Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature and an MLIS student at the University of Iowa where he works in the Grad Success Center. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien and at his website.
We’ve just finished putting on a professional development bootcamp at my home university and I’m on my way back from the Graduate Institute on Public and Engaged Humanities, and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about professional pathways and career prospects for graduate students. There’s been a lot of discussion online lately about graduate student preparation for diverse careers, some of it pretty dismissive, but if there’s anything that I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks it’s that many graduate students find paths that lead to fascinating, rewarding careers both inside and outside of the university.
Conversations about the ethics and structure of grad programs are important and need to happen, but they tend to provide little guidance for current graduate students. We all know that the job market is rough and there are legitimate ethical concerns that need to be addressed about many universities’ increasing reliance on contingent labor. But this knowledge likely offers little in the way of counsel for those students who are already here, already on the path to a PhD, and already fully engaged with the system. Navigating career pathways outside of the academy can be challenging. It requires a lot of work and a lot of research (including through informational interviews), but there are a few important things that are important to know before getting started.
Whose “Alt”? – The first and one of the most important things is to realize is that “alternative” is always a matter of perspective. While I can understand the sentiment behind the term “alt-ac” (having used the phrase myself as I was beginning to explore the field), it all too often becomes shorthand for university staff jobs that are taken in desperation, the plan B (or Q or Z) that people can fall back on when the tenure track doesn’t work out. This is hardly a new critique of the term and the Council of Graduate Schools offers some other possible phrasing for these career pathways here.
The key thing to understand is that many of these jobs are good jobs. Many have great pay and benefits. Most involve meaningful interactions that have an impact on students. Few involve any grading or taking work home with you. I have heard from numerous people over the course of the last week who talked about how much more balanced their lives were since pursuing paths outside of academia even as they do amazing work that leverages their education in fascinating ways. These are essential roles that should be no one’s backup and that many more people should explore as really great career options.
You do NOT have to pick a lane – One of the biggest misconceptions that I hear is that preparation for a career off the tenure track will preclude one from preparing for the tenure track, that the skills that will prepare you for one while disqualify you from the other. This is simply not true. Yes, it’s important to be strategic and seek balance. And yes, there are only so many hours in the day and time spent on one thing means time that can’t be spent on another. But faculty rely on a wide variety of different skills. They have to do research, teach, mentor and advise students, manage budgets, and a whole host of other tasks. The responsibilities of faculty and staff often bleed into one another, especially at smaller universities, and there are some skills (communication, budgeting, etc.) that are useful no matter what career path one follows.
You CAN do something you love – It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the only way to effectively use a graduate degree is in a faculty role. After all, most graduate students naturally encounter PhDs almost exclusively within the ranks of the faculty. Yet there are plenty of areas where the skills that one cultivates in graduate school are in high demand. The ability to write and to find, process, and manage information are essential skills, particularly in our current political, technological, and economic moment and they are only likely to become more so. Grad students have more opportunities to hone these skills than most and, while connecting with a great job fit can be a challenge, it is entirely possible.
So don’t be afraid to explore career careers outside of the professoriate or beyond the university. If nothing else, it will provide you with a better sense of the range of options that are available to you and it could help you better advise undergraduate students you work with. And who knows, you may just find a potential career that you love while browsing around websites like ImaginePhD, myIDP, or beyond the professoriate.
Have you made or thought about making the transition into a career outside of the professoriate? Share with us in the comments or on Twitter – @bradykrien and @GradHacker.