#alt-ac · #post-ac · advice · best laid plans

Back to School for Flexible Academics


For many of us, Labour Day signals the return to class as student or instructor or both. But for a growing number of us who are working behind the scenes in the #altac, or who are plying our skills in any number of careers outside the academy, September’s rhythms aren’t quite the same as they once were. Even so, there’s no need to abandon the fall feeling of renewal. On the anniversary of my move onto the #altac track, with a year’s worth of hard won experience under my belt, and in the long tradition of H&Eers bossing you around for your own good, here’s my back to school advice for flexible academics.* This one’s especially for everyone embarking on their first fall outside of academe.


1. Get Your Ish Together the Night Before


Make your lunch. Fill the coffee maker with grounds and water. Choose and iron/steam your outfit, and put out your workout clothes if you’re into morning sweat. Put out the trash. Set your alarm, and make it loud. After many years of setting your own schedule, adjusting to the rhythms of a 9-5 is going to take a while. The less you give yourself to think about first thing, the better. Don’t be like me when I don’t take my own advice, like yesterday when I brewed coffee with no grounds in the pot. (Note: if you have kids, you’re either already really good at this, or going to be doubly slammed. Either way, kudos for getting out the door at all, never mind on time and clean.)


2. Capitalize on Your Commute


If you can avoid driving to work, do. Use your commute to do things that make you feel smarter, calmer, or happier. It’s easy to futz away your time scrolling Instagram, answering email, or playing 2048, but if you’re like me, you’ll get to work or home feeling vaguely dissatisfied and over-stimulated. Read a book instead, or listen to a podcast. If I have to be in the car, audio books and language classes are my friend. Thought about meditating? Buddhify is great, and has transit-specific meditations, and Calm also comes highly recommended. I often write during my commute, and indeed wrote this post entirely on transit. Whatever you choose to do, don’t give up on your commute as a resentment-inducing time suck. Make it count.


3. Make and Take Your Lunch (Break)


Food court food is the worst, and racking my brains to figure out which place serving semi-healthy vegetarian food won’t have a line a mile long is a waste of brainpower I could be applying to my actual job. Picking out a couple of easy recipes to make on Sunday and pack for the week takes forethought, but it’s a lifesaver. (This one is a favourite, as is this, and this.)


Once you’ve packed your lunch, make sure you actually take a lunch break. It’s easy, especially if you’re still the newbie, to try to prove yourself by working through your lunch every day. Don’t. I’d argue that getting to know your co-workers around the lunchroom table is more important than anything else you’d accomplish in that hour, and I definitely work better after walking away from it for awhile.


4. Set the Bar Low (for a Bit)


You’re not going to come home from a full day of work and write five brilliant pages of academic prose. You’re just not. And if you are capable of that, please tell me your secret. But for the first three months of my #altac job, I was lucky if I was able to come home and feed the cat and myself. I’m exaggerating, but still–the rhythms, the volume, the number of people to interact with, and the defined working hours of a 9-5 job all took a lot of getting used to after many years as an academic. Don’t expect too much of yourself, and don’t expect yourself to adjust immediately.


Try to not expect too much of yourself emotionally, either. Many of you will have moved into a non-professorial job not out of choice, but out of necessity. You might resent having to do the work you’re doing. You’ll probably be mourning the loss of your academic identity and working to negotiate a new relationship to yourself and your work. You’ll think longingly of the back to schools of old. It’ll be hard. You’ll feel like you’re done grieving and then you’ll realize that you’re not. You will be eventually. It helps to be kind to yourself, and to remind yourself that you’re being flexible, not a failure.


5. Get with the Uniform


I wear pretty much the same thing every day: a pencil skirt + blouse or a sheath dress (add a cardigan or blazer + tights when it gets cool), a bold piece of jewellery, and a distinctive pair of shoes (hot pink flats, metallic silver Oxfords, patent purple with pointy toes, etc). Why the uniform? I look professional and pulled together even though I’m often only wearing one thing plus shoes, I maintain the illusion that I’m stylish without actually trying, I’m comfortable, and getting dressed requires almost zero thought. (Note: I find that as a youngish lady #altac, I need to dress firmly on the business side of business casual to ensure that I’m taken seriously at all levels of the university.) I grew up going to a school not unlike St. Trinian’s (sadly sans Colin Firth), and I miss the mental freedom of never having to decide what to wear because the choice was kilt, or, well, kilt. Imposing your own version of a uniform or dress code can have the same freeing effect–because who wants to dither in front of their closet all morning?


6. Don’t Check Out


It’s tempting, especially if you’ve left academia under less than ideal circumstances, to distance yourself entirely from your academic work, or even from your academic community. Don’t. Feel free to skim past the status updates of those friends who post nothing but glowing play-by-plays of their first week back to teaching on Facebook. But choosing a different career doesn’t mean that you’re no longer an academic. Put your research and writing on the back burner if you need to, but don’t abandon it entirely. There are dozens of dual status academic/administrators at my university (that I know of), and I’m sure there are more that I don’t. Some of my most important publications and collaborations have come to life since I moved into an #altac position, and while I’m not as active a researcher as I was when I was a full-time academic, I get to be very choosy and spend my time only on the perfect projects because my livelihood no longer depends on the number of lines on my CV. It’s important to me that I’m not just a Research Officer, but that I’m still a researcher. I–and you–can be both. (Although, as Aimee reminds us, it might mean getting up at 5:30.)

I’ll never stop loving back to school, and I shouldn’t have to, despite–for the first time in nearly 30 years–no longer being a student. Nor should you! What say you, fellow flexible academics? Any other words of wisdom for the advent of autumn?

* Terminology in academic reform changes like that in any other academic field, and while #altac and #postac have been the dominant terms for awhile, a number of people are advocating for the use of the term “flexible academic” as a way to avoid privileging any specific type of non-professorial career. It’s a term that I find attractive, and the name of a new group over at Chronicle Vitae that you might like to check out: https://chroniclevitae.com/groups/flexible-academics

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