This month in Boston, we attended the Modern Language Association's annual conference. We were there to further the discussion on alt-ac careers, that is, full-time non-research, non-teaching positions within the academy (hence alternative academics). Discussions with graduate students in Boston, and the recent survey on alt-ac careers conducted by the University of Virginia's Scholarly Communication Institute, reveal a large gap between graduate students' expectations that they will attain tenure-track jobs, and the reality that approximately only one-fifth of doctorates in MLA fields will end up in said positions.
Greater awareness of this gap has, justifiably, caused much anxiety in several disciplines, especially in the humanities. Consequently, there have been many more conversations about framing multiple options for doctoral graduates in recent years. We, for our part, have been pushing for several years now for recognizing the abundance of on-campus alt-ac careers that are both full-time and fulfilling.
One of the things we frequently hear from graduate students curious about alt-ac possibilities, or from faculty members looking to switch paths, is that graduate school did not prepare them for alt-ac jobs. It is true that traditional programs focus on gaining experience in research and teaching — with the primary emphasis on research. Nonetheless, there was a fair amount of discussion  (and some resistance ) at the MLA about the need to reform humanities graduation education. The MLA is not alone; similar conversations are occurring within the American Historical Association and other professional organizations.
One major aim of such reform includes expanding career preparation in doctoral education. This is encouraging for future students, but if you are currently a doctoral student wanting to prepare now for a possible alt-ac position, here are some things you can do while still in graduate school that can help ensure you are prepared both for an alt-ac position and a faculty position:
Perceive beyond your department: Learn about the larger academic world and about your university’s organization. Being familiar with how universities work and the spectrum of services offered within any given college will give you a greater awareness of your career horizons. It will demonstrate that you understand the complexities of faculty life and that you are more likely to become a citizen of the university faster than someone who cannot describe the difference between a career center and a counseling center. At the same time, knowing about other units in higher education will help you attain a better sense of what you are capable of doing in the event you choose to pursue an alt-ac career.
Consider diverse funding sources: Teaching and research assistantships are valuable experience, and if you have one under your belt, great. Still, be on the lookout for fellowships or practicums on campus that could replace or supplement financial support from your degree-granting department. Perhaps you could find an assistantship on campus. Administrative offices often have assistantships that include tuition remission. Likewise, consider a volunteer position or an internship if you can afford to do so. The key is to obtain some administrative experience that you can put on your C.V. On-campus experiences beyond your department will also teach you a lot about how the university works and give you a sense of your administrative sea legs. This will give you concrete achievements to write about in your cover letter; e.g. "raised X amount of dollars for conference Y through grant writing, managed a budget of Z." Finally, it gives you access to people who can serve as helpful nonfaculty references.
Serve on committees: Committee service is another excellent way to learn about university functions and come to know people outside your department. If there are committees you might serve on that do not require a large amount of work (eight hours a month or less), consider joining them. It looks good on your C.V. and shows your willingness to be an active contributor to the campus mission. Both of us served on many committees while in grad school and learned a lot.
Network: The need for networking came up over and over again at the MLA alt-ac panels. Many academics have an aversion to networking, but it is one of the best things you can do while still in graduate school to help lay the groundwork for a future alt-ac career. If you teach a course or work with undergraduates, talk to academic support professionals, such as advisers, librarians, tutoring center coordinators. This will make you a better teacher and expose you to the broader community. Try to contact people whose work you think is interesting and invite them to coffee or lunch to ask them about their job and career path. Most of them will be happy to talk to you and offer advice. Establish a professional online presence and connect with colleagues via Twitter, blogging, etc. And always, always, treat everyone, from administrative assistants to deans, with kindness and politeness – academia is a small world so you want to leave people with a good impression (not to mention that it’s also the humane thing to do).
Think about skills, not just knowledge: Practice taking stock of, and writing down, the skills you are exercising in your graduate work. Remember, teaching involves not just knowing content, but organizing, communicating, and working with different people. Also, if your department allows you to take classes outside your program, consider looking into a course on grant-writing, budgeting, public policy or conflict management. Many business schools offer these types of courses and they can be enormously helpful. Many also have certificate programs in grant-writing or fund-raising. If your university has such a program and you have the time, that extra credential will serve you well when it comes time for the alt-ac job search.
Take control of your career right now: It is always the right time to grab the reins and start steering your own career path(s). Too often graduate students leave their career planning until the semester they are about to defend. Do not let the inertia of previous years keep you on a singular track. No one cares more about your future than you. The advice above is intended to help provoke thinking about multiple approaches to future-proofing your Ph.D.
"Make your own luck": In our alt-ac session last week, Sarah Werner of the Folger Shakespeare Library noted the following in her presentation:
"Whether you’re looking for an #altac career or you’re not, my biggest piece of advice to you is not to wait for a giant hand to point you in the right direction. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to see signposts leading you there. You need to make your own luck and trust that you’ll recognize your place when you arrive."
The advice above is intended to help you "make your own luck" as you go through graduate school – whether you end up pursuing an alt-ac, faculty, or nonacademic career.
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.