Navigating Your Alt-Ac Career During COVID-19

Pandemic-related opportunities and challenges for nonfaculty educators.

October 15, 2020

The depths of a global pandemic may seem like the wrong time to think about one’s academic career. We are still mostly all in survival mode, surfing uncertainties and trying to make it day to day. However, alternative academics (alt-acs) need to spend some thinking about navigating their higher ed careers. The reality for alt-acs is that nobody else on your campus will likely do this for you.

Unlike the milestones and markers of a tenure-track academic career, an alternative academic career is mostly improvisational. Instead of career progression, alt-acs have career creation.

How might alt-acs think about the next steps in their careers during COVID-19? Three ideas:

1. Be Clear About Your Strengths

Life under COVID-19 can be clarifying. Living through crazy times can help us see clearly what matters.

When it comes to navigating an alt-ac career, the essential self-knowledge to develop is understanding one’s strengths.

In most cases, what you are best at will also be what you love doing. If you could spend your academic career doing one or two things, what would they be?

2. See If You Can Create or Move Into Your Ideal Campus Job

Strengths are different from job titles. Alt-acs can mostly give up the idea of a linear career, one where responsibility (or direct reports) increases with experience. The worst thing to happen to an alt-ac may be to get promoted to a management position.

If you are an alt-ac and working in an area of a college or university that does not play to your strengths, then this may be the time to make a change. COVID-19 has opened things up in that colleges and universities have had to make rapid changes. You may be able to move to another role at your institution that better matches what you are best at and what you love doing.

The key to making that move is to worry less about the title and more about the work. Many alt-acs end up managing people or units when what they’d rather be doing is working on projects or courses. Now is an excellent time to try to make that change.

3. Think About the Flexibility That Remote Work Might Afford

One opportunity that COVID-19 might provide some alt-acs is the ability to shift to permanent remote work. Most alt-acs are working remotely now and will do so for many months to come. Now might be the time to negotiate remote work as part of your alt-ac role.

Many alternative academics will benefit from disconnecting their jobs from a specific geography. A remote job allows you to follow a partner to a new city or move to take care of a family member.

Alternative academics may not be able to negotiate higher salaries (as most salaries are frozen during COVID). Still, it may be possible to move to a less expensive place to live.


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