3 Pieces of Advice on Career Navigation for Alternative Academics

As a sociologist, I’m totally fascinated by how we all create, build, and navigate our careers. As an alternative academic (alt-ac) for the past twenty years, I’m especially interested in how all my non-traditional academic colleagues manage to figure out their work lives.

This curiosity about alt-ac career navigation tends to lead to conversations. Partly, this is because I’m nosy. This may be good or bad, but if we meet and you are a non-traditional academic, I’ll probably ask you about your career path.

I always share the following thoughts for those who seek me out to ask my advice about alt-ac career navigation.

First, I tell new and existing alt-ac colleagues and friends that I’m the last person who should give career advice. The truth is, even after a couple of decades of working as a non-faculty educator, most days, I feel as if I’m making things up as I go. Never do I feel settled, secure, or even most days competent in my daily alt-ac work.

If my alt-ac conversation partners insist on ignoring my advice not to take any advice from me, here are three career navigation ideas that I always stress:

1 – There is no perfect alt-ac job.

None of us will ever find the perfect alternative academic job. Even in the best non-traditional academic role, much of what you do all day long will be hard, unrewarding, and likely not much fun.

You might say that this is true of any paying job. And I’d say you are correct.

The danger for those of us in alternative academic roles is that we fall into the trap of comparing our career progression to the mythical “other” of a traditional tenure-track job.

We are liable to make the mistake of thinking that the life of an assistant, associate, or full professor is all one of flow, purpose, meaning, impact, productivity, and joy. Yes – some of the life of a professor is all that — but most is not.

Traditional faculty and non-traditional alternative academic roles are both hard. Just hard in different ways and at different times.

Knowing that there is no perfect alt-ac job should influence what sort of role you take and if you decide to stay. By all means, be selective in the positions you take, but also know that if you wait for the perfect gig, you will be waiting forever.

The same goes for changing jobs or institutions. If the new role allows you to have more impact or learn more, then go for it. But don’t expect that everything about your career will be wonderful once you are settled into the new gig.

Finally, if your identity is entirely wrapped up in your alt-ac job, you are setting yourself up to be miserable. You are not your alternative academic job title.

2 – Alternative academic careers take a long time to develop, and you never know how they will unfold.

I’ve been plugging away at this alt-ac career thing for years now, and the main thing I can say is that it is a long road.

There is rarely a defined path in which an alternative academic career unfolds. Even the limited milestones of a traditional academic career — assistant to associate, associate to full — don’t exist for alt-acs. We are not working towards tenure because there is no tenure.

Very often, and this has been my experience, one’s alt-ac job title may last a long time. Sometimes the only way to get a bigger job (more responsibility, more significant impact, new title) is to move to a different school.

Many alternative academics first went down the non-traditional route due to partner and family constraints. Unless we want a commuter marriage, moving to another school in another state for the next big job is often not an option.

One advantage of an alt-ac career is how surprising the whole thing can be. Few of us in grad school could have imagined the work we are doing now. In most cases, our alternative academic job title didn’t even exist when we were getting our final degree.

You and I may be in a job five or ten years from now that we have not even imagined. The key, I guess, is being open and flexible to succeed and adapt to whatever career-wise comes our way.

3 – Develop an area of recognized expertise.

This last piece of advice — develop an area of recognized expertise — is not original. I suspect that most career counselors (and dissertation advisors) would give similar counsel. Just because this advice is not original does not mean it is not true.

The best thing I ever did in my alternative academic career was to become obsessed with online learning. My curiosity about how online learning works led me to want to understand how everything in the university works. Through the keyhole of online education, I became a lifelong student of higher education.

Figure out the area of academia that you love. Then do everything you can to learn whatever you can about that area. Read everything you can. Find people who know things to tell you what they know. Go to conferences. Do the social media thing.

Most of all, try to share what you are learning. Find opportunities to lead discussions, offer workshops, and participate in professional associations. Write if you can. Tweet if you must. But share what you are thinking and what you are learning.

This last piece, sharing what you know, is how the “recognized” part of “recognized expertise” develops. Start slow, and don’t worry about who you are reaching or how many are listening.

Since it takes forever to build up a network and a reputation in your area, worrying about how long it will take is unproductive. Just get started, and don’t ever stop.

What advice do you have for our fellow alternative academic travelers?