This post is based off of a podcast series that Dr. Julia Daniel did for the Baylor Graduate School back in early 2021. The first post covered the historic and economic reasons for the state of the academic job market and what applying for an academic job actually entails in a post-COVID world. This week’s post addresses some of the mental stumbling blocks that we must overcome to even allow ourselves to consider Alt Ac careers, offers some brainstorming exercises, and discusses what some of your options are. Dr. Daniel is an Associate Professor of English, specializing in Modern American poetry, 20th-century drama, environmental humanities, and urban studies. She has a boundless love of all things T.S. Eliot.
Welcome or welcome back! I am Dr. Julia Daniel and this is alt-ac conversation post #2. In this conversation we are going to talk a little bit about imagining alternatives to that tenure track position. If you made it all the way through the last post, let me tell you, you’ve got nerves of steel and guts of iron. We talked about just how bad the market is, some of the historical and economic reasons for why it’s as bad as it is. We also talked a little bit about how even for the lucky 1-2% of job candidates who will land a tenure track job, it might not actually be the job you’re hoping it would be, due in part to low pay, long hours, and the necessity of having to move anywhere. But the place that we landed was, I hope, a beacon of hope; a reminder that your adventuresome life is about finding how your talents and passions meet a need in the world. And the incredibly good news is that those talents and passions are much, much bigger than the narrow confines of what we do as professors.
So in this particular post, I want to talk about some of the stumbling blocks that we have to allowing ourselves to imagine alternatives, getting ourselves in a place where we can start to think through our priorities, and then discussing alternatives. Let’s start by talking about some of the very real gravitational poles that often keep us from even thinking about a non-academic job track or an academic-adjacent job track. I think that one of the most valuable and one of the most difficult things that we can do, whether or not you go work for a law firm or a nonprofit or if you’re working in a university setting, is you need to, as best you can, disentangle your value and worth as a human from your job. That is not to say that you shouldn’t take a lot of pride in the work that you do. I care a lot about the work that I do, and I’m proud of it. But it’s just my job. When I have a bad day at work, it is only that: it is a bad day at work. And then work ends and I come home. I pull a Mr. Rogers: I take my jacket off, I take my shoes off, and then I am a wife, and I am a mommy, and I’m a sister. I’m a daughter, I’m a neighbor. I guess a Texan is something I would say now. And those relationships are really where I feel like gravity is in my life. Now they overlap very much. So many of my friends are my colleagues, of course. I really consider my students to be, in many ways, my neighbors, and I have bonds with them in that regard. But if I get rejected by a publisher, if I get a terrible course evaluation (as I have) I look at that and I say wow, what a bad day at work. And then I come home and I carry on with my life.
What does any of this have to do with the job market? If you are in a place where mentally and emotionally you have hung your value as a human person on a narrative in which you become an English professor, you have entangled yourself in a classical tragedy. Because whether or not you become a professor, let me tell you, it is just a job. It can be really hard if you’re in that place, right? And it makes it really hard to approach the job market as a job market and not an identity crisis. Understandably, we get a lot of meaning and dignity from our work, as we should. But I want to invite you into a place where you start exercising right now. Build this muscle, a mentality that says: My job is my job. It is a thing that I do. It is not fundamentally who I am. It will also *footnote* prepare you for the day you retire. You know those people who can’t retire? And you’re just like, Oh, gosh, that’s so sad. Doesn’t he want to, like, I don’t know, go sailing? Spend time with his grand-babies? You don’t want to be that guy. I don’t have any special tricks to help you get there, but number one is to start seeing your job as just a job.
Another thing to think through too is this: all labor is noble. If you are working, you are feeding yourself, you are housing yourself, you are contributing to the common good. Maybe you’ve got small humans you are attached to; you are feeding them and educating them. That is noble. So it’s important to start messing with the hierarchy in your own brain – if that’s something that you’re carrying with you into the discernment process. Tell yourself it is is just as cool and smartypants and worthwhile to be working in publishing or helping a literacy nonprofit fulfill its mission. You need to give yourself the freedom to see the value in those things too, and to put them on a similar par with being a professor.
