The newly published Going Alt-Ac: A Guide to Alternative Academic Careers by Kathryn E. Linder, Kevin Kelly, and Thomas J. Tobin, is a career-planning resource which focuses on the alternative career choices made by increasing numbers of graduate students and academics.
The demand for, and variety of, non-faculty positions – also called alternative academic or “alt-ac” positions – has grown significantly in recent years. There is, however, little practical guidance available for students and academics to support them in making informed decisions about alt-ac pathways and securing and flourishing in alt-ac roles.
Going Alt-Ac: A Guide to Alternative Academic Careers provides highly practical tools and prompts for current and prospective alt-ac professionals and those involved in supporting and advising graduate students.
Interview with the authors
What inspired you to write this book, and why do you think it is so important to provide practical guidance on alt-ac pathways?
Katie Linder: This is definitely the book that I wish I’d had when I was in grad school. I knew that I did not want to pursue a tenure-track role, but I also did not know the range of other possibilities that might be out there for me.
Our hope is that the tools, activities, and guidance that we provide in this book can offer mentoring to those who may not have others in their lives who can provide feedback and advice
As the higher-education landscape continues to grow and evolve, there are many roles now that did not exist even five to ten years ago. Navigating this changing landscape can be challenging, especially if you feel like graduate school prepared you primarily for a tenure-track role.
Our hope is that the tools, activities, and guidance that we provide in this book can offer mentoring to those who may not have others in their lives who can provide feedback and advice.
We want to help people with PhDs at any stage of their careers decide if pursuing alt-ac roles or career paths might be the right next step.
Many readers of this piece will have spent their professional life in tenure-track positions and so may be uncertain about how to provide meaningful guidance on alt-ac pathways. What advice would you offer them?
Kevin Kelly: Start with a personal awareness campaign. Each year, do your best to determine how realistic it is for soon-to-be graduates to find tenure-track faculty positions in your discipline or related fields. Then research and brainstorm non-tenure-track roles that might appeal to people with graduate or terminal degrees in your field. Share this information as part of program orientations, relevant class sessions, preparatory workshops, and graduate advisor conversations.
Shift your mind frame slightly by asking probing questions like “what problems do you want to solve?” rather than “what do you want to be?”
Next, empathize with the graduate students whom you advise. They may not have the same employment opportunities open to them as you did when you earned your degree. Or, while they may want to advance an academic mission, they may not have the same desire to do so as tenure-track faculty members. Shift your mind frame slightly by asking probing questions like “what problems do you want to solve?” rather than “what do you want to be?”.
Last, offer support in ways that work both for you and for your graduate students. It’s okay if you don’t have every answer. Feel free to direct students and recent graduates to alt-ac resources that you have reviewed. It’s also okay to ask them to consider how they want to use discipline-specific knowledge and skills. Encourage them to make substantive contributions to the field as alternative academics. Thinking through those scenarios will guide their decision-making as they explore alt-ac pathways.
Your book was published at the start of a chaotic and troubling year. What impact do you think the crises of 2020 will have on the higher education landscape, and alt-ac roles?
Katie Linder: Higher education has always been an evolving landscape, but 2020 has really sped up some of the changes that were already on the horizon. Programs were shut down, faculty and staff experienced layoffs, and some schools closed because they could not weather this extreme economic downturn.
Viewing your career from an alt-ac perspective allows you to clearly identify how the skills you have through academic training are transferable to a range of areas and fields
In the current situation, it has become even more important for higher-education professionals to understand the unique skills they bring to their work and the impact that they can have through those skills. The market (both within and outside of higher education) will continue to be more competitive. The more that we know about how we can contribute to our organizations and institutions, the better prepared we will be in any job market.
Viewing your career from an alt-ac perspective allows you to clearly identify how the skills you have through academic training are transferable to a range of areas and fields. This process creates a nimbleness in response to changing markets that offers stability even in the midst of pretty challenging circumstances.
Tom – you undertook your Fulbright award in Hungary, spending time at Eötvös Loránd University and delivering lectures/workshops throughout the country. How did your experiences in Hungary inform your work on faculty development, learning design, and alternative-academic work?
