Alt-Ac Advocacy: Or, How to Search Beyond the Tenure Track

It started right after I’d finished my degree: my advisor asked me to participate in a panel about career possibilities for Jewish Studies graduate students to introduce and represent a non-traditional career path. I had just received my PhD from the UCLA History department and was about to start a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship at UC Santa Cruz, where I would work as the Digital Humanities Specialist. This position was the result of a yearlong job search that included applications and interviews for tenure-track positions, hybrid digital humanities positions within the academy, and positions outside the academy all together. The experience, although overwhelming at times, was empowering in the end—I was able to weigh multiple opportunities and consider what was best for me and my partner. I welcomed the opportunity to talk on the panel and reflect on the steps I took that that led to the CLIR Fellowship and my bona fides as an “alt-academic.”

In the two years since that first panel, I’ve sat on a number of similar panels, including three during my time as a postdoc at UC Santa Cruz, and had numerous conversations with individual graduate students who want to learn more about any number of issues involved with thinking beyond the tenure track: from writing a resume to talking to their advisors and where to look for opportunities. I’ve also been asked by senior scholars in my field of Jewish History to talk with their students about how I found my job and what’s it’s like to work in this hybrid space.

It’s been an unexpected joy of my post-doctoral career to have these particular conversations and challenge graduate students or recent grads to consider what they want to do be doing and what they want their life to look like.

Let me belabor this, because to me, it gets at why the academic job market can be so demoralizing and stressful: the track that leads directly from graduate school to any available tenure-track position is paved with a lot of instruction and expectation, but not a lot of personal reflection. This is not to say that many young academics don’t want to be faculty members or that they haven’t been working all these years exclusively to become faculty members. It’s only to say that the expectation that a PhD leads to and is validated by a faculty position does not centrally consider the personal interest, family commitments, or “happiness” of the individual scholar. The reduction in available positions has only heightened the sense that getting a tenure track position means sacrificing some element of personal interest – be it geographic comfort, financial security, or job satisfaction.

I’ll pause here to apologize for the generalizations. Perhaps this doesn’t ring true for you. But in repeatedly engaging in this conversation with anxious graduate students who have not considered alternate career paths and have no idea how to start looking for one, I have found again and again that so few people have started their job search by asking: WHAT DO I WANT?

It shouldn’t feel novel as fully grown adults to ask ourselves, what do I want my life to look like? What do I want my workday to feel like? Where do I find meaning and satisfaction and how can that kind of work be central to the next phase of my life? As highly (over?) educated young adults, trained to be critical thinkers, we should all have the impulse to ask ourselves these questions. And, yet, somehow the frenzy around an ever-reducing number of tenure track jobs has removed this kind of personal reflection from the process.

Of course many graduate students will work through these questions and still end up with the conclusion that they want to be tenure track faculty members. And, that’s great. But, for many young scholars, being given the opportunity to consider alternatives might open additional doors.

With that in mind, here are the 6 steps I recommend for starting an alt-ac job search. Or, perhaps more accurately, here are the 6 steps I would recommend for starting any job search—why limit your choices at all?

  1. Self Reflection: Ask yourself what you like about being a graduate student. What makes the work feel meaningful and what can you do without? Use these answers to identify positions and then ask for what you want. Knowing what you need in a position and what you’re willing to sacrifice can help make the job search an empowering one rather than a demoralizing one.
  2. Networking: Informational interviews help you gather information about jobs you are curious about and spread the word that you are (or will be) looking for a job. It’s never too early to start and it’s significantly easier to ask people about what they do when you are NOT in a position of needing a job. Reach out to friends, attend networking events, or work through your school’s career center. It sounds kind of scary, but it’s not. Most people are happy to talk about what they do and will be interested in talking to you.
  3. Write a resume: A resume is not a CV. You don’t have to trade one for the other, but if you intend to apply for multiple kinds of jobs, you’ll need multiple forms of representing yourself. Highlight skills and echo language from job ads and, remember, you are more than your research—so consider the work you do in graduate school beyond the content of your dissertation research.
  4. Skills: Think about scholarly work and graduate training as viable and valuable outside the academy: can you conduct research, write for various audiences, balance long term and short term goals? Yes, yes, yes. If there are skills you want to develop, take advantage of your university to learn new things. Take language classes, audit an Intro to Computer Science or GIS course, or attend a workshop on writing for a public audience.
  5. Go outside your field: Try to attend a conference you don’t normally go to—it’s a valuable way to learn new lingo, find new opportunities, and present your work to new audiences – they may help you see a different angle or bigger picture. Engaging with other forms of academic work also teaches you to take seriously other forms of scholarly ambitions, which can open up unheard of possibilities.
  6. Feedback and more networking: Send your new resume to people in multiple professional spheres and ask for feedback. Even if your academic advisors are 110% supportive, they are probably not the best editors for non-academic materials. Instead, circle back to people you met in informational interviews and ask them to look over any new materials, ask if it would it look good to a hiring director and what you might change to stand out.

