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Academic Careers: Taking an Alternate Route


The dwindling number of tenure-track positions, and increased competition for those that do exist, often means that this path isn’t much of an option for new PhD graduates.

Like professionals working in many non-academic fields, it’s time to get creative and realistic about the flexibility that current and future job markets will require. Those with academic credentials and experience can apply their skills in a variety of alternatives to academic (“alt-ac”) settings, finding both success and satisfaction in the process.

While every discipline is different in terms of the supply and demand for PhD-qualified faculty members, recent years have seen many more applicants than available positions. One article from The Chronicle of Higher Education cited a single tenure-track vacancy announcement that “received more than 900 applicants.” While this is may be an extreme example, it’s evident that the competition for these jobs is steep. And with new online PhD programs emerging from both traditional and for-profit schools, it’s enough to cause a little career panic.

There is some good news, however. The number of PhDs working in non-academic environments is growing and they are sharing their experiences and success stories in a variety of ways.

You’re Not Alone

If you are considering graduate school or are in the midst of a doctoral program, you may be wondering what options are available to you. Here are a few ways in which you can find support in your exploration of alternative careers:

  • HASTAC: The Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory is an online community with a diverse membership focused on sharing ideas about the future of education, technology, and design on a global scale. One of the many groups you can join is Alt-Ac, which includes blog posts, discussion boards, etc. There’s even a recent call to participate in the #Alt-Academy project from MediaCommons.
  • PhD Careers Outside of Academia: This LinkedIn Group features active discussion boards and job postings and is open to both PhD job seekers and employers who are looking to recruit those with this skill set.
  • Versatile PhD: Individual membership is free for this online community with a mission to keep you “informed about academic employment realities, educated about nonacademic career options, and supported towards a wide range of careers, so that in the end, you have choices.” Look for discussion forums, job postings, and live events. Your university may already be a premium subscriber.
  • College Career Centers: most traditional campus-based centers haven’t focused on graduate students, much less PhDs, in the past, but this is changing. Take a look at the University of Florida’s “Careers Outside of Academia” page, and at the Columbia University Center for Career Education’s “Career Exploration for PhDs” in the sciences and humanities as examples of what you can find, and should ask for, when you contact your school’s career advisors.
  • Alumni Networks: There’s no easier introduction than contacting those who have graduated from your PhD program to find out more about how they are applying their degrees. Stanford University provides a glimpse at the kind of advice you might receive as a PhD student or post-doc considering alternative careers.

Translating Your Skills

As a doctoral student I received a lot of advice from faculty members about career planning, most of it traditional in nature (tenure track or bust). But one professor, the most senior in the department, advised me to “be as versatile as possible,” which at the time seemed pretty radical, but has proven to be spot on. He recommended I identify not only the areas in which I was most skilled and enjoyed working, but also ways in which I could apply these skills.

These kinds of conversations remind me of working with military service members as an outplacement counselor years ago. Academia, not unlike the military, has its own culture and vocabulary, neither of which is readily understood off campus. Being flexible on the alt-ac route requires being able to describe your knowledge and skills in a way that means something to non-academic employers, and demonstrates that you meet their organizations’ needs.

How can you translate your academic experience? Here’s a short list of things to consider as you prepare for an alt-ac job search:

  • Describe what you know how to do. Northwestern University suggests a list of “skills employers value in PhDs” that includes project management, personal initiative and motivation, collaboration, and critical thinking, just to name a few. Start here and develop examples of how you developed and demonstrated these skills through your coursework, teaching, and research.
  • Focus on the work. What kind of projects do you want to work on? In what kind of workplace setting? The range of options is wider than you think, including sectors such as private industry, public education, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and consulting. Part of the translation process involves researching non-academic jobs. Stanford University posts a list of job titles some of their PhD graduates currently hold, and your school may do the same. You can also search job databases geared toward doctoral level qualifications, such as PhDs.org and Chronicle Careers for current listings both on and off campus.
  • Write a resume. A one to two page resume is the norm, and just one part of the non-academic job search process. Work with your career center and look for examples online to see how you can convert your academic C.V. to a document more readily accepted by a larger group of employers.

The experiences and skills you are building in your graduate program are valuable and desirable in a variety of settings. Be open to the possibilities and ready to network, keeping in mind that you may have to help your future employer realize your potential.

Are you pursing an alt-ac career? Tell us more about your journey here.

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Image credit: Parvinder Singh, Flickr, CC:BY-NC-SA

November 29th, 2012 written by (learn more about our authors)

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