Playing for Both Teams, Winning on One
Finding and Adjusting to an Alt-Ac Job and Getting over “Failure”
May 06, 2011
When I wrote my personal statement for grad school, I knew that I didn’t understand everything that would be required of me to earn my PhD. But I did know that the final goal was not the degree itself but rather the job for which it would qualify me. Consequently, the first line of that personal statement read, “I hope to be admitted by the English Department to pursue a Ph.D. in American literature, with the eventual goal of securing a tenure-track position at a university.” For all the uncertainties of graduate study, in other words, one tends to have an idea of where one is going at the end of it all.
Although I had a clear sense of my post-graduate school destination, I did not quite understand how difficult it would be to get that tenure-track position nor that the difficulty would not be assuaged by my “doing everything right” while a graduate student. The recent financial crisis began affecting the academic job market in the fall of 2008, right after I completed my degree. But even before the housing and financial markets collapsed, it was not an easy thing to win a tenure-track position as a literary scholar. For example, the number of applicants has exceeded the number of jobs available in English literature since 1968, according to Marc Bousquet (“The Rhetoric” 211). At the present, approximately 1,000 new English PhDs are granted every year and there are approximately 400 tenure-track positions for those 1,000 PhDs to compete for—to say nothing of the 600 PhDs from the previous year, the 600 from the year before that, ad infinitum (MLA Office of Research 3, see also figure 10). In short, it’s not been easy to get an academic job for four decades. So while I knew that earning the degree was not as important as getting the job, I had had no idea how hard it actually was to transition from graduate student to assistant professor.
But as little as I knew about the process of obtaining a tenure-track position in academia, I knew even less about non-tenure-track jobs one can hold in or around a university and which build and expand on graduate training. These alternative academic (or “alt-ac”) positions include working in administration or a library to support scholarly work of others. Other “alt-academics” might become programmers or instructional technologists working to design and implement systems to improve teaching and research. Others work in cultural heritage institutions—museums and archives—both on and off campus. Others work as journalists, editors, or foundation administrators (see Nowviskie, “#alt-ac”). And others still work in traditional departments as researchers but off the tenure track. My final year’s fellowship during graduate school allowed me to begin meeting many people who fit the description of an alt-academic, as I worked in Emory University’s Center for Interactive Teaching (ECIT), which was housed in the library. Being exposed to this new category of academic worker subsequently led me to expand my ideas about where I might be able to contribute to a university community. The result was that I began applying to alt-ac jobs along with regular tenure-track positions, and I have recently begun a position that fits into the former category, where I work to integrate emerging technologies into an academic library and to facilitate interactions with other technologically-oriented units on campus.
Others who were not as callow as I was know that it is difficult finding tenure-track positions, and there is an entire cottage industry of guides for conducting your academic job search. These texts make plain many of the standard and unspoken practices of the application process, none of which has changed despite the increased destabilization of higher education in response to the financial crisis. Far less familiar is how someone with a PhD searches for an alt-ac career. In this essay, then, I hope to provide some initial “signposts” for the process of how one pursues an alt-ac position. Be it ever so idiosyncratic, making plain the path that I took to my current position will hopefully provide some insight for others who find themselves curious about how one might pursue an alt-ac career. Since many who consider the alt-ac will have already been engaged in the regular academic “job market,” I will compare and contrast my experiences applying to conventional, tenure-track jobs over three years with my more recent, year-and-a-half experience searching for an alt-ac position. I’ll begin by considering how to find jobs to apply to, the application process, and the interview itself. After that, I will reflect on feelings of failure that some might experience on transitioning away from traditional academic careers and on my experience transitioning into a new alt-ac position.
Every “regular” academic discipline has a particular process for advertising tenure-track jobs. Disciplinary organizations such as the American Historical Association (AHA), the American Psychological Association (APA), or the Modern Language Association (MLA) publish collect and publish (online and/or in print) advertisements for openings. While these professional organizations collect the lion’s share of these advertisements, many schools also advertise in other venues, such as The Chronicle of Higher Education. Regularly searching through these lists is the best way to learn about jobs across the United States, as well as occasional jobs in Canada and other places around the globe.
Finding alt-ac job listings is a much more complicated procedure. Since most alt-ac jobs fall outside the auspices of regular disciplinary structures, they aren’t often listed by the professional organizations. Instead, they are listed by groups or publications that are connected to the academy but not necessarily to any one part of it. Consequently, The Chronicle remains important, but one should also search postings at Inside Higher Ed, HigherEdJobs.com, H-Net.org, or Educause.edu. While many jobs will be listed with each of these sites, some will only appear in select publications. Of course, since there are thousands of jobs posted at each of these sites, you will need to winnow down the search with terms to restrict the listings that you see. Plan on taking some time to experiment with different terms since each institution will likely use an idiosyncratic approach to describe alt-ac positions. Depending on the field in which your alt-ac work will fall, there will be other specific places to look for job listings. The best way to find these venues is to ask acquaintances that are already working within the field where jobs like theirs are listed.
More than providing you places where to look, though, my experience shows that finding alt-ac jobs depends on acquaintances telling you personally about positions that they have come across. Again, since such jobs are so hard to describe and categorize, they do not get listed in every place, and are easily missed. Some jobs may only be listed on an institution’s Human Resources page, with only the people who are involved in the search committee able to advertise by word of mouth. Most of the alt-ac positions that I have applied to were listed in The Chronicle, but they had fallen outside my search pattern. To get such help from your friends and professional associates, however, you have to let them know that you are considering jobs that fall outside the tenure-track and what sorts of positions you think you are interested in. Doing this can be difficult for many reasons (something that I’ll return to below), but the increased efficacy in finding suitable positions certainly outweighs any discomfort that you might feel. Moreover, you should reach out to as wide a network of acquaintances as possible. Twitter has, in this sense, been indispensable for me in my searching for an alt-ac position. I do not believe that it is an exaggeration to say that every job interview I’ve had in the last year and a half was a job that I first learned about via my friends.
