5 Ways My PhD Left Me Unprepared For An Alt-Ac Career

Wishing for a more inclusive and generous discussion about academic credentials and the changing nature of postsecondary work.

April 18, 2017

There has been an interesting discussion going on over at the GradHacker IHE blog on alt-careers and academic librarianship.  Part of the conversation is about the extent to which a PhD prepares one for a career as academic librarian.  While I can't say too much about the relationship between a PhD and the role of an academic librarian, I can talk about my experience in my own PhD program, and my subsequent (and ongoing) alt-ac career.

5 Ways My PhD Left Me Unprepared For An Alt-Ac Career:

1 - Understanding How Higher Education Works:

Over the years I’ve become a student of higher education.  I try to read as much as I can about the history, structure, organization, policies, culture, and economics of postsecondary education.  I’ve taken to my study of higher education with the zeal of a convert - but it would have been great to receive some formal training.  It seems that it is possible to get a PhD without ever learning much about the industry in which the PhD is embedded.  

2 - Learning How People Learn:

The absence of any formal training in learning science stands out to me as the greatest gap in my graduate studies.  I learned how to create knowledge and was socialized into the norms and practices of my discipline - but I never learned how to teach my discipline.  My lack of formal training in learning science and instructional design made my subsequent work as an instructional designer - and later as a director of digital learning initiatives - more difficult.  I learned about learning science as I went, sponging up as much research and theory and methods as I could from my formally trained colleagues.  Learning a new discipline of learning science and instructional design, after learning my traditional disciplines of sociology and demography, took many many years.  I’m still catching up - and my colleagues who have spent their entire careers in this community of practice seem to me to be still far ahead.

3 - Building Leadership Skills:

During my PhD studies I received no training in leading organizational change, or in other areas of personal leadership.  I’ve learned over many years that being a leader is not about a title, but about the ability to contribute at what ever level one is working.  Leadership is not about being the boss, but about building relationship and coalitions.  Leadership is not about having people follow you, but about serving the people that you work with.  My sense is that, if anything, going through a traditional PhD programs gives one a false idea about what an academic leader does.  I’ve had to unlearn a set of beliefs and assumptions about leadership throughout my alt-ac career.  This is a work in progress.

4 - Budgeting, Finance, and Project Management Skills:

Perhaps it is not fair to say that graduate students going through a PhD program should learn budgeting, finance, and project management skills.  There is only so much time in a day, and PhD programs take long enough as it is to complete.  What I would say is that completing a dissertation is not the same thing as learning good project management skills.  We should not overestimate the transferability of skills in successfully navigating a PhD program and in successfully navigating an alt-ac career.  I’ve seen little evidence that people with terminal degrees are any better at leading institutional change initiatives than those without the PhD.  Essential skills for alt-ac leadership, such as being able to talk with and understand the budget and finance people, are pretty much lacking from traditional PhD programs.  Us PhD people can learn all these skills - but we need to be honest in what we don’t know - and carve out the time and energy to develop skills that we don’t have.

5 - Developing Communication Skills:

If you move from a traditional academic career to an alt-ac career, as I have done, you quickly learn that your method of communicating in the former does not work so well in the latter.  I got very good in grad school in writing for people in my discipline.  I got lots of experience making presentations for other sociologists and demographers.  What I did not get to practice is communicating with people who don’t share my same level of background knowledge or domain-specific expertise.  I never learned how to communicate with an audience of non-specialists, or specialists outside of my discipline. Communication is the most important skill for an alt-ac professional, and the most difficult task that we do.  Those of us with a PhD think that we are great at communicating - as we confuse teaching (we think we are great at also) with communicating.  We conflate expertise in one domain with knowledge about many areas.  We don’t know enough to learn from the experts in communication.  

None of this is to say that I’m against getting a PhD.  And I think that an alt-ac career is an amazing choice for the terminally degreed.  I think that I have the best job in all of higher education.  

All I’m saying is that we should be clear-eyed in the limitations of the PhD, and avoid assuming that someone with a PhD is better qualified for a particular alt-academic role.

Finally, I have not written about all the reasons that I think that my PhD training helped me in my alt-academic role.  Those ideas are for another post.

Are you a PhD working in an alt-ac role?  What didn’t your degree prepare you for?

Are you an alt-ac professional thinking about - or in the midst of - working towards a PhD?  Why did you decide to go for that degree?

How can we have a more inclusive, and more generous,  discussion about academic credentials and the changing nature of postsecondary work?


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