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What’s up with alt-ac careers

Grad students are looking for university support to help prepare them for careers outside the professoriate.

By SUZANNE BOWNESS | September 8, 2015
Illustration by Michael Kirkham

Kathryn Muller, Jonathan Turner and Erin Clow are three PhD holders who use the skills they honed in their doctoral studies on a daily basis at a university.

They just don’t work as professors.

Dr. Muller oversees a team of professional fundraisers at McGill University. Dr. Turner is a career educator at the University of Toronto who coaches graduate students. Dr. Clow is a special projects officer in the equity and human rights office at Queen’s University.

Look around your university and you’ll probably find some Kathryns, Jonathans, and Erins there too. They are part of a new cohort of doctoral graduates who are finding meaningful work outside of the professoriate. The trouble is, to date they have not been that well supported.

As each realized they didn’t want to be professors, or grappled with the Statistics Canada data that shows only 18.6 percent of PhDs actually attain full-time professorships (fewer are tenure- track), it was far from apparent where they should turn for help to re-envision their career paths. Paul Yachnin, director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas at McGill University, wrote a white paper with other scholars and an essay for University Affairs on the future of the humanities PhD. He says statistics like these have been virtually ignored for 50 years.

“The situation is dire and it’s been dire for a long time,” says Dr. Yachnin. “The 450-percent increase in enrolments across the board in PhDs since 1970, coupled with a decline in the number of available tenure-track positions, all add up to a chronic condition that’s critical and urgent.”

Accompanying this is a huge emotional toll on doctoral students and new PhD graduates, as they come to terms with the reality that their career won’t be the faculty position they may have worked towards. But there is some hope that in the near future, PhD graduates may feel less of a sense of isolation, as universities seriously address their needs through graduate skills programs and dedicated career counsellors. Just as important is the growing awareness, among faculty as well as students, of the opportunities outside the academy.

Like any emerging movement, this one has its attendant jargon. “Alternative academic” or “alt-ac” is widely used to describe both the idea of a career beyond academe as well as positions outside the professoriate but inside the university, such as grant writing and fundraising. “Post-academic” describes jobs outside university. While these terms have been around for years (some pinpoint their origins with the 2001 book So What Are You Going to Do With That?A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.’s and Ph.D’s by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius), the terms have  become more prominent since the 2008 economic downturn. Today, websites like Alt-academy, and (a University Affairs blog by PhD-turned-career-coach Jennifer Polk) help to lead that conversation by providing resources and inspiration for those in a post-ac state. Predictably, the revolution has also been hashtagged on Twitter (search #altac and #postac).

Yet, proving that you can take the academic out of the academy but not the reverse, even those who use these terms often find them problematic. After all, as Dr. Polk points out, “alternative academic” is really a transitional state, one that becomes less relevant once PhDs have moved on to a new post-graduation identity.

Others object to the sidelining of some careers as alternative rather than equal to a professorship. “It’s not an alternative career path. It’s a fantastic and wonderful degree,” asserts Barbara Crow, dean of the faculty of graduate studies at York University. She’s one of the growing number of university administrators who are formalizing programs to help doctoral candidates explore their options (other universities named as proactive in Canada include McMaster, Ryerson, Concordia, Simon Fraser and UBC).

Dr. Crow hired Melissa Dalgleish, a doctoral candidate (now the program coordinator, Research Training Centre at SickKids in Toronto) to evaluate, consolidate and organize York’s professional development offerings for graduate students as the Graduate Professional Skills Program in September 2014. Professional development workshops – with titles like Research Beyond the Academy and WordPress for Graduate Students – address skills that apply both to and after the writing of the thesis. Similar programs and workshop titles are appearing at other universities – collaboratively with non-profit research organizations like Mitacs, online at by the Ontario Consortium for Graduate Professional Skills Development, and in-house at various institutions.

At Concordia University, the four-year-old Graduate and Professional Skills program offers 200 workshops each semester, serving careers inside and outside academia (titles include Public Speaking, Interview 101 and Technical Writing). Paula Wood-Adams says that Concordia, where she is dean of graduate studies, consolidated the workshops into a “clearinghouse” with centralized registration and room bookings. She says she hires graduate students on eight- to 10-month contracts to facilitate the workshops: “They’re paid and gaining work experience in doing it.”