Tom Tobin: The model for developing and supporting college and university staff in Hungary is one based on credentialing, to a degree much greater than is common in the United States. By dint of having passed examinations, written theses or dissertations, and received graduate degrees, new faculty members and staff are assumed also to be able to teach well, write successful grants, take part in the collective administration of their institutions, and perform research in their fields.
My experience as a Fulbright scholar helped me to examine my assumptions about how we design higher-education systems, and how our choices about training, skills, and the value of various types of work in the academy create the extent to which culture and climate allow learners and educators alike to thrive
Without specific training or models for how to “be” in their new roles at colleges and universities, many people new to Hungarian higher education rely on informal peer-to-peer mentoring to cobble together their understanding of their various roles.
My challenge in helping to establish a faculty-development center at Eötvös Loránd University had three components. First, there were almost no alternative-academic, or alt-ac positions at the university. In the United States, we are used to having professionals in many roles that support the mission of the institution: instructional designers, media-services people, project managers, and the like. The Hungarian model had instructors, administrators, business-office staff, and librarians: a very hierarchical and traditional setup. So there were few roles for alt-ac professionals like me to fall into within the titles and positions at most places.
Second, the typical pay scale for full-time university instructors was low. Most of the colleagues with whom I worked also had second jobs in the private sector or spouses who worked in more lucrative areas of the economy like banking, medicine, business development—and plumbing. Funds to support professional development weren’t available, and most instructors were unable to make time for even freely-offered development options.
Third, administrators placed the highest value on successful research and grant-acquisition, with teaching far down the list, if not at the very bottom. The lecture system is the dominant tradition in Hungarian higher education, and there were few incentives for instructors and staff to experiment with innovative approaches to their interactions with learners, even when the aim was to save time, effort, and frustration.
I enjoyed addressing these challenges with my colleagues in the Eötvös Loránd University Faculty of Education and Psychology. Together, we identified, defined, and worked to address inequities about access to education among the Hungarian population.
To create a train-the-trainer series of sessions about faculty development, I collaborated with the department chair Orsolya Kereszty and faculty members Zsuzsa Kovács, Éva Major, Kinga Mandel, Judit Saád, and Balázs Benkei-Kovács. My PhD students while I was in Hungary focused on using mobile technology to address access barriers in K-12 and higher education; I am grateful for the ground-breaking work that Márta Barbarics, Csilla Pesti, Zsuzsanna Polyák, Emese Schiller, and a dozen others did in the doctoral course that I taught during my Fulbright season.
The connection from my Fulbright experience to my advocacy work in lowering access barriers for learners in higher education didn’t become fully apparent, though, until the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world earlier this year. My Hungarian faculty colleagues and PhD students (many of whom are now college and university staff themselves) began to email, asking me to restore their access to our faculty-development and PhD-course materials on universal design for learning, mobile-device learning design, and inclusive curriculum and lesson design. It turns out that these topics, which were seen in 2018 as “niche” learning, are now urgently needed in order to enable students and their instructors to continue with their interactions. I am heartened, too, to know that half of my PhD-course students have gone on to claim—or invent—new alt-ac positions at colleges and universities throughout Hungary. One example is a colleague who expanded a staff role that was originally written as a media services-and-information-technology-support position into full-fledged instructional design work.
My experience as a Fulbright scholar helped me to examine my assumptions about how we design higher-education systems, and how our choices about training, skills, and the value of various types of work in the academy create the extent to which culture and climate allow learners and educators alike to thrive. I’m grateful to the Fulbright Hungary team—Executive Director Károly Jókay and program officer Annamária Sas, especially—for their support and encouragement throughout my grant process, and I encourage colleagues who are curious about the Fulbright Hungary program to reach out to their office to learn more about their opportunities.
Sample chapter: How much do I charge as a consultant
Many alt-ac professionals move into consultancy – providing expert advice to educational and other clients. In this extract from Going Alt-Ac, the authors discuss the thorny topic of how to set your consultancy fees.
Every consultation is an iceberg, with the actual visible event supported by a great, invisible amount of work
About the authors
Kathryn E. Linder is the executive director for program development at Kansas State University Global Campus.
Kevin Kelly consults with colleges and universities to address distance education, educational technology, and organizational challenges; and teaches at San Francisco State University.
Thomas J. Tobin is the Director for Distance Teaching & Learning on the Learning Design, Development, & Innovation (LDDI) team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was a Fulbright Scholar to Hungary in 2017/18.