Embracing An Alt-Ac (Alternative Academic) Career Path

Imbalance prevails as the number of awarded post-doctorate degrees increases, the percentage of those with PhDs securing tenure-track dwindles.

How the Decline of Tenure Led to Alt-Ac

To cut costs, colleges and universities are reducing the number of full-time, tenure track positions in favor of a contingent workforce of part-time and adjunct faculty. So, what are the options for postdoc graduates?

There is an alternative academic career path. Labeled Alt-Ac (alternative academic) or Post-Ac (post-academic), placing focus on hybrid opportunities. This blended pursuit combines the love of teaching with jobs outside of academia – offering higher pay, better job security, and more stability.

Viewing Alt-Ac as a New Opportunity, Not a Failure

Alt-Ac presents doctorates opportunities in academia-related fields like museums, libraries, think tanks, learning organizations, and historical societies. Alt-academics successfully use their acquired research, writing, and teaching skills in these academic-related fields.

Initially, it is hard to embrace the idea of being an Alt-Ac. Doctoral students spend nearly a decade working towards a degree. Along the way, a passion for teaching develops. Following dissertation completion, the pressure to secure a full-time or tenure-track position grows, and the process (for some) becomes draining, isolating, and unfulfilling. To further compound matters, tenure aspirations wither with few open positions. The eternal pursuit is not failure, rather an opportunity to expand and diversify one’s horizons.

Navigating a Career Beyond Academia

PhDs demonstrate sought-after skills that are valuable outside of academia. PhDs are experts at analyzing data, explaining complex problems, synthesizing new solutions, editing and critiquing written work, managing multi-year projects, and working within time constraints and budget limitations.

There are many opportunities outside of academia for current professors and doctoral candidates. Still, the higher education model does not necessarily encourage or prepare professors to pursue this type of career.

Considering a more Alt-Ac career path does not have to start with a big job change. However, surviving within the gig economy is possible if enough effort is taken to establish a presence as an expert.

Think about the following freelance opportunities as an adjunct:

  • Write for an online publication or produce a niche blog
  • Consult on a project for a nonprofit, a local business, or a startup
  • Speak at local events, conferences and corporate functions
  • Teach using digital platforms or webinars
  • Train professionals to be more knowledgeable about a specialized topic
  • Research topics to support grant applications or corporate endeavors

Shifting the Mindset

Gaining momentum as an Alt-Ac requires shifting what you think and how you talk. To attract non-academics to one’s expertise, an adjunct must sideline some common characteristics of an academic.

  • Avoid jargon. You’re only as smart as you are clear.
  • Use target vocabulary. Use their jargon, not yours. Read trade journal articles popular with your target audience.
  • Talk less. Verbosity is the enemy. Do not pontificate and get to the point.
  • Be accessible. Approachability is key. Set aside the hierarchy of academia and command attention rather than admiration.
  • Be flexible. Rigid expectations, exact matches, and perfect grammar do not exist outside academia. You won’t measure up if your audience doesn’t measure up.

In Summary

Opportunities outside professorship abound if a PhD embraces the path of an Alt-Ac. Leverage what you know, what you can do, and apply a skillset the world outside academia can understand and utilize. Because it’s the utilization of knowledge that an adjunct is paid for, not the existence or demonstration of it.