Alt-Ac Workshop: Why Passion Shouldn’t Mean Narrowing Your Options

If the job market for tenure-track positions seems daunting, that’s because it is. I am not saying landing a job is impossible– I am saying we all know what the reality is, and it is a bit scary. But that does not mean the nay-sayers, the “what are you going to do with that?” crowd, can go on feeling smug about post-graduate degrees in the humanities. Of course, being in a graduate program in English means there is a good chance you have heard this all before, that you have done the research, that you have plugged your ears against the doubters and made the choice to follow your passion anyway. A degree in English is worth a lot more than just a job at the end of the line. But it is nice to eat, too. So, maybe there is a way to reconcile your passion with reality. I am definitely not saying there isn’t the chance for a tenure-track teaching position at the institution of your dreams; I am saying, do not be afraid to keep all options open.

This was the theme of an English department workshop held in March 2014 on the topic of alternate-academic (“alt-ac”) careers: keep your options open, but more importantly, keep an open mind. If teaching is your passion, if it is your dream, then chase it. That does not mean, however, that you should develop tunnel vision. That does not mean it is the only possible destination at the end of an M.A. or a Ph.D. The designation “alternate seems to imply that something has been given up, that it describes a career for those who had to settle. But this workshop did not feel like there was something to be given up. Instead, it felt like there was a lot to be gained from keeping that open mind and looking for options that maybe I– or you— did not know existed in your vigorous pursuit for a tenure-track teaching position.

The workshop featured guests Jennifer Sibara and Joannah Portman-Daley, both of whom find themselves in what are designated as alternate-academic career paths and yet neither of them ever thought they would land there. Though their trajectories differ, the guests share a few commonalities that might serve as useful reminders to all of us pushing ourselves to finish graduate degrees that, I think it is safe to admit, sometimes feel a tad risky.

  • Keep an open mind and do not close doors before you have even looked to see what is behind them. Just because you might have a passion for teaching does not mean you will not have a passion for a different sort of career in the academy.
  • There are options out there that you might not even know exist. Joannah finds herself loving her job as an Instructional Design Specialist at URI. It was not something she ever thought she would be doing, but she related a personal narrative that felt less like settling and more like uncovering a new passion after her dream job just did not square up with the reality of life.
  • Look for other ways to enhance your career opportunities. Experience outside of teaching is not a bad thing; it is just good planning. Finding administrative work or other jobs that use your skills and training in alternate ways can give your resume flexibility and strength in the alt-ac job market.
  • Learn how to market your degree. Jennifer Sibara’s career followed the alt-ac trajectory, too. Her Ph.D. in English and Gender Studies may not say “I’m directly qualified to do ‘X,’” but it made her marketable outside of teaching because of her skills in and passion for writing, her research abilities, and her work ethic. We are surrounded by so many people with advanced degrees all the time and sometimes we forget that it really is an impressive accomplishment, even if the job market feels like it is telling you otherwise.

During the workshop, Jennifer provided a handout of job postings, a number of which ask for the same skills and qualifications that many of us are already developing. The feeling of relief that there are other options, that all that hard work is not such an enormous risk, was palpable. But, it does not have to feel like relief and alternate-academic careers do not have to feel like settling. The message of the workshop was this: keep your mind open. There are possibilities out there that you may have never imagined yourself doing, or you may have never known existed. The passion that drew you toward a graduate degree in English can make you just as happy in a career path that you never saw coming as the career path you always thought you would take. If you have a passion for teaching and that is your dream, then follow it. But do not let that passion or that dream keep you from seeing the other possibilities around you, too. The job market is not so daunting when the scope of possibilities is not so narrow. The academy is evolving. Do not be afraid to evolve with it.

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