Why Can’t Academics Be More Open Minded?

I was encouraged to have fun with this particular blog entry, but I simply cannot do that. I have written this blog several times and I have realized I am not comfortable talking about the academic job market and what I would like to do. First I would like to publicly confess that like many grad students I suffer from “impostor syndrome.” So far my academic career is so far afield of what most of my loved ones are used to (not better just different) the whole thing still seems a bit surreal. So even though being grad student in MSU’s top ranked African History program realistically puts me a pretty good position to go after a tenure track job, I can’t help but worry that I am suffering from delusions of grandeur.  Blogging on the subject of my future in the job market has compounded my fear of being exposed as either a failure or a narcissist or worse yet both.


Everything I write on this blog becomes part of my professional online persona so long as the link continues to work, so let me be very direct on where I stand on the subject of working in academia, the ‘alt-ac’ track, and how students should be prepared. First, I would sincerely like to thank the mentors I had as an undergrad. My first advisor, Cara Delay, had a very candid talk with me about grad school prepared me for the seriously dire job most new PhD’s face, but she also suggested I would enjoy teaching (correct!) and brought up other employment options. When she left for a year of research in Ireland I continued to receive realistic and candid advice from my new advisor Assan Sarr and mentor Tim Coates. My talks with Dr. Coates included H-net job posting searches and reviews of different department’s strengths. I could go on and on about the spectacular advising I had access to at the College of Charleston, but the point is I was struck by Katina Rogers’ findings in her piece “Humanities Unbound: Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track.” Rogers found that most people were unaware of the realities of the job market for academics. She also found that only 6% of respondents working in ‘non-tenure’ track jobs felt ‘very satisfied’ with the advice they got. Seriously, I am shocked that this is such a rare experience, and yes I also realize that people are often annoyed when folks who have had pretty good get are suddenly appalled when they suddenly learn how bad shit can be. I apologize, dear blog reader…

But please indulge my while I make a few recommendations. Yes applicants need to have a realistic idea about the market. That is a given, but aside from a healthy dose of realistic advising the academy can also realign its evaluation of ‘success’ to match the realities of the market. Individual grad students certainly do this. When a group of my friends heard about another grad student getting an high-paid ‘alt-ac’ job with tech firm the news was met with a ‘woot-woot’ and a ‘make money make!’ and finally a ‘good for her’. In the last case the student wasn’t really happy; just masking their jealousy. Still, most of my friends consider the tenure track a labor of love, but if people are compelled to get other rewarding gigs no one would look down on them.

Now why can’t departments do the same? Again, I think my perspective here is probably blissfully ignorant. I don’t see any reason why the academy can’t value work outside of the tenure track. The group Doctorates without Borders, an online ‘alt-ac’ networking and support group, ensures members who have not “outed themselves to advisors and colleagues as academic leavers” that “the site is private, and Google does not crawl its pages. The site also reports that it currently has a membership of only 350 strong. This does not seem to indicate a broad usage among grad students who might be still be reluctant to engage in ‘alt-ac’ career preparation out of fear that it might signal a lack of interest in the tenure track. This is a shame considering how much ones digital presence can influence their prospects in the job market.

It seems (to me at least) that single-mindedly considering the tenure track to be the only benchmark for success creates lose-lose outcomes for graduates and humanities departments. Students might not feel comfortable engaging the ‘alt-ac’ community openly and might miss out on employment, and departments will not be credited appropriately for graduating students who work outside of academia. While I understand that outside institutions are ranking universities on a variety of factors that might not always reflect actual success. If by success you mean training people for meaningful intellectual work. I checked the US News ranking criteria and it makes little sense to me that a factor like the GRE scores of incoming students and number of PhD’s granted are used, but employment statistics are not.

If enough universities make room for ‘alt-ac’ success then the criteria will have to change. Stanford has created mentorship programs where non-professorial staff members offer guidance to graduate students. Perhaps they will soon be joined by other institutions. Similar initiatives have in the realm of digital humanities at MSU and George Mason, (even though there is much more to be done). The proliferation of digital scholarship is a very important subject receives a lot of attention on this blog, but I want to drive home an important point. First, the value of what new PhD’s do is determined by those students. Secondly, it would behoove administrations to recognize when they need to prepare students for the non-tenure track careers and insist on the relevance of such careers. Rogers’ survey indicates that what we may be dealing with here is imagined failure due to the academic communities inability work outside of the tenure track as valid. So….let’s just accept it, woot woot.

One thought on “Why Can’t Academics Be More Open Minded?

  1. You raise some really great points here. I wonder if part of the reason that departments don’t have this wider perspective is that everyone in the department is on the academic track. So they may no people who decided not to go into academia, but those aren’t the people you’re interacting with in grad school. Also, since most people don’t teach at the universities where they did their graduate studies, they may not know about the graduates of the university they are teaching at. It would not be that hard for departments to create institutional memory about their graduates who decided to do something else with their life! This is something we should bring up at MSU!

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