Traditional Ph.D. Programs and Alt-Ac Careers

3 essential skills that they don’t teach us in grad school.

November 20, 2014

I wouldn’t trade my current alt-ac career or my traditional PhD graduate degree for anything.  My alternative academic (alt-ac) career in digital learning at Dartmouth’s Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) is endlessly challenging and constantly invigorating.  The gig enables me to collaborate with the most amazing faculty and non-faculty educators on the planet.  There really is no more exciting space in postsecondary education to work than the intersection of learning and technology.  Coming to this digital learning alt-ac role from a traditional PhD program, and years of teaching (and some research - as well as a spell in the for-profit tech and publishing world), has proved a strong foundation for this work.  I trained for a career as a traditional academic.  Graduate school put the academic perspective deep into my DNA.  Where many of the theoretical frameworks and methodological techniques that I studied to become terminally qualified in sociology and demography have grown rusty from disuse, I remain thoroughly socialized and acculturated into the traditional academic worldview.  

While getting a PhD clearly helps in our alt-ac efforts to interact with faculty as colleagues and equals, this is clearly a problematic and perhaps counterproductive state of affairs.  Our best non-faculty educators on our campuses may come with other qualifications beyond a terminal degree.  It is not clear to me that a PhD creates a better instructional designer, program administrator, or division head.   A PhD is as much of a symbol as a qualifier.  The ability to contribute to the knowledge of one's discipline may be a poor indication of the ability to make important contributions to one’s institution.  Us alt-ac people may be doing research, but rarely the sort of research (in our day jobs) that our grad program prepared us.  Would I advise those alt-ac professional in academe to pursue a terminal degree?  No doubt.  Do I think a PhD is any kind of guarantee that an alt-ac professional will be any more productive than those lacking this credential?  Not a chance.

The longer I spend in my alt-ac career the more acutely aware I am of the critical academic skills that I did not learn in my graduate training.  These skills include:

Skill 1.  Finance, Budgeting, and Higher Ed Economics:

A great deal of my time, and even more of my mental energy, is spent thinking about money.  Where does it come from?  How to spend it responsibly?  How to plan effectively?  I think about the various sources of revenue for my institution and higher ed as a whole.  I worry about the growing costs of higher education, a worry that extends beyond paying for college for my two kids.  How will we bend the cost curve?  How can we improve learning while simultaneously increasing access and bending the cost curve?  

There seems to be a great deal to learn about higher ed finances and higher ed economics.  Everything from how to create and manage a budget to how individual department and unit budgets roll up into the larger revenue and spending picture.  All of this information and skills seem essential.  In grad school I had zero training in higher ed budgeting or higher ed economics.  How the university is funded, and how higher ed economics operate, simply never came up in grad school.  It was a topic as foreign as learning Latin (or Klingon), as remote ballroom dancing lessons would have been in a traditional array of sociology and demography courses.  I think that graduate students should not get out of graduate school without a basic understanding of higher ed finances, budgeting, and economics.  

Skill 2.  Communications:

I’m starting to believe that communications skills are the most important skills in determining the success (or failure) of any alt-ac career.  Communications at every level.  The social intelligence involved in interpersonal communications.  The writing ability necessary to send concise but effective e-mails.  The analytical abilities to make arguments with evidence.  The ability to coalesce change by building coalitions.  The wisdom and skill to build alliances and networks.  The ability and desire to lead from the middle.  Our communications skills determine how we conduct ourselves in our day-to-day work.  Our ability to do what we say we will do.  The degree to which we are viewed as reliable and steady partners and colleagues.  

Our need for strong communications skills goes far beyond personal and collegial relationships.  We are internal and external communicators for our teams, for our units, for our divisions.  We need to understand how to communicate on different levels and on different platforms.  To be both consistent in our message, but to also moderate and modulate our message and delivery based on our audience.  To create communications opportunities that are two-way (or multi-threaded) conversations.  To understand the demands of message and audience, and to grasp what channels and methods are most appropriate for immediate and long-term communications needs.  Graduate school offered no training, formal or informal, in communications.  Learning to write, present, and teach in the discipline (to the extent that these skills are explicitly developed in grad school), does not prepare us for the demands of communication outside of a narrow range of discipline specialists.  Communications training should be integrated into the training of every graduate student.

Skill 3.  Personal Leadership Skills:

I understant that the purpose of most traditional graduate programs (certainly the program that I attended) is to create specialists.  Specialists who will create new knowledge.  Who will contribute to the discipline.  Who will be expected to train others in the discipline.  A PhD is not a generalist degree.  A PhD is not a management or a leadership degree.   Yet the work of the alt-ac professional is the work of a generalist.  We need to know a little about a great deal of things.  We need to effectively partner with professionals who work in the full range of academic and non-academic disciplines.  This work, at least for many of us, demands the ability to lead without commensurate organizational or bureaucratic authority.  We may have some direct reports, but the vast majority of the work requires that coordination of people’s efforts outside our range of organizational authority.  Today’s higher ed institutions are classic matrix organizations.  They are largely nonhierarchical, or at least the traditional hierarchies no longer conform (or assist in) to the work that needs to get done.  Personal leadership abilities have very little to do with titles or positions, and everything to do with the ability to build strong relationships and to provide support and assistance for the people that we work with and for.   How much personal leadership training do we get in grad school?  

What essential alt-ac skills did you learn outside of grad school?


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