Introduction: This is Not the Help You're Looking For
We Can't Tell You How to Get an Alt-Ac Job
January 25, 2014
The first thing to say about this new cluster on #Alt-Academy is that it won't give you the help you're looking for. What do I mean by this? I'll get there in just a minute.
On the way, it's probably necessary to explain where this cluster's title comes from. "Looking for Signposts" points back to the origin story of #Alt-Academy. This site launched in 2011 as an open-access collection of essays designed to help articulate a particular term: "alternative academic" or, in Twitter parlance, "#altac." The term arose in a November 2009 Twitter exchange between Bethany Nowviskie and Jason Rhody. Commenting on the close of some exciting, initiative-building meetings, Nowviskie remarked that she was "struck again by dues-paying crap I skipped in deciding against tenure-track jobs. How many junior faculty sit in on discussions like this?" Rhody replied that "there are distinct advantages to an alt-ac lifestyle." And like that, "alt-ac" was born.
Working at the time as an adjunct lecturer, I happened to see this conversation as well as Nowviskie's desire that others considering the alt-ac path know that it was indeed "viable." On the job market for the third time in as many years and having already applied to some alt-ac jobs, I responded, "We just need more signposts helping us get there!" #Alt-Academy was imagined in part, as a way to provide these signposts. The cluster "Getting There" was especially designed to answer the call for additional directions, providing perspectives on how individuals came to pursuing an alt-ac career path. In a way, the cluster provides what I desperately wanted: instructions on how to do something different than the tenure track.
In the time since #Alt-Academy was published, interest in alt-ac careers has increased. Anthony Grafton and James Grossman—the (then) president and (current) executive director of the American Historical Association, respectively—gave the idea of "alternatives" to tenure-track faculty positions added prominence with their widely read 2011 essay, "No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History." The essay fueled a session at the THATCamp organized in conjunction with the annual AHA meeting in 2012 (Posner; see also Howard), and the recent 2014 convention had a session on "#ALTAC-Q: LGBTQ Historical Scholarship and Alternative Academic Careers." Similarly, there have been numerous sessions specifically on alt-ac at the Modern Language Association's annual Convention in the last several years, all of them packed with students who want to ask questions about how they might start exploring alt-ac positions. Personally, I've been invited to present to departments at my own institution and others about what the Laney Graduate School at Emory University calls "Pathways Beyond the Professoriate." And I regularly sit down with individual graduate students who ask, sometimes with a glance over their shoulder, "How did you get your job?"
Like "Getting There" before it, "Looking for Signposts" provides perspectives on how individuals began their alt-ac careers. Sometimes these choices were made deliberately, as in the case of Maureen McCarthy who discovered in graduate school that "the tenure track was not [her] 'plan A'" (McCarthy). And sometimes these choices were made due to exigency, as Andrew Asher discusses in his essay, "Alt-Ac by Accident." The essays in this cluster explore the reasons that individuals have for the careers they have followed as well as exploring the steps that they took to place themselves on the new paths. In a way, then, "Looking for Signposts" is dedicated to idea of the "why" and the "how" of alternative academic careers.
But here, then, is where I'll have to explain why these essays won't provide exactly the help that you're looking for. You might be a recent graduate or a current student considering an alt-ac career (welcome!); or a concerned faculty member looking to learn more about different paths (good for you!); or an administrator in a graduate school who hopes to provide a training program for the 50% of your graduates who won't end up in tenure-track positions (good for you too!). No matter who you are, unfortunately, the essays here will not tell you what you need to do, despite each of the contributor's very clear explanation of how they ended up with their career. Why? Because it turns out that alt-ac career paths tend to be highly indiosyncratic. Following exactly the same steps that Nowviskie or Rhody took to reach their current careers will not get you to where they are. In part this is because experience is specific and in part because alt-ac careers tend to be created by the people themselves. As much as I would like to be able to tell you differently, the experiences presented here—especially the "how"—are, in other words, not replicable.
But. But… If it's true that these essays cannot tell you how you, your advisees, or your entire graduate school could get an alt-ac career, they do provide one very important corrective: this cluster makes it very clear that alternatives do exist. You can do more with a PhD than work on the tenure track, and you can be intellectually engaged in your career. We cannot tell you exactly what steps you will have to take to get there, but as you read about the paths others have taken I hope you will imagine that an alternative also exists for you.
In other words, the signs in this cluster point not to established tracks but to the possibility of difference.
Finally, an editorial note about "Looking for Signposts." It consists of articles that were written in response to a call for papers posted in October 2012 (Croxall). I received many more pieces than what are published in the initial launch of this cluster on 27 January 2014. Additional essays will be added to this cluster on a rolling basis, hopefully quarterly. Needless to say, this editor owes a great debt of gratitude for the patience and goodwill of the authors—both those published today and those to come.
Croxall, Brian. "We Need More Signposts!, A Call for Abstracts and Papers on Alt-Ac Careers." Brian Croxall. 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 25 Jan. 2014.
Grafton, Anthony and James Grossman. “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.” Perspectives. (Oct 2011). American Historical Association Website. 26 Sep. 2011. Web. 25 Jan. 2014. http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/october-2011/no-more-plan-b.
Howard, Jennifer. "Historians Reflect on Forces Reshaping Their Profession." The Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 Jan. 2012. Web. 25 Jan. 2014.
June, Audrey Williams. "Historians Grapple With How to Get to the 'Malleable Ph.D.'" The Chronicle of Higher Education. 6 Jan. 2014. Web. 25 Jan. 2014.
–. "Most History Ph.D.'s Have Jobs, in Academe and Other Solid Occupations." The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2 Dec. 2013. Web. 25 Jan. 2014.
McCarthy, Maureen. "Laying Your Own Track: Making Your Way Off the Academic Track." #Alt-Academy. 7 Jan. 2014. Web. 25 Jan. 2014.
Nowviskie, Bethany. "#altac origin stories." Storify. 3 Dec. 2012. Web. 25 Jan. 2014. http://storify.com/nowviskie/altac-origin-stories.
Posner, Miriam. "Session proposal: No More Plan B?" THATCamp AHA. 3 Jan. 2012. Web. 25 January 2014. http://aha2012.thatcamp.org/01/03/session-proposal-no-more-plan-b/.
 The hashtag "#altac" is used on Twitter and now other platforms to point to relevant conversations. Originally, the hashtag "#alt-ac" was used, but Twitter does not allow the hyphen to be part of a hashtag. As such, #alt-ac was a perennially broken tag, one which humans could read but which escaped tracking and cataloging within Twitter's ecosystem. This duality of the hashtag pointed provocatively to the inside/outside nature of much alt-ac work.
 I realize that it's obnoxious to recount a story in which I play a minor role and then to have the gall to name the section thusly. But one of the things about this cluster and "Getting There" is the importance of personal experiences. This is not an excuse.
 Although Grossman favors the term "malleable PhD" to "alt-ac," the two terms overlap in significant ways. See June, "Historians Grapple."
 The AHA recently reported that "a little more than half of [recent PhDs] work on the tenure track at either two- or four-year colleges" (June, "Most History Ph.D.'s"). Of course, that means the other half of these graduates work outside what is too lightly called "the" profession.
 Perhaps it is in this way that alt-ac careers are once again "alternative" to the tenure track, where a 30-year career trajectory is more or less known from the beginning (which is not to say that it isn't tremendously difficult work all the same).