When I started this process—about two years before completing my degree—none of these steps were directed by my advisor or my committee, but they were each things I had learned to do in graduate school: I could talk about my work, I could reach out to people I didn’t know to ask for help, and I could write effectively, reframing my pitch for different people and different jobs. I know that I have been incredibly lucky in my journey to alt-ac: I had an extremely supportive committee who encouraged me to explore all possible options and I found a position that values my continued research even as I work to support digital humanities on campus. But, I also did the work to create opportunities for myself and, as I hope to impart when I’m offering some guidance to other would-be alt-acs, I took myself, my work, and my ambitions seriously.

We have all been trained as scholars to ask hard questions and find complicated answers. My goal in engaging in alt-ac conversations is to bring that kind of complexity and open-ended possibility to the job search so that everyone feels empowered to make choices that best suit them, their family, and their long term goals.

Originally written for and posted on the CLIR Re:Thinking Blog

When CLIR Fellows Meet: A report from the HASTAC 2015 Conference


Interactive twitter visualization at HASTAC 2015

The HASTAC 2015 conference, held at Michigan State University, was an apt place for a mini-CLIR Fellows reunion. The conference (and HASTAC in general) is a welcoming space for non-traditional scholars, creating opportunities for librarians, postdocs, instructors, graduate students and technologists to lead alongside tenured faculty. HASTAC’s commitment to recognizing new modes of doing scholarship is evident in the invitation of two early career scholars to give the Keynote addresses. (It’s worth reading and revisiting both Scott Weingart’s “Knowledge Uprooted” and Roopika Risam’s “Across Two (Imperial) Cultures: A Ballad of Digital Humanities and the Global South” to see where Digital Humanities is as a field RIGHT NOW and where it will be going.)

Thanks to support from the UCSC Library and CLIR, I was able to attend the conference and present on a panel with fellow first year CLIR fellows Emily McGinn, Charlotte Nunes, and Alicia Peaker. Our panel, “Tales from the Library Basement: Doing Digital Humanities as CLIR Fellows,” was designed to explore the role of CLIR fellows in libraries and on campuses focused on building Digital Humanities communities. To keep it all in the family, Daniel Chamberlain, a former CLIR Fellow and Director of the Center for Digital Liberal Arts at Occidental College, served as our moderator and framed our discussion as a series of productive tensions. The goal in presenting together at HASTAC was to explore these tensions, as well as the challenges we each faced in different settings, serving as bridges between library, faculty, and administrative interests.

We each offered a case study of this kind of work, based on our own experiences over the past year. There were, not surprisingly, overlaps in the stories we told about our work lives – we took on numerous roles, offering support, translation, and digital consultation for faculty members on our campuses; we served as community builders, event planners, and “collaborator-in-chief”s. We struggled to navigate between the appeal of experimental, unique digital work and the need for scalable, sustainable support models. But, there were unexpected overlaps as well; for example, we each mentioned working with Omeka (an online publishing platform), suggesting an interesting role this particular tool has in integrating Digital Humanities methods into college classes.

