Having 'The Talk'
Shaun Longstreet and Brenda Bethman discuss how to tell your doctoral adviser that you may not want a career in academe.
Anyone considering joining the alt-ac job market will eventually tell his or her academic colleagues that he or she might be jumping off the tenure-track train. Reactions to this can vary. When Shaun left his faculty position for a career in educational development, he experienced everything from a lot of gracious support, a little dismissive smugness, some benign confusion, and an occasional "Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers" screech. If you are alt-ac curious, we hope you will find the support you need.
For graduate students this will often mean having "the talk" with their advisers. Now, there are several reasons why it is important to seek out your adviser’s support, even for an alt-ac career. If you are at the beginning of your degree program, you want an advocate mentor on board, someone with a broader understanding of what your Ph.D. means for you. If you are at the end of your degree, you probably do not want to surprise your adviser with what might seem an abrupt change of intent, or worse, that you are sneaking behind his or her back. Your adviser is an important reference, no matter for which position you will apply. As someone who has worked with you for several years, faculty advisers can vouchsafe for your integrity, your work ethic, your ability to adapt, and your interpersonal skills. They can (and should) confirm your transferable talent and that you have the qualifications for the position you are seeking.
Some advisers are going to be less than enthusiastic and this is a valid concern for the alt-ac job seeker. There could be several reasons for a negative attitude. Typically, your post-graduate placement is important to your adviser’s career. If a student lands a tenure-track position at a university of equal or higher ranking, this reflects well on your adviser’s annual performance review. Another reason for a lack of enthusiasm might be that your adviser, like many others in the academy, could have a misunderstanding of alt-ac careers. He or she might share the opinion that taking an alt-ac position is like "having a veterinarian graduate go work at McDonald's" (actual quote from a faculty member during a session at the 2013 Modern Language Association meeting).
Another reason, and there may be several others, is that faculty seek to replicate themselves as an extension of their research and their discipline. Thus, having a student reject academic apprenticeship in the tenure track for an alt-ac position may be taken as a setback or even a personal slight. Subsequently, if you surprise your faculty adviser with a last-minute alt-ac job interest, you might not get a positive reaction. Avoid this scenario and share your desire for being prepared to step into the 21st-century academic job market as early in your doctoral career as you can.
Also take steps to not be surprised by an adviser’s negative reaction. Before choosing a doctoral mentor, it is important to gauge her or his attitudes about student placements. You should always ask where her or his students have landed after graduating before settling on any adviser (and how long it took those students to get to their degrees!). This will reveal a lot about your potential adviser and indicate what your future will be like if you become a mentee. What he or she says about former students' placement will likely give insight on whether or not you will receive the type of support you need for career options beyond the tenure track.
If you do feel comfortable with proceeding, how might you initially break news of your interest in alt-ac careers? First, and above all, be aware of, appreciate, and acknowledge your adviser’s investment in you. Every graduate advisee represents a significant amount of faculty time, effort and commitment. Be very clear if you are preparing for both the tenure-track and for alt-ac positions. Explain that you are aware of the challenging job academic market and want to be ready for multiple opportunities. Explain, too, that preparing for alt-ac positions will make you more competitive for the tenure track since it will expose you to knowledge needed for any early-starter junior faculty member. This includes knowing how to navigate committee work, converse about a broad range of student development issues, create academic programming, be competent in assessment, and navigate the university workings beyond the department.
Assure your adviser that you are serious about being a successful candidate in whichever application you submit. If you already have an adviser and you are soon to be on the job market, this initial conversation might be a bit more risky. Again, ask about typical departmental graduate placement as a means to raise the topic and serve as the starting point for discussion. You may have to tailor your approach to frontload your interest in tenure-track positions if you get the sense that your adviser heavily leans that way.
If you are more interested in pursuing an alt-ac career than the tenure track, be honest and say so. Give positive, concrete reasons for why you have decided to move in this direction. Do not tell your adviser that you are tired or jaundiced about your research, by colleagues or by teaching. This will suggest you might be making another poor life choice. Instead, outline specific, concrete reasons that are prompting you to diversify your employment options. For example, the need to relocate to a specific region (or not wanting to relocate at all), that you are part of a two-body job search and need to be prepared, or something as immediate as personal finances. Not least of any reason is the limited number of tenure-track jobs. Frame your alt-ac career option as an organic extension of your talents and interests; this will make your conversation much more productive.
Think about what you need most from your faculty mentor. Do not expect a lot of assistance with exploring the alt-ac job market; your adviser has likely spent her or his career working within the confined circles of the department, incubating a narrow band of research expertise. Investigate a good bit on your own and come in with a sense of your job options. For example, one graduate student might want to become a full-time adviser in the college as a means to pursue a passion in working with undergraduates; another doctoral candidate may see opportunities to leverage her community-based research and want to explore a career in directing service learning or social innovation programs.
By providing a rationale and a direction, graduates will help advisers see beyond the silo of the tenure track. If you are at the early stages of your doctorate, communicating your need to be ready for multiple positions can lead to better, more accurate advising that will direct you towards a broader range of experience opportunities. If you are finishing and are on the job market, work with your adviser to align your graduate skills with your alt-ac potential.
Yes, there will be advisers who dismiss alt-ac interests. That is poor advising on their part; the myth of "try harder and you will get a tenure-track job" is not supported by the facts. Likewise, alt-ac careers are a necessary component of today’s university because of demands from accreditors, students and legislators. Alt-ac jobs are not a fallback option; they are positions people work to achieve. And, of course, a few advisers may react quite negatively to the news of an alt-ac interested student. Working with an adviser can be just as political as any other position where one is supervised and, when things go south, it can be a terribly rough situation. Once you have presented your case for needing diverse career options, it may take a while for your adviser to get on board. If, however, she or he begins to undermine you or ignore you, you could call her or him out for acting inappropriately, you could rely more on the other faculty members of your committee, or seek out a new mentor. Hopefully it will not come to that.
Most likely, when you present your case, you will receive positive support from your adviser. When presented as a viable, reasonable option, and not in apology, seeking support for alt-ac job opportunities should not create a rift between you and your Ph.D. mentor. Placing a mentee in a career that she or he finds interesting and fulfilling should be a cause for celebration, not mourning. Keep the lines of conversation open, be forthright, and remember that it is your doctorate and you should have a voice in what to pursue after graduating.
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.
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