Let me also say that some some of the reasons that people are interested in becoming a professor, such as working with undergraduates as a way of putting beautiful poetry in their hands, or getting them to think about big questions or new ways. Do professors do that? Totally. Are there other better ways of doing that? Absolutely. Guys, if you want to really shape the youth of tomorrow, start a vlog and I’m not joking about that. I’m only going to teach a couple thousand students over the course of my life. That is a low level number for a decent YouTuber. You know, a really good YouTuber could have 30,000 people following them. If you’re thinking in terms of broad cultural impact, start your YouTube channel on the poetics of Sylvia Plath. Really, truly there are other ways. There are other institutions and avenues through which we can meaningfully shape people’s lives and the communities that we live in. So we’re going to be talking a little bit about that as well.
Another mental block that I think happens when we’re trying to think in terms of alt-ac careers is: what do I tell my mom? Sometimes in our hearts like we’re already thinking, I know I need to think about alternative career paths. But I have been telling my family and friends for the past 5678 years that I’m going to be a university professor. Stepping away from that or altering what that might look like feels like a defeat. Those relationships can be deeply, deeply fraught and complicated. And I know that you know this, but all I can say is to tell you what you already know, which is you cannot make a decision about the shape of your life and what God is calling you to do in the world because you’re embarrassed that Aunt Elizabeth is going to be at Thanksgiving dinner saying, “Well, I thought you were going to be a professor – what happened? Couldn’t cut it?” Don’t waste your time with an awful woman like that. (God loves her though. We love her. God bless Aunt Elizabeth.)
So those are a couple of things to think through: 1) you are not your job; 2) all work is noble; 3) there are lots of different ways you can affect people’s lives and the culture at large; and 4) you can’t do it to make people in your life proud of you. I am sure that there are lots more mental blocks to this, one of which we’ll just call number five; 5) that you just haven’t imagined anything else. There’s never been a moment where you’ve stopped and thought, well, what else is there? Just a lack of playing room for thinking through alternatives. It’s scary to step into that playscape. But we’re going to do it now.
I’m going to send you through a couple of little thought experiments. And it might actually be helpful for you to get a journal, if you’re somebody who likes to journal or keep a daily diary. It might be helpful to get a piece of paper and free-write some responses to these things. Because we’re now going to try to figure out together what are your passions, and what are your talents, and I can’t answer those questions for you. Only you know the answers to those. I can, however, begin to help you see how those might meet a need in the world, in that I can kind of guide you toward possibilities for you and your future.
So let’s start by thinking about something together: if you’re reading this, I’m assuming at some point you thought, I might like to be a professor. What is it about being a professor that appeals to you? Generally, we think of this job as having two elements to it: the teaching and the research. There’s actually a third element, which has to do broadly with administration and institutional development. We tend to call it just service but it’s actually a very capacious field of work. Do you like teaching, if you’ve had the opportunity to be in a classroom? Do you like it? (It’s just you and me – for real, do you get into a state of flow when you start teaching? You know that place you get where you look up and all of a sudden 30 minutes is gone and you’re just rolling, you’re jamming? Is being in the room with the students the most exciting part of your day? Do you get excited about one-on-one time where you’re mentoring students? Do you like hearing about the students’ lives and helping them think through things like what kind of job they want or what kind of major they want? Do you enjoy working with their writing? Do you find yourself geeking out about getting into the mechanics of what went wrong with their work? Do you like your students? Do you enjoy them? Do you enjoy being in contact with a generation of energetic young people? It’s okay to say “no.”) It is 100% okay to realize, I thought I was going to love teaching. I thought I was going to love it. And I got in a classroom. I do not enjoy it. It gives me agita; it is frustrating; I find it to be exhausting. I feel like it doesn’t energize me. I feel like I spend myself in it and I’m just wrecked at the end of the day. That is really useful data.
I want to give you permission to say that if it’s true, you cannot persist in going into academia. Because we’re teachers, right? Don’t do it. Because 1) you’re going to be miserable, and I don’t want you to be miserable. I want you to be happy; 2) your students are going to be miserable, because you are going to be miserable. It is absolutely okay to say you do not love the teaching. And if you’re reading to this and you don’t know because you haven’t been in the classroom yet, it’s definitely the kind of thing where you do need to try it. If you haven’t had the opportunity yet and you’re afraid you won’t like it, I would highly recommend trying to get a job or volunteer in the summer or over a holiday in a way that you’re doing some kind of teaching. Maybe it’s not in a classroom setting. Maybe it’s one-on-one; maybe you’re doing ELL tutoring. Maybe you’re working at Sylvan with high school students who are working on college applications. Get yourself in scenarios where you’re in an educational environment so you can get a little taste of it, because I will tell you if you are not loving tutoring, it is highly unlikely you’re going to be totally jazzed about teaching a roomful of freshmen about Walden Pond.