But, what struck me most was the local particularity of the jobs we did. Emily, at Lafayette College, is part of a Digital Scholarship Services team, where her work is well supported by a team of programmers and developers. As a part of this team, she worked with faculty to create new – and very successful – digital assignments for a range of classes and initiated an internship in the library that is giving 7 students the opportunity to develop their own digital research project over the course of six weeks. Charlotte, the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Scholarship at Southwestern University, described a range of projects she coordinated – both class based and grant supported – that connected Digital Humanities work with the archive and allowed students to create public facing scholarly products.

Discussing my work as the Digital Humanities Specialist at UC Santa Cruz, I focused on the hidden nature of digital work in the library and the challenges in connecting faculty with the kinds of expertise hidden away behind locked doors in the basement. At the same time, Alicia discussed the challenges she faced in working in such an open space that she had a hard time focusing on the intellectual work of scholarship – both digital and otherwise.

The opportunity to discuss the day-to-day tasks and larger goals of my work alongside those navigating similar paths was exciting and provocative, but the biggest takeaway for me was Alicia’s paper that sharply articulated the challenge of identity that perhaps all CLIR fellows face: how can we integrate, combine, and understand our personal research ambitions and our fellowship goals? How can we resolve the diversity of responsibilities that come with these kinds of positions and in a short period of time meant only to spark interest or community? And, how can we better express and formalize the value we bring to the kind of mixed cultural work that successful DH projects demand?

These questions – of identity, labor, responsibility – also sparked a lively Q&A session in which the very nature of libraries as a place where books are held, the role of librarians and the digital in the future of scholarship, and the sustainability of temporary positions were raised. It seems that CLIR fellows cannot gather without inciting a debate about the changes in library cultures that speak to the future of digital scholarship.

Thank you to Daniel, Emily, Charlotte, and Alicia for this opportunity to interrogate and explore what we all do every day. And, to CLIR for making this kind of work possible and for supporting us as we find our way through the often uncharted terrain.

For more about the conference and the panel, read Charlotte’s killer write up about her HASTAC experience.

A View from McHenry

When I started documenting my first month as a CLIR Fellow at UCSC, I used the hashtag #30SantaCruzFirsts because I anticipated taking pictures of things that would be new and exciting, as well as confusing and challenging. I thought working in the library would challenge the kind of things I had learned as a graduate student and as a historian. And, to some extent, this happens everyday at work. Not only am I amazed by the amount of things that happen in one day when you’re not just writing your dissertation, but the world of the library is so extensive. I never realized how much work went on behind the scenes at academic libraries – they have secret lives behind locked doors and in collections rooms where books get rebound, manuscript collections get processed, and maps get digitized.

However, the real surprise of documenting this first 30 days has been the deer. This is not a metaphor. I see deer EVERY DAY on my way to work. I take the bus up the hill – going from the ocean to the mountains on a short 15 minute journey. And, once up the hill, I get off the bus and walk through a forest path, across a foot bridge, and under a larger wooden bridge. Along the way, I see, alternatively, a doe, a family of deers, or a male deer WITH antlers. At the end of this walk, I end up at McHenry Library, which is surrounded by Redwoods, and where, most days, an entirely different family of deer are munching the grass on the library lawn.

I think the people who have gone to school at UCSC or have worked here for a while are no longer dumb founded by the persistent presence of deer. But, I spent 7 years living in LA, where the best view on a hike is the Hollywood sign and the vistas are largely scanned for celebrity sightings. To me, seeing deer everyday is magical. And some mornings, the fog weighs down on the hill, covers the library, and I really feel like I might wander into a fantasy land.

If you’ve been following my #30SantaCruzFirsts, you’ll know that I have not posted a picture of deer everyday. Mostly, because I thought it would be excessive. And, it would also be unfair – because most people do not get to go to work in the redwood forests. They do not get to watch deer chew grass as they walk to a job that is challenging and exciting in all the best ways. Nonetheless, these 30 days have not been all deer. They have also not been as contemplative or emotional as my last 30 days in LA. I no longer feel like I’m dwelling in multiple past lives or crafting a memory of my life. Rather, I feel like I’m celebrating the unbelievable setting that I get to work in everyday.