We Need to Systematize Alt-Ac Career Guidance

Faculty advisers should have frank conversations with their students about long-term plans from the moment those students arrive on the campus, writes Zeb Larson.

November 21, 2018

When I can step back from my own insecurities, it’s easy to chuckle at how seriously I and most of my grad student peers worry about our relationship with our advisers. One cross word or hint of disappointment and most of us are reduced to nervous wrecks.

That’s because our professional fortunes are, in a certain sense, hitched to them. The academic job market is incredibly competitive in the humanities, and we have no reason to think that will change. (One can’t help but recall that toast in the British Army, “Here’s to a sudden plague and a bloody war!”). Advisers are in the position of being able to close doors for a student, but not necessarily being able to open them.

Compounding that is a new trend: the “alt-ac” career path. Depending on whom you talk to, you’ll find either a great deal of optimism or a sense of dread about something that seems to be, at best, just an alternative to unemployment. That said, if you’re a grad student staring at some pretty bleak writing on the wall or never wanted to spend your whole life in the academy, it might not sound too bad. Transitioning into a new career path is stressful and unsettling, but so is the prospect of adjuncting. And unless you happen to have a partner that’s a neurosurgeon or a Rockefeller, the latter is not tenable for a generation that’s often carrying heavy student debt loads.

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. Those that do have them can play a valuable role in a great many industries -- and more visibility for the humanities outside the academy might actually be a good thing for society. But simply expecting new grads to go out and find good jobs if they try hard enough feels too much like a human wave attack, hoping a few get past the barbed wire.

What’s more, until fairly recently, relatively little about alt-ac careers was systematized. I know a great many peers who are considering such careers, but they’re doing so almost in secret. I served on a committee at Ohio State University that worked on the development of what became a humanities graduate career center. As we studied how some of the university’s grad students found careers outside academe, the thing that stood out to us was that virtually all of them had done so through improvisation -- being in the right place at the right time -- and hard work. That is, of course, impressive, but it’s not a particularly inspiring model for others.

That brings me back to the uncomfortable role of the adviser in this process, and what they can do as a growing number of their students are considering non-tenure-track jobs. Most people don’t want to have this conversation with their adviser; a whole range of emotions and sentiments seems to make it uncomfortable. And I’ve no doubt that a few advisers are hostile to the concept of alt-ac because they sincerely want their students to get jobs that they know they’re qualified for -- and the idea of something else feels like plan B and an admission of defeat. But unfortunately that is also our reality these days, and wishing it were otherwise won’t make it so.

Frankly, I worry more that the determination to keep a student in academe in the hopes they might land a tenure-track job down the line is pushing people into taking jobs that they hate, with no meaningful chances for advancement. I’ve seen my older peers take teaching jobs in places they didn’t want to live for low salaries so they could tread water while hoping to crawl up the career ladder. But those positions increasingly look to me more like bear traps than opportunities. Teaching 5/5 or 6/6 loads will only make it that much more difficult to conduct the research we need to advance upward. Nobody’s going to reward us because we wore a hair shirt for our careers for several years, and none of us are getting any younger.

Then there’s the simple fact that many faculty members haven’t had extensive experience with other career paths. I couldn’t tell somebody how to become an accountant or a doctor beyond telling them to go to school for it. Asking advisers to guide students into wholly unfamiliar career paths isn’t fair to faculty members. Moreover, most faculty members aren’t exactly idling their engines and looking for more work to do. As universities place growing demands on faculty members to teach, publish and provide service to the community, is it plausible to expect them take on even more work?

So what is the solution? A number of colleges and universities are establishing humanities centers to try and systematize an alt-ac career path. To bring it back to my home institution, Ohio State has recently established the Center for Humanities in Practice, which offers graduate-level humanities students networking and practicum opportunities, such as consulting for a nonprofit or writing a white paper for a business. Such programs take some of the burdens off both the student and the adviser. Many of the skills that we learn while getting a Ph.D. are what make us effective in other fields -- being able to sort large amounts of quantitative data, to manage a project as large as a dissertation, to research and to organize arguments are all valuable. The center gives students an opportunity to practice those skills in a nonacademic environment.

The programs and services of these types of centers need faculty buy-in to be effective. If too many people ignore them, they will retain much of the stigma surrounding nonacademic jobs, which will scare students away. Faculty advisers shouldn’t become career coaches, but they must recognize that most departments will struggle to find academic placements for all or even most of their students. They should have frank conversations with their students about long-term plans from the moment that they arrive on the campus and then discuss those plans with people at the center to shape curricula and nonacademic opportunities so they reinforce each other.

So graduate students can gain the skills that come from pursuing a Ph.D., much of the course work should remain the same. But colleges should provide greater opportunities for practicums and internships outside the academy. One of the biggest hurdles graduate students face is a lack of relevant work experience. Being able to acquire that as part of the process of earning a Ph.D. would go a long way to helping students sell themselves to potential employers. In fact, when I served on the committee to develop the humanities center, I found that number of industry and other nonacademic employers were open to working with humanities graduates, but they wanted to see some evidence of applied skills.

In that same vein, nonacademic work and public engagement should be encouraged and seen as part of a student’s career path. They shouldn’t take the place of a dissertation, because the creation of a dissertation calls on a number of useful skills: project management, writing, editing and research. But understanding how a white paper might take the place of one dissertation chapter or be treated with the same seriousness as a journal article would be useful for students who are looking beyond the academy.

Given that patterns in academic hiring are unlikely to change for the better in the short or medium term, it behooves all humanities scholars to think of the best ways to make their disciplines viable. Advisers and faculty members should be thinking seriously about ways to support their students in moving to nonacademic careers. Meanwhile, institutions that want to preserve their graduate humanities programs should be setting up centers like the one I’ve described or facilitating similar connections. At a time when it’s fashionable to question the worth of a humanities degree, these opportunities can help provide an answer.

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Zeb Larson is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the Ohio State University.


Zeb Larson

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