Applying to Jobs
The process for applying to tenure-track jobs remain fairly constant from one discipline to another. Once you have found an advertised position, you will almost certainly send the search committee a dossier of materials—either by mail or electronically. The dossier will likely include a cover letter and a curriculum vitae (CV). Depending on the school and your field, you may be asked to provide several other items: a dissertation or book abstract, one or more writing samples, letters of recommendation, transcripts, teaching evaluations, a statement of teaching philosophy, or sample syllabi. Some schools will also ask you to send a job application form that is specific to their institution or to fill one out online. The ad for each position should make it fairly clear which of these items the search committee would like to receive. Each discipline has different expectations for how long these documents are and for what goes in each of them, and you should consult with faculty members to get a sense of what these expectations are. You will want to workshop these materials over and over again, calling on those same faculty members and your friends to help you consider how to most effectively represent yourself. Since you will normally have only a few weeks to deliver your materials once the ads for positions have been posted, the sooner you get started on these materials the better off you’ll be.
Although alt-ac jobs are not as rigidly defined as those within the professoriate, they will frequently require you to submit some of the same materials as tenure-track jobs. Once again, the advertisements and announcements that you find will explicitly state what you should provide, but you will almost certainly have to supply the search committee with a cover letter and a CV. If you have already applied for tenure-track positions, you will have a head start on both of these documents. You can use them as the framework for the materials that you will send to the search committee since many alt-ac jobs will want to know a bit about what you research or how you teach. But you need to realize (the obvious fact) that alt-ac positions are not looking for professors. As such, you will need to spend some time learning as much as possible about the position and about the school or organization where it is located so you customize the cover letter. You will want to reflect on which experiences you have had during your education and any time since you finished that relate to the core responsibilities they have outlined in the advertisement. It is also not unusual for alt-ac jobs to advertise for candidates with specialized skills, such as web design, programming, grant writing, project management, or budgeting. Just because you are not an expert in these fields does not mean you cannot apply to a position requesting them. But your letter will need to acknowledge—to a degree—the requirements, and you might reasonably discuss your willingness to acquire new skill sets if you do not yet have all the abilities the advertisement describes. Do not be afraid to drop entire portions of your tenure-track cover letter so you can report on your relevant experiences and skills with concrete detail and still stay within a two-page limit. By the time you are done with the cover letter, you should not be surprised if more than 80% of it differs from your letters for tenure-track positions.
For example, when applying to a position where I would “help plan and execute a variety of research projects utilizing technology to advance innovative intellectual inquiry,” I discussed both my research and teaching. But instead of letting these two subjects fill the entire two pages, each got a small paragraph. I discussed my teaching in terms of assignments and projects that had leveraged an interactive timeline I had developed and the in-class use of Twitter (something that was still novel in 2009). My research, which investigates the cultural importance of technology in connection with psychological trauma, got a single, seven-sentence paragraph. I used the rest of the letter to discuss my qualifications for other aspects of the position: my grant-writing experience; my experience teaching graduate students and faculty how to incorporate new technology into their teaching and research; my experience with project management in a university and in a service organization of which I was president; and my vision of specific things I would do in the position to help the organization I would be joining to become successful. While I did have paragraphs about my teaching and research, then, they did not dominate the letter in the way they would for a tenure-track position. What’s more, each paragraph was largely rewritten so as to make them tighter and more clearly related to the job.
The amount that your CV will shift when applying to alt-ac jobs depends upon the position. Academics tend to include everything they have ever done on their vitae, which easily leads them to being more than five pages long. If you’re applying to jobs outside of a university, you will likely need to revise your CV into a resume. This restructuring will force you to radically shrink what you include and how you categorize your experiences to stay in the one-page limit. If the alt-ac positions you are applying to are still part of a university community, you will likely be able to submit a longer CV. That being said, you should look over how you have ordered its information and consider rearranging it so that the most relevant experience of your academic life appears near the top, whether it is your work in a writing center or some of the service that you have done for a department, such as organizing a conference. Your academic positions and education will probably still have first placement on the document—after all, most alt-ac jobs (whether affiliated with a university or not) will require you to have some education beyond the Bachelor’s degree, if not necessarily the PhD. But the rest of the CV should be ordered to reflect the responsibilities of the job. For instance, my normal CV lists my publications and book projects immediately after my education. When applying to the alt-ac job I discuss in the previous paragraph, I shifted my publications lower and replaced them with my digital projects. My standard vitae lists these projects on its fifth page, out of seven. But for this job, I knew that evidence of how I had “utiliz[ed] technology to advance innovative intellectual inquiry” was more important than research related to my dissertation. As you think about how to adapt your CV, you will again want to confer with any alt-academics whose positions are similar to the job to which you are applying on how best to represent yourself to the search committee.
While the time for applying to tenure-track jobs can seem short, the time to apply to alt-ac positions is frequently shorter still. Since it takes a long time to customize letters, you will want to begin work on your application materials as quickly as possible. Once you’ve written one alt-ac letter, however, you will likely be able to draw upon its language for future alt-ac positions to which you will apply. Once you’ve sent in your materials, it does not hurt to consult with your friends and acquaintances to see if any of them have connections with the institution or its search committee that would allow them to put in a word on your behalf. Doing this is good practice whether one is applying to alt-ac or tenure-track positions. But since the applicant pool for alt-ac positions tends to be much smaller than the pool for faculty positions, the phone call or email will tend to go further.
Interviewing for Jobs
It is not unusual to have two rounds of interviews for tenure-track jobs. The first round will often involve 10-12 candidates that the search committee has selected. In some fields, these candidates will be asked to meet with members of the search committee at a large disciplinary conference such as the MLA or AHA. These requests for interviews often don’t come for well after a month after you sent your application materials to the school. This delay in interview requests makes sense given the hundreds of applications search committees receive. But this delay can complicate matters for candidates, who are sometimes given only a few weeks’ or days’ notice before the interview happens. As an example, one of the schools that I applied to in 2008 had an application deadline of 24 October. I heard nothing from that school until approximately December 15th, when they called to ask me to come to an interview at the MLA in San Francisco on December 29th. If I hadn’t already been planning to attend the MLA because of a panel that I was chairing, it would have resulted in a tremendous expense on my part. First-round interviews at conferences, in other word, depend on the person being interviewed to pay his or her way. When one includes travel, lodging, meals, and conference registration (a requirement to interview for some jobs at MLA), one can easily spend $1000—and that’s when purchasing airfare and booking hotels months in advance of the conference. Not all fields have a tradition of conference interviews. When describing Middlebury’s 2009-2010 search for a new media studies faculty member, Jason Mittell notes that his field often does its first round of interviews on the phone or via a service like Skype (Mittell). Given the difficult economics of attending conferences for the express purpose of having a job interview, one hopes that more and more departments will consider interviewing their first round of candidates remotely.
