There is really only one reason you should pursue an Alt-Ac career: Because it is what you want to do.
I do not consider my work to be an alternative to anything. It is just what I do. If someone refers to my work as an alternative to their work, I want to acknowledge that. I may be willing to use their term, “Alt-Ac,” for a common understanding, but my natural locus of reference is my own, not as an alternative.
Second, this “alternative” naturally sets up a dichotomy. In the term Alt-Ac, Academic is the standard, the reference point, and anything else is Alternative or Othered. When we talk about diversity, we must admit that we have biases. Those among us who aim to be inclusive do our best to make a place for Others, in spite of our biases. We know that often means we are applying our norms and expectations in a situation where they may not be valued or understood in quite the same way. To be honoring, we make the conscious choice to recognize the Other and we make space for them without diminishing their worth. I feel that I have to say this because many people have told me they are seeking Alt-Ac jobs because they cannot find the faculty jobs that they really want. “Alt-Ac” is not a lesser alternative unless you make it one. It’s just different.
Many people have told me they are seeking Alt-Ac jobs because they cannot find the faculty jobs that they really want. “Alt-Ac” is not a lesser alternative unless you make it one. It’s just different.
Third, we should acknowledge there is no uniform definition of Alt-Ac. In a 2018 Inside Higher Ed article, “Defining Alt-Ac Before We Systematize Alternative Academic Career Guidance,” Joshua Kim argues that to be a true Alt-Ac, one must have a terminal degree, work in higher education, and blend service with teaching and scholarship. This seems unnecessarily limiting to me. His points are in response to Zeb Larson’s 2018 Inside Higher Ed article, “We Need to Systematize Alt-Ac Career Guidance,” which used Alt-Ac to describe any Ph.D. in a non-faculty job. Likewise, I have seen many non-faculty jobs in a variety of environments that could be held by Ph.D.s or non-Ph.D.s. Where do we draw the line?
I tend to err on the side of inclusivity because most of the time when people ask me about this subject, they are not asking me about definitions. Most of the time they want me to help them find a job. The breadth of my professional experiences allows me to speak to many career possibilities. I have worked in traditional faculty roles at flagship universities, in full-time and part-time positions ranging from lecturer to endowed chair. I have worked in staff roles in a big university. I work now as a senior administrator at an accredited, degree-granting institution inside of the U.S. Department of Defense, which has instructional sites around the world. I have also worked in a federal laboratory and at the National Science Foundation. Early in my career, I worked in Fortune 500 companies in the software, automotive, and professional services sectors. I have worked as an adviser to military, diplomatic, scientific, nonprofit, and corporate leaders in a variety of environments, from war zones to natural disaster areas to emerging democracies to corporate board rooms. When I am asked for advice about working in Alt-Ac spaces, my answer usually is, “Find something that works for you. Do not get worked up about labels—yours or others’.”
When I am asked for advice about working in Alt-Ac spaces, my answer usually is, “Find something that works for you. Do not get worked up about labels—yours or others’.”
As the job seeker, find out what is important to you, and pursue that. This will likely include discernment around the things that you want and enjoy, the priorities of your family, your own priorities, and your desires to serve humanity and make a difference. To some of us, especially those who are still carving out their legacy, the desire for access to people or power, influence, money, and fame might matter, too. Another determinant that is often overlooked is our desire for certainty, comfort, and security. Certainty is a double-edged sword: it protects us from catastrophe, but it also limits possibility. All of these things matter far more than whether a job description is written to eliminate or include people who have certain letters after their names.
As a hiring manager, especially in most non-academic environments, it matters far less to me whether you have a terminal degree than whether you have the desire, drive, passion, and capability to do a job. In fact, desire, drive, passion, and capability usually matter to me even more than if you have experience doing a job or if you have a certain degree. If I hire you, I will give you experience. It is a whole lot harder for me to cultivate passion and vision. As the boss, it is my job to give you the freedom and resources you need to be successful. In the now-famous words of Steve Jobs, “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
The best candidates, of course, have it all. They bring enough translatable experience to be able to do their job or, better, to grow their job. And they have the drive, passion, and desire to translate that experience into motion. What a great employer gives them is the right environment. The ideal environment will enable them to do what they already can do or, better still, enable them to grow into something more. Finding that sweet spot between employer and employee is ideal, whether you are Alt-Ac or not. And determinants will change over time. You will change. Your work environment will change. The world will change.
So, again, why should you pursue an Alt-Ac career? For the same reasons you would pursue any career: Because it is what you want to do.
One of the biggest challenges that vexes people who ask me a question like this is that they do not know what they do not know. This is especially apparent in young people who have a lot of education but little life or career experience and in older people who have spent their entire lives in academe. When I was on the Communication faculty of a big Midwestern university, I developed and taught a survey course in career development for senior undergraduate Public Relations majors. Every week, we had virtual guest lectures from someone in my professional network who talked about their job and their path to that job. Some of them had Ph.D.s and some didn’t.
In many cases, the degree specialty did not matter as much as having the skills to do the job. The comments that I heard most from my students were, “I did not even know there was a job that did that,” or “I never realized you could get paid for something like that.” There was also a fair amount of “How do you even find a job like that?” A particularly memorable example occurred after my class heard from a friend with whom I had worked in the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at the National Science Foundation. When she spoke to my class, she was working in Congress as Sen. Harry Reid’s science adviser. She was a communicator. Not that it matters, but her Ph.D. is in plant pathology.
