Tired of Chasing Tenure? Consider an Alt-ac Career

In my most recent podcast episode I talked about the alt-ac career path. I thought I would flesh out those ideas in this blog post and provide plenty of links to the writings of scholars who are doing innovative things in this area.

First of all, what is alt-ac? It’s shorthand for alternative academic careers.

This term was first used in 2010 in a Twitter conversation Bethany Nowviskie and Jason Rhody. The purpose was a pointed pushed against the term non-academic careers, which academics meant to mean anything off the straight and narrow path of tenure.

On Inside Higher Ed, it is described as “an umbrella term to refer to full-time non-teaching and non-research positions within higher education.”  These can be staff or administrative positions, and these positions may (and often do) include teaching and/or research duties, but teaching and research are not the primary focus of the position. There are also comparable alt-ac positions beyond campus; many alt-ac types are found among public historians, librarians, museum curators, independent scholars, professional writers, etc.

The point is that it is less about the position than the person in the position. People who do this are still interested in research, publication, and disciplinary conversation. It means that people can still be involved in the academy and publish if they are willing to consider the many different staff and administrative positions available in the academy.

The #Postac Manifesto notes the following characteristics about this career path:

Alt-ac is at its heart scholarly. It is interested in research, publication, and disciplinary conversation. “Academic” is an active and meaningful identity to an altac person. Alt-acers call themselves “Dr. So and So” and/or identify as academics. Alt-ac has people who identify as “independent scholars.” They maintain CVs. Alt-acers often maintain a research (or R&D) and publication profile, and bring their disciplinary training to bear every day on problem sets of great importance to higher education. (“Alt-ac in context”) We also noted that alt-ac conversations often encourage people to finish graduate school and thrive in academia, and to maintain academic activity even if not working on the tenure track.

There is a major push for universities to provide training for PhDs outside of traditional tenure-track jobs. Last year the American Historical Association received a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. mellon Foundation to support efforts to expand career tracks for history Ph.D.’s:

In the first phase of Career Diversity for Historians, funded by parallel grants to the AHA and the MLA in 2012, we learned that there are four key skills graduate students need to succeed in jobs beyond the academy: communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, and intellectual self-confidence.

What are some examples? One is Brian Croxall.In 2009, Brian Croxall made headlines at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting by not showing up. Mr. Croxall, then a visiting professor of English at Clemson University, delivered a paper in absentia about the trials of trying to land a steady gig in academe that would pay enough to let him attend scholarly meetings and afford luxuries like food.

Fast forward to 2013. Mr. Croxall is now a steadily employed digital-humanities strategist and lecturer in English at Emory University. Not only did he make it to the association’s meeting here this year; he has become a notable advocate for so-called alternative academic, or “alt-ac,” careers.

Margaret Hiley, with whom I spoke in Episode 3 of The Scholarpreneur Podcast, is a freelance academic translator. Jason Roe was in Episode 8 and he works for the Kansas city public library as a public historian. Robert Skiff from Oplerno.com, and my guest in Episode 7 of the Podcast, has created a course platform on Oplerno where people can create their own courses and sell them to students.

Alt-acs have been making the rounds at major academic conferences in recent years. At the 2013 AHA meeting, there were four alt-acs who talked about their careers. One of them was Pam Lach, then the Digital Innovation Lab manager at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is now the Head of the Center for Faculty and Staff Initiatives and Engagement at the University of Kansas Libraries.

Do they still consider themselves academics? How do they use their knowledge? Pam: said “I use my historian skills daily, from analytical and critical thinking to effective communication. Since my job blends administrative and academic responsibilities, I apply all the tools of the discipline but in different contexts and domains: teaching within and beyond the classroom, engaging in scholarly projects, publishing, grant writing, and serving on committees. My work on the Digital Innovation Lab’s public digital history projects gives me the opportunity to think historically in the context of the new skills and methodologies I have acquired as an information scientist: information organization, management, collaborative work, knowledge of technology, and information visualization, to name a few.”

Some blogs that feature regular posts of those who make this transitions include From Ph.D. To Life or How to Leave Academia.

Some of the different positions that can be considered to be alt ac include the following in this list, compiled by Brenda Bethman and C. Shaun Longstreen from Alt Academix. used by Alt Academix

  • Academic affairs: advising, honors/academic resources, admissions, recruitment, first-year experience, program centers, women’s centers, abilities services, multicultural centers, libraries, digital humanities, educational technology.
  • Student affairs: residence life, leadership, career services, student health/counseling, international services, “bridge” programs, extension programs
  • Development and research: Research offices, grant writing, fund-raising, development
  • Business affairs: president’s office, administration, office of the bursar, communications and public relations, community affairs, information technology.

There are lots of meetings in this line of work. There is more budget managing and decision making, and envelope stuff, than a traditional academic job. These positions may seem far removed from academia, but PhD skills still come into play. For example, the training in a PhD program can seem relevant when you are using research and writing skills to to build a case for why an administration or funding agency should support a new initiative.

Alt-Academics are found all over the place. According to a public database they are librarians, teaching center directors, consultants, and those working outside the academy, including publishers, entrepreneurs, and more.

In a March alt-ac panel at the University of Texas, Dr. Eric Bolsterli, assistant dean of academic affairs gave an account of his experience after grad school and how he ended up in his current position in the university administration. In his presentation, he noted the following:

Dr. Bolsterli emphasized a number of points: first, the ability to build a reputation as capable employee is fundamental. For him, this meant construction a reputation as a good teacher. This helped him develop connections among UTA faculty, which led to a job offer to work as an advisor for the History Department. After applying for jobs and receiving no response, Dr. Bolsterli decided to focus instead on work in the administration.

Key points from Eric Bolsterli’s presentation:
– Networking is incredibly important.
– If you wish to stay in an academic environment, you have to be able to work effectively with students.
– Learn as much as you can about on-campus opportunities, and – again – network as much as you can.
– Don’t pigeon-hole yourself as “just” a PhD student.
– Communicate with professionals and students of all ages.

If you are interested in an alt-ac career, one place to start looking is on the Inside Higher Ed career message board.

Also, look at conferences within your field. Modern Language Association, or MESA or AHA or whatever will likely have a panel on alt-ac.

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