Concordia also hired Frédérica Martin as manager of academic programs and development to work with departments that are creating or revising programs on ways to connect the curriculum with the real world. She says faculty members are “interested and concerned” about their students’ future and have bought into the idea: “They want to see what changes they can make to program structures or activities so students are ready for jobs.”

Yet, even as they see a change in attitudes, progressive deans concede that not every professor is enthusiastic about training that takes their students away from the tenure track. “Lots of colleagues say, ‘I teach students best how to be scholars, but now I’m being asked to assign other meanings and values to the degree.’ And they haven’t been trained for that,” says Dr. Crow of York. Some don’t want to discuss the connection between study and paid employment; others take pride in the success of their former students only when they become tenure-track faculty at other universities.

Illustration by Michael Kirkham
Illustration by Michael Kirkham

The emotional toll 

One wonders whether these professors would be as disapproving if they realized the full extent of emotional anguish that many of their students undergo when they decide to leave academia. Many graduates and PhD students who try to forge an alt-ac path internalize the lack of support from their institutions or supervisors and develop a sense of failure and feelings of shame. Combined with the loss of identity that comes from leaving school – the only environment they’ve known – the transition can be overwhelming.

Jonathan Turner, a career educator at U of T with a PhD in the history and philosophy of science, wrote about what he called “a culture of failure within academia” in a blog post for “I have a PhD, but I neither have nor desire a tenured professor position. For those of you fully immersed in academic culture, this means that you view me as a failure and are unlikely to pay any attention to what I have to say. I know it’s not that you really think that I’m a failure, it’s that you think the possibility of doing what I do would make you a failure,” wrote Dr. Turner.

For Dr. Clow, who “came out” about her choice of an alternate path early in her doctoral studies in political science at Queen’s, this sort of disapproval helps to make the “alternative” decision a heavier burden than it should be. In her opinion piece for University Affairs, she describes a culture of shame around choosing the non-traditional route.

“Things are shifting, but I would still say there is kind of a silence around this,” says Dr. Clow, working in the equity and human rights office at Queen’s. “For me it felt like the goals I had were shameful goals or perhaps I just couldn’t hack it, so this was the choice I was making.” While her own supervisor was “amazing” and never pressured her, she says she heard from others who weren’t supported in that way.

Many students were afraid to mention these aspirations to their supervisor because they were afraid they wouldn’t get nominated for an award or get a good reference letter, says Dr. Clow, who earned her PhD in 2014. She also witnessed more subtle signs of being undervalued: “When someone gets an academic job, the [department] will send an email around congratulating that person, but if someone gets a job in another field that might be their dream, there isn’t the same acknowledgement.”

Given the complete and lengthy immersion that the PhD requires, it’s understandable that emerging on the other side without a clear plan can result in serious trauma. Carolyn Steele, a career development coordinator at York assigned to work with graduate students, says some doctoral students are not ready to deal with a job search when they come to her. “For many it’s a traumatic time in life, with the feeling that everything is at fault,” says Ms. Steele. “If they’re middle-aged and tens of thousands of dollars in debt, it becomes a critical life issue.”

Typically, she refers such students to a psychological counsellor colleague. “When somebody’s in that headspace, they’re not ready to deal with career issues; instead, they need to engage in self-care, to get to a place where they’re ready to look at the future with hope and energy.”

Even students who are ready for the job market may need a lot of help in figuring out how to navigate it. “Most have the same level of career maturity as someone graduating from high school. They’re very sophisticated in some ways, but not in identifying their skill sets,” she says. Dr. Turner at U of T says that many graduate students are even less developed than high school students in terms of their networks.

So what do these career counsellors suggest? Expanding social networks, taking skills workshops, learning how to articulate the skills they do have, and researching industries through conferences and informational interviews are some tactics recommended by both Ms. Steele and Dr. Turner.

