This blog post kicks off our new series, Scholar at Large, written by an academic exploring both the traditional tenure track, and the not-so-traditional alternative academic job market.
Ah, fall! ‘Tis the season to be scrolling the MLA Job Information List, pumpkin spice latte in hand. Like the beginning of a new school year, the autumn academic job market is a moment to be full of vision, focus, and possibility for our futures. Our fresh No. 2 pencils are sharpened; our class folders are crisp and labeled; our C.V.’s are updated with that conference presentation and peer-reviewed publication. For the increasing number of people with PhDs in hand vying for a steadily decreasing number of jobs, we savor a moment of hope before panic and disillusionment enter the scene.
Approaching the “exit sign of alt-ac”
The term “alt-ac” (for “alternative academic,” used to describe professional opportunities for scholars beyond conventional faculty positions) seems antithetical to such a moment. It seems downright anathema to the seriousness of purpose and confidence that the academic job market demands.
In this market, “alt-ac” is often perceived as the “exit sign” for those who can’t hack it, for those who seem to have no other options. (Aside from perpetuating a myth of meritocracy, this idea of “alt-ac” ends up providing a way to ignore broader issues driving the adjuncting crisis – “they could always do alt-ac if they don’t like adjuncting.”)
For a variety of reasons—ranging from placement pressures on graduate programs to a growing investment in the idea of the “public humanities” for mainstream academia—there’s an increasing visibility of PhDs who are living intellectually and professionally fulfilling careers outside of the traditional tenure-track job. “Alt-ac” is beginning to enter our vocabulary in a new way. Many of us simply want to know more; we want to know what may lie beyond the mythologies surrounding “alt-ac” without having our curiosity indicate that we’re ready to leave traditional academia behind.
Unfortunately, the academic job search process doesn’t prepare us well for for exploring these diverse opportunities, thanks to the “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality that the dearth of academic jobs yields. A common refrain among hopeful (yet exasperated) PhDs on the market is, “I’ll do the academic job market, then if nothing comes up, I’ll apply for alt-ac jobs over the summer.” This approach can stifle our success. Waiting to address other job options until the last minute means poor communication and planning on how our work enters the broader world. On top of that, non-academic employers aren’t exactly waiting with open arms for PhDs approaching their field as “second best.”
Thinking outside the box of academia
It turns out, though, that our academic work actually does prepare us for this process, which will look familiar to anyone who’s undertaken research as a scholar.
There are three key elements of exploring and engaging with the “alt-ac” market:
- Gather information about people, positions, and places (i.e. research!)
- Take stock of what we do (and what we want), and frame our work for the relevant audience
- Connect our work to existing conversations and concerns in the respective field
So, during these next few weeks, while I’m preparing and sending off my job applications for postdocs and tenure-track positions, I’ll also be taking these three initial steps to define what “alt-ac” might mean for me.
Browse some job ads for employment or organizations that I’m interested in
Just looking at how non-academic employers talk about the skills and knowledge they look for in a candidate will help me understand what alt-ac work might mean. I can look at the “careers” tab on the website of an organization I’m curious about, or get on the newsletter blast for a popular publishing venue I might be interested in working for. Many job sites (like higheredjobs.com and idealist.org) will let me create curated email job blasts so that I can start to understand what alt-ac really looks like. Doing this also gives me some insight into how different kinds of professional communities are cultivating the same skills and ideas that I’m invested in as an academic.
Spruce up my LinkedIn profile
There’s no question that LinkedIn is the primary digital network for professional connection, and it’s important that I have a profile that helps me make the most of that network. There are a handful of things I can do to my profile that will go a long way in presenting me as someone people will be interested in talking to. Spending some time on my LinkedIn profile also gets me to think about how to present the things that I’ve done in a more robust way than what my CV shows.
Set up an informational interview
Informational interviews may seem daunting or awkward, but they are really just about having a conversation with someone about what they do. Consider this: when a prospective graduate student gets in touch with you because they want to know more about what graduate school or your field is like, do you get affronted or annoyed? It’s much more likely that you’ll have a friendly chat over coffee, then offer to connect that prospective student with people you know who share their interests.
The same goes for informational interviews in the non-academic world. They help me learn how to talk about my skills, experiences, and interests with people who aren’t in academia, in a low-stakes setting. They’re also the best way for me to find out about what a job actually entails. So, in the next month, I’ll set a goal of arranging one informational interview with someone who has a job I’m interested in learning more about. I can reach out to someone through LinkedIn, or through my personal networks.
These may seem like three small steps away from academia, but I see them as part of a bigger picture of how I develop my career. Exploring how my work and my experiences fit into the world beyond academia will help me feel more confident, comfortable, and relaxed in my academic job search.
Have you taken steps to explore the alt-ac market while on the academic job market? Share your insights with me on Twitter (@mollyappel).
Interfolio’s Dossier enables scholars to collect, curate, polish and send out their materials at all stages throughout their academic professional path. Learn more about Dossier here.
Author bio: Dr. Molly Appel is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Penn State University. Her research explores how literature works a space of teaching and learning for human rights and social justice in the Americas. You can find her on Twitter @mollyappel.