Regardless of whether this first interview happens on phone or in person, one can count on it taking approximately 30-60 minutes. You will, of course, do all you can to learn about the department that is interviewing you—its faculty, its courses, its history, its special projects—so that you will be ready not only for their questions but to ask questions yourself. It will not be a stress-free situation as you will want to do your very best and the interviewers will likely ask probing questions about your scholarship and teaching. But in the end, it will only last 30-60 minutes. Once that interview is over, you will again have to wait to hear from the search committee. When they have finished interviewing all of the first-round candidates, they will do some deliberation and decide to interview a smaller group of candidates. Narrowing the candidate pool and inviting candidates to “campus visits” can take as little as a few hours to as much as a few weeks. In the meantime, you will not hear much from the committee, and if you’ve not been invited to a visit, you might not hear anything at all.
If a first-round interview is a one-hundred meter dash, a campus visit is a marathon that is run at a full sprint. They normally last at least a full day and can easily encompass all of a second. You will meet with any number of different faculty members from around the department and particular administrators within the college or graduate school. As important as those meetings are, they will not be as important as the presentation you will give on your research to the department that is considering you as a colleague. This presentation will likely take an hour, including yet another opportunity for people to ask you questions. Once this campus interview is concluded, you will have to wait for other candidates to come to campus and for the search committee to deliberate. Making a choice will not take very long at this point, but you might not hear anything unless you are the first-choice candidate. Search committees will generally wait to inform runners-up of their status until an offer of employment has been accepted so as to leave room to extend an offer to a second choice if the first candidate declines. It’s not unusual for offers to not be extended until March, which means that there can be five months between when one applies to a job and when one learns that she has been successful in obtaining it.
Once again, my experience interviewing for alt-ac positions suggests that it is simultaneously similar to and different from the process involved with tenure-track jobs. One similarity is that alt-ac positions tend to require multiple rounds of interviews. As is the case with smaller departments, the first round of these interviews tend to be conducted remotely, most often by phone in my experience. An immediate advantage with interviewing for alt-ac positions, then, is that they do not require a tremendous outlay of money on the part of the candidate. Just like tenure-track positions, the first round of alt-ac interviewing tends to last 30-60 minutes, and you should prepare by knowing as much as possible about the organization you are hopping to join and the university of which it is a part or in orbit. The exact questions you will be asked may not be as predictable as with a tenure-track position, but you should be able to get a sense of what their major concerns will be by examining the advertisement for the position. You will want to be ready to expand on the specific experiences you detailed in your cover letter or to add new ones. If the position requires you to interact with professors in what could be construed as a support role, you should be prepared for questions about times in which you had positive or difficult interactions with faculty. It is not unusual for search committees to ask you to situate the position in terms of what is happening at other universities. For example, when applying to digital humanities jobs, I have almost always been asked for examples of what other alt-academics and centers have been doing across the country. Although your alt-academic career may not place you in a set disciplinary field, that does not mean that you won’t be part of a national conversation; do what you can to know this conversation and to be known within it prior to your interview. Finally, you should also anticipate how you would answer questions about your decision to apply to an alt-ac position rather than a regular faculty position. The intent with these questions will be to determine whether or not you really understand the differences between the tenure-track and the alt-ac paths. It will not be so important to answer these questions “correctly” as it will be to demonstrate that you have been thoughtful in your decision to move in the alt-ac direction. In my experience, it becomes easier to answer such questions if you have already considered how your graduate training relates to this new position. If you spend some time thinking, you will probably be surprised at how organic the transition from one part of your life to another feels. Again, consult with alt-academics that you know for ideas on questions that you would likely be asked.
If you are successful in your first interview for an alt-ac position, you will be invited to campus for a second round. Just as with a tenure-track position, this interview will likely be an all-day affair and may last more than one day. These interviews will (again) tend to start early in the day and last well into the evening, as you meet with as many different people as the search committee can arrange of those with whom you will work on a regular basis. But here is where a difference lies between the tenure-track and the alt-ac job interview comes to the surface. In a “regular” faculty job, you will primarily work with the people in one department and occasionally with administration. An alt-ac position, on the other hand, will almost certainly have you working with a much wider swath of people, some of whom are faculty members and many of whom are not. Even those who are faculty members will very likely not work in your area of expertise. In one alt-ac campus interview that I had, I met with an Associate Vice President for Research, the Dean of Libraries, the Director of the School of Library and Information Science, the Director of Composition, the chairs of at least two departments (humanities and computer science), programmers, librarians, facilities supervisors, graduate students, and faculty members from a number of disciplines over two long days. Some of the meetings during this interview were with individuals, but many were with groups; you will need to be prepared for both types of interactions. In another alt-ac campus interview, I started my day (at 7:30 am, no less) meeting the University’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Vice President, the Deputy CIO, and University Librarian for a wide-ranging talk. The day didn’t end until past 9 pm, after which I had easily met and been questioned by 50 different administrators, faculty, alt-academics, graduate students, and human resources personnel. All of these people who interview you will know what the job is they are looking to fill, but since they hail from so many different levels within the university structure, they will all come at the position with an individual angle. Speaking directly towards individuals’ sense of the position while simultaneously not losing sight of your own perspective will be one of the most important things you can do to make an effective case. Becoming aware of the university as a whole and of its strategic plan and/or mission statement helped me to frame my sense of how the position could fit into the larger structure of an institution. After all, it’s important to realize that the alt-ac positions you are applying for is very likely newly-created at the university you are visiting. What this means is that you will be arguing not only for your own candidacy but also the necessity of the position for meeting the goals of the team you will be on and of the university itself.