I want to move you now into thinking about your research. Think about times you’ve had to write essays – long essays – for your PhD classes. If you’re somebody who’s in the thick of writing a dissertation, you already know what this is like. Do you like it? I talked before about a state of flow. When you’re writing, do you feel like you get into a state of flow? When you’re sitting down and you’re deep in an essay, are you thinking to yourself, this is really interesting because it has implications for this and that and me and others!!! And all of a sudden you look up and you think, Well, I’ve been doing this for three hours. Where did the time go? Do you enjoy the kinds of intellectual surprises that you get doing research? Do you like ferreting out weird little twists and texts? Do you love reading the criticism? Do you have a mind that enjoys putting together different voices and hearing ways in which they’re saying similar things, but there’s a little gap and you can get in there? Do you like the editing process? Are you the kind of person thinks it is candy when you get to the point an essay where you get to proofread and check your commas? Are margins and formatting like drinking just a great warm cup of tea? Do you like presenting at conferences, if you’ve had the opportunity? Do you enjoy the kinds of discussions that happen in an academic conference? Do you like that kind of public speaking? Do you like thinking about taking your very detailed, specialized work and rhetorically framing it for different kinds of audiences?
Do you like working alone? Do you imagine that the majority of your day is kind of you by yourself in a library or in an office or at a coffee shop? Or, do you feel like your best day is being surrounded by people? You’re in a graduate seminar, you’re at a conference, you’re in a classroom, you’re having conversations; is it important for you to have a lot of structure in your day imposed from the outside? Are you the kind of person who’s needs to know what their day looks like from nine to five? Do you need the force of somebody giving you a schedule and repetition of familiar days? Or are you the kind of person who just puked when I said that? Maybe you’re a binge worker where you write for three days straight and then take two days off, so having a lot of flexibility and independence matters to you. These are all important things to think about and know about yourself.
Let me ask you now another set of different kinds of questions. These are questions that are going to help you think a little bit more about the where and the how of the kind of job you want. And I call this brain exercise “Your Best Weekend.” What does the best day-off look like for you? You wake up when? In your house? In your apartment? Are you going to spend the morning gardening in your backyard? Are you going for a long run? Are you in a suburb? Are you in the country? Do you have to get the eggs from the chickens? Are you in the city? Are you meeting up with a friend in the park and then going to a film festival? Do you love restaurants? Are you going to go to an absolutely stellar Chinese place for dinner with a large group of friends? Do you like camping? Do you need to be within an hour of a national park or close to a river? Are you going to drive to your dad’s house and have a big family breakfast there with your sister and your brother-in-law and all the kids? When you go to bed that night and you think back on your day, did you go to your little kid’s theatrical production or come back from Comic Con with two of your best friends or did you just hang out in your little house and read some books and play with your dog for the day? When you go to bed that night, what are you going to be most grateful for? I want you to end up in that place – in the place where you should be with the people you want to be with, capable of doing the things that you love and enjoy and whatever your work is, as much as anyone can. We want it to facilitate that feeling of specific gratitude for you in the evening at the end of the day.
One of the reasons I like this experiment is that so many of the decisions we make about jobs, we make from a place of fear, and understandably so. You’ve got to eat, got to pay back your loans. When you’re making decisions from a place of fear, thinking about a non-academic job market is really overwhelming, because, all of a sudden, you’re thinking about a ton of different things you can do. And it can put you in a position where you just don’t care – you just want to pay the bills. That’s not where I want you to be. I want you to be in a place where you can at least imagine what it’s like to be joyful and make decisions towards sculpting that joy. So give yourself that space. Give yourself the chance to be excited about the next thing. It means thinking through some of your passions and your talents. If you were thinking during the research and the teaching questions that you do not like being by yourself and writing papers, and you do not like teaching, I have very good news for you: This is going to be very easy – you 100% should not try at all ever to be a professor, because that’s what the gig is. If you’re writing your dissertation and you’re saying to yourself, NEVER AGAIN, there is always pressure to be publishing something, even in teaching intensive positions. We have teaching intensive lines at Baylor, and some of my colleagues in those positions have written more books than I have. So if the thought of having to do that makes you puke in the back of your throat, don’t do this; you will be unhappy.
