Both I and my colleague Shaun Longstreet have written a fair amount about the benefits of alt-ac jobs, but with this column, I want to address some of the challenges. I enjoy my job and appreciate many aspects of it. I have no interest in a full-time faculty position — I’m happy on the alt-ac side. That said, being alt-ac definitely has its challenges. In particular, I want to focus on the ones that can be difficult for folks coming out of graduate school, where they were trained to expect to be faculty:
- Less flexible schedule: Generally speaking, I am expected to be in my office (or on campus in meetings — for more on that, see below) 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., M-F. As a director, I have some flexibility in terms of being able to leave for doctor’s appointments, meet folks off campus, etc., but in general, mine is a desk job with traditional hours. Most of the time, this is fine and doesn’t bother me. During holiday periods and the summer, however, when my faculty friends and husband are “off,” it’s harder. And then when folks come back and ask me how my “break” was, I feel that little twinge of “shoulda tried for a faculty job” regret. Luckily, it’s short-lived. But be warned — I know folks who took alt-ac jobs after a stint as faculty and thought they could continue to keep faculty-style office hours while working from home. Most of them no longer hold those same jobs.
- Collaborating: I would actually include this as both a benefit and a challenge. A benefit to an alt-ac job is the variety and number of folks one interacts with on campus. Much of this interaction is due to collaborations between offices and/or individuals. On the one hand, collaborating can help spread the work around and help you meet new people. On the other hand, sometimes it is easier to just do things oneself — and our training as academics, especially outside of laboratory-based sciences — did not always teach us how to work with others. Learning how to collaborate can be challenging, especially in the beginning.
- The faculty-staff divide: Despite having the same training as my faculty colleagues, I am sometimes treated as if I am less than competent because I sit on the staff side of the house (although I should note that this happened much more at my previous institution than my current, so to some extent, I think this is institution-specific). I am not alone — get a bunch of alt-acs together and you will hear anecdotes like the one Anne Whisnant wrote about several years ago. The other question I used to routinely get was whether I was going to get a “real” job after I finished my dissertation (or now that I’ve finished the book) — as if my job is somehow fake. In my opinion, dealing with the faculty-staff divide can in some ways be the most challenging piece. After all, this is what we were trained for — we thought we were going to be faculty — and now some are snubbing us? Or treating us as lesser beings? It hurts and hits you in that “I am a failure for not doing the tenure-track at a research institution” place. The best advice I have is to develop a thick skin. Changing academic culture is a slow process.
- Meetings: I know that many faculty also attend meetings (especially once the service commitments kick in after tenure), but I know few who do not also hold administrative positions who spend as much time in meetings as I and many of my colleagues do. As a mid-level administrator, it is safe to say that in some ways, meetings are my work (as opposed to an interruption of it). On the other hand, there is indeed work to get done outside of meetings and figuring out how to schedule the work around the meetings in ways that don’t involve constantly working at night and weekends can be challenging (and not always possible, especially during the weeks when I have 3-4 meetings per day). I would sell my soul to the highest bidder for just one week with no meetings.
These are some of the challenges I encountered as I transitioned from graduate student / faculty-in-training to an alt-ac position. For me, the challenges are not large enough to outweigh the benefits of my job, but I wish I’d thought more about them before I started working in an alt-ac position. What challenges have you faced as alt-ac? Or think you might if you’re contemplating an alt-ac position?