Being an Academic (Alt, Ac, or Otherwise) – Guest Post

I’m happy to welcome Dr. Robert Oprisko to the TPII post-ac blogging team.  Robert has written widely on adjuncting and the decline and fall of academia, and is deep in his own post-academic transition.

Robert’s Bio:

Robert Oprisko earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from Purdue University.  His academic research focuses on International Political Philosophy and the state and business of higher education.  He has taught/researched at Purdue University, Johns Hopkins University, Butler University, and Indiana University.  Having seen the dark side, he embraced his role as a mercenary (post/alt)-academic.  He’s currently Director/Editor at E-International Relations and consults and writes selectively.

He will be contributing three posts; this is the first.  Find him on Twitter at @oprisko.

by Robert Oprisko

Dr. Robert Oprisko

Conventional wisdom holds that employment within the professoriate is a prerequisite for being an academic. This sentiment stems from indoctrination within graduate school programs, which typically spread this fiction as gospel. Failure to obtain a professorial position, under this guideline, equates to failure as an academic and a substantial, sustained, and crippling identity crisis for many people.  Fear of identity loss and the corresponding feeling of failure has led countless thousands of people to suffer through precarious work as adjuncts, complete with paltry wages and no benefits, in order to maintain their status, if only on the fringe of existence.

Conventional wisdom is wrong.

Being an academic is not contingent upon a specific form of employment, it is about training, competence, and successfully contributing to the field.  This can be done in many ways.  Let us consider where perception and reality diverge on what it takes to be an academic: who counts and who does not?

Within academe there are many alternative routes for professional development and specialty. It is not unheard of for professors to effectively suspend their teaching and research to move into administrative roles. Transitioning into a dean-let or higher role has traditionally been seen as an intuitive move up the food-chain within a college or university, but, in today’s burgeoning academic administration, they are the minority of professional roles that are available as professional alternatives for academics.

The current landscape of the (post) modern academy includes many specialties for professional development. From NCAA and Title IX personnel to coordinators and directors of language centers, international programs, area studies, undergraduate and graduate research, writing and research labs, and beyond, there is a multitude of services being provided within and around colleges and universities that support the core and peripheral missions.

There are also a number of intuitive transitions out of the university structure that have been accepted as lateral moves for academics. Journalism is a logical transition within the humanities and social sciences; research labs and industrial positions are common within the natural sciences. Academic publishing offers  a number of career opportunities: acquisitions, sales, production, managing titles or series, and developing LMS integration, pedagogical artefacts, and interactive lessons.  Think-tanks and policy institutes are bastions of original research that is often published either externally in peer-reviewed journals or internally as white-papers.

As a subject matter expert (SME), which includes all persons who have earned doctorates, you may be a valuable asset not only to these entities, but also to many companies. (Don’t forget that adjunct professorships emerged as vehicles for universities to diversify their course offerings by hiring SMEs with specialties that differed from their tenured and tenure-track faculty as professional consultants.)  There exist a very large number of corporations and firms that compete for grants and contracts with the government and utilize SMEs.  RAND corporation, Raytheon, Booz Allen Hamilton, and many other companies openly recruit doctored researchers, analysts, and specialists from diverse fields.  You can also ignore government contractors and use your Ph.D. to leverage a higher starting salary grade (GS 11) within the United States government.

Finally, there is always the way of the consultant.  By building up your personal toolkit and leveraging your expertise toward the practical, a doctored professional becomes a walking, talking small-business. Consulting may be publicly vilified, but many people within the professoriate consult on the side and may actually exceed their salary in earnings this way. Notably, academics within the business, medical, and legal disciplines are expected to engage extra-academic entities as a lure for prospective students.

When push comes to shove, doctored applicants are commodities that may be more valued outside of traditional academe than inside it.  The prejudices of institutional prestige may have a residual effect, but for-profit entities typically favor results and production over image; if what you do can be effectively monetized, you’ll likely find a company either already doing so or willing to enter the market.

Though your graduate school faculty may be disappointed that you aren’t emulating their professional path, they don’t have the power to revoke your status as an academic.  In fact, the moment they signed off on your dissertation, they welcomed you into an elite honor group as a peer – you have every right to dismiss their opinions as they may your career path. Whether you remain within the professoriate, find an alternative academic path, or move beyond the university structure entirely, you are an academic.  You are entitled to enjoy, “all the rights, privileges, and honors thereunto appertaining.”

Don’t let your peers diminish you and your expertise.  You don’t owe them anything, most certainly not indentured servitude.  You’ve made an original contribution to the field with your dissertation so continue that tradition and go forge your own professional path.  No matter where you go or what you do, you will always be an academic.

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