An Alt-Ac Summer Workshop That Works (A guest post)

This post is contributed by reader Rebecah Pulsifer.  I hope that other programs will read this and consider developing similar initiatives.  Thank you, Rebecah!

Graduate study, as TPII readers know well, is wildly out of step with the current state of the academic job market. Tenure-track positions are scarce and endangered, yet graduate programs have been slow to acknowledge this reality. They continue to peddle the fairy tale of the TT job, often while failing to provide practical advice about the market.

In July, I attended a funded, three-week workshop that offered a different model of graduate education. Jointly administered by the Chicago Humanities Festival and Humanities Without Walls, a consortium of fifteen humanities centers funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Alternative Academic Summer Workshop invited thirty pre-doctoral students in the humanities to explore how academic training can be leveraged for jobs outside the academy.

“This workshop emerged from a conversation at the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes about how to prepare PhDs who can’t get or don’t want jobs in the academy for other career possibilities,” said project manager Jason Mierek. “The center directors saw a need to highlight the skills PhD candidates already have, both for potential employers and for the candidates themselves.”

The workshop offered sessions on networking, writing job documents, and pitching dissertation topics to non-academics. Each day included a field trip to a different workplace in Chicago, where we spoke with humanities PhDs in their natural environments: design, tech, advertising, museums, nonprofits, consulting, public humanities projects, non-academic jobs in the academy, and more.

I came away feeling optimistic about the possibilities for my future career (an unfamiliar experience for many graduate students). This is what graduate-level education could be: experiential, applicable to a range of possible career paths, and pragmatic about the realities of the job market — both academic and non-academic — for PhDs. The following takeaways were particularly affirming.

Graduate students are already academics.

Graduate students are overtly and subliminally trained to be suspicious of any feelings of authority. But in the eyes of non-academicians, the work of a graduate student is the same as that of a professor: we design and teach courses, pursue multi-stage research projects, and perform administrative duties. The alternative academic job search requires a shift in mindset to the conviction that you are already an expert, not only in your field(s) of study, but also in a range of transferable skills. Your graduate education is professional experience and must be presented that way to any potential employer.

Values are as important as skills.

One side effect of the academy’s culture of desperation is that PhDs seeking jobs outside of the academy may throw themselves at any job for which they are remotely qualified. Mearah Quinn-Brauner, assistant director of graduate student career advising at Northwestern University, pointed out that employers are quick to identify applicants whose career values don’t align with the position. She advised us to narrow down potential alternative academic paths by honestly answering questions such as:

  • In what types of work environment am I most successful?
  • What degree of collaboration do I prefer?
  • To what extent is it important for me to have defined responsibilities versus autonomy?
  • How much do I value work/life balance?

If one benefit to abandoning the academy is re-claiming a sense of career fulfillment, it makes no sense to jump into a job that will make you equally unhappy.

Asking people about their career trajectories is part of networking.

The academy is insular and hierarchical, which makes it relatively easy to identify who should be in one’s network. Outside the academy, potential contacts are scattered across many different careers and industries. Establishing an alt-ac network, therefore, can take a lot of time; almost every presenter emphasized that the best way to do this is to conduct informational interviews.

The purpose of an informational interview is not to offer oneself up for a job, but rather to ask someone questions such as:

  • How did you come to be in your current position?
  • What skills are most valued in your profession?
  • Are there experiences you wish you had gained before beginning your current job?
  • What advice do you have for someone seeking to enter your field?

Several presenters mentioned that landing a job after a career transition takes at least 6-12 months, so conducting informational interviews while you still have funding left is a great way to prepare for an alt-ac search.

You can prepare for a non-academic career while finishing your dissertation.