As a portion of your interview, you will almost certainly be asked to give at least one presentation. As opposed to a tenure-track position, where you will most frequently give a talk on a portion of your research, the search committee for an alt-ac position is very likely to assign you a topic. You should take this topic and its presentation very seriously. If there is a way for you to connect your research to the topic at hand, you should by all means take that opportunity, but it should only be a portion of the presentation. What’s more, since your audience for the presentation will include individuals from all areas and ranks of the university, you will need to tailor any references to your own work so as to make them legible to a non-specialist audience. Not everyone, for better or for worse, has read as much Lacan as you have. Instead, you should try to think as broadly as possible about the position and how you can—again—make an argument for its existence and for the necessity of your being just the person to occupy that position. As you plan the presentation, you should also remember that it is a presentation and not a paper. You should not simply read a prepared statement. Instead, you should try to engage your audience as much as possible. An easy way to do this is through the use of visuals, such as simple slides or images that you can use to underscore your point. If they are organized effectively, you can use the slides to simply remind you of the next points that you plan to make. Being prompted from your notes or your visuals is much better than the stale and direct reading that features so prominently at academic conferences. If you’ve had the opportunity to teach undergraduates prior to this point, you will have doubtless learned that they do not respond well to being read to. Consider this presentation an opportunity to teach those in attendance not only about yourself but also about the position and its interlocking relationship to the university. As an outsider and someone who will likely occupy a hybrid space within the school’s structure, you might very well be able to teach individuals something new about how they themselves fit into the larger university. It goes without saying that preparing such a presentation—on a topic that is at best tangential to the years of research you will have already done, for a university that you are not yet a part of—can be difficult. Recognize this ahead of time and spend as much time preparing as possible. Solicit feedback from as many faculty members and alt-ac acquaintances as you can to get a sense of how portions of the presentation play to different audiences. And be sure to practice, practice, practice to find natural ways of explaining your ideas rather than defaulting to how you might express them on paper.
As much as you might want time to prepare for your presentation, you might find that you have precious little time to do so when going to an alt-ac campus visit. If the time between applying to tenure-track jobs and going to a campus visit is measured in months, the time between application and campus interview for alt-ac positions is measured in weeks. For one recent job I applied to, applications were due on 15 February; I had a phone interview on 1 March; a few hours later I was invited to a campus interview, which happened on 18-19 March. In only 32 days, the entirety of the search process was complete. My experience interviewing for alt-ac jobs over the last year and a half suggests that this pace is not unusual. I have regularly received invitations to campus interviews within one or two days of the first interview, and these campus interviews follow closely on the heels of the first. What’s more, the decision process following the candidates’ visits is always very quick. When I have had a campus interview, I have in almost every case been informed of my status within one week, even if I was not the successful candidate. Again, this differs quite a bit from applying to tenure-track jobs, where candidates will simply not be told of their status until someone signs a contract. I do not think that search committees for alt-ac jobs are necessarily more decisive than those chairing the search for faculty members, but the culture of alt-ac positions appears to let the chair of the search committee be forthcoming with candidates. While it can be difficult to hear that you will not be offered a job, I have found the quick resolution far preferable to hanging on for weeks at a time.
Success and “Failure”
When you learn that you have not been selected for a job you will naturally be disappointed, whether it’s a tenure-track or alt-ac position. Although you know that there are many other candidates for positions, you might end up feeling like you had failed. But while not getting a tenure-track position can leave you feeling like a failure, in a strange twist simply applying for an alt-ac position can leave you dejected. After all, if you’ve framed going to graduate school in terms of “the eventual goal of securing a tenure-track position at a university,” as I did, choosing a different career path very much looks like an admission of failure: that one was not good enough or did not work hard enough to do those things that would guarantee success. These self-generated sentiments are exactly what I faced when I first began looking for alt-ac positions.
When contemplating a shift from the tenure-track to the alt-ac (or really anything that’s not a tenure-track job), it’s important to recognize that the belief that only a “regular” academic position is almost always heightened by the experience of graduate school. While one studies her subject matter, she is also socialized to believe that becoming a professor is the only proper outcome for someone with a PhD. To an extent, one cannot justly blame this socialization on the faculty whose paths have typically not included the exploration of other careers, especially if they are teaching at a prestigious graduate institution. Most of the time, these faculty members have not had other long-term careers and while they really do know the difficulties of the “job market,” they do not necessarily have the frame of reference that allows them to see the possibilities of a different path. The competition among students inherent in many graduate programs also contributes to conformity of opinions about the importance of obtaining a tenure-track job. If everyone in your department wants a tenure-track job, considering other options may very well get you less attention and funding from your department. What’s more, this socialization about tenure-track jobs frequently works so that graduate students view any position at “less” than an R1 institution as a failure. I still remember a conversation with a faculty member in my graduate department in which I was sharing the schools to which I had applied for jobs. As I mentioned one mid-sized, state university far from where I was at the moment, the faculty member quickly intoned, “Oh, you don’t want to teach there.” I did not respond, but inwardly noted that if I wanted to teach, I had to apply everywhere. Graduate school, in other words, produces a specific form of Stockholm Syndrome, where one is only content to become that which you constantly see before your eyes.
Choosing to pursue alt-ac jobs, then, requires one not only to shift perspectives on personal goals, established many years previously and assiduously worked toward, but also to discount the training and professionalization that graduate school imposes. If one has studied American literature, one might do well to remember Ralph Waldo Emerson’s exhortation in Self-Reliance (1841) that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Since graduate training exists in large part to broaden one’s mind and perspectives, it should only follow that such training should result in a broader sense of career opportunities. Unfortunately, most graduate students that I have spoken with receive no discussion of alt-ac career paths (or any alternative career paths) in their graduate instruction. Such a conception of graduate education ignores the reality of the job situation that has faced graduates for the last several decades and contributes to the socialized belief that a tenure-track position is the only one worth pursuing. At its heart, this belief reflects a policing of the boundaries of what is considered scholarly. The actions of many in the academy suggest that only individual research, writing, and teaching are scholarly—hence the difficulty of getting people to participate in academic service, which more often than not requires working with others. Alt-ac jobs differ from the traditional way of participating in a scholarly community, but that difference by no means will say that the work of alt-academics is not scholarly. Figuring out how to improve library access or the use of technology in a classroom are not only activities that support others’ scholarship; these are intellectual questions in their own right, regardless of whether one solves them in a team or not. Solving these problems requires not only technical or other skills but also those who have the deep training that an advanced degree confers. Rather than being washouts from the academy, alt-academics are in reality too scholarly by half.
