The #alt-ac Conversation I Wish We Could Have

“You know, what you really want to do is create a personal brand,” the career counselor announced, a PowerPoint display glowing behind her with the image of a man in a suit shaking hands with a woman in power heels. I looked at the audience members around me, and I saw eye rolls, wry smiles, and head shakes. I heard groans, whispering. We were an audience of humanities PhD students, attending an event on non-academic career paths, a hot topic given the changing academic job market and its move towards privatization and “adjunctification.” In this moment, looking around the room, it was clear to me what the problem was: this counselor did not know her audience.

After all, this was an audience intensely critical of corporate models and language; we’re inclined to critique and unpack phrases like “personal brand” and its neoliberal implications. We’re also an audience that has a “personal brand” already; we’re scholars and instructors. That’s how we’ve identified for years. We didn’t want to be in power heels and suits. That wasn’t the point of getting a PhD.

And yet here we all were, wondering whether we were looking into a future of hand-shaking in power suits. Certainly not all “alt-ac” conversations are about branding and marketing, but I’m increasingly aware of how many seem to elide what seems to be a central issue: how does a group of people whose identities are so enveloped in their work, change their work, and consequently how they identify themselves?

So, I want to propose some points of conversation that I wish #alt-ac communities could have. Personally, I’m excited that there’s so much open conversation about pursuing alternatives to academia with PhD, and I feel comforted knowing that it is possible to pursue stimulating work using the immensely valuable skills I’ve developed in graduate school. With that said, I still have questions…

  • How do I prepare myself for multiple careers without going crazy? There’s a large part of me that thrives off of doing a several things at once. I currently manage a UC Davis undergraduate student blog, teach, and consult with graduate student writers while – you know – preparing to write a dissertation. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier; I love everything that I’m doing and in a perfect world, I think I probably would want my “ideal job” to be something that combines all of these interests. With that said, I don’t quite know how to be a “perfect” academic alongside all of these other interests too. How do I churn out articles, attend conferences, and network in several industries at the same time? Is it possible? Somehow, I feel like that’s what I’m expected to do, and I’m not sure if I can actually meet those expectations. I’d love to hear if anyone else had insight on this.
  • What industries value the PhD in the humanities? Where can I go to avoid “PhD stigma?” I find myself continually troubled by the stigma I experience when I tell people I’m getting a PhD in the humanities. I’ve been shocked by a lot of the backlash I’ve received when I’ve explained my choice to people; responses range from mocking derision (a smirk and a statement like, “Good luck with that”), to confusion (“What are you going to do with that?”) to dismissal (“Oh, so you’re going to become a teacher. Great.”). I know these attitudes are pervasive and, like all stereotypes, they are rooted in some truth. That said, I have no regrets about going to graduate school. I know that I’m a better project manager, communicator, and collaborative worker than I ever was as an undergraduate. My perspective on communicating with different audiences, of refining my writing for different purposes, and of working in teams has deepened considerably. That’s not to mention how positive my work environment has been; I’m constantly inspired and motivated by mentors and colleagues who are engaged, positive, and thoughtful. So, where can I go in the future, who can I talk to about these immense skills I’ve gained, and perhaps most importantly, who will actually listen?
  • How do I find ways to re-identify? I’ve always thought of myself as a student and writer. My work has always been really enveloped in my values. There’s not much I enjoy more than hashing out ideas with another writer, working together to clarify their thoughts and deepen their insights. Though I know that I am more than my work, my work – as an instructor and as a learner – is largely how I self-identify. So, choosing a career beyond academia seems challenging in some ways because it forces me not just to look for new forms of income, but also to identify myself differently. So, how do we shift our expectations? How can we find some ways to maintain that core of who we (think we) are while still being able to – well – eat and pay rent?
  • How do I remain part of an academic community even if I’m no longer in academia? I’ve found that I really enjoy being a part of academic communities; I feel like I’ve found “my people” in many ways. I know that I always want to surround myself with people who value academic thought in the ways that I do. Are there ways to identify without feeling like an outsider or a fraud?

So, I’m aware of the number of resources out there, but it’s worth unpacking questions about identity and work and how we – well – can view work positively without being delusional. There’s a goal!

One thought on “The #alt-ac Conversation I Wish We Could Have

  1. It’s interesting to hear how it works in the humanities. In the sciences, there are plenty of people who see their Ph.D. as another hoop to jump through before getting a high status, high-paying job at Google, a start-up, or some pharmaceutical company. There are also plenty of people who see themselves as researchers and academics and don’t want anything to do with the private sector. In fact, where I am, I would say the split is probably close to 50/50.

    I think you make good points about what’s missing from the discussion. For my part, I would like to hear about career opportunities that use my skills, but which won’t make me feel like I’m “selling out” to an evil, megalomaniacal corporation (or to an organization that hopes to turn into or be bought out by such a corporation) and that my work contributes to the general good, and not to someone’s profit margins.

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