#alt-ac · academic reorganization · structural solutions

Structural Solutions: #PostAc & #AltAc Jobs for PhDs

A month ago, at the beginning of the academic year, and on the day the MLA job list was published, I was issuing a call to imagine structural solutions to the current impasse of the disproportionately sub-unitary ratio of appropriate jobs to number of PhD graduates. Here I am in the oh-so-brief mid-semester respite (I received essays to mark last night, so I might not even see you next week), with the time and inclination to start the list of possible solutions. Kindly add to it, if you feel moved to do so.

I doubt you cannot read for yourself, but let me restate it: the writing on the wall says academia can no longer employ even a significant percentage of the PhDs it graduates. I am not a member of the club clamouring for reducing the numbers of PhD students admitted to graduate programs. Why? Because I think more education and unstructured time to think is a privilege that I’d like to see more people enjoy, not fewer, on condition that they are funded, and that their intellectual work be recognized as valuable even in the absence of material results, as it happens in the humanities. The problem is not the admission of more PhD students, but the absence of proper training for different career paths, and the actual limited career paths. You can probably now foresee the direction of my proposal.

Talk on Twitter abounds on the topic of #AltAc and #PostAc, with notable examples. Melissa’s own stories on Hook and Eye promise a fulfilling career supported by one’s hard won academic accolades. However, I fear these are isolated examples, which may instil a false sense of possibility and choice in PhD students, as much as they motivate them to seek alternative careers. A clear need has emerged for alternative career training, which should consist of a considerably larger chunk of a graduate student’s education, in proportion to the reality of the job market. No, I don’t mean instrumentalize the PhD, but merely de-habituate it from its dependence on academic careers. The current approach to alternative PhD career training leaves the general impression that post/alt-Ac paths are like the spare tire: smaller, used only in case of emergency, and incapable of achieving speeds higher than 50 km/h.

PhD Programs in English, which are the ones I have more information on, are changing to respond to this job market reality. Aimée posted her syllabus for the Graduate Professionalization Seminar to rave reviews. Linda Warley, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Arts at Waterloo tweeted about working on a program to address it (and hinted she might say more about it once it’s ready). More and more people are speaking out about the need, but structural solutions also demand a change of culture, and clear steps.

I would divide the necessary elements of the programs into two groups: Graduate Student Education and Public Education (we have public health, why not public education?). Components of these two groups are on a spectrum, and not easily separated. Moreover, they mostly refer to humanities programs, whose results are less tangible, and thus less understood, more often discounted and even derided.

Graduate Student Career Training to include:
– a larger proportion of career training towards Alt-/Post-Ac from the start of the program. An Alt-/Post-Ac career should not be an afterthought, or some magic key people discover on their own. A course like Aimée’s is a fantastic beginning, and should be part of the “Intro to the Discipline” style of seminars. Many, if not all departments, have some incarnation of that seminar. Alongside practice in the usual documents, why not cover talking to the media and writing op-eds.
– Knowledge- and skill-translation: the processes we undertake in graduate school are impressive, and they take time and a whole whack of skills to complete. Name ten of those that would be prized in an Alt-/Post-ac career.
– Introduction of co-op and PAID internships opportunities in graduate programs. These initiatives may well exist, but only in the rara avis state.

Public Education: there’s little sense in training humanities PhDs in some career there is even less of a demand for than the academic one, so we need to educate industry and government.
– Deans and Presidents need to make it their duty to explain the value of humanities PhDs.
– Career trainers should be permanent staff. Here’s the thing: most professors are dedicated  to their students, but they *are* in an academic career, so they may not be the ideal coaches when it comes to Alt-/Post-Ac.
– Open conversations with industry: in her response to Melissa’s post from last week, Alison Hurlburt talked about the need to talk to people outside of the academy, in order to be able to translate your skills. To be a structural solution, this conversation should be official, at the highest levels, and ongoing. We should be proactive, instead of rejoicing in at news that Google has discovered our value.

As I’ve been writing this post, my internal editor has been peskier than ever. The “yes, but” has become a refrain pointing to the difficulty in proposing hard and fast solutions and rules of any kind that might result in constraints on the vital (relatively) unstructured time a humanities PhD offers. However, we have to do something more than lament the death of the academy or its neoliberalization. If anything, structural solutions begin to dispel the neoliberal myth that graduate students should just become entrepreneurs, because we’re all on our own anyway, and inured to competing with one another from day one. Why not train humanities PhDs to go out into the world, in industry no less? We have the drive, the motivation, the skills, and the expertise to actually make the world better.

8 thoughts on “Structural Solutions: #PostAc & #AltAc Jobs for PhDs

  1. Thanks very much for this important intervention (and your previous posts on this topic). I wrote a guest blog post some 3 years ago for Hook and Eye (http://www.hookandeye.ca/2010/09/guest-post-spousal-hiring.html), back when I was considering leaving my tenure-track job at UWaterloo.

    I've since left, not looked back once, and in my Post-Ac life been brought in to give talks to PhD candidates in a number of institutions regarding Post-Ac/Alt-Ac options. I've actively mentored some, provided support and guidance to others, and sometimes just let people know that there is life outside of the academy.

    Given my personal experience, I think your comment: “Career trainers should be permanent staff. Here's the thing: most professors are dedicated to their students, but they *are* in an academic career, so they may not be the ideal coaches when it comes to Alt-/Post-Ac,” is fantastic, especially provided that any “permanent staff” who work as career trainers bring in loads of outsiders, practitioners in a variety of alt-ac/post-ac career options.

    In my experience, it seems, sometimes, that all PhD students who can't/won't/shouldn't jump on the tenure-track want to know is what sorts of other options are out there, and how do they go about sourcing them.


  2. With all due respect, I disagree with these arguments. I think that the PhD is designed to teach what a scholarly question looks like, what an answer to a scholarly question looks like, carried as far as it can be carried. Programs teach and help students to formulate scholarly questions, acquire general and special competence to answer their questions, and then write them up. We lose something important if the program is redesigned to cater to the market rather than scholarly impulses and logic from the outset.


  3. I think this post brings up some good suggestions. One of the issues I'm concerned with is how graduate students will receive these conversations about career options. Part of the work that has to be done, I think, is creating awareness among graduate faculty and graduate students that alternative academic career options are just as valid as the “traditional” academic career track, not that it's an inferior Plan B. One way to do so is to talk about how there have been alternative academic careers for quite some time, and that they're not new.


  4. I think an easy step is for departments, including in the humanities, to tout their Alt-AC success stories as well as their TT placements. Invite them back for student awards day, and not only when you're trying to wring a donation out of them. Give students a chance to talk to them. The message “we're proud of all our grads” (well, you know what I mean) is an easy first step in addressing Liana Silva's point about awareness.


  5. You're right, Liana. I would hope if a grad program devoted a significant amount of time and effort to alternative career paths, this awareness would emerge organically, and the hierarchy perceived through the current allocation of grad student time would gradually fade.


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