by Karen Cardozo
Who needs Alt/Post-Ac services? It’s not always the demographic that you imagine. What began as a trickle last year has become (in my consulting practice, anyway) a full-blown trend. I am referring to a growing number of people who DID land an elusive tenure-track position but have begun to feel, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, that “there is no there there.” In addition, there are those who were denied tenure (disproportionately women and women of color, too often for hazy reasons), for whom there is literally no there there. All of which should remind you: the track metaphor is more fiction than reality—a way to organize academic time and effort that should be taken with a huge grain of salt even as we board the train (remember: every train has multiple stops, each leading to myriad destinations!).
It’s possible I attract a disproportionate percentage of tenure-track clients who sense in my own bio someone who will understand their deliberations (I believe I am the only member of the TPII team still in a faculty role, and a tenure-track one at that). But still, the observation remains: as J.K. Gibson-Graham wrote of capitalocentrism, tenurecentrism prevents us not only from recognizing our varied faculty situations within diverse academic institutions, but also the full range of career options available to us both within and outside the academy.
My clients are awakening from the tenurecentric dream; they are asking: is this all there is? More than a few tell me they never intended an academic career when they entered their doctoral programs; they had applied goals for which they thought a PhD would give them a leg up. But academic socialization and overly narrow advising swept them onto the academic job market along with those who genuinely aspired to a faculty career. Years later, they wake up on the tenure track like David Byrne of the Talking Heads wondering “how did I get here?” and singing this excerpt from “Once in a Lifetime ”:
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?… Am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself
MY GOD!…WHAT HAVE I DONE?
So, as the start of another academic year looms, it’s worth repeating: exploring alternatives to a faculty career is not only the purview of the degraded, despondent, and/or desperate PhD but simply the healthy pursuit of authentic career development. Now more than ever, authenticity has real value in the rapidly shifting landscape that life coach Martha Beck describes as a “wild new world.” In this new world, institutions are going from large and staid to lean and—if not mean—more nimble. The “safe” choices of decades past no longer pay off; the era of the “company man” is largely over and the spoils increasingly go to those who exhibit keen self-awareness, flexibility, and situational responsiveness (i.e. the capacity to adjust The Plan when circumstances warrant it). This is what Beck calls “following your true nature,” or heeding your own strengths and instincts. But as I rehearsed in a prior post, the creative and improvisational mode required by today’s economy is the very antithesis of an academic bureaucracy that privileges tradition and stability. You will have to learn some code-switching!
Self-realization is the job of a lifetime: we need to become the best versions of ourselves and contribute from that place of integrity to a messed-up world that badly needs compassionate, whole, human beings. Your primary work in life is to find out who you really are and what you really want to be doing. Increasingly, there’s a place in this entrepreneurial economy for people wholly committed to their missions – ideally those operating in a niche that few others can replicate. Karen Kelsky and I, along with the whole consulting team at TPII, are but a few examples of how following the unique convergence of your interests and instincts can lead to satisfying and financially sustainable work. As Karen observes in her must-read new book, TPII is a kind of applied anthropology. The Professor did not abandon her academic training; it fuels her current business as much as my early roots in career counseling fuel my own niche consulting with PhDs about exploring all of their options.
Is the tenure system the Oakland of career development? Well, that depends on the person, the position, the discipline and the institution. Some of my best friends live in Oakland; they love it there! As we career counselors like to say, objectively speaking, “there’s no such thing as a great job. Only a great job… for you.” Like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest (with no-one there to witness it, does it make a sound?), a person executing a job description without affinity for the work is not going to experience it as a “great job” at all. No amount of survivor guilt can propel you through it, either. It doesn’t matter how many other people wanted your job and didn’t get it or how lucky you “should” feel. A bad fit is a bad fit, period. In addition, depending on your field and institutional type, many a faculty salary can be readily matched or exceeded in other organizational environments, so you can’t necessarily cite golden handcuffs as the primary reason for your captivity.
Whether you are a graduate student, an adjunct, on the tenure-track, or tenured, pursuing authentic career development means exploring ways to be genuine on the job, whether you work on or off a campus. When disciplinary or institutional cultures and structures inhibit such development, consider pushing back on the system from within (after all, if you fear you’re ultimately going to be denied tenure or may elect to leave anyway – why not live academe on your own terms while you’re there?). But even as you try to figure out how to live a more genuine life as an academic, you can begin to explore other environments where you may feel less like a square peg in a round hole.
Ultimately, authentic career development at this historic juncture does not require premature decisions about whether to go “Ac” or “Alt/Post-Ac” (especially since you don’t control the job market: you’ll have to wait and see). Rather, it involves a process of genuine exploration where you seek to maximize your experiences and options across sectors: only then can you make an informed choice about whether your best fit lies in an Ac, Alt, or Post-Ac environment or some unprecedented combination.