So you want to invite an alt-ac to speak on your campus

As the job market for higher ed breathes its final gasps, grad programs around the country are looking for ways to connect their students with people who have successfully transitioned out of academia.

This is the right thing to do. Most of your students are not going to get tenure track jobs this year, and while some of them may have the capacity to wait out the failed economy with a series of contingent or temporary positions, others are going to be looking for a way out.

Your instinct to invite alt-ac workers to speak on your campus is good, and I’m happy to report that we can help.

The Academic Job Market Support Network was formed long before COVID-19 put the final nail in the coffin of tenure-track employment. It is designed to help humanities phds navigate the academic job market and, increasingly, the transition to alt-ac.

The Academic Job Market Support Network is an initiative built on transparency, community, and generosity. Our purpose is to improve equity in career outcomes by providing resources for students regardless of their cultural or economic background or the status of their institutions.

Among the resources we offer is the Alt-Ac Support Network spreadsheet, a public list of volunteers interested and available to speak with students about their careers. The database provides the names, contact info, and background of post-phd workers, and states whether they are available for one-on-one consultations as well as departmental visits.

You can share this list with your students, who can use it as a networking resource. You an also invite people from the list to speak with your students about their background and their profession.

Please do this!

But if you are newly awakened to the alt-ac world, if this is the first time your department is making a concerted effort to help students pursue alt-ac careers, then there are some things you should know before you start emailing alumni and contacting strangers.

First, note that this is the companion post to a much angrier piece I wrote about what it’s like to be invited to speak as an alt-ac worker. I encourage you to check out that article, which has resources and tips for working in alt-ac.

In this gentler piece, I simply want to remind you that many of us who left academia for other careers did so because we had no other choice. We may be happier now than we would have been on the tenure track; we may have better salaries and a better quality of life; but many of us carry with us the weight of that disappointment.

I also want to remind you that alt-ac speakers are most effective when we are part of a more comprehensive professionalization program. We simply cannot carry the fear and uncertainty and broken dreams of your students.

What we can do is serve as models for the kinds of careers that are possible outside of the tenure track and provide practical advice about how to prepare to leave academia while pursuing a PhD.

This is most effective when a department has already done the work of preparing their students for professional development. Some things you might do to prepare include:

  1. Collect information on both academic and alt-ac career outcomes for graduates in your department over the past one, five, and ten years.
  2. Collect information on the career aspirations of your current graduate students and their feelings about how well prepared they are to pursue those careers. Note that students often feel like they will be punished by their department for speaking honestly about this, so consider an anonymous assessment.
  3. Assess how your department has responded to the changes to the academic job market since 2008. Consider activities such as: curriculum redesign, expansion of dissertation requirements, expansion of job-market preparation, changes in faculty advising responsibilities, changes in cohort size, changes in student and faculty recruitment strategies, introduction of funded internship programs, and formalized (and funded) partnerships with alt-ac organizations and professionals.
  4. Assess how your department establishes and maintains relationships with alt-ac professionals. Do you have funds set aside to invite them to provide mentorship, support, or guest lectures? Do you provide funded internship programs? Do you hire alt-ac professionals to adjunct in your department?
  5. Assess how your department is supporting your graduate students. Do student stipends meet your city’s cost of living? What are the financial conditions of your international students? Do your students have a union?
  6. Assess how your department is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Are you providing emergency funds for students who have lost summer income? Have you extended student funding packages & time to degree? Have you established postdocs for students graduating now? Are you communicating regularly and clearly with your graduate students about your pandemic response?

As an alt-ac speaker, I have been invited to campuses where I was the only alt-ac training students received, and to campuses where I was part of a series of speakers invited during a student’s final year.

I have never been invited to speak on a campus where alt-ac preparation begins prior to the final year of a student’s phd.

By the time students reach their final year of their phd, it’s much too late for them to start preparing for an alt-ac career. This doesn’t mean they can’t have one. But it means their transition is likely to be more difficult and more painful.

This is why I encourage you to use the alt-ac spreadsheet to invite people to campus. But I encourage you to do it as part of a more comprehensive effort to help students prepare for their post-grad careers.

Engraving by Dürer showing angels and a seven-headed dragon.
Engraving by Dürer showing angels and a seven-headed dragon.
The woman of the Apocalypse and the seven-headed dragon. British Library.

digital | humanist

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