Dr. Polk, who earned her PhD from U of T in 2012, says that’s how she began the exploratory process that led her to coaching and blogging. She held informational interviews, which helped build up her confidence, and started her blog soon after that. She hired a career coach herself and now runs an annual virtual conference called Beyond the Professoriate to give graduate students a jumpstart on thinking about their careers. Others, seeing a future for themselves outside academia, got involved in volunteer and paid roles for the university senate, the union or the faculty of graduate studies while completing their PhD.

Being able to articulate how skills such as research, critical thinking, teaching and writing translate to the professional world is another crucial task. It can really help to learn which skills are valued in your targeted industry, says Dr. Muller at McGill. She identified fundraising as a possible industry of interest (with a career counsellor’s help) and then set about explaining in her job applications how gaining the trust of First Nations communities in her doctoral work paralleled cultivating relationships in fundraising. She learned later that the argument worked. “One of the reasons [my supervisor] hired me even though I had zero fundraising experience was because she knew that I had worked in a number of aboriginal communities and that I had to be a good listener, a good talker, a good convincer, to get access to those communities.”

For those who’ve moved past the alt-ac identity and into solid careers, being able to transfer their skills is not just something to put on a resumé. It’s a conviction. “All of the things that I valued in grad school or academia, I get to do in a different context,” says Dr. Polk. “It’s the same stuff that energized me then that still energizes me now.”

Despite the recent progress with skills workshops and dedicated counsellors for grad students, both PhD program “survivors” and their supporters still maintain that more needs to be done to help the alt-acs. Ms. Steele says universities must improve the ways they connect graduate students with employers, just as they do for undergraduates and students in professional schools.

Keeping better tabs on PhD alumni is also required. “Universally we don’t do a very good job of keeping in touch with former grad students,” says Dr. Wood-Adams, who has started a pilot project to do this at Concordia.

Meanwhile, McGill’s Dr. Yachnin wants to take such efforts a step further by creating a network of alt-ac PhDs across the country. “We need them to help us change what we’re doing,” he says, “and to help us reconstitute the academy itself to be more outward-looking.”

Suzanne Bowness, a freelance journalist based in Toronto, earned a PhD in English literature in 2012 from the University of Ottawa.

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  1. Jennifer Polk / September 9, 2015 at 11:29 am

    The Twitter hashtags are #altac and #postac. There are other useful ones, too, but those are a great start.

  2. Shawn Warren / March 12, 2016 at 9:21 pm

    Hello Suzanne

    I am a post-ac. I have a PhD in philosophy and for a decade worked as an adjunct/sessional. Affairs of the heart removed me from a university town where I had established seniority on unionized contract hiring lists, with the consequence that I was eventually forced to stop working as an academic altogether. I was very good at my job and would love to be doing it still.

    This, or some version of it, is a common story in the academe.

    I respect and understand the decisions of those who seek (say) a PhD with an explicit or an evolving intention to pursue a career other than traditional professor. It makes sense to have programs that facilitate this. But there is a problem with this picture.

    Suppose graduate schools do evolve in this way and “alternative” career paths become staples of grad school, with programs introduced to service this market.

    The metamorphosis in graduate studies being described (and lauded) in your article is in no small part a consequence of the more general crisis in higher education – forget how any particular person or group of post-graduates might feel about what to do with their education.

    We still have not solved the serious and globally pervasive problems faced by higher education, including, for purposes of this discussion, the academic labour problem.

    Do you see the conceptual crunch?: It is an established and well-known fact there are virtually no viable, full time careers for traditional professors and so there emerge “alternative” careers for post-graduate students, who need professors in programs that prepare them for non-traditional (or traditional) careers. Crunch. The metamorphosis stalls or stagnates…

    What someone does with their education is their own business, of course. But also, of course, in the first instance they need to get the education to decide what to do with it.

    Whether your aim is a traditional academic career or an alternative one, we must first solve the academic labour crisis. This seems obvious to me.

    I believe I have solved it. I have created an alternative model (or “alt-mod”) for the provision of higher education that does not rely on technology, increased government funding or philanthropy to correct the labour problem – and much else that ails higher education. It facilitates as many academics as the market demands – including emerging alt-career post-graduate programs – and who wish to have a career as a traditional professor.

    Here is the model:

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