On Choosing an Alternative Academic Path

An interview with instructional designer Kes Schroer.

September 26, 2016

My colleague Kes Schroer graciously agreed to answer my questions about her recent decision to pursue an alternative-academic career. 

Question 1:  Can you give us 2 sentences on your academic background and training?

I have a PhlD. in Hominid Paleobiology, a subfield of anthropology. I studied human evolution and human fossils. After completing my doctorate, I took a post-doc at Dartmouth to continue my research.

Question 2:  Tell us about your new job?

I teach and help faculty teach. I’m an instructional designer in Educational Technologies at Dartmouth, where I help faculty think about ways to boost student engagement in their classes. My responsibilities run the gamut from helping faculty write learning outcomes, leading workshops on active learning techniques, and training students as small-group facilitators. It’s a lot of fun.

Question 3:  What job (or jobs) did you not take after your postdoc?

When I was a post-doc, I was on auto-pilot for a professorship. I applied to a bunch of faculty jobs because that’s what I was supposed to do. I also applied for non-faculty jobs, as backup plans. I had an interview at one of the Smithsonian museums in DC and had a blast talking about teaching and learning, even though I didn’t get the job. 

When I got an offer to become faculty at a small liberal arts college, I had to turn it down. It was surreal. I had dreamed of becoming a professor since I was three-years-old. But it didn’t seem like the best fit anymore. I felt like I’d be taking a spot from someone who was perfect for it, and that I was a perfect fit for something else. Thank goodness the job at Dartmouth came along.


Question 4: So you didn’t have this job lined up when you turned down a faculty offer?

Nope. I didn’t have any other jobs lined up. It was scary.

Question 5:  Why would any sane person choose an alt-ac career over the tenure track?

I think it’s the other way around. It’s very sane to have an alt-ac career, or as my friend Ian Street (postdoc and science writer) says, the jobs are really “academic adjacent.”

I’m still in higher ed. I still get to work with students and conduct research. I haven’t left academia. I’ve just redefined our relationship. 

Now I work regular hours and don’t feel guilty when I’m not at the lab at 2 am. I have a well-defined incentive structure.  I have a great team to rely upon instead of having to be a “lone-wolf” all the time. This is a great job.

Question 5:  What advice do you have for other early career academics?

Embrace your PhD.

I hear from lots of early career academics who are scared they won’t find a job outside of academia. But I don’t know any unemployed PhDs. There are so many industries - the government, consulting, tech, pharmaceuticals - who are looking for PhDs. 

PhDs are rare outside of academia, and a dissertation is stone-cold proof you are self-motivated and can see big projects through to completion.  Plus grad school comes with a lot of transferable skills, like research, collaboration, and project management. You might have to apply to a lot of jobs, but you’ll probably get one you like. 

Questions for You:  

Do you have a similar story to Kes?

What would you like to ask Kes about her choice to pursue an alternative-academic career?


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