Nine years ago, I sat in front of a laptop in a cold, stale, tiny room no bigger than the average bathroom, finishing up my comprehensive exams for graduate school. While I should have given a breath of relief or a celebratory dance, I instead met this moment with a cascade of tears that signaled intense uncertainty and insecurity. With the last period I typed, I had just closed a chapter in my academic career that I didn’t see coming so soon – I decided to put a halt to my Ph.D. track and leave with “just” a master’s degree.
I vividly remember feeling like the biggest failure. To top it off, upon hearing that I had decided to put a halt to my graduate studies, many well-intentioned mentors said to me, “That’s unfortunate Jasmine. All you need to do is just work a little harder. We really need more Black Ph.D.s.” What I didn’t realize during that difficult moment, but I most certainly do now, is that I didn’t need to “just work a little harder.” What I had done was enough. I had already accomplished so much and defied so many odds as the first in my immediate family to graduate from a four-year university.
I made the hard decision to leave graduate school to improve my deteriorating mental health. No degree is worth sacrificing my peace of mind. According to a study in Nature Biotechnology, nearly 40 percent of Ph.D. candidates have moderate to severe depression. They are six times more likely than the general population to experience depression and anxiety. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this mental health crisis. A study at the University of Rhode Island found that nearly 20 percent of faculty reported increased depression and anxiety. Female faculty were more likely to report a greater level of anxiety since the pandemic started.
Yet, there is still stigma associated with discussing mental health in academia. Some fear they will be perceived as “weak” or “unproductive” in the hypercompetitive academic culture. Academics are suffering in silence, which adds to the serious mental health issues. I also think this mental health crisis greatly contributes to why some are seeking careers outside of the academy or choosing to pursue alternative academic career (Alt-Ac) roles.
I decided to pursue my graduate studies because I wanted to combine my experience in the strategic communication industry with my passion for education.
I decided to pursue my graduate studies because I wanted to combine my experience in the strategic communication industry with my passion for education. Yet when I started graduate school, I quickly realized that I was being prepared to become a researcher first, and an educator second. I might have been naive, but I was unaware of the heavy focus on research. I’d hear disparaging comments about teaching, such as, “Don’t exert a great deal of effort on teaching. It’s not as consequential for tenure later as your research program is.”
This academic cultural norm that devalues the art and science of teaching led me to realize that I didn’t see myself as a traditional academic. For example, colleagues, other graduate students, and mentors presented the “publish or perish” mantra as if this were a normal and healthy concept to promote. But it was not normal to me. I questioned the academic publishing norms and model, given that they appeared to cause so much stress and anxiety for faculty and graduate students while restricting the public from accessing important scholarship and its potential impact to those outside of the academy.
There were other academic traditions, policies, and systems that led to my decision to leave graduate school. Looking back, I know my choice was an act of resistance to the culture in academia that can make someone feel they can always do more, be more productive, try more, etc. Despite all the challenges I experienced, however, I still wanted to teach in higher education.
Some time after graduating with my master’s degree, I was fortunate to find an Alt-Ac role as a non-tenured faculty member at another institution. Non-tenure roles include clinical, teaching track, and practice faculty, roles that are as valuable to the academic structure as traditional tenured roles. According to Paul Yachnin, there is a “450-percent increase in PhD enrollments since 1970, coupled with a decline in the number of available tenure-track positions.” Beyond the decreasing availability of tenure-track roles at institutions, there is a growing population of graduate degree earners who pursue Alt-Ac careers because they simply do not find the race to tenure and the very narrow processes often involved appealing.
However, once I started my non-tenure role, I encountered the challenge of finding my place in an environment that still values tenure-track, research-focused faculty more than other faculty or those in Alt-Ac roles. Universities still use terms like “associate faculty” vs. “faculty” to distinguish alternative academic roles from traditional faculty appointments, which has particular implications in terms of the perceived value of these roles. I believe faculty are faculty – regardless of whether they are teaching or research focused (or both).
My experience as a teaching-focused faculty member demonstrates the challenges of veering off the traditional academic career path. People who choose to engage in alternative academic careers are engaging in academia in fruitful ways that challenge the tenure model that is based on white male patriarchal methods of producing knowledge. These individuals have exceptional qualifications, yet they sometimes confront job insecurity; lower pay; no mentorship, career advancement, or professional development opportunities; and an institutional failure to recognize their contributions. Women are more likely to confront these challenges, as more than half of non-tenured faculty are women (West and Curtis, 2006).
In my role, I’ve advocated for specific kinds of support that are needed to better assist non-tenured academics. This is particularly important because these individuals are exerting energy toward situations where they are marginalized, which takes away from using this energy to create, lead, and contribute to academia in exemplary ways. This has a severe impact on morale and further marginalizes a group that already holds peripheral statuses. Yet this critical faculty population often interacts with the most vulnerable student populations and makes powerful differences in students’ lives.
