Why I'm Exploring Alt-Ac Careers
Reflections on Precarity and Loss of Academic Freedom
I've recently been thinking about why I chose to be an academic in the first place. I was 32 when I started the PhD, so I had prior experience ranging from ESL teacher to community college administrator to Peace Corps volunteer. I knew I enjoyed both teaching and research, so a career that combined the two seemed logical. The prospect of being able to make a positive difference in the lives of students while also contributing to the advancement of knowledge in my field was extremely motivating. I also liked how much freedom I would have with my time. I didn't want a 9-5 office job, and I liked being able to plan my own workdays and work from home.
Overall, pursuing a career in academia felt like a rewarding and intellectually stimulating path for me, which remains true despite the reasons why I am now considering what alt-ac careers I might pursue should that path ever become necessary in the future.
For many of us, academia is a calling—a deep desire to immerse ourselves in the world of ideas, to push the boundaries of knowledge, and to educate the next generation of thinkers and leaders. Others see it as a practical option—a way to gain expertise in a specific field while also opening up new opportunities for research and career advancement. And for still others, it's a bit of both—a passion for learning and a desire to make a difference in the world. Many of us drink the Kool-Aid that all of these objectives are encapsulated in a single professional pursuit: a tenure-track faculty position.
While there is no denying the allure of the intellectual life, many of us become disillusioned when we learn what that life entails in the neoliberal academy. Some of us enter doctoral programs because we are good students who enjoy learning, only to be surprised by the enormous pressure to publish or perish. Some of us are drawn in by the stereotype of the professor's life. I've previously discussed the romanticized version of being a college professor, which excludes bureaucracy, paperwork, grading, and heavy service loads. These harsh realities are exacerbated when we become aware of the academy's realities of low pay, job scarcity, precarity, and overwork.
A complicated set of emotions creeps in when we discover the realities of contemporary academia. We feel like failures if we do not land a full-time academic job, even though we understand that academia is not a meritocracy. Even if we get that dream job, the realities of a neoliberal institution extracting increasingly more work for increasingly fewer benefits have us feeling trapped between the desire to hold onto the romanticized stereotype of our profession while real life slaps us in the face on a daily basis.
The Great Resignation
This is why academics are participating in the “Great Resignation," a term that describes the recent trend of a significant number of individuals voluntarily leaving their jobs, seeking new opportunities, or reevaluating their career paths, often driven by factors such as burnout, a desire for work-life balance, and a shift in priorities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Just like other industries, long hours, modest salaries, and limited opportunities contribute to the challenges faced by those in the academic world, prompting some to seek alternative career paths.
I entered my PhD program having thoroughly researched the profession and being fully aware of its benefits and drawbacks, such as job scarcity and the fact that my education level would not produce a salary comparable to some of my students who entered other professions after completing their college degrees. I chose this path despite knowing exactly how academia’s bread is made. That said, I've been fortunate in the positions I've held and opportunities I've had, so I've avoided some of the worst aspects of academia thus far in my career. In reality, I love my job.
Other factors, however, that I had not anticipated are now entering my thoughts as I reflect on my career path—factors that I could not have predicted when I first decided to pursue a PhD and become a tenure-track faculty member.
Attacks on Academic Freedom, DEI, and Tenure
I’ve been doing a lot of reflection of late because of recent developments in the Texas State Legislature that threaten the tenure system, prohibit formalized diversity, equity, and inclusion work, prohibit the teaching of critical race theory, and generally seek to intimidate and sanction professors who speak truth to structural racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. With the way things are going in Texas, I may be fired for some of the things I teach, or I may be required to change my teaching to be more acceptable to the white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy.
These developments make me wonder what I would do if I wasn't a university professor, even though it’s a job I happen to love. There's no guarantee I'd be able to find work elsewhere because academic jobs are scarce and conservatives across the country are considering similar legislation.
To my colleagues and students, this doesn’t mean I’m throwing in the towel here in Texas; it simply means I am considering alternatives in order to be more bold in how I stand in defiance to oppressive state politics. One way to reclaim the power that the system has over me is to know that I have options other than working under the thumb of state politicians. This is liberating because I no longer believe there is only one career path available to me, and knowing this empowers me to refuse to submit to a system that seeks to intimidate. I need to consider alternatives so that I don't quiver with fear at the prospect of choosing between my job and what’s true or right.
Even if you don’t find yourself in a similar environment as I am here in Texas, some of the other reasons I have mentioned above, such as job scarcity and burnout, may have you reconsidering your desire to be a traditional academic in the neoliberal academy. If that describes you, please know that I see you and understand how frightening that prospect can be.
You Have Options
In an upcoming post, I'll go over how I went about increasing my awareness of other career fields that might interest me. I would also welcome any guest post pitches from people who have transitioned out of academia or are in the process.
For the time being, I'd like to conclude with a message that should be shouted from the rooftops of every academic institution on the planet: academia is not the only option. This is true if you are working in a precarious position and wondering if you could do anything else. This is true if you are in a tenure-track job that you despise. This is true if you land your dream job, but state politicians are working to drastically change that job.
We enter graduate school and are trained on a specific path, but so much of what we learn there is transferable to other jobs. Critical thinking, research and analytical skills, and the ability to communicate complex ideas in a variety of formats are all highly sought-after across numerous fields. Research happens across numerous sectors beyond the ivory tower. Teaching and training occur in a variety of settings. People in other industries do care about the world. Of course, graduate school prepares you for a specialized job and does not help you consider alternatives, but that doesn't mean you can't use your PhD to springboard into other careers.