Building Your Post-ac, Non-ac, or Alt-ac Career

by | Apr 4, 2017

So often in academia, the doctorate is positioned as one step in a linear trajectory: undergraduate work leads to a MA and then a PhD, an assistant professor position follows, and eventually tenure is awarded.

Many university departments have finally joined the vibrant public public conversation about the realities of today’s competitive academic job market, and what that means for the majority of PhDs who do not end up in tenure-track positions.

But what about those folks who are not interested in entering the academic job market at all? With almost all of the professionalization training in graduate school focused on landing a tenure-track job, how can doctoral students interested in non-academic careers best prepare themselves?

Below, we’ve gathered some advice, tips, and suggestions for anyone forging a non-faculty career path. PhDs have landed positions in academic administration, consulting firms, secondary schools, nonprofits, think tanks, museums, publishing firms, and pretty much every industry under the sun.

Indeed, Ideas on Fire itself is an altac/postac company, founded by a former contingent professor, and staffed with amazing folks putting their PhDs to work in diverse ways. It absolutely can be done! If you’re interested in going off the beaten path, there are some key things to keep in mind.

Start thinking about it early! ­­

Even if you are still on the fence about what you want to do with your degree, it never hurts to explore your options. Remember: although the tenure-track path is an incredibly narrow one, the alt-ac and post-ac (i.e., all other careers on the planet) world is wide.

Start to hone in on what an alt-ac or post-ac career means for you and what is drawing you toward it. Among all the tasks graduate school requires of you, what do you enjoy doing most? Least? Do you love teaching and working with students, but get bored with research? Are you excited by taking a deep dive into a subject, but dislike standing in front of a classroom?

Answering these questions with as much precision as possible will help you start to hone in on whether you might want to look for work in university areas, like teaching or student affairs, or other industries altogether, like music, grant writing, or government.

It’s not just a question of what, but of why

One of the first things that comes up when someone with a PhD is interviewing for non-academic jobs is the question of why they want the role they’re interviewing for. In other words, you’ll need to clearly articulate, to yourself first and foremost, why you have decided not to pursue an academic path.

The terms “alt-ac” and “post-ac” can be misleading; take time to make sure that the choice to move off of the graduate school or tenure track path is an intentional one you are actually excited about. If your heart is still invested in landing a faculty position and pursuing other roles feels like settling, you won’t fool anyone (least of all yourself).

Try crafting a mission statement for yourself that expresses your reasons for pursing alt-ac/post-ac work with clarity and conviction.

Pinpoint what you’re already doing

Now that you’ve laid out a compelling, honest set of reasons for why you’re pursing this career path, start to identify what you’re already doing to help you land your next gig.

Within the broad categories of research and teaching, what do you do on a granular level? How do you not just spend but manage your time?

For example, map out the various organizational, management, and administrative tasks that are built into your teaching, writing, and research. This means reflecting on how you lesson plan, grade, and mentor students; how you set up a writing and editing routine; what your methodological approach has taught you about analysis; and what tools and platforms you use to actually do your research (from NVivo and SPSS to Canvas and Outlook).

It also means reflecting on where you’ve shared your work: have you blogged about your research, or shared it on any public platform? That’s experience connecting with different audiences.

Recognize too that pursing graduate work, particularly at the dissertation stage, is an exercise in discipline, organization, and project management. At this stage in your training, you are also learning how to juggle multiple projects at a time, often with competing deadlines. You are accountable to a range of different parties as you balance writing, editing, teaching, job applications, grant writing, and other work. This is absolutely a set of skills, and valuable ones in many industries.

Build up targeted experience

Once you’ve pinpointed the things you’re already doing that will be valuable in non-faculty careers, think strategically about what new opportunities might help you gain relevant experience for alt-ac/post-ac work.

Graduate school is already a balancing act, and you may not have the time, stamina, or financial resources to add something else to your plate right now. That’s okay to admit! But if you are able to fold in something new, be strategic in what you pursue.

For example, many student affairs search committees see experience as a graduate associate at a college house as valuable (yes, this means serving as an RA in a dorm).

Participating in your graduate student association or helping plan events that strengthen communication between faculty and students can help you build the skills necessary to land a range of administrative positions.

Working at a research center could afford you the chance to hone your grant writing and development skills. That these are part-time roles doesn’t matter as much as the targeted experience they’ll help you gain.

Some schools have started developing internship programs geared towards graduate students interested in pursuing non-faculty careers, placing students in administrative positions on campus. Even if your school doesn’t have an equivalent program in place, the campus career center can help you figure out what your PhD might help you do, guide you in transforming your CV into a resume, and help you navigate career assessment tools to find a job that is the best fit for you.

Informational interviews are everything

Keep in mind that even if your alt-ac or post-ac career path keeps you within the world of higher education, you are still changing careers. Make sure you’ve done your research and know what you’re getting into.

Informational interviews are a hugely helpful tool—they are a means of connecting with people doing interesting work, learning about new roles, and building a network (they are not, however, about landing yourself a job off the bat).

Look into people at your university or in your local area who are doing work that is interesting to you, even if it feels like a stretch. Be especially attuned to people who have doctoral degrees and have shifted careers.

If you’re interested in a role that doesn’t require a PhD, talking to someone currently in that position that might help you understand how you’d be perceived as a candidate and what you might do to better position yourself to land something similar. Our mentorship series has great advice on how to approach potential mentors—similar rules apply when pursuing informational interviews.

Dig into digital resources

Good news: if you’re reading this blog post, you’re already doing this! Beyond the tips we’ve put together here, check out excellent resources like Versatile PhD, Higher Ed Jobs, and the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae site for advice, networking events, job listings, and a host of useful information on shifting gears from an academic to a non-academic (or academic-adjacent) career.

It can also be extremely helpful to read job ads, even if you are not ready to actually apply to jobs. Reviewing the kinds of positions that are out there can teach you a lot about the skills your dream job might call for and what your responsibilities would look like there. They can also teach you a good bit about the idiosyncrasies of different job markets. For example, comparable academic administration positions are alternately labeled as “administrative,” “associate,” or “coordinator” at different universities.

Remember, this is a big shift but an exciting one. The process of crafting a meaningful career draws on the very skills you’ve been honing as a graduate student: diligence, patience, thorough research, and strategic thinking. You can do it!

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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