lives (In fact there was just an article in Insider Higher Ed about this). Though we may spend a lot of time on repetitive reading and writing, it seems like every day there a new workshop or a talk or a reading group that we attend, regardless of whether it speaks directly to our research or not (usually not). So, David, whose job includes program management and administration AND advising AND teaching, assures us that we’re already developing (mastering, even) the skills that alt-ac jobs require in their many stressful tasks. Even something as “straightforward” as teaching involves advising and administration and public speaking and organization and analysis and creativity and communication and management and “people skills.” And all of that falls under just the one “teacher hat” that we wear, among the many others. What’s more, even academic jobs would want us to wear multiple hats: there is no reality to the perception that faculty members do research and teaching and nothing else. They serve on committees, coordinate programs, advise students, etc. So, if that’s the part of the job that you enjoy as a grad student, an alt-ac job may be a natural next step, or at least as natural as a faculty position.

Use your skill to close-read your own job.

As came up during the Q&A portion of the panel, we’ve acquired so many different skills during our years of just the day-to-day work of being a grad student. Yet, it’s so easy to sell ourselves short. The hard part is teasing those skills out of the mess of all the things we do and separating them from the final product: “Oh, all I can do is teach and write academic papers.” Wrong, a lot of different abilities go into those end results. Because we’re all used to what we do, we don’t always recognize the individual skills involved that might be applicable to other tasks. The ability to close-read our own qualifications is part of what we can do. David showed us the cover letter and resume that he used to attain his current position with Global Citizenship, highlighting words in his letter that describe skills we’ve gained in the English department: communication, organization, and the ability to write clearly for different audiences. Though seeing the absence of David’s dissertation and exams from his resume was a cringe-worthy experience, it is important to know how to re-prioritize this important self-marketing document. He organized his history and skills as follows: qualifications, work experience, service, education, grants/awards, and languages. Liz added that simply reconfiguring our language can make a big difference: through teaching, we’re actually doing what could be called project coordination and customer service. We have significant research skills and are used to working with people (students, colleagues, etc) on different levels: she described using these same skills in her current position. Eileen suggested that detail is the key to a successful resume: the more you can describe what you already do, the more it shows the skills involved. Part of writing for different audiences might include being able to cater our C.V.s to jobs for which we might apply.

All in all, I took away from this panel mostly positive impressions of alt-ac jobs, or at least more confirmation that there is the possibility for happiness beyond landing that coveted faculty position… and mostly because the speakers on the panel seemed genuinely happy in their work (well, maybe not David, but he admitted to the value of his temporary position). Beyond these encouraging impressions, two things that were said stuck with me. The first is something that Liz said (and I paraphrase): “Just because I’m not in academia, doesn’t mean I stop being a scholar. I can still be a scholar on my own terms, learning the things that I love to learn.” I know there are probably complications to this statement, but the basic value of reading and learning and writing doesn’t have to go away. You don’t stop being you! The other was something said by a member of the audience, that thinking about alt-ac careers and skills can help you in whatever job you end up getting. Engaging with the things that you already take pleasure in can end up being more beneficial than simple enjoyment: it can lead to a fulfilling possibility that never even occurred to you.

Other helpful resources and articles:


  1. Nice post. Thank you so much for sharing the panel with us. I noticed some good twitter buzz around the gathering (#altac #lehighenglish) and it sounded like people got a lot out of it.
    I’m intrigued by a line from your first paragraph: “At that time, our department was just starting to increase professionalization practices geared towards alt-ac options.” What did/does that look like, in your experience? Can you elaborate?

  2. A lot of it is just that we’re talking about options that aren’t tenure-track faculty positions: trying to talk about our skills in new ways and disrupt the association of alt-ac options with failure.

  3. Pingback: Graduate School Take Out: A First Semester Reflection | Drown Unbound

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