Sometimes, the degree did not matter at all. Another friend was supposed to take over for me after my term ended as the Chief Strategic Communication Adviser to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in Kabul. He is also a communicator. He is a former international hostage negotiator and has worked on sensitive diplomacy missions for the U.S. government among many, many other things. He ended up getting reassigned by NATO before he was able to take over my post. He was needed in his new role to help negotiate the Status of Forces Agreement and the Bilateral Security Agreement between NATO and the Government of Afghanistan at the end of Operation Enduring Freedom. These are the agreements that outline the terms and conditions under which NATO and the United States would continue to have a presence in Afghanistan. For what it’s worth, he does not have a Ph.D.
Technically, I did not need a Ph.D. to get that job as an adviser to the ANSF, but it was helpful for me to have the degree as a way to gain legitimacy, especially as a non-veteran female in a military environment in a patriarchal culture. While advising Afghan generals, I asked to be called Dr. Kim, though it only mattered in the beginning. By the end of my term, my primary mentee, an Afghan brigadier who directed strategic communication for the Afghan National Army (ANA), called me “the best adviser I ever had, in spite of being a woman,” which was high praise indeed coming from him. I needed my degree to access the opportunity. However, many of my colleagues had used military rank or prior work experience to do the same thing. Use what you have.
Sometimes having a Ph.D. does matter, though, and so does the specialty. My Ph.D. is in Adult Education, with an emphasis in Human Resources and Organizational Development. My M.A. and most of my professional experience is in strategic communication or public relations. My doctoral research was a critical qualitative study of the power relations and interests that shape television news. Three days after I landed in Kabul, my Chief of Staff told me that the communication function in the Afghan National Army (ANA) was “broken” and he wanted me to “fix” it. “But sir,” I protested, “I don’t know anything about the Army.” His reply was, “But you are a scientist, so go figure it out.” So, I did an organizational analysis of the ANA’s communication function using many of the methods of inquiry that I had learned in graduate school, and I wrote up my findings before presenting my recommendations to Afghanistan’s Minister of Defense alongside my lieutenant general boss. After unanimous approval, I had to implement those recommendations. It was not exactly the same as presenting research findings at a conference like many of my professor colleagues do—not least because a suicide bomber had blown himself up on the path I walked to work on the day before my briefing—but there were many similarities. Having my research background and discipline-specific expertise were instrumental in my success in this position.
Experience can open doors, so seek out opportunities to do what you like, whether it is a formal part of your job or not.
Experience can open doors, so seek out opportunities to do what you like, whether it is a formal part of your job or not. I like to speak and lecture, especially to high-level practitioners. After I returned to the United States, I was invited to NATO’s Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence in Riga, Latvia, to speak to senior leaders from NATO partner nations about how best practices from industry can be applied in military and diplomatic missions. At that event, I moderated a panel, served on a panel, provided expert commentary, gave an on-camera interview, shook hands, smiled a lot, and did many of the same kinds of things that my professor friends in academic jobs do, but I did it in an environment that appealed to me.
Many people ask me about starting a business. You do not necessarily need a Ph.D. for this, but you might, depending on what you do. Being an entrepreneur requires a tolerance for uncertainty and some grit. You have a lot of autonomy, an opportunity for impact, and tremendous growth potential. The different varieties, foci, sizes, and forms an independent business can take are as varied as you can imagine, and the business may or may not be your full-time job. I have worked as an independent contractor to international NGOs in emerging democracies. I was a consultant to a large professional organization as it modernized and refocused its mission. Under my small business umbrella, I am now consulting with a tech startup. I am also writing, teaching, and working as an executive and life coach to help people become the best versions of themselves, consider new possibilities, and meet their personal and organizational goals.
With a nod to Kim’s definition of Alt-Ac, there are indeed many non-faculty positions in academic environments. Those are relatively easy to imagine and to find, so I hesitate to spend a lot of time inviting you to consider them. These are jobs like the one I had working in UGA’s Office of Public Affairs. I did not need a Ph.D. to get that job, but having one afforded me legitimacy and respect when advising faculty. My degree also gave me an understanding and appreciation for academic work, especially research. I understood the demands of faculty jobs, and I understood faculty priorities.
There are also places like the school where I work now. I have the rank of full professor in an academic environment, if I choose that lens, so maybe my current role would not meet some Alt-Ac definitions. However, you would not find my job opening listed in the Chronicle of Higher Education or HERC. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center is one of the largest foreign language schools in the world. It is larger than many colleges and universities. Almost all of our nearly 15,000 students are active-duty military personnel. As Director of the Center for Leadership Development, I am a peer to the Provost. My staff’s job is to foster a highly engaged and positive workplace for our approximately 2,000 civilian faculty, who come from nearly 60 countries. About 92 percent of the faculty are non-native speakers of English. We serve U.S. national security interests, so my job makes me feel that I am part of something important. With such cultural diversity across numerous sites in Europe, Asia, and North America, in a military structure, we have many opportunities to understand and misunderstand one another. My job is to help ensure that we do a lot more understanding than misunderstanding and that we support the mission.
Finally, there are a slew of non-mainstream academic or academic-ish environments where Ph.D.s can thrive: think tanks, professional organizations, government and non-governmental agencies, federal laboratories, philanthropic organizations, hospitals and medical research facilities, nonprofits, and others.
In conclusion, the best reason to seek an Alt-Ac job is because you want to do so. When you release expectations about what should be and instead invite new and different possibilities for rewarding, stimulating, soul-filled work, you will find those possibilities are as abundant as you can imagine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KIMBERLY OSBORNE is an adviser to U.S. and foreign governments, multinational corporations, top-tier universities, and nonprofit organizations. For more than two decades, Osborne has led record-setting new product and business line launches for Fortune 500 companies, orchestrated high-impact announcements about scientific innovations, disruptions, and breakthroughs for universities and government agencies, and developed and executed strategic responses to multi-billion dollar corporate crises, international conflicts, and natural disasters. Osborne advises, lectures, and teaches around the world.