Essay on how to describe career success for 'alt-ac' job searches
In our last column, we ended by stating that even though there are many alt-ac jobs, the alt-ac job search still requires significant effort, research and writing. As many campuses' fiscal years have come to an end, a new cycle is about to begin. With that, new administrative hires are about to be announced for the coming year. This means that while summer is definitely a key season to work on research and writing, it is also a good time to think about how to be prepared for an alt-ac job application. A vital skill for anyone cultivating a possible alt-ac career is having the ability to quantify our academic success for non-academic hiring committees.
For faculty, graduate students and postdocs looking beyond the adjunct or tenure track (and for alt-ac newbies), a frequent difficulty is overcoming the culture of the C.V. The C.V. is the lingua franca for academics; it summarizes a career. But it poses a challenge for alt-ac hopefuls who are used to presenting themselves for research and teaching positions. In a C.V., we are our content – that is, we are what we have published and the subjects we have taught. The C.V. is a record of our pedigree (where did we get our degree? who were our advisers?). This makes an academic career quite retrospective.
A hindsight presentation of yourself as a traditional academic will make competing for alt-ac positions more difficult than it needs to be. As an alt-ac applicant, you must present yourself as walking on a career path where past accomplishments and responsibilities point to a longer trajectory. This path should include a space where a hiring manager sees her/his alt-ac job opening as the place where you will thrive and start contributing almost immediately.
Do not rely on the ability of a hiring committee to translate your skills from one position to another. This is leaving a lot to chance. It is also a strong indication that an applicant is going to have difficulties transitioning into her or his new alt-ac responsibilities. To be blunt, it also indicates a lack of awareness about the position and the administrative unit in which the position resides.
Do not be the person who can only be read as a French literature instructor. Be someone who is adept at developing broad intercultural engagement initiatives; someone who can quickly assess student needs, provide space for transformative learning communities, and create programming that prepares students to participate in new avenues of inquiry and able to work with people of different worldviews. Rather than letting someone pigeonhole you solely as a biology lab researcher with teaching responsibilities, present yourself as someone who is experienced with quantitative assessment, familiar with federal funding management; someone adept at navigating the demands of multiple stakeholders across the department and other administrative units.
Our translations above may sound jargon-y, but there is a rhetoric of higher education administration, just as there is disciplinary rhetoric. If you are looking to join a new career community, it is vital that you demonstrate an ability to fit, function and contribute. No one has time to help a newly hired coworker process culture shock. Likewise, we are wary of hiring someone who might have disdain for what we do: "Why, yes, in addition to program development, this position will require sorting photocopies, making coffee for faculty visitors, and spending long hours in a cubicle without natural light. That isn’t going to be a problem, is it?"
Just as an academic C.V. frames success through one’s content; it also emphasizes individualism. In most disciplines, academics must frame themselves as unique scholars, so CVs are testaments of a person’s individual success. When thinking about how to transition into an alt-ac job, present yourself as circulating beyond a single department and a person whose vision of yourself is connected to people outside of the position you currently hold. In your alt-ac résumé(s), ponder how to frame what you have done beyond the tightly cut circle of you, your students and your research. How have you contributed to a larger function of the university?
For example, someone might have led bovine physiology classes for three years, but if we take a bird’s-eye view we can see much more. This position is also part of a larger effort by the college to develop a world-class large-animal clinic. There are all sorts of curriculum development plans in motion, significant attention paid to nontraditional and rural student success, not to mention assessment coordination as demanded by state, federal and professional agencies. Anyone teaching the bovine physiology course will have some connection to these larger processes. Take a look at your department, your college and your university’s websites and mission statements, as these will help you make connections between what you do and your contribution to the processes of the larger campus community. Likewise, think about the people who are along the reporting chain, since you are part of a community led by administrators whose titles indicate where you might fit within another position laterally.
It is also important to quantify your contributions. This can be a challenge for people with little practice, but it comes easier with each draft of a cover letter. While it is tough to make direct claims for program success, providing concrete numbers that indicate the depth of how you contributed toward particular initiatives and supported student and institutional success. There are many avenues to do this: specify amounts of time you spent on a project, indicate numbers of students effected by your work, highlight relevant efforts that contributed to the department’s mission, provide concrete measures of success, and explicitly frame direct responsibilities within an initiative.
In defining success, you need to stop thinking like an academic of the past. Graduate students are taught to believe that people without publications have no record of success. This is simply not true and we will all be better off the sooner this attitude stops. Graduate students, and faculty, have many transferable skills. Among them are: effective writing, public communication, awareness of student needs, program development, corporate organization, data analysis, and many others. The issue is to not get bogged down in the content details (e.g. Baroque symphony, astronomy, or Canadian First Nations government). Instead draw attention to the more meta-level aspects of your work (e.g., student success, grant writing, growth in programs).
In the alt-ac sphere, we are looking for candidates who will contribute to the success of our particular unit and will help the people we serve: our students, our faculty our fellow co-workers and the greater community in which we find ourselves. How can future alt-ac people present themselves along this line? Remember, for us, it is about the position and contributions to a larger team, not personal accomplishments through publication recognition and course evaluations. Describe your responsibilities, your connections with other people, and be results-oriented.
Try to quantify your contributions and successes, using numbers will make your work more concrete for hiring committees. Just remember to select and frame your numbers in ways that will indicate your transferable skills. "Developed an engaging bridge program for the math department for 125 community college transfer students annually; a program with a 95 percent completion rate and contributed to a 20 percent increase of higher at-risk students declaring a math or science major" is much easier to transfer into another position than, "Taught a summer semester introduction to calculus course for two years."
Brenda Bethman earned a Ph.D. in modern German studies and advanced feminist studies. She is director of the University of Missouri at Kansas City's Women’s Center and acting director of the women’s and gender studies program.
C. Shaun Longstreet earned a Ph.D. in Christianity and Judaism in antiquity. He is director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Marquette University.
Bethman and Longstreet are the co-founders of and consultants for Alt Academix.