Negotiating Our Alt-Ac Professional Identities

Living in the gray.

January 23, 2019

What is the professional identity of an alternative academic (alt-ac)?

Why does the alt-ac career path so often feel so treacherous?

Why do even alt-acs who love the work that they do on a daily basis often feel ambivalent about our career paths?

The answers to these questions lie, at at least partially, in the differing ways that alternative and traditional academics must negotiate their professional identities.

Traditional academics are what they do. Asked about their jobs, a professor will not say that she does biology, economics or sociology. Instead, she will say that she is a biologist, economist, or sociologist.

Among traditional academics, this shift in identity from having a job (something one does) to having an identity (something one is) is explained by two forces.

The first factor is training.  Going through a Ph.D. program in a traditional academic is largely an exercise in socialization into the discipline. The grad student learns not only the methods, techniques, theories, and literature of her field - she also learns the norms, values, hierarchies, prejudices, and language of the discipline.

A grad student starts out by studying a subject. If they finish their Ph.D. (a dubious proposition, as most don't), they have become a member of the discipline. This explains why the loyalty of traditional professors is less to their departments or schools, and more to the academic discipline in which they trained.

Traditional academic promotion at schools that prioritize research productivity is largely a matter of developing a reputation for impact among disciplinary peers.  Evaluations for tenure and promotion are done, in part, by academics within the discipline who work at other schools.

The second reason why traditional academics tend to build their professional identity around their discipline has to do with the higher ed job market.  Most Ph.D. programs continue to be designed around the goal of creating professors.  Graduate students are trained to do the jobs of their advisors and mentors.

The funnel from graduate student to Ph.D. graduate to tenure track professor is very narrow.  The academic job market is radically imbalanced.  There are far too few tenure track positions for every Ph.D. who trained for one. If a new Ph.D. is lucky enough to land a tenure track job (often after multiple post-docs), their ability to then earn tenure is nowhere near guaranteed.  The first five-to-seven years of an assistant professor's career is focused on little else but achieving promotion to associate.

The pre-tenure years of an academic are all-consuming.  Junior academics that have not been fully socialized into the norms and expectations of their discipline, concerning both scholarship and teaching, have little chance of getting tenure.

Alternative academics face different challenges than those on the traditional faculty path. We have no established route to promotion.  No clear career ladder to climb.  There is no point where an alternative academic gains "acceptance" into the discipline through the process of peer review and then promotion.

Unlike traditional academics who are tenured or on the tenure track, alternative academics lack any clear set of reciprocal relations and expectations with the institutions in which they work. The university has no obligations or responsibilities to the alt-ac.

Traditional faculty have a well-established set of norms and practices that govern their relationship with the schools in which they work. These include a set of fully articulated criteria for tenure and promotion.  Traditional faculty members have rights related to academic freedom. They participate in the decisions pertaining to the running of the institution through mechanisms of faculty governance.

Alternative academics, in contrast, do not have much in the way of legible career paths. Due to the rapidly changing nature of many parts of higher education, much of the work that alt-acs do has never been done before.  There are few people that alt-acs can point to as examples of a model alternative academic career.

Further, alt-acs lack any clear reciprocal set of obligations and rights with the schools that they work.  An alt-ac is almost always an "at-will" employee, with little in the way of job protections. There is no corresponding concept of academic freedom in the alt-ac world.

As academics, those on alternative career paths share many of the same values as traditional faculty.  Our career choices follow our academic passions.  Alt-acs are driven by a sense of mission rather than careerism. Alternative academics gravitate to academic jobs as working in higher ed matches their values.  These values include a belief in higher education as an engine of opportunity creation and individual and community growth.

Alternative academics think much like traditional academics, but they do so in a structure that keeps us at the margins of our institutions.  This mismatch can play havoc as we work to navigate our professional identities and our long-term academic careers. With a passion for our academic work that is not matched by a reciprocated commitment to our professional growth and stability, alt-acs are left with a few choices in how to think about and manage their careers.

Alt-acs can work assiduously to gain acceptance as educators and colleagues - to move from the margins to the center of their institutions - but do so with the knowledge that successes will be hard fought and likely fleeting.

No academic career, be it alternative or traditional, is easy or particularly fair.  Traditional academics, and particularly traditional academics that look and think differently from those in positions of authority and power, also face enormous obstacles in establishing and securing their careers.

To fully inhabit a professional identity as an alt-ac requires making peace with a broader set of higher education structures and cultural assumptions that are unlikely to evolve rapidly.  Alternative academics must understand that the challenges they likely face in establishing their professional identities are shared challenges.  The alt-ac path is a difficult one, and it is easy to blame oneself for not figuring out how to navigate to something that feels more secure and stable.

This recognition that alt-acs are operating within an existing academic culture can give those on the alternative path space to be perhaps a bit less self-critical.

How are you negotiating your alternative academic identity?


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