Contrary to some beliefs, there is value in pursuing an alternative academic career. Below, I’ve provided five tips for those who want to go in this direction:
1. Acknowledge the challenges of nontraditional participation in academia.
Many graduate programs are still based on a model that focuses mainly on preparing students for tenure-track roles. As Thomas Tobin wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “many college and university departments acknowledge the shift away from creating tenure-line faculty positions and yet continue to accept students for advanced study in numbers similar to when there were more plentiful tenure-line faculty ‘pipeline’ jobs for graduates. Even among institutions that acknowledge the shift, comparatively few invest time for training graduate learners to be well prepared for careers beyond faculty lines.”
This greatly affects the perception of career pathways in academia and limits the scholar’s sense of identity. Therefore, Alt-Ac careers can be risky in economic, social, and even intellectual ways. You might experience discomfort in this shift and feel a loss of identity. Or you may need to mourn the idea of deciding not to pursue a tenure-track role and how the reality did not align with your expectations. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that you’re still an academic in an Alt-Ac role. You do not have to be tenured or on a tenure track to be a scholar.
2. Dispel myths about pursuing an alternative academic career.
There’s a perception that those who pursue Alt-Ac careers “just weren’t cut out” for tenure-track roles. That is a dangerous myth. You’re not a failure. You could pursue a tenured role if you wanted to do that. But for those in Alt-Ac roles, it can sometimes feel like you’re not doing enough in academia. Yet this sentiment comes from an academic culture that fails to consider other meaningful examples of academic work. This feeling can also come from operating out of a deficit-based mindset. Your brain creates this hyper focus on what you lack, your weaknesses, or what you can improve upon. And it’s incredibly difficult for academics in Alt-Ac roles to avoid feeling this way because we are socialized to question our abilities and look for more things to do. Try to balance the aspiration to make an impact with a healthy dose of self-compassion and awareness of various ways to define success in the academy.
With consistent practice, there is a way to find peace in “enough” in an Alt-Ac role. Ask yourself the following questions in moments when you feel inadequate:
- What perspective am I leaving out?
- What evidence points to my accomplishments so far (beyond career accomplishments as well)?
- What opportunity can come out of this situation?
3. Look for opportunities that will affirm how you want to contribute to academia.
In an Alt-Ac academic role, you can still apply for certain grants, present at conferences, and collaborate with others on projects, if that is your desire. Do not limit what you can do in this role. As a non-tenured, teaching-focused faculty member, I was told that I need to simply teach my classes, and that’s it. I received very little encouragement to seek out professional development opportunities, although this is slowly starting to change.
Do not settle for other people’s ideas of what you should be doing as someone in an Alt-Ac role or think that you made a mistake in choosing this academic work. I made it my mission to exceed my institution’s expectations of my non-tenure faculty role. I applied for grants that changed my career trajectory, presented at conferences, which led to keynote invitations and even an opportunity to deliver a TED talk, and wrote op-eds and public pieces that greatly expanded my reach and influence as a scholar instead of thinking the only publishing I should do is in restricted access academic journals. I do not feel that my responsibilities as a scholar and educator are limited to the specific classes I teach. There is more I can offer to the academy, and the same applies to others in nontraditional academic roles.
4. Consult resources.
There are resources available to those considering Alt-Ac roles. I recommend reading “Alt-Ac: A Guide to Alternative Academic Career Paths,” by Katie Linder, Kevin Kelly, and Thomas J. Tobin. This book is a very helpful guide for those who are curious about the available career opportunities . If you are on social media, particularly Twitter, I suggest following the #AltAc hashtag to find a network of individuals who are currently in those roles and/or are discussing related issues. Connecting with them is key to awareness and normalizing an Alt-Ac pathway.
5. You can still make an impact… maybe even more in an alternative academic career role.
Many find career satisfaction in Alt-Ac roles. Referring back to Thomas Tobin’s Inside Higher Ed article, “For years, I kept publishing, presenting at conferences and doing all of the things that were supposed to allow me to catch the brass ring of a tenure-track faculty position. I became a lot happier once I recognized that there are fewer brass rings on the ride on which I was trained, and that other fields had plenty of brass rings to go around.”
I chose an Alt-Ac career because I knew I wanted more out of my career than a marathon run toward tenure. I knew I wanted to truly make a difference with students and advocate for a socially just higher education beyond what the “publish or perish” mantra had in store for me. Take the time to truly find out what motivates you and find mentors and colleagues who will support your path, instead of those who assume they know the best path for you or push you in a direction that doesn’t align with your ultimate goals and desires. Finally, keep in mind that whatever path you end up choosing, you still have the honor and privilege of working in higher education, a place that can be truly transformational.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JASMINE ROBERTS is a lecturer in the School of Communication at The Ohio State University. Roberts’ areas of expertise include digital activism, public relations writing, campaign strategy, and media effects. Roberts’ advocacy work centers on the experiences of people of color, women, and queer communities. Roberts has been recognized for delivering the TED talk, “I’m tired of talking about race,” and also as a renowned open education leader. Roberts has delivered numerous keynote presentations across the country on the topics of inclusion in open education and is also the author of the highly-rated, openly-licensed book Writing for Strategic Communication Industries.