Alt-Ac-Attack: Thoughts on Preparing for the Job Market

The job market is not great right now. We all know it. We don’t always want to think about it. And, since several years pass between the first year of grad school and the last year, it’s very easy to avoid thinking about it: just put your nose to the dissertation grindstone until that last frantic year when you have to look up from your work and look around. The market can change a lot in five, six, seven years as well: when I left undergrad in 2006, it wasn’t horrible. Now… it is, and it seems like grad programs are realizing this and making moves to address it. We are just starting to really assess this issue in my own department, and we’re trying to do this in two related ways: focus on preparations for the academic job market earlier in a student’s career AND accentuate other options that we’re not often taught to consider: alternative academic careers, in other words. In this post, I’d like to describe some of the issues and possible positive practices we discussed in a recent meeting among grad students in my department. I’d also really like to start a dialogue about what other departments are doing to help their graduates prepare for a more positive future after all their hard work.

Alt-ac jobs unjustly get a bad rap: they’re spoken of with low tones, shaken heads, shrugged shoulders. We’re so focused on getting that increasingly unrealistic tenure-track professorship that anything else seems like some kind of failure. And it really, really shouldn’t. Jobs are hard to get in many professions, but variations using the same skill sets don’t seem to be looked down upon as much as they currently are in academia. So, one of the first problems to be fixed is this negative attitude towards jobs that require exactly the types of abilities at which we excel, jobs that would provide financial stability, health care, productivity, and a lot of genuine happiness. Concerns that interfere with considering these options early might include support from the department, committee expectations, discussions (or silences) amongst fellow grad students about such subjects, as well as simple confusion about how to market skills we already have or even how to find alternative career options. All these problems are fixable. My department has taken a first step by putting a recently-hired faculty member in charge to act as a go-to person to help students on an individual basis as they approach graduation as well as to hold various workshops and meetings related to academic and alt-ac job concerns. Overall, we’ve discussed some New School-Year’s Resolutions as we round out the end of our current semester:

Start early. As I said, it’s really easy (and, let’s face it, enjoyable!) to get wrapped up in your research and to forget about where it might lead you after graduation. I, myself, am incredibly guilty of this. Just starting to poke around at what jobs are available from time to time can create awareness (without panic) and can also give you a sense of the timeline for applying to various positions. Start making the most of what you’re doing right now. Have faculty come observe your teaching in preparation for letters of recommendation. Get involved with committees in which you may already have an interest. Use summers to explore short-term alt-ac jobs that might require editing, grant-writing, teaching, etc.  

Know what we have. We have so many skills that would make us fantastic professors. But they’d also make us lots of other fantastic kinds of professionals. We can speak in public and plan lessons and manage groups of people and think on our feet and make information interesting and read large amounts and synthesize and simplify and summarize and analyze and explain and entertain and proofread and edit and a hundred other things. But we don’t always translate what we do into these broader skills. Some of the future workshops we’ve discussed focus on this kind of translation: how to recognize our skills, how to use our writing skills for different types of writing, how to change a C.V. into a résumé, etc.

Speak and listen. Half the problem with both the impending trauma of the job market and the search for alt-ac jobs is that we don’t talk enough about them. We don’t talk about what we think about putting our skills to use in different ways, and we don’t discuss what those different ways might be. What we’ve done, just by having a meeting to discuss the new faculty position and what we’d like it to cover, is to allow ourselves to talk and to listen to one another. This is huge. What’s more, we’re hoping to be able to speak and listen to those outside our current student and faculty population by contacting alumni who have pursued various career options with our same educations. We’ve begun to bring in speakers who can help us think about aspects of professional development and alt-ac careers. We’re planning mock interviews and job talks amongst ourselves, as well as more informal discussions about other aspects of applications.

The job market is a sensitive subject for practically everyone right now, particularly for academics who have invested so much time and energy into a very specific career path. Yet, it’s also a concern near and dear to our hearts as we watch friends and colleagues struggle and prepare for struggles of our own. I am incredibly pleased and proud to be part of these steps to create a space for such an important conversation.  

But, I know we are certainly not alone. I’d really like to open up this discussion to my fellow blog-readers: what steps have your departments taken to think about the job market and alt-ac careers? What have you found useful or frustrating in regards to the leap from graduate student to job seeker? What have you found really helpful in this process?

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