Defining Alt-Ac Before We Systematize Alternative Academic Career Guidance

Responding to Zeb Larson.

November 25, 2018

In his excellent essay We Need to Systematize Alt-Ac Career Guidance, historian Zeb Larson discusses the responsibilities of humanities departments to help their graduating PhD’s navigate the non-academic labor market.

This is an important conversation that all of academia should be having. We should be grateful to Larson for pushing forward our discussion.

In reading Larson’s essay, however, it is clear that in order to talk about alternative academic career paths that first we need to define alt-ac. Larson makes the mistake of defining an alt-ac as anyone with a PhD who does not become a professor. Larson writes:

"Of course, as other writers have pointed out, humanities Ph.D.s aren’t simply going to waltz into nonprofit and publishing jobs. Publishing, for example, is an apprentice industry, and writing a dissertation doesn’t automatically qualify you to be an acquisitions editor. Similarly, plenty of qualified people that don’t have humanities Ph.D.s go into nonprofits and think tanks.”

PhD’s working in publishing or nonprofits or think tanks are not alt-acs. Instead, they are professionals in that industry with an educational background of a PhD.

There is as yet no canonical and universally agreed upon definition of alt-ac. Larson is not alone in using alt-ac to describe PhD’s who work outside of academia.  

The definition of alt-ac that I’d put forward has three components:

1 - Alternative Academics Have Terminal Degrees:

The statement that only those with terminal degrees will cause some consternation within the non-faculty educator community. In the real world, those with PhDs and those without often do the same work. Nor is having a PhD any guarantee of being more qualified or competent for a specific role than anyone else.

What we need to keep in mind is that doctoral programs serve as mechanisms of disciplinary recreation. Anyone getting a PhD has been socialized into the norms, language, and worldview of the discipline. A PhD confers an identity along with a set of skills and capabilities.

Alt-acs are PhDs whose primary academic role is outside of the discipline in which they trained. The way that PhD programs are structured results in a situation that anyone who receives the degree and then does not move into a faculty-track position is in effect switching careers. PhD programs are designed to create new professors. Professors qualified to train the next generation of PhDs.

2 - Alternative Academics Work in Higher Education:

The second part of the definition for alt-acs runs directly counter to Larson’s text. Alt-acs work in higher education.

This matters because it is having a PhD, but not being on the faculty, is what makes the alt-ac career path uniquely challenging. Alt-acs must navigate their careers within the higher education differently than those with faculty appointments.

Nor is an alt-ac the same as a PhD who has not landed a tenure-track job but who is teaching full-time through temporary or adjunct positions.  Those occupying a non-tenure track faculty position almost always would like those lines converted into tenure track.

Alt-acs, conversely, are working in academia - but not in roles where other academics doing the same work (teaching and research) are classified differently.

What alt-acs must do is figure out how to have an academic career that matches their passions and interests, and takes advantage of the skills they learned in grad school, outside of a traditional academic role. Alt-acs bring to their university roles all the values and abilities of professors, yet they are not professors. More accurately, they are not primarily professors, as many alt-acs teach (see below).

Alternative academics almost never have their primary appointment in the academic department corresponding to the discipline in which they trained. Rather, alt-acs work in other areas of the university - areas that may collaborate with academic departments but are not academic departments.

Examples may include centers for teaching and learning, academic computing units, online and continuing education schools, academic, and student affairs divisions, institutional research, development and alumni affairs, the registrar and other business offices, amongst others.

Alt-acs bring their disciplinary identities, identities formed in their PhD programs, to these jobs outside of academic departments.

3 - Alternative Academics are Liminal - Blending Service with Teaching and Scholarship:

My final component of this proposed alt-ac definition recognizes that alt-acs do much of the same work as traditional academics. Alt-acs teach. Alt-acs engage in scholarship. Alt-acs are educators.

The form of alt-ac scholarship and educator work may be different than a traditional academic. Freed from the narrow definitions of impact that must be satisfied to achieve traditional academic promotion, alt-acs are freer to direct their scholarship towards audiences of non-specialists.

Alt-acs are knowledge creators, but their methods for developing and disseminating knowledge may not count with a promotion a tenure committee.

Many alt-acs teach in the discipline in which they originally trained. I’d like to see more opportunities for alt-acs to teach towards the academic work in which they are presently engaged.

The role that alternative academics occupy is liminal. It rests somewhere between non-faculty and faculty. This matters as even highly productive alt-acs working in high impact roles lack many of the protections and privileges of traditional faculty.

Alt-acs may build a career thinking and writing about higher education, but they lack the academic freedom protections afforded to traditional (and particularly tenured) academics. Alternative academics may be highly critical of the system of higher education, but their ability to express this criticism is limited by the reality that they can be fired for what they say and write.

Nor are alt-acs often included in the governance structure of the institutions in which they work.  Traditional higher education is built - in part at least - on the idea of faculty governance. While professors may be unhappy with their perceived or actual inability to influence the running of the institution, faculty do not doubt their right to participate in institutional governance. Alt-acs have none of that privileged.

I agree with Larson that we need to do a better job of training and socializing the next generation of alt-acs. Colleges and universities are complicated places, and the areas in which alt-acs are making critical contributions continue to grow.

The first step in helping to develop the next generation of alternative academics is to come up with a shared language around this academic career path.

Can you refine, dispute, and evolve this alt-ac definition?

What has been your alt-ac career path?


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