Alt-Ac Advocacy: Or, How to Search Beyond the Tenure Track

By Rachel Deblinger posted 03-16-2016 10:32


It started right after I’d finished my degree: my advisor asked me to participate in a panel about career possibilities for Jewish Studies graduate students to introduce and represent a non-traditional career path. I had just received my PhD from the UCLA History department and was about to start a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship at UC Santa Cruz, where I would work as the Digital Humanities Specialist. This position was the result of a yearlong job search that included applications and interviews for tenure-track positions, hybrid digital humanities positions within the academy, and positions outside the academy all together. The experience, although overwhelming at times, was empowering in the end—I was able to weigh multiple opportunities and consider what was best for me and my partner. I welcomed the opportunity to talk on the panel and reflect on the steps I took that led to the CLIR Fellowship and my bona fides as an “alt-academic.”

In the two years since that first panel, I’ve sat on a number of similar panels, including three during my time as a postdoc at UC Santa Cruz, and had numerous conversations with individual graduate students who want to learn more about any number of issues involved with thinking beyond the tenure track: from writing a resume to talking to their advisors and where to look for opportunities. I’ve also been asked by senior scholars in my field of Jewish History to talk with their students about how I found my job and what’s it’s like to work in this hybrid space.

It’s been an unexpected joy of my post-doctoral career to have these particular conversations and challenge graduate students or recent grads to consider what they want to be doing and what they want their life to look like.

Let me belabor this, because to me, it gets at why the academic job market can be so demoralizing and stressful: the track that leads directly from graduate school to any available tenure-track position is paved with a lot of instruction and expectation, but not a lot of personal reflection. This is not to say that many young academics don’t want to be faculty members or that they haven’t been working all these years exclusively to become faculty members. It’s only to say that the expectation that a PhD leads to and is validated by a faculty position does not centrally consider the personal interest, family commitments, or “happiness” of the individual scholar. The reduction in available positions has only heightened the sense that getting a tenure track position means sacrificing some element of personal interest – be it geographic comfort, financial security, or job satisfaction.

I’ll pause here to apologize for the generalizations. Perhaps this doesn’t ring true for you. But in repeatedly engaging in this conversation with anxious graduate students who have not considered alternate career paths and have no idea how to start looking for one, I have found again and again that so few people have started their job search by asking: WHAT DO I WANT?

It shouldn’t feel novel as fully grown adults to ask ourselves, what do I want my life to look like? What do I want my workday to feel like? Where do I find meaning and satisfaction and how can that kind of work be central to the next phase of my life? As highly (over?) educated young adults, trained to be critical thinkers, we should all have the impulse to ask ourselves these questions. And, yet, somehow the frenzy around an ever-reducing number of tenure track jobs has removed this kind of personal reflection from the process.

Of course many graduate students will work through these questions and still end up with the conclusion that they want to be tenure track faculty members. And, that’s great. But, for many young scholars, being given the opportunity to consider alternatives might open additional doors. 

With that in mind, here are the 6 steps I recommend for starting an alt-ac job search. Or, perhaps more accurately, here are the 6 steps I would recommend for starting any job search—why limit your choices at all?

  1. Self Reflection: Ask yourself what you like about being a graduate student. What makes the work feel meaningful and what can you do without? Use these answers to identify positions and then ask for what you want. Knowing what you need in a position and what you’re willing to sacrifice can help make the job search an empowering one rather than a demoralizing one.

  2. Networking: Informational interviews help you gather information about jobs you are curious about and spread the word that you are (or will be) looking for a job. It’s never too early to start and it’s significantly easier to ask people about what they do when you are NOT in a position of needing a job. Reach out to friends, attend networking events, or work through your school’s career center. It sounds kind of scary, but it’s not. Most people are happy to talk about what they do and will be interested in talking to you.

  3. Write a resume: A resume is not a CV. You don’t have to trade one for the other, but if you intend to apply for multiple kinds of jobs, you’ll need multiple forms of representing yourself. Highlight skills and echo language from job ads and, remember, you are more than your research—so consider the work you do in graduate school beyond the content of your dissertation research.

  4. Skills: Think about scholarly work and graduate training as viable and valuable outside the academy: can you conduct research, write for various audiences, balance long term and short term goals? Yes, yes, yes. If there are skills you want to develop, take advantage of your university to learn new things. Take language classes, audit an Intro to Computer Science or GIS course, or attend a workshop on writing for a public audience.

  5. Go outside your field: Try to attend a conference you don’t normally go to—it’s a valuable way to learn new lingo, find new opportunities, and present your work to new audiences – they may help you see a different angle or bigger picture. Engaging with other forms of academic work also teaches you to take seriously other forms of scholarly ambitions, which can open up unheard of possibilities.

  6. Feedback and more networking: Send your new resume to people in multiple professional spheres and ask for feedback. Even if your academic advisors are 110% supportive, they are probably not the best editors for non-academic materials. Instead, circle back to people you met in informational interviews and ask them to look over any new materials, ask if it would it look good to a hiring director and what you might change to stand out.

When I started this process—about two years before completing my degree—none of these steps were directed by my advisor or my committee, but they were each things I had learned to do in graduate school: I could talk about my work, I could reach out to people I didn’t know to ask for help, and I could write effectively, reframing my pitch for different people and different jobs. I know that I have been incredibly lucky in my journey to alt-ac: I had an extremely supportive committee who encouraged me to explore all possible options and I found a position that values my continued research even as I work to support digital humanities on campus. But, I also did the work to create opportunities for myself and, as I hope to impart when I’m offering some guidance to other would-be alt-acs, I took myself, my work, and my ambitions seriously. 

We have all been trained as scholars to ask hard questions and find complicated answers. My goal in engaging in alt-ac conversations is to bring that kind of complexity and open-ended possibility to the job search so that everyone feels empowered to make choices that best suit them, their family, and their long term goals.

Rachel Deblinger is director of the Digital Scholarship Commons at UC Santa Cruz University Library. She was a CLIR Fellow at UC Santa Cruz from 2014 until 2016.