As difficult as it might feel, then, it is to your advantage to recognize that earning a graduate degree does not commit you to only pursuing a tenure-track position. After all, we do not call graduate school a “professional” program in the way that we discuss graduate education in medicine, law, or business. While it might seem that graduate school trains you to do one thing, the nomenclature alone suggests otherwise. Ironically, advanced training in the humanities frequently provides one with the opportunity to consider the importance of difference and diversity. Alt-ac positions invite the academy to recognize its own difference, to see the Other scholarship in its midst. And pursuing these Other opportunities need not be coded as veering precipitously off course; rather, one must realize that choosing a new path can be a conscious and thoughtful decision. Thus, even if you’ve previously gone on the “job market” and not found a job there, applying for alt-ac jobs does not mean that you are settling.
Ironically, when I consider my time searching for jobs in academia, I find that it has consistently been applying to tenure-track positions that has made me feel like a failure. I have gone on the academic “job market” three times: in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Each year I applied to every job in North America whose description I could even partway claim to fit. While I didn’t relish the idea of living in Antigonish, Nova Scotia (2007), Fairbanks, Alaska (2008), or Grand Forks, North Dakota (2009), if there was a job for an Americanist, I applied. As best as I can tell from my records, in the 2007-2008, when “the number of jobs” listed with the MLA “approached its highest level in almost two decades,” I applied to 45 tenure-track positions and post-docs (MLA Office of Research 1). The net result was two tenure-track interviews at MLA, one phone interview in the spring, and, eventually, an offer of an instructorship at my graduate institution. In 2008, when the job market dropped off precipitously, I applied to 60 academic positions. That year, I had one tenure-track interview at MLA, one phone interview in the late spring, and two local interviews in the summer. One of these last offered me an instructorship. In 2009, I applied to 43 tenure-track positions in English departments, and I had zero interviews (see Croxall, “The Absent Presence”). Over three years on the “job market,” then, I had applied to 148 academic positions and received three MLA interviews, two phone interviews, and two local interviews. That’s a success rate of 4.7% of simply obtaining an interview, a percentage that is lower than the current admissions rate of Harvard—or any other university—in 2010 (Johnson). By the end of my second year on the job market, pursuing that “tenure-track position at a university” was leading me to feel inadequate in more ways than one, despite my having done all the “right things.”
On the other hand, my pursuit of alt-ac jobs, something that I began during my second year on the “job market” in the spring of 2009 has made me feel incredibly successful. According to my records, I applied to six alt-ac positions beginning in March 2009. Given the difficult track record of even getting an interview for a tenure-track job, you can imagine my surprise when the first two jobs I applied to asked me to do a phone interview. Of those, one invited me to a campus interview, the first that I’d ever had. Although I was not offered this job and was disappointed, I was simultaneously encouraged by the fact that my search in these new positions resulted in a 33% success rate for getting interviews. It suddenly appeared that I was not quite the failure that my tenure-track job search might have suggested. As I began my third run at the “regular” academic “job market” in the fall of 2009, I watched for other alt-ac opportunities. I ended up applying to three alt-ac positions and one post-doctoral fellowship that was aimed at developing hybrid, alt-academics, a program sponsored by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). I was asked to interview for all three jobs to which I applied; for the CLIR post-doc, I was asked to interview with three different host institutions. In other words, I had interviews for 100% of the jobs I had applied to. What’s more, I was asked to campus interviews for one of the jobs and for all three of the CLIR host institutions that had interviewed me. And as a final twist to the year’s job hunt, I actually had an institution ask me to interview with them when I had not even submitted an application. All told, in a little more than one full year looking for an alt-ac job, I had a 60% rate for receiving job interviews, had received five campus interview requests, and even had one institution pursuing me.
It was this last institution that eventually started to make the dominoes fall. After a phone interview, I was offered a position—without even having been to a campus interview. I had already discovered I had come in second place for a position where I’d done a campus visit, but I hadn’t yet heard from another where I had recently been. I quickly wrote an email to that school to let them know that I had an offer. Even more complicated, however, was the fact that I had been made this job offer at around 10pm, and I was supposed to fly to another campus interview the next morning. In many circumstances, my path would have been clear: one simply interviews for as many positions as possible so as to get the position that best suits one. But this school had also been very forthright with me in disclosing the salary and terms that they would be able to offer me, even before the campus interview. As such, I knew that the position I was to interview for could not compete with the one I had been offered. I wrote another email that evening to the members of the search committee, explaining what had happened and asking whether there would be any room to negotiate the contract. If there wouldn’t be, I suggested that I should save them some money and not come to a campus visit when I could no longer consider myself a real candidate for the position. I felt a little bit badly in putting things in such bold terms, but then I realized that for the first time in my search for an academic (alt- or otherwise) job, I had some power to negotiate. I spoke with members of the search committee the next morning, who were kind enough to make inquiries on my behalf at different levels of the institution to see if terms could be renegotiated. This proved impossible, but we left on very good terms with them congratulating me and my being glad to have saved them time and money. The experience proved so positive that they extended me an invitation to visit the campus in the coming year for another project altogether.
