some #altac advice

I was recently part of a panel organized by Holly Dugan at George Washington University on the topic of #altac and #postac careers. The storify from the tweets is worth reading through for the insights from my fellow panelists, Alyssa Harad, Evan Rhodes, and Meredith Hindley, and for comments from the audience. ((Miriam Posner was supposed to skype in but technical difficulties meant that she could only contribute via twitter.)) The first part of my talk was a reperformance of the “make your own luck” pecha kucha I did for MLA 2013 and have already shared here, but since I felt the urge to share some advice for students and faculty on the topic of pursuing #altac careers, I thought I’d post those.

For job seekers, this is my advice to you:

"Do not underestimate your skills" and a photo of a boy scout and a girl scout comparing badges

The skills that you mastered working towards your PhD are skills that are directly transferable to other careers. Doing sustained research, mastering new subjects, synthesizing and explaining complicated ideas, making arguments in persuasive language—all of these are things that many professions value.

"Stay away from fearmongers and vultures preying on your anxiety" and a photo of a vulture.

There are people out there who prey on your your anxiety and drive it through the roof. Stay away from them. If your fear creates money and opportunity for them, recognize that their position is not for your benefit.

"Doing something other than teaching is not failure. Being miserable because you never get that job is." and a photo of a sign that says "Miserable Corner"

If what you dreamed of was teaching, if what you believed you were training for was being a professor, it can be hard to do something else. But if you are miserable because you are adjuncting, stop adjuncting. You haven’t failed if you do something other than teaching. There’s meaningful and engaging work in many places, but you’re not going to find it if you’re convinced all you can do is teach.

"Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy" and a photo of a boy in a science mask wearing gloves and holding a bucket of mud

Don’t wait to build your resumé until after you’ve finished building your c.v. Working in a campus office, assisting in a program, creating a workshop, editing a publication—all these things will expose you to new potential careers and will teach you new skills that you can point to. Take chances, make mistakes, get messy. It’s advice that works for Ms Frizzle and it’s advice that works for you. If you don’t push beyond the familiar, you won’t discover the other things that you enjoy and are good at. And if you fail, you’ve learned something new that you can put into practice the next time. Failure doesn’t have to be big to be worthwhile, but fear of failure is going to keep you from being happy and well fed.

Faculty, this is what I have to say to you:

"You are the 1%" and a photo of a Lego mini-figure holding a 1% sign and standing with piles of coins.

The fact that you are standing faculty means that you won the lottery. You might have earned your luck, just like I made mine, but that doesn’t mean you weren’t also incredibly fortunate. You are lucky in ways that your students likely will not be. Do not lie to them. You won the lottery. Telling students that they’ll make it if they just try isn’t doing anyone any favors and it’s just planting insidious seeds that will bloom when they don’t get the job they want or they get the job they think they want and don’t like it.

"Are you running a vocational school or a graduate program?" and a photo from the 1940s of women in a vocational school learning to weld.

Think about whether the program you’re running is a vocational school for R1 professorships. Graduate training has tended to create replica of the faculty who run it. But most PhDs are not going to become R1 faculty: they’re going to teach at liberal arts colleges or at regional schools with 4-4 loads, they’re going to work #altac or #postac jobs. Do you need to write a book to get your PhD? Do you need to require endless 25-page seminar papers to ensure students have learned something? The majority of jobs do not require book-writing or seminar-paper-writing skills. They might require advanced research skills, the ability to synthesize fields and to make persuasive arguments, or project management experience. Those skills are not incompatible with being a literature scholar. But they rarely count in PhD programs.

"You might not be able to advise altac seekers, but you can offer support" and a photo of a statue of Bob Newhart sitting in a chair and a man lying on a sofa looking at him.

You cannot give advice on achieving jobs you never had. But you can support students who are seeking experiences beyond teaching. If they have a job working in a non-profit, don’t tell them that’s taking away their time for research and their time for teaching. That’s valuable work. It can even be intellectual work. You cannot know what makes up your students’ lives and their decisions are not yours to belittle.

Here are some of the things I’ve heard from faculty over the years, from when I was a grad student up through just last year:

  • I was scolded for not applying for a 4-4 job in the rural South, a job that I’d decided as a then-single Jewish woman was not going to allow me to be happy.
  • When I was an independent scholar at my national conference, I was told that it was nice that I’d come to “play with them.” At that point, I had already published a book. The person condescendingly being nice to me had not.
  • After I’d spent 5 years successfully creating a well-recognized and praised program, I was asked when I’d be leaving for a tenure-track job. My career isn’t second-best. It’s not a consolation prize that I’m suffering through until someday I get to be an assistant professor.

Don’t say these things. Don’t be condescending. Don’t be obtuse. Don’t be blind to the realities of the incredibly difficult market for tenure-track jobs and don’t belittle the richly rewarding opportunities out there off the tenure-track.

"Create the colleagues in and out of the academy that you would like to have" and a poster with the text "Make your own luck"

I tell #altac seekers they need to make their own luck. Faculty need to do that, too. Make your own luck—produce the colleagues in and out of the academy that you would like to have.

Some #altac resources

To get a sense of what #altac work is like, these resources are an excellent starting place.

I focused in my talk on the value of seeking #altac work. I did not spend time on the difficulties and disadvantages of such careers, but those are worth considering as well.


8 thoughts on “some #altac advice

  1. Sarah, your story and insights are really emotionally on point and helpful. Much appreciated.

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