Graduate students are often told that we have more time now than we ever will in our academic careers. What we hear less often is that not all of that time must be dumped into the dissertation or, more likely, hours of immobilizing writing anxiety. Plenty of PhD candidates can and do pursue non-academic projects and jobs while completing the dissertation. Presenters and participants in this workshop were involved in non-academic projects such as founding a film society, consulting for nonprofits, curating museum exhibits, hosting a radio show, and creating documentary films. If you are considering alt-ac, now is the time to volunteer or start a part-time job in a field of interest.

Career paths are often (usually?) messy.

Academics love to profess their exceptionalism, and this is certainly the case when it comes to career trajectories. The most eye-opening aspect of this workshop was the realization that changing careers is not a particularly unusual event outside of academia. Many presenters needed at least ten minutes to explain how they had arrived at their current positions and another several minutes to explain the connection (or lack thereof) between their degrees and their current work. Many of these narratives were stories of happenstance or chasing a passion until it turned into a career.

I left the workshop believing that professional metamorphosis is not only possible but also common. Academics are not alone on the path to imagining flexible careers; we are only a bit late to the game.

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An Alt-Ac Summer Workshop That Works (A guest post) — 2 Comments

  1. Disclaimer: I very much like the alt-ac narrative in this blog and I couldn’t agree more that it is needed and overdue in academia in general.

    However, there is a fraction of American PhD’s this narrative does not fully apply to. American universities have a very large population of international students. For those foreigners getting an academic position is, funnily enough, much easier than going alt-ac for bureaucratic reasons. Many other doors are simply closed since very few companies will sponsor a work visa for a recent graduate with no appropriate experience.

    Sometimes one could get this experience while in grad school via internships etc. However, the visa often, if not always, explicitly prohibits the student from being hired outside of the department that sponsors the visa. Same applies to getting teaching experience outside of your alma mater: not an option for international students.

    There is a loophole. Depending on the visa type, sometimes universities will extend one’s visa so that one can get professional training, construed very broadly. It comes with a set of requirements: (1) get hired within at most 30 days of graduation, (2) have a particular salary (or other source of funding) that matches university standards, and (3) maintain an insurance that matches what university standards (which in my case means premium, so I can only get from an employer and not by myself).

    So, not impossible, but tricky. To reiterate, alt-ac is great. It’s just that not everyone is in a position to even consider this, at least in the US.

  2. In all fairness, alt-ac is not the answer to the crisis facing graduate education, as practical as the discussion is for current PhDs.

    Instead the focus should be on two significant issues:
    1. The decline in tenure-track positions undermines higher education in its entirety. After many conversations about the rising cost of college, the focus needs to be on the quality of the education students get. How can adjuncts with no offices and remuneration under $4000 a semester be providing value for those paying $50,000 a year in tuition? And full-time professors have become administrators and have to earn their own salaries plus millions in grants to keep their jobs. The focus is not anywhere on teaching in higher ed, and that’s a scandal waiting to be exposed.

    2. Most people who go to grad school are actually poorly suited to other professions. Why else would they knowingly work so hard for years with so little chance of a decent career? Not only are they trained only to be professors, but having been out of ‘work’ and in school for so long have no experience and are immediately circumspect to hiring managers in other sectors. But the real underlying hidden problem is that they may never have been suited to work in the ‘real world’ to begin with. Many professors and those doing PhDs are afflicted with mental health issues that are often comorbid with high intelligence, such as Asperger’s and ADHD. Academia has long been accommodating to these highly creative, but “absent minded” and eccentric folks, but they will not be attractive to the private sector or administrative jobs in the university. Adjuncting and disability become the only options.

    The solution: government needs to realize that higher ed is a valuable social program that promotes innovation, creates enormous knowledge gains that lead to improvements in many domains, including human health, the environment, and technology, is a significant revenue and economic development generator in the long run, and a social safety net for gifted eccentrics. It must restore funding and ensure a functioning educational system at all levels. Universal college, funded by taxpayers, is a logical step. We have to stop thinking of college as optional and thinking of it as the next step in compulsory ed after high school. Doing so would net enormous benefits for society at large, the faculty, and the next generation of Americans.

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