Within one day of receiving the offer from the school that was pursuing me, I heard back from the other school where I had had a campus visit. They too made me an offer, and I suddenly had something that happens very rarely in the tenure-track “job market”: a choice between two jobs at two very exciting institutions. Choice! It’s what the term “market” normally suggests but which is so seldom seen when on the tenure-track. Aspects of each job offer were very appealing and while I was tempted by both, the key factor in making my decision was the length of time of the contract. Neither were permanent jobs, and while both offered the possibility that they could become so, I decided that having stability for a couple of years was important for my family. The key advantage of the job that was pursuing me was that they were offering a higher salary. But since I had two offers—and advice from other alt-academics—I worked to negotiate. When the Human Resources person called to make me my second offer and quoted me a salary, I immediately asked if it could be increased. She offered me a 2.3% increase per year (a nice round number, actually) without any questions. A few days later, I began much more serious negotiations around the issue of salary. Having an offer letter from the other institution helped tremendously to get my starting salary increased by another 2.3%. Although the final salary at this position never got as high as the other one I was offered, the package was ultimately a better fit for my career. While it’s always possible to negotiate when starting a new position, I was certainly helped in this endeavor by having multiple job offers. At the risk of repeating myself, that situation just doesn’t happen very frequently when applying to tenure-track jobs.
Of course, my recent good fortune in landing alt-ac job interviews and campus interviews cannot be considered predictive for my own future or anyone else’s. The economic situation continues to be a difficult around the world, and there are signs that this will not abate in the short-term. But I can say with real conviction now that I have made real progress in escaping the socialized sense of loyalty toward the tenure track. While I did initially feel like a wash-out when I began looking for alt-ac jobs, my experience with the pursuit has been so radically different from the tenure-track “job market” that the only thing I consider to be a failure is my not looking for such jobs earlier.
Switching Teams: Starting an Alt-Ac Job
As I write this essay, I’m only a few weeks into my new alt-ac position: a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow and Emerging Technologies Librarian in the Emory Library. Since I’ve spent some time on the psychology of the regular and alt-ac “job markets,” I thought that it would be useful to offer my initial impressions for how my alt-ac job differs from the faculty-like ones that I’ve had in the past. In short: it’s very different.
But before exploring the differences, let me mention one similarity: the difficulty of starting a new position. In starting any job there are a number of psychological start-up costs. One has to learn who one’s colleagues are, fill out numerous HR and (hopefully) benefits forms, attend orientations, get access to the computer network, and find the bathroom. Discovering procedures, policies, and organizational history all take time whether one is entering into a position that is on the regular tenure track or one that is alt-ac. My psychological start-up costs have been greatly reduced by the fact that I’m working at my graduate institution. What’s more, my final year’s fellowship in graduate school had me working 20 hours a week in this same library, albeit a completely different division. I already knew the lay of the land, then, and I knew many of the people that I’m now working with by sight if not by name.
But if my discomfort at starting this new position was reduced to a degree by my familiarity with the location, I was not ready for how shocked I would be by the day-to-day work of my alt-ac job. One of the most comforting things about going on to the professoriate after finishing graduate school is that one’s job’s duties remain very similar. As you will have done for the previous X years (where X is greater than four and hopefully less than 10), you will continue to research, teach, and provide some service to your department. Depending on where you end up as a professor, the number of courses you teach might be greater or smaller than what you taught as a graduate student, and you will almost certainly be expected to design new courses that do not fall as easily into your comfort zone as you would like. You might feel worried about the number and quality of publications you will be required to produce before going up for tenure. So while the intensity of the work might change in one degree or another, you will more or less continue doing these three tasks, each of which you will have already proven yourself adept at—after all, you did get hired.
The first difference that I discovered between my alt-ac position and the two teaching positions I had held since finishing my PhD was the absence of any clear guidelines for what I was supposed to do all day. After doing three things (research, teaching, service) for eight years, I suddenly found myself lacking clear goals for what exactly I’m supposed to do with my time each day. The position that I’m in is new, so there isn’t a job description that I can necessarily follow. Indeed, I’m the one who is supposed to be helping to define the position. One might say that this is not so terribly different than doing academic research. After all, no one sits down and tells the assistant professor what the subject of her tenure book should be. But the assistant professor knows that she should be writing a book. My new position offered none of that certainty for the first week or so. One could fault my supervisors for not having a clear enough action plan laid out for my first week, but from talking to others in similar positions, I’m beginning to believe that this uncertainty about how to spend my time is representative of most jobs that are not professorships. It is a rare thing to have such a clear delineation of tasks as “research, teaching, and service.” Instead, most alt-ac positions are like many non-ac jobs in that they are ambiguously defined and depend upon the person filling that position to figure out what she should be doing all day long to benefit the team, project, or organization.
Adjusting to this concept of the organization is something else that I’ve had to do in these first few weeks. Again, this doesn’t necessarily sound like something an alt-academic should have difficulty with since departments and programs within a university are all organizations. But given the relatively small size of most academic departments, the issue of organization is not nearly as important as it is if your alt-ac job links you to something like an academic library, where you are one of hundreds of employees. I spent some of my first week on the job learning what small teams I was assigned to, the history and goals of those teams, and how and to whom those teams reported. To someone who has been used to the autonomy of an English department where I was an independent actor who reported only to the chair and the curriculum committee on a once-per-semester basis, the need to understand org charts seemed, I’ll admit, superfluous at first. I’m beginning to see, however, that understanding how the parts of this library fit together is a key to my being able to function effectively within it and to create the sorts of change and opportunity that I came here for. If I ever return to a regular academic position, I can already tell that I will be more invested in understanding how my own little cog fits into the larger university mechanism. As a faculty member, it is easy to not worry too much about how things get done as long as they do get done. The result of this has been the increasing role of administrative apparatus that is disconnected from faculty input. Ignoring the processes that make such large and complicated organizations such as universities run only leads to the reduction of faculty governance. While I’m sure that many faculty understand the connections between their department’s “team” and the larger university better than I did after working a single year at two different institutions, I still believe that this collaborative and team-based structure of many alt-ac endeavors has something to teach tenure-track faculty.
