On Being Alt Academic (Part 1)

In a recent article featured in The Atlantic, Elizabth Segran asked “What Can You Do With A Humanities Ph.D. Anyway?” and found as the subtitle suggested that “The choice to leave academia does not have to mean life as a barista.” For the article she interviewed Victoria Blodgett, director of Graduate Career Services at Yale University, who explained, “People who take their Ph.D.s into other realms are not necessarily being hired for their content expertise, but for their process skills: the ability to do excellent research, to write, to make cogent arguments.” Segran concluded, “These skills, it turns out, are in high demand.”

And this is what I have found in the last year as I have explored what is now being called an “Alt-Academic” (#altac) career. While teaching a couple of art history classes at a local college means I haven’t entirely left academia behind, my current position at a credit union places me within the 75% of PhDs without a tenure track position (for more on this see Allison B. Sekuler Barbara Crow, and Robert B. Annan’s “Beyond Labs and Libraries: Career Pathways for Doctoral Students”).

In the last year of my doctoral degree I returned to a part-time job I had done before, working a few days a week at a local credit union. Not only did it bring in a bit of money to cover some of the expenses I had incurred while traveling for research, but it also brought me in contact with people, easing the isolation that often accompanies dissertation writing and most importantly reminded me that sometimes there are things more important than the exact translation of a illegible word in a seventeenth-century document.

During this time a former colleague approached me about coming to work for her, at the company’s head office, back-filling a medical leave. Although the position was temporary, she convinced me that it could (and would! See part 2 of this post next week) open doors in the future. So two months before submitting my dissertation, I accepted a full-time position. Crazy right? While many in my cohort were buckling down, on lock down in the library or sequestering themselves in hotel rooms trying to finish, I took on a brand new job I had no idea how to do. Or did I?

In “When PhDs realize they won’t be professors,” MacLean’s magazines latest contribution to the ongoing dialog on the fate of academics making the transition to the “real world,” Josh Dehaas claims “many graduate students aren’t getting the support they need to prepare for non-academic careers.” But what is stopping graduate students from honing these skills themselves? As a grad student I developed skills highly in demand in other industries. Some of my proudest accomplishments demanded close collaboration with other scholars (here is my shout out to Sarah E.K. Smith, one of the brightest, most generous academics in Canada), developed communication skills (everything from the actual writing of articles etc. to carefully worded emails to supervisors), taught me grant and proposal writing (the fine art of self-promotion and begging for money), involved networking (nothing is more awkward than conference receptions – typically the more you admire a person’s work, the more socially inept they turn out to be) and of course critical thinking (no explanation needed). Ultimately, defending my dissertation in a timely fashion was a major feat of project management.