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Alt-Ac from the Start

A few pieces of advice for students contemplating alt-ac careers.

May 7, 2015

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is the Managing Editor of GradHacker and received her PhD in modern Chinese history from the University of California, Irvine in 2014. Follow her on Twitter @mauracunningham.

Last week, I returned to my graduate institution, UC Irvine, and was one of three panelists at a lunchtime discussion grandly titled “After the Doctorate: Paths Outside Academe.” In addition to me, the panel featured Jennifer Munger, an anthropologist who is the Managing Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, and Elizabeth Pisani, an epidemiologist and writer who has worked on HIV prevention programs across Asia. Each of us gave a short talk about our backgrounds and alt-ac careers, then we spent the remainder of the time chatting with the grad students in attendance and answering their questions about non-traditional academic career paths.

I framed my brief self-introduction with a question that I heard regularly throughout the six years I spent in my doctoral program: “Why are you getting a PhD in the first place?” The reason I heard this question all the time is that I knew even before I applied to grad school that I did not want to spend my career in the classroom. I love reading and writing and talking about history and China, but I’ve never been particularly enamored of or comfortable with teaching. Still, I saw value in doing a PhD: I wanted to challenge myself with a rigorous period of training in my chosen field, and I anticipated that a doctoral program would help me develop skills that I could then take into the job market.

To do what? Well, I really wasn’t sure, and I think that’s what confused people the most about me. I said I didn’t want to become a professor, but ... what was I going to do? The question I disliked being asked the most wasn’t why I was getting a PhD, but its inevitable follow-up: “What’s your dream job?” That one I always fended off, because I saw a lot of alt-ac jobs that looked appealing but had no idea what might be available when I was finished my degree. I didn’t want to get too attached to any particular position or type of job because I was afraid that would only lead to disappointment.

I thought about doing a lot of different things: I could see myself working in long-form journalism, documentary filmmaking, study-abroad administration, museum exhibit planning, travel writing, or publishing. (And on more than one occasion, I could see myself chucking my very frustrating dissertation and opening a hotel in rural China.) Fortunately, I had an advisor who was incredibly encouraging of my alt-ac plans from the start and who did everything he could to open doors and create opportunities for me. He ensured that I didn’t neglect the academic benchmarks that are expected of grad students—I did plenty of research and presented my work at plenty of conferences—but also helped me develop a distinct alt-ac identity that served me well when a job opportunity came my way soon after I filed my dissertation.

I met a lot of people during my years in grad school who seemed to think that I was wasting my time and UC Irvine’s money (as I had the good fortune to be fully funded). If I wasn’t going to become a professor, they argued, why bother doing a PhD in the first place? And my response was that a doctoral program—the training I received, the people I met, the skills I developed—would help me get somewhere, even if that destination was a blurry dot on the horizon.

I also met a lot of [older] academics who suggested that I could do alt-ac things while in a tenured job. You’re in a subfield that still has reasonably good job prospects, they argued, so just go on the job market, get a tenure-track job, work it for five years and get tenure (so easy!)—and then you’ll have the freedom to write, or make documentaries, or work on museum exhibits, or whatever you want. And there’s a certain logic to that path, but it wasn’t for me.

So I’ll finish here with the points that I wanted to communicate to the UC Irvine grad students who came to hear our panel discussion last week. If you’re thinking about doing a PhD but can’t envision yourself in a faculty job, or if you’re already in grad school and considering an alt-ac path,

  • Find an advisor or mentor who gets this and will help you balance meeting academic requirements with the pursuit of alt-ac skills and opportunities;

  • Be open to anything, because it’s really hard to predict when or where many alt-ac jobs will become available;

  • Consider the financial soundness of going to grad school, because even if you’re fully funded, there might be opportunity costs in not entering the job market for five or more years;

  • Know thyself, because a surprising number of people will question your choices;

  • And trust that five-plus years of sharpening your skills in reading, writing, research, analysis, and communication won’t steer you wrong. Nearly any job you pursue will require those skills.

For all the talk about alt-ac careers on sites like Inside Higher Ed and in the Chronicle, they’re still alternative. When I began grad school, I never imagined how much time I’d spend explaining to people why I wanted to be there and how a PhD could be useful outside the classroom, and even now that I’ve finished, I still find myself explaining this more frequently than you might think. But would I do it all over again? Absolutely. I might be alternative, but I’m still an academic at heart.

(Though if I could give Younger Maura one piece of advice, I’d tell her to take an intro to accounting class. Communication and analysis skills are all well and good, but it doesn’t hurt to know how money works, either.)

Are you thinking of taking an alt-ac path, or are you in an alt-ac job now? What are the things you think an aspiring alt-ac grad student should know?

[Image via Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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