Another surprising shift in having an alt-ac position was how strange it felt to work a regular schedule. While academics have notoriously flexible schedules, most alt-academics tend to work the standard, business day of 9 to 5. Of course, it’s not as if academics don’t work 40 hours per week; indeed, when working as a faculty member over two years, I would guess that I worked between 60 and 80 hours per week as I designed new courses, graded papers, worked on my own research, and applied to jobs. What’s more, I found that I was most effective if I worked every day in my office, where I tried to keep a 9 to 5 schedule. Even so, I was free to alter that schedule or where I worked as it suited me. As long as I showed up in the classes I taught and for my office hours, there was no concern about my work habits. For my new position, I still work the same hours, but there is much less flexibility in shifting those hours and almost none in moving the location. It would be very difficult for me to work with team members on designing a new digital scholarship commons at Emory if we did not all work the same hours. The inflexibility on scheduling is not all that surprising when one considers that alt-ac jobs fall somewhere in between regular academic positions and regular non-ac jobs. Another commonality between alt-ac jobs and non-ac jobs is that the long breaks that faculty get in-between semesters or quarters do not exist. The library, after all, is almost always open. And while faculty members must use their long summer breaks for producing the research they need to keep their jobs, the research can, as always, be conducted at one’s own pace. But while it has been a bit of an adjustment to get used to a different work schedule than I have been used to, it comes with knowing that my evenings are free. As a faculty member, one knows that one could always be reading another article, writing another paragraph, or grading another paper. My current position comes with none of those expectations. I still work on my own scholarship many nights, but it feels different when I’m choosing to do it simply for myself rather than as a core aspect of my job.
After working for universities for the last eight years as a graduate student and then as a visiting faculty member, I thought that my experiences would have prepared me to work as well in an alt-ac job as a regular faculty position. I’ve quickly learned that the two can be very different. I do not believe that one is inherently better than another. Both provide me a certain amount of freedom that—even if frightening at first—allows me to work creatively to solve intellectually challenging questions. If before I concentrated on explaining in writing how metaphors of technology had powered an understanding of psychological trauma, I now work to determine how to teach graduate students, faculty, and librarians to integrate emerging technologies into their research and teaching. Again, let me just say unequivocally that determining how to do either of these tasks—that of the regular academic or the alt-academic—as effectively as possible is a subject of scholarly inquiry.
Playing for a Fantasy Team?
At the end of “The Waste Product of Graduate Education,” Marc Bousquet mentions some of the solutions that have been offered since 1970 for righting the imbalance between academic jobs and job seekers: “supply-side balancing of ‘the market,’ alternate careers, more teacher raining, ‘buyer beware’ labels on admission letters and so on” (100). None of these solutions, he argues, reaches the heart of the problem; instead they appear to aid and abet the “well-being of casualization—especially the fantasy of ‘alternate’ careers, which enables administrations to flush away the degree-holding waste product” (Bousquet, “The Waste Product” 100). In context, it is plain that Bousquet’s mention of “‘alternate’ careers” means those that are outside the academy, ones that graduate students, to the mind of administrators, are freely “choosing” to follow rather than seek academic employment. While Bousquet doesn’t have alt-ac careers in mind, then, I think that it’s prudent to recognize that alternative academic careers can be subjects of “fantasy” in just the same way that a traditional tenure-track position can be. Those of us contributing to this collection are in the main people who have been lucky enough to slip interstitially into the university. We’ve managed to inhabit gaps that, often, no one knew needed filling before we found ourselves in them. We do not want to mislead you into thinking that the path here is of necessity any easier than a traditional academic career; in fact, the path may be more difficult to tread simply because its ways are largely personal and uncharted. That said, alt-ac careers are not only objects of fantasy. They exist, and if you’ve already prepared for—or even “failed” on—the job market, you are probably well on your way to being ready to apply for alt-ac positions.
Basalla, Susan, and Maggie Debelius. “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia. 2nd ed. University Of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.
Bitch Ph.D. “On ‘Leaving’ Academia.” Bitch Ph.D. 10 Dec. 2008. Web. 27 July 2010. <http://bitchphd.blogspot.com/2008/12/on-leaving-academia.html>
Bonde, Sheila et al. “Graduate Humanities Education: What Should Be Done?” The Chronicle of Higher Education 4 Apr. 2010. Web. 16 July 2010. <http://chronicle.com/article/Forum-The-Need-for-Reform-/64887/>
Bousquet, Marc. “The Rhetoric of ‘Job Market’ and the Reality of the Academic Labor System.” College English 66.2 (2003): 207-228. Print.
—-. “The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible.” Social Text 20.1 (2002): 81-104. Print.
Croxall, Brian. “The Absent Presence: Today's Faculty.&rdquo Brian Croxall 28 Dec. 2009. Web. 22 June 2011. <http://www.briancroxall.net/2009/12/28/the-absent-presence-todays-facult…
—-. “Assignment: The “American Century” Geospatial Timeline.” Brian Croxall 3 Feb. 2010. Web. 27 July 2010. <http://www.briancroxall.net/2010/02/03/assignment-the-american-century-g…
—-. Tweet. Twitter 20 Nov. 2009. Web. 27 July 2010. <http://twitter.com/briancroxall/status/5899059507>
Johnson, Jenna. “College Acceptance Rates Down.” The Washington Post 2 Apr. 2010. Web. 16 July 2010. <http://voices.washingtonpost.com/campus-overload/2010/04/college_accepta…
Lewin, Tamar. “At Colleges, Humanities Job Outlook Gets Bleaker.” The New York Times 18 Dec. 2009. Web. 27 July 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/18/education/18professor.html?_r=2>
Menand, Louis. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.
Mittell, Jason. “From 30 to 1: The Job Search Resolves.” Media Commons 28 Jan. 2010. Web. 24 July 2010. <http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/content/30-1-job-search-resolves…
MLA Office of Research. “Midyear Report on the 2009-10 MLA Job Information List.” Mar. 2010. Web. 27 July 2010. <http://www.mla.org/pdf/jil_midyear_update2009_lg.pdf>
Nowviskie, Bethany. “#alt-ac: alternate academic careers for humanities scholars.” 3 Jan. 2010. Web. 16 July 2010. <http://nowviskie.org/2010/alt-ac/>
—-. Tweet. Twitter 20 Nov. 2009. Web. 27 July 2010. <http://twitter.com/nowviskie/status/5899035382>
Tenured Radical. “Playing The Blame Game: Or; How Should Graduate Schools Respond To The Bad Job Market?” Tenured Radical 14 Jan. 2010. Web. 16 July 2010. <http://tenured-radical.blogspot.com/2010/01/playing-blame-game-how-shoul…
Wilson, Robin. “Tenure, RIP: What the Vanishing Status Means for the Future of Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 4 July 2010. Web. 27 July 2010. <http://chronicle.com/article/Tenure-RIP/66114/>
In that year the number of English literature positions listed with the Modern Language Association dropped 24.4% from the number that had been listed in 2007. The projected drop in the most recent year was even worse: 27.5% fewer jobs were listed in 2009 than in 2008, which as I’ve just noted was already a bad year (see MLA Office of Research). It had previously been reported by The New York Times that the number of jobs listed in 2009 was down 37% from 2008 (Lewin). This number only takes into account the number of jobs posted in the October 2009 Job Information List. The MLA’s “Midyear Report” also includes the December job listings. Still, the 37% drop in October is important to note since the most prestigious jobs and many of the tenure-track jobs are listed in that issue rather than December and March.
