We have always been eager to talk with people about the “authentic higher education job market.” We used to talk with people as they came to grips with losing some imagined faculty life of musing over books and sharing their passion with eager students. Attaining tenured positions has not been the norm since the 1980s, despite popular hopes to the contrary. Even then, the disciplines continued to promote the idea that not obtaining a tenure-track position meant failure. We encouraged people not to treat Alt-Ac positions as a Plan B or a lesser type of career option to the professoriate. Alt-Ac positions were always career choices that in themselves required significant time investments. Alt-Ac positions were, and are, valid opportunities to live an academic adjacent career where one can make a valid contribution to higher education and engage in a life of the mind. That said, we want to offer a sober presentation for preparing for these careers. Alt-Ac employees remain at-will workers in almost every university context. Although both of us have been fortunate in our Alt-Ac careers, we have experienced the precarity of highly unstable positions, layoffs due to budget cuts, and extended periods of unemployment.
Alt-Ac positions … are valid opportunities to live an academic adjacent career where one can make a valid contribution to higher education and engage in a life of the mind.
Consolidation, budget cuts, and falling enrollment make university employment very precarious. The pandemic may have grievously aggravated problems facing universities, but most of the foundational changes were well underway before COVID-19 struck. At the same time, the rise of professionalization in the university ranks of at-will employees means increased competition. There are entire degree programs devoted to student affairs, advising, undergraduate success, and instructional technology. Without appropriate credentials, human resources departments are less likely to approve a hire with only “significant relevant experience.”
(Re)Consider the Ph.D.
Do not seek out an unfunded Ph.D. and find yourself deep in debt after six (or more) years with few immediate employment prospects. University hiring budgets are increasingly tight. They were shrinking before the pandemic, and they are not likely to grow after in-person classes resume full time. The demographic base for most universities – the post-high school population – has been and will continue to shrink across much of the world. In fact, even before the pandemic, there were several warnings of a wave of U.S. colleges and universities shuttering or being absorbed by larger universities in the next couple of decades. Instead, consider a Master’s degree, or stopping at a Master’s degree. Consider graduate degrees in Education or those that lean into administrative skills. Universities still need people to fulfill the expansive needs for student services, federal/state compliance, and the operation of a college campus. A Master’s in Education (Student Affairs, Instructional Design, Assessment, International Education, etc.) is more likely to be a requirement for open Alt-Ac positions today. Likewise, consider a Master’s degree in Public Administration, Information Technology, or Data Management, or a Doctorate in Education.
In a Ph.D. Program or Currently Teaching?
There are several steps you might consider as part of enhancing your ability to take on an Alt-Ac career.
Look Beyond Your Department
Learn about the larger academic world and about your university’s organization. Being familiar with how universities work and the spectrum of services offered will give you a greater awareness of your career horizons. It will demonstrate that you understand the complexities of the university ecosystem. You must be more able to leverage your university experience than someone who cannot describe the difference between a career center and a counseling center. At the same time, knowing about other units in higher education will help you attain a better sense of what you can do in the event you choose to pursue a non-tenure-track career. Committee service is another excellent way to learn about university functions and get to know people outside your department. If there are committees you might serve on that do not require a large amount of work (eight hours or fewer a month), consider joining them.
Consider Diverse Funding Sources
Teaching and research assistantships are valuable experiences, but you should be on the lookout for fellowships, practicums, and part-time and contract positions on campus that could replace or supplement financial support from your department. This will provide critical Alt-Ac experience. Consider a volunteer position or an internship if that is financially feasible and will not delay your time to degree too much. On-campus experience beyond your department will teach you a lot about how the university works. It will give you concrete achievements to write about in your cover letter, e.g., "I raised X amount of dollars for conference Y through grant writing and managed a budget of Z." Finally, it will provide you access to people who can serve as helpful references for non-faculty positions.
Many academics have an aversion to networking, but it is one of the best things you can do while still in graduate school to help lay the groundwork for a future Alt-Ac career. If you teach a course or work with undergraduates, talk to academic support professionals, such as advisers, librarians, or tutoring center coordinators. Try to contact people whose work you think is interesting and invite them to coffee or lunch to ask them about their job and career path. Most of them will be happy to talk to you and offer advice. Establish a professional online presence and connect with colleagues via Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. And always, always, treat everyone, from administrative assistants to deans, with kindness and politeness – academia is a small world, so you want to leave people with a good impression (not to mention that it is also the right thing to do).
Build Your Skills
Practice taking stock of, and writing down, the skills you are exercising in your faculty or graduate work. Remember, teaching involves not just knowing content, but organizing, communicating, and working with many different stakeholders. Because of the professionalization of Alt-Ac career streams, you may need to take classes outside your program. Consider a course on grant-writing, budgeting, public policy, or conflict management. If you have the time, extra credentials will serve you well when it comes to the Alt-Ac job search. It is a difficult truth that you may be required to invest more time and scarce financial resources on professional credentials or even a supplemental degree. If this is the case, consider community colleges and the online coursework marketplace, which are almost always less expensive and more accommodating to working professionals. Hiring managers value experience in combination with credentials much more than where you obtained them.
Do Not Wait Until the Last Minute
Remember, no one cares more about your future than you do. Everyone should always look to augment their professional chops. Too often, graduate students leave their career planning until the semester they are about to defend. Likewise, we have talked to too many instructors who want advice on Alt-Ac positions only after they decided to leave teaching and research. Do not let the inertia of previous years keep you on a single career trajectory. Take a long view when considering Alt-Ac careers. Start diversifying your skills early and document them often. Learn about the larger scope of the Alt-Ac world. Follow websites such as Inside Higher Education, Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC), Academic Keys, and University Affairs (Canadian Higher Education website), as well as professional society websites such as NASPA (Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education) and AECT (Association for Educational Communications and Technology).
