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Men and women approaching a victory cup from four different directions

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I am an academic failure. According to conventional academic metrics—works published and citations cited—I don’t meet the minimum criteria for an early-career scholar. Alternative metrics—such as peer evaluation, research blogs and news media coverage, both social and mainstream—while more forgiving, still don’t capture the full narrative. And I don’t do too much better there, either.

According to what I call “unspoken metrics,” or the expectations that establish and govern the criteria for successful academic trajectories, I am also a failure. My degree is from the United Kingdom, but not from the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge, which makes it lesser in the eyes of many United States–based academics. I did not succeed in securing a tenure-track position, never mind that I never really tried after weighing my options and contemporary structural constraints. And my research is qualitative. No fancy statistics here.

Still, what I have done may be of interest to those aware of unspoken metrics: I have secured a state position at a major research university, and I am technically considered a faculty member. I have a research scholar title that supports my research, and by the nature of my work at a nonprofit based at this university, I have the privilege of attending several academic conferences a year.

Yet at each conference, the same conversation repeats itself, like a televised rerun scheduled to play at regular intervals: “Is your job part-time?” “Are you currently pursuing any academic positions?” or “Oh, I thought you were a grad student.” (The latter, though, does have its merits in suggesting I look youthful.)

Many of these comments come from established professors who got their positions in a job market that doesn’t share many commonalities with today’s. And perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of those remarks, perhaps well meaning, come from men. That’s not to say that male tenured professors are unaware of the difficulty of today’s academic job market. Yet underlying such knowledge is the current worldview that if one does everything “right”—that is, attend the right program, publish, network and just work hard enough—it will all pay off. It’s the myth of meritocracy in action.

Whether this repeated awkward interaction is standard academic small talk, I can’t be sure. What I do know is that rarely do I hear the invitation “Tell me about your job” or “How do you like working for the International Studies Association?” And I also know that my experience is not unique, especially for people off the tenure track.

Academia is becoming more open to new approaches, new methods of analyzing data, new research questions influenced by current trends, new technology (ChatGPT, anyone?) and new career paths. So why has the definition of academia and its unspoken metrics not followed suit and broadened to meet these evolving circumstances, especially in a discipline like international studies, which prioritizes definitions, categories and frameworks?

Mainstreaming of alternative academic careers, or alt-ac, is a positive step in the right direction, as are further titles like administrative scholar. Both, however, by the hyphenated and compound nature of their taxonomy, capture the inherent in-betweenness of these career trajectories.

As the director of professional development at the nonprofit I mentioned, I focus on outreach and engagement through virtual events and programming and am distinctly placed to facilitate, develop and refer people to resources. (The Professor Is Out is a personal favorite.) I also play a significant role in fostering community among international studies scholars who are considering multiple career pathways, including those deemed off the beaten path. I am also singularly positioned to gauge which of our virtual initiatives will be the most valuable to the community of scholars.

For example, the event When the Plan Isn’t Solely to Pursue an Academic Job: Tips for Having Nurturing Conversations with Graduate Students was designed to help advisers support their doctoral candidates considering positions outside academia. It garnered only 33 registrations and eight live attendees. This was even more surprising given that this event was specifically tailored to a scholarly audience based in the United States, which composes nearly half of membership of the International Studies Association.

In comparison, the virtual event Ukraine: Terra Incognita, which I developed and ran shortly after Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, garnered 436 registrations and 175 live attendees, not including faculty members who signed up their entire classes to watch live.

The conclusion from this comparison seems clear to me: Analyses of current events drive greater interest than alternative career discussions. This is despite the fact that in 2022, 41.1 percent of political science and government doctorate recipients from U.S. institutions reported their definite employment plans as “not a tenure-track position.” But while the conclusion may be clear, the inattention to discussions and advice about alt-ac careers remains perplexing.

So I write this essay to bring awareness to this reality and the mindset that perpetuates it. While some suggestions below may not be a clear road map, they do offer general ideas on how to move forward across various institutional and individual fronts—and to perhaps even deal with the academic snark about not being on the tenure track.

  • Academic institutions. Integrate knowledge and training on various career paths into doctoral training with the objective that, even if candidates choose an academic pathway, they may later in their career supervise students who will not. Virtually every Ph.D. program, at least in the United States, is focused on how to be a researcher, and maybe how to be a teacher, but little else. Graduate students are not taught how to work in higher education administration, for example.
  • Professional associations. Mentoring and resources naturally vary by institution, so if you lead a professional association, you have a responsibility to provide resources to your members and facilitate dialogue among them on topics of interest when it comes to pursuing different career paths. You must be agile and adapt and react to the needs of your members within the wider context of the discipline.
  • Individual colleagues. Help change the culture of academia so it encourages a greater appreciation for a diversity of paths. Focus on promoting a culture of positive support rather than the passive negativity that people like me receive so recurrently. I would point you to a recent article featuring Laura J. Shepherd, a professor of international relations, that starts such a conversation.

We all know that the new reality of academia is not the old reality. New career trajectories, including those for scholars who are interested in leaving a tenure-track position, need to be normalized, legitimized and valued. Aside from being a more humane way to treat our students and colleagues, it is also a recognition of the numbers game that is the tenure-track job market.

With the cooperation of supervisors and committees, professional associations, career centers, and peer-to-peer discussions, we can start recognizing diversity in career outlets as another form of thinking about diversity and inclusion. And, ultimately, we can remake academe so it functions in a far more supportive and productive way.

Sarah W. Dorr is the director of professional development at the International Studies Association and a research scholar in global affairs at the University of Connecticut. The opinions presented here are her own.

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