Getting past “Alt-Ac”

Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

I’m always happy to talk with students about PhD career paths beyond tenured faculty positions. I confess, however, that I cringe every time a student says, “I’d like to talk about alt-ac jobs.”

What’s wrong with “alt-ac”? For starters, it’s not clear what’s meant by that term, beyond “jobs that aren’t tenure-track faculty positions.” And if that’s the case, we’re looking at a huge category, as approximately three-quarters of faculty positions in higher education are off the tenure track. And when “alt-ac” is used to refer jobs beyond the academy entirely (as it often is), we’re looking at a very broad swath of positions indeed.

When the phrase was first coined on Twitter in 2009, alt-ac had a somewhat more precise definition, which I’ll loosely paraphrase here as “jobs that aren’t tenure-track faculty positions but sort of look like them.” I also hear advisees using the term in this manner, and as such, it could help them pinpoint specific elements of academic jobs that they wish to locate in other sorts of employment. Yet, it’s always critical to ask:

“Am I drawn to this career trajectory (higher ed admin, student advising, academic publishing, [fill in the “alt-ac” blank]), because I feel genuinely compelled by this line of work, or does it appeal primarily because it’s familiar and I know that I’m qualified to do it?”

A great many people, I suspect, end up in career tracks that simply happened to be most visible and accessible at a critical time. Is that a problem? For some people, it might be. Are you one of those people? Read on.

No shortcuts or apps have yet been devised to speed up the essential discernment process for choosing a life path.

I write this in 2020, when the need to explore multiple career tracks has been sharply highlighted by the global pandemic and its immediate reverberations in an already dysfunctional and fragile faculty job market. Many of the students I coach and advise are currently exploring these questions at one of the busiest times of their lives thus far, as they finish dissertations and (for those still keeping faculty options open) pour a wildly disproportionate amount of labor into applying for a miniscule number of viable academic positions.

For these students, even carving out an hour or two to broach a “nonacademic jobs” conversation might take a huge effort, not just in time allocation but in the emotional drain it might take to ponder the larger implications of nonfaculty careers (“What will my advisor think?” “Will I be wasting my degree?” etc.)

And the conversation itself can be challenging. Getting past the Wall of Unknowns is the hardest part of launching a career search, and sometimes I can almost hear the thud, as advisees and I try to knock against in it in exploratory conversations. Although advisees typically gravitate towards the question of available careers, a big piece of the Wall of Unknowns might also be self-knowledge.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a doctoral candidate who could point to impressive experiences with both project management and digital humanities work. She’d been focused on where to find jobs beyond the academy where she could leverage these experiences. While this approach makes excellent sense, I started getting curious about what else, beyond project management and DH, might appeal to her. Inspired by a book I’d started reading the night before, I blurted out, “What can you do better than most people?”

Suffice to say, no one had asked her this question before. She’s still pondering the question (it was coaching homework), but I can’t wait to see how the answer might inflect her job search.

One of the biggest challenges students now confront is the pressure to do significant life and career reevaluation—under conditions of the greatest urgency. There’s so much in professional development that’s been made easy and streamlined—we have massive amounts of information at our fingertips — podcasts to listen to, blogposts to read, and now online career planning tools just for humanists, like Imagine PhD.

Yet no shortcuts or apps have yet been devised to speed up the essential discernment process for choosing a life path. When you confront a big enough wall of uncertainty, it’s easy to assume that the path you’ve followed for years is the only one that makes sense. But consider how long it took for you to commit to that path – most likely several years.

So where does that leave doctoral students, who have limited time and resources to undertake a full-scale discernment process?

It might be adjusting expectations, and realizing that the next job may not be the “perfect” or “forever” job (if they even exist beyond the tenure track). And some people may be fine with a wide range of positions, as long as they support other pieces of their lives they deem most important (such as family, or space and resources for hobbies or community service).

Career discernment is more about mindset and intention than it is about “doing more stuff.”

Others, strongly conditioned to think of work in terms of a vocation or calling, may want and need to carve out more space to pinpoint the exact intersection between their talents and the world’s most pressing needs.

What might “carving out this space” look like, for a busy doctoral student or new PhD? It’s not all about sitting under a tree and journaling. Nor is it necessarily about making major modifications in how you currently budget your time and energy. Career discernment is more about mindset and intention than it is about “doing more stuff.”

I have begun asking students in the early stages of career planning to create an “inquiry question” to guide their search, much as they’d set such an organizing query to guide a seminar paper or dissertation chapter. And the need to answer that inquiry question forms a blueprint for how you use your time. For some, this might mean cultivating a greater awareness around current activities, such as teaching or digital humanities projects or public facing scholarship. What interests and energizes you about these endeavors? How might they translate into a life outside the academy?

For others, pursuing the inquiry question might necessitate new forms of “research,” such as scheduling informational interviews, or trying out new experiences, such as joining a collaborative research team. Others might opt to build in a more sustained reflection period, such as participating in group coaching (coming again in spring 2021!) or taking an online course to help support the discernment process (see note below).

There’s a lot going on right now, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed by this advice, give yourself permission to wait under spring (and post-election!), and come back to this post then. In the meantime, consider taking just a small step: What can YOU do better than most people?

Note #1: The bedside reading I mention above is Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success, by Wharton professor G. Richard Shell. There’s an entire Coursera based on the book, which has received a lot of attention for its strategies to help people “answer the questions that arise when you consider how best to use your life.” Members of the Duke community have FREE access to this course through the end of October.

Note #2: This post references a confidential coaching conversation; details have been shared with permission from the student.

“Paths” by Chris B Richmond is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0