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The 5 Stages of An Alt-Ac Career

A model to help makes sense of the past, present, and future of our non-faculty educator careers.

September 15, 2016
 

If you were to divide your past, present, and future alt-ac (alternative academic) career into stages - what would you come up with?

The reason to try to come up with a career model for us alt-ac folks is that so few career models for our profession exist.  Those of us working in an alt-ac career always feel like we are making it up as we are going along.  There are few clearly established milestones or career weigh stations.

Unlike our (lucky few) faculty colleagues, we don’t progress through a recognized path of assistant, associate, and full professorship.  There is no tenure for alternative academics.

So we need to come up with our own career staging.  One not based on job titles, but maybe one based on goals, ambitions, reach, and impact?

According to the internet (can the internet be cited as a source?) - there are typically 5 stages in any career:  1- exploration, 2 - progress, 3 - satisfaction, 4 -evaluation, and 5- legacy.

We also have a 5 stage model for Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (in its original formulation): 1. biological and physiological needs, 2. safety needs, 3. love and belongingness needs, 4. esteem needs, 5. self-actualization needs.  

When you start to Google, 5-stage models are everywhere.  There is the “classic 5 stage culture shock model”: 1 - the honeymoon stage, 2 - the distress stage, 3 - re-integration stage, 4 - autonomy stage, and 5 - independence stage.  

And there are of course also the 5-stages of grief (which often mimic the progression of many academic careers): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

What other career or life cycle models (with 5 stages) can you share?

I’m going to try to generalize from my own career to propose a 5-stage model for an alt-ac career.  Generalizing from one’s own experience is a dicey proposition at best - an effort guaranteed to be flawed and unrepresentative - but maybe this is a starting place.

The stages of my own alt-ac career roughly correspond to my decades on the planet:

Stage 1 - Traditional Discipline Training and Academic Socialization (my twenties):

During my twenties I went to grad school, got my first traditional academic job, and went through the process of being trained and socialized into my academic discipline. 

I went to grad school expecting that I would become a professor.  And I loved the discipline.  Loved learning its language and its methods, loved my early efforts in creating knowledge within its boundaries, and loved teaching its fundamentals and its intricacies.

Many, although not all, of us alternative academics started our professional careers within a traditional academic discipline.  Few of us - although a growing number - went into academia thinking that we would have an alt-ac career. 

At some point, many of us pivoted from traditional academic career paths to the current alt-ac trajectories that we now find ourselves.  Letting go of my initial academic identity (am I still a sociologist, a demographer?) has been amongst the most difficult aspects of embracing an alt-ac career.

Stage 2 - The Alt-Ac Pivot - Falling In Love With the Non-Faculty Educator Role (my thirties):

The reasons that many of us pivoted from traditional to alternative academic careers are varied and diverse.  My pivot was the result of both a desire to live in the same city as my partner (I was a trailing spouse 3 times), and the fact that I fell in love with the world of online learning, instructional design, and learning science.

My own story of this pivot was that I was teaching intro to sociology and advanced population courses and researching low-wage workers, but finding myself getting more interested in the spaces where education and technology intersect. 

I went from making my living teaching face-to-face - to making my living by helping to start, run, and teach in online programs.

During my thirties I learned everything that I could about instructional design, learning theory, and the world of educational technology.   Transitioning my professional identity and career away from that of a sociologist and demographer, and towards that of an instructional designer and educational technologist, had the added benefit of allowing me to more easily follow my partner across 3 different states for her education and career.

It was during this decade of my alt-ac career where I got involved in a professional organizations (in my case EDUCAUSE), developed a professional network of peers across higher ed, and started to gain confidence in my new academic (non-faculty) professional identity.

What is your pivot story?  Or maybe you did not pivot, and started out your career training for an alternative-academic life?  

Stage 3 - Alt-Ac Middle Management and Player Coaching (my forties - where I am now):

The third decade of my academic career (and 2nd decade of my alt-ac career) has been one of new challenges and opportunities.  I’ve been fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time to be able to contribute to the creation and development of a couple of online programs.   During this stage I moved from working mostly as a hands-on practitioner in instructional design and educational technology, to more of the role of a player-coach.

Are you an alt-ac player coach?

Many of us in this 3rd stage of our alt-ac career find ourselves in higher ed middle management.  We have direct reports.  Budgets.  Deliverables. 

I seriously doubt that any alt-ac people went to grad school saying that they wanted to work in middle management.  The great thing, however, is that the people that you work with in our non-faculty educator world are the most amazing people on the planet.

What does your third decade of your academic career (wherever you are in your alt-ac progression) look like?  How have your job titles and responsibilities changed?

Stage 4 - Working for Institutional and Systemic Impact (my fifties - a few short years from now):

So I don’t turn 50 until 2019, so I have a few years until the start of my 4th decade (and 4th stage) of my alt-ac career.  So I’m projecting forward a bit.  And none of these stages imply hard transitions or big leaps.  They all sort of blend into each other.  As the statistician George Box once said, "All models are wrong, but some are useful”.   We are trying to come up with a model for the alt-ac career path.

What I imagine about this 4th stage of my (and maybe your) alt-ac career is that it will be all about impact.  About trying to have as much impact as possible on my institution, as well as on the system of postsecondary education.

The problems that I am most interesting in working on with my colleagues are all about improving learning.  How can we create the conditions at individual institutions, and across our higher ed sector, where learning is prioritized and supported?  How can we improve access to learning?  How can we drive down the costs for quality learning?  How can we better support, protect, and pay our educators?  (The people at the heart of any learning equation).   How can we leverage technology to advance our goals of improving learning?  Can we find ways to raise the level of postsecondary educational productivity, while at the same time investing in a model that prioritizes the role of educators?  What roles do new technologies and new teaching methods play in a traditional liberal arts institution, and how can we expand the benefits of a liberal arts education to more learners?

What higher ed problems are you most interested in tackling?  

How do you think that effort will look like in the 4th stage of your alt-ac career?

What sorts of job titles are the best matches for these ambitions in the 4th decade of an alt-ac career I can only guess.

Stage 5 - I Have No Idea (my sixties and beyond):

What does an alt-ac career look like in its 5th decade?  I have no idea?  Maybe a return to the classroom?  Perhaps the discovery of large amounts of time and attention for scholarship?

What I do know is that this is work that I want to do well into my sixties, seventies, eighties (who knows how long one can go).  The gift of being an educator means that the older you get the more you learn, and the more you have to pass along.   We should be doing more to celebrate our alt-ac gray heads - the pioneers who created our alternative academic disciplines and laid the foundations for our current work.

Are you someone in your 4th or 5th decade of an alt-ac career?

Do the stages of your alt-ac career look anything like what I have come up with?

Our alt-ac life lacks any defined career path.  It is not clear to those inside our profession what an alt-ac career progression even looks like.  Should this lack of an established alt-ac career progression map motivate us to create our own maps?

Where do you situate yourself in this this alt-ac career stage model?

How would you describe your own alt-ac history, present, and future?

 

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