Report from the Alt-Ac Front: An Interview

Hudson Valley, Early Spring. Robert Goldwitz
Hudson Valley, Early Spring (c) Robert Goldwitz

Lots of friends with PhDs or ABDs are vying for scarce teaching jobs. But a humanities PhD is ample preparation for other jobs — many of them amazing — and job seekers with a PhD don’t hear that message enough. As I explain below, much of my work experience in the past decade was in preparation for a college teaching job. But it was also excellent training for my current alt-ac (alternative academic) position. Below I offer a few insights that might encourage the discouraged to consider the market for alt-ac and post-ac jobs:

What is your current position? IT Communications Specialist, IT Department, Fordham University

Was? Post-doctoral Teaching Fellow, English Department, Fordham University. Prior to that, I’ve been in combination at one time or another a pre-doctoral fellow, teaching associate, adjunct lecturer, PhD candidate, and freelance editor.

Primary qualifications for the job? Strong, versatile writing and editing skills. Qualifications also include the ability to work independently and with a team, knowledge of technology’s use in a higher education setting, and understanding of academic processes in higher education.

What are your job responsibilities? I create newsletters, write concise emails, dream up tweets, revise wordy website content, and work on long articles, among other responsibilities.

Preparation? Deep immersion in the humanities through course work leading to a MA and PhD, teaching literature and composition classes, writing a dissertation, leading workshops on technology for pedagogy and research, directing conferences, networking with key people at my university and at other institutions in New York City and beyond, volunteering to do anything that interested me (usually related to technology, writing, and communications) that I could add to my CV/resume.

Like so many English PhDs, you’re groomed — brainwashed, basically — to think like an academic and aspire to teach. How did you break free of that? It helped that my initial foray into the teaching job market garnered no requests for interviews. It was pretty obvious to me that nothing in my teaching portfolio made me stand out from other applicants. At the time I had no research articles published in a journal (partly I was too busy–see “Preparation?,” above), and I wasn’t from an R1 university. My advisers assumed I would apply again next year. But I knew my teaching portfolio wouldn’t change much, and once again, I’d be among the thousands applying to a few open teaching positions.

My unsuccessful applications also pushed me to embrace the fact that I don’t really like teaching. I do like getting to know students and helping their intellectual growth. But I do not like grading papers, particularly composition papers, which are extremely time consuming to grade if students are to learn anything about improving their writing. Assigning grades, a highly subjective task for me that carries a lot of weight for students, also causes me stress.

Waiting almost a whole year to try again for a giant long shot at a job that I didn’t entirely enjoy did not seem prudent.

Key elements of your makeover from academic to professional? I translated my teaching, writing, and organizing experiences into the verbs of the professional world: Manage, lead, facilitate, oversee, design, collaborate, launch. I transformed my wordy, five-paged CV into a lean, two-paged resume that explained what I did, why I did it, and the outcome. The time and money I would have invested in a teaching portfolio went into my LinkedIn profile and a premium subscription to that website’s job hunting services.

Is alt-ac worth it? Absolutely. I’m getting paid to write. Each writing task is a new puzzle to solve, and everyday is different. There are no papers to grade when I go home at night and on the weekends. I’m sent to technology and education conferences. My colleagues are kind and supportive, and I like feeling part of team. (Academic departments are populated by independent operators who all happen to teach the same discipline. Collaboration and team work, beyond required service and committee work, is not the norm.)

Anything you miss from the academic world? Most people expect me to say that I miss the long summer off. I returned to academia in 2002 and never had a summer off. Summer meant any combination of the following: finishing grading from the spring semester, catching up on personal stuff, taking a class, teaching a class, planning classes for the fall, and a little bit of researching.

What about your research? My job is secure whether or not I publish. However, I miss the expectation and encouragement to do my own research. It’s not that I’m discouraged, but it’s not expected. On the other hand, when I was teaching three classes a semester, those interminable papers had to be graded at night, on the weekend, on the subway to work. It left me with little time or energy to research or write. With this job, I feel energized about my project, and I have the time to do it.

What about the students? I’m cultivating relationships with student workers who design advertising for IT, as well as student writers for the school newspaper. I prefer this relationship. Students no longer see me as someone they have to impress so they’ll earn an “A.”

Advice to potential alt-ac and post-ac job seekers? Getting a PhD, teaching, and creating a teaching portfolio all at the same time is probably the most difficult thing you’ll ever do in your professional life. This experience gives you many skills, teaches you to think deeply and critically, and a solid work ethic. Implement a good strategy while you’re a student and when you’re searching for a job, and you’ll be an irresistible candidate for a variety of jobs in the private and public sectors, inside or outside of academia.


Author: Elizabeth F. Cornell

Elizabeth F. Cornell is the director of communications for Fordham IT, at Fordham University. Formerly, she was a post-doctoral fellow in the English Department at Fordham.

Leave a Reply