As I speak about my own experiences throughout this essay I will frequently refer to the aspects of the “job market” within English literature. While the process of securing an academic job certainly differs from one discipline to the next, the discourse surrounding securing jobs within MLA fields “appear[s] to fairly emblematize the general state of disciplinary discourse on higher ed workplace issues” (Bousquet, “The Rhetoric” 211).
One could easily level charges of negligence against my younger self for not adequately researching my desired profession, the lack of research naturally predicting a lack of success in finding jobs tied to closely to research. I believe, however, that undergraduates are in a very compromised position when trying to get information about graduate school since they inevitably end up talking only to people who have succeeded at the career path. Still, much has been written in the last year about the extent to which potential graduate students are responsible for learning about the job situation of academia and whether or not graduate school should change admissions, length of study, or coursework. See, for instance, Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, Tenured Radical’s blog post “Playing the Blame Game,” or The Chronicle Review’s forum “Graduate Humanities Education: What Should Be Done?”
I myself asked Bethany Nowviskie and others for such “signposts” in November 2009 on Twitter, after I had spent much of a year looking for an alt-ac position. My tweet was a response to one of Bethany’s, which was the original germ of this edited collection (Croxall, “Tweet”; Nowviskie, “Tweet”). Having secured a post-doc that is decidedly alt-ac in its scope, I feel it only fair that I limn the path I followed.
For more information about the interactive timeline assignment and a tutorial for how to build one’s own timeline see (Croxall, “Assignment”).
For advice on converting an academic CV into a resume see Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius’s “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia or articles in The Chronicle by the “CV Doctor” team, Julie Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong.
With the ongoing crisis of jobs in the academy, it is imperative that graduate education begin to include more viewpoints on what one can do with a PhD. I have argued elsewhere that graduate students should be required to do internships that are separate from the university, perhaps with non-profit institutions (see Bonde et al.). Such internships could provide students with insights into other career paths that call on graduate-school skills like research and writing. Moreover, internships would confer “real-world” work experience that would be useful for those who decide to shift away from the academy. Another important approach to helping graduate students expand their vision of a possible future would be to give current alt-academics with advanced degrees joint appointments in appropriate departments. Graduate students benefit from taking courses with those who have bridged the traditional gap in humanities education, and departments benefit from fresh and insightful approaches. While both of these suggestions represent radical shifts from the status quo of graduate education, we must admit that the current situation is untenable. These and other similar changes must be enacted so as to improve—as well as to preserve—higher education.
While the number of jobs I applied to in 2008 is higher than that in 2007, this is largely due to my having had to continue searching for a job until July of 2009. My job search, in other words, stretched 10 months: from September 2008 to July 2009. My 2007 search ended in late April of 2008.
In a 2002 essay, Marc Bousquet sought to reposition the understanding of the employment situation within academia from a metaphor of the “job market”—a figure of speech that had calcified over three decades so that it had stopped behaving as metaphor and was understood as an accurate description of reality—to a metaphor of waste management. The impetus for Bousquet’s analysis was the absence of jobs that had been enthusiastically projected but that had stubbornly failed to appear throughout the end of the nineties and the beginning of the new millennium. The radical inaccuracies of reports such as William G. Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa’s 1989 study, Prospects for the Faculty in the Arts and Sciences, could only be understood, Bousquet writes, by recognizing that a university’s purposes was necessarily not to provide the best education but rather to “accumulate capital and conserve labor costs by casualizing faculty positions by any means available” (“The Waste Product” 83). Since the best supply of casual labor comes from current graduate students, “it has to be acknowledged that increasingly the holders of the doctoral degree are not so much the products of the graduate employee labor system as its by-products, insofar as that labor system exists primarily to recruit, train, supervise, and legitimate the employment of nondegreed rather than degreed teachers” (Bousquet, “The Waste Product” 86, my emphasis). Given the number of jobs available to people holding the PhD, it seemed apparent to Bousquet that one stood a better chance of teaching in college if one had not yet graduated. Those that graduated simply became waste products that needed to be expelled from the system. There was a reason, in other words, that so many recent graduates on the job market “feel ‘treated like shit’”: in the context of the academy as waste management system, they were shit (Bousquet, “The Waste Product” 91).
Bousquet persuasively argues his point that correcting the academic labor problem will only be made as we reverse the casualization process. Demand for teachers obviously exists, and we should fill these positions with the degreed rather than the not-yet degreed. Universities’ costs will increase but so too, recent research suggests, will the performance of students in those universities: “Vanishing tenure may be bad for students as well as teachers. A couple of dozen studies over the last decade have shown that as the proportion of professors off the tenure track rises, the proportion of students who return to college the following year and eventually graduate declines” (Wilson).
Bousquet is clear that this “ideology of ‘free choice’” belies the fact that many of those leaving academia do so involuntarily (“The Waste Product” 82). As anonymous blogger Bitch Ph.D. put it in a December 2008 post “On ‘Leaving’ Academia,” “[T]he truth, I think, is that part of what’s so painful about ‘leaving’ academia is that we usually aren’t leaving by choice. More often, academia is leaving us, and all we’re doing is having to slowly come to the point of acknowledging that we’ve been left alone in this big apartment full of books, maybe with a cat or two, and a big pile of bills on the counter. Academia, that bastard; he just up and walked one day, and it took us a while to realize he wasn’t going to come back” (Bitch Ph.D.).