Looking for an Alt-Ac Position?
If you are on the Alt-Ac job market, here are some of our suggestions to make your applications more attractive. It is critical that you quantify your academic success for non-academic professionals.
From the Curriculum Vita to the Resume (and Cover Letter)
For faculty, graduate students and post-docs looking beyond the adjunct or tenure-track, a frequent difficulty is overcoming the culture of the Curriculum Vita (CV). In a CV, we are our content – we are what we have published and the subjects we have taught. The CV is a record of our established past and thus poses a dilemma for someone trying to present oneself as moving beyond the research and teaching world. When jumping into the Alt-Ac job market, your resume needs to indicate that you have a forward-looking career trajectory that has been building toward the position for which you are applying.
It is important to reframe what you have done and what you are doing now, in ways that make it easy for a manager to see a fit with the Alt-Ac position. If you cannot, it indicates that you will have difficulties transitioning into Alt-Ac responsibilities. Moreover, it demonstrates a lack of awareness about the position and the administrative unit in which the position resides. Use your cover letters to demonstrate that you understand what the needs of the job are and why you are qualified to fulfill them – write about what you will do, not what you have done.
Transferable Skills 101
Do not be that person who can be read as only a Communication instructor. Be someone who is able to develop broad student intercultural engagement initiatives; someone who can quickly assess student needs, provide space for transformative learning communities, and create programming that prepares students to participate in new avenues of inquiry and work with people of different worldviews. These are the skills needed in Student Affairs, Study Abroad, Marketing and Communication, Recruitment and Retention, Equal Opportunity Programs, and Career Services. Do not let someone pigeon-hole you as a Film and Media Studies teaching assistant. Instead, present yourself as someone who is experienced with project management, familiar with federal funding management, and adept at navigating the demands of multiple stakeholders’ time and budget. This is how you can connect your employability value with the needs of a unit such as Public Relations, Instructional Technology, Advancement, Research and Sponsored Projects, Finance, Facilities Management, or Community Relations.
If you are looking to join another culture, it helps if you demonstrate an ability to fit, function, and contribute. No one has time to help a new hire process culture-shock, let alone work with someone who might have disdain for what they do.
Our translations above may sound jargon-y, but there is a rhetoric of higher education administration, just as there are disciplinary rhetoric and buzzwords in any academic field. If you are looking to join another culture, it helps if you demonstrate an ability to fit, function, and contribute. No one has time to help a new hire process culture-shock, let alone work with someone who might have disdain for what they do.
Present yourself as someone who is well-connected to the university community and has evidence of team-oriented success. In your Alt-Ac resumé(s), frame what you have done beyond the tightly cut circle of you, your students, and your research. Be able to describe the processes that tie you and your work to the larger function of a university. For example, someone might have led an Introduction to Communication class for three years, but if we take a bird’s eye view, we can see much more. This position is also part of a larger effort by the college to develop a world-class media studies program. As such, there are curriculum development plans in motion, and attention toward nontraditional and under-served student populations. All of this requires significant coordination of assessment based on state, federal, and professional standards and certifications.
While it is necessary to frame one’s experience within a larger university context, your contributions to the success of initiatives and program units need to be quantifiable in meaningful ways. This can be challenging because making direct claims for program success is often an inexact science. One way to overcome this hurdle is to provide concrete numbers that indicate the depth of how you contributed toward particular initiatives and supported student and institutional success. Academics traditionally stress rank through research and publications, and graduate students are taught to believe that people without publications have no record of success. This is simply not true. Graduate students and faculty have many transferable skills that involve effective writing, public communication, awareness of student needs, program creation, group facilitation, analysis, and many other valuable talents and experiences. The issue is to avoid getting bogged down in the content details (e.g., Shramm’s Communication Theory, film editing techniques, or models of contemporary propaganda). Instead, draw attention to more meta-level aspects of your work (e.g., student success, grant writing, or growth in programs).
What Does the Future Hold?
From our perspective, despite the difficulties facing campuses, there are still areas of shifting ground that offer possibilities for future hires. Even before the pandemic, universities were shifting toward blended and online learning. This trend is not going to stop; the demand for staff who have expertise in instructional technology and related support domains will remain strong. Continuing education and teaching and learning for working professionals are going to be in high demand for the foreseeable future. To offset the loss of traditional-aged students, campuses have been working to attract adult learners. With the current high levels of unemployment and labor disruption, there is increased demand for upskilling and reskilling. Universities require staff who can attend to these needs. Coinciding with these directional changes is an increased interest in developing competency-based instruction in higher education, something that brings a whole new layer of complexity and demand for expertise.
Because of the ever-shifting landscape of higher education, we believe Alt-Ac careers remain a viable, although highly competitive, career option for post-graduates and faculty looking to leave the tenure track. Many of the current shifts occurring now may lead to opportunities that we currently do not yet see. We wish everyone looking at Alt-Ac careers all the best!
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
C. SHAUN LONGSTREET has been in Alt-Ac positions at Texas A&M, UC Irvine, University of Texas, Dallas, Marquette University, and Western University. Longstreet’s positions have included Teaching Assistant Professor, Instructional Designer, Director of Centers for Teaching and Learning, and Associate Provost. Longstreet is a National Science Foundation Specialist and a Fulbright Scholar and has served on the POD Network of Educational Developers Executive Board. Longstreet has been a consultant for several universities in the United States and abroad on subjects including Graduate Student Development, Equity and Access, eLearning, and the Future of Higher Education.