Let’s talk a little bit about starting a job search that is wider. A wider job search means focusing in on the things that you enjoy, and then thinking through some kinds of jobs that are similar to it. For example, you love teaching: why not consider teaching at the high school level? Don’t faint when I say that. I know you’re thinking, never in a million years. But here’s the pitch: 1) The pay for some of those positions can be fantastic; 2) so can the benefits; 3) you get the summers off so you can do whatever you please; and 4) if you’re the kind of person who really cares about shaping the culture, I think that a lot of that work is being done by exceptional teachers at the high school level. There are also so many different kinds of high schools. There are high schools in New York where working at those places is much more like working at a university, like working at a magnet institution that specializes in the arts. The rest of your colleagues probably have MBAs and PhDs. They are incredibly well-read, super interesting people that you’re going to love working with, and the students are going to be exceptionally high caliber. Classical high schools are also wonderful places where you get a lot more free range with your syllabus. I also have a huge place in my heart for public schools. Public schools vary wildly depending on the region and the community that you are serving.
However, let’s say you just really love college students. What is it that you like about them? If you are somebody who loves talking with your students to help them think through what their major could be or how they tell their mom that they don’t want to be an accountant, you should think about going into academic advising. There are tons of different kinds of staff positions at universities where you’re in direct contact with students, but that you’re not necessarily teaching in a classroom per se. Some universities have staff who help high-achieving undergraduates apply for outside grants. Consider academic advising or working in Student Life. If you just love the energy of a college campus, Student Life staff do amazing work. The other nice thing is that you’ll still be connected to a university institution, and at smaller places you might still get to pick up a class here and there. So that’s another way to think about teaching and finding avenues for teaching.
There are also opportunities to teach non-traditional students, like I mentioned in the last post. Do you care about prison education? That’s a really cool job if you are called for it and you have a heart for it. Or adult education. I love working with adult learners. They’re motivated like nobody’s business. Working in a community college can have settings specifically geared towards adult learners. If you’re somebody who’s interested in language and tasks, or you sort of have a brain for games and you loved out-gaming the GRE, you might really enjoy teaching students GRE test prep. Some of jobs are immensely well-paying and deeply satisfying. Let’s say you’re really interested in curriculum design, but aren’t really interested in the art and science of teaching. You could go into curriculum development. There is a ton of interest in digital pedagogy online teaching. You could work for a company that designs educational software for a variety of different levels of learners. Those can be fascinating, fun jobs.
Let’s say you’re more of a research nerd. Maybe you do like teaching, but not always in a classroom or about general subjects. Have you thought about getting an additional MLS and becoming a librarian? Plenty of research librarians are attached to universities and it is considered a boon if you have a PhD in a particular research area along with your MLS. In a research librarian position, you get to work alongside people who are doing high level academic scholarship. You also frequently get to teach classes in research methodology for students. It’s the kind of job where you get to pivot every day. But there’s also non-academic settings for librarians. Law firms hire librarians. If you’ve got a got a brain for organizing stuff, you can get a very well-paying job helping organize materials at a law firm or at a public library, or working for an archive that might not necessarily be attached to a university. That could be a way to scratch that research itch.
There is a very large world of not-for-profit organizations called NPO’s that are in some way attached to the humanities. If you are someone who feels mission-driven in your field, you care about literacy, or you care about history in the public sphere, these are fantastic positions, where you work for an NPO that in some way promotes a mission that you care about. And you might be there in a variety of different aspects. You might be doing social media for them. You might be doing marketing, you might be doing grant writing, or in some of the smaller organizations you might be doing a little bit of all of those things. And you can look for NPOs based on what your own personal interests are. Go back to that imaginative scenario where I told you to dream about a town that you like; let’s say you want to live in Chicago. Awesome. Let’s start there. There are NPO humanities associations, like for example, the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, which is attached to the magazine, but it also hosts a ton of cultural events. That could be really cool. I also mentioned grant writing; if you’re interested in grants, grant administration, or grant writing, there’s lots of cool work you can be doing. One of the best ways to prepare for that kind of work is to be applying for grants yourself right now. Writing grants that is a very high stakes rhetorical genre; they need people who are great writers and also great researchers who can go and find grants. This can be for small nonprofits, large nonprofits, or even for a school district or a literary magazine. If you do those jobs, you could shape yourself into somebody who eventually works at a grant giving institution like the National Endowment for the Humanities, where you would be reading incoming grant applications and getting a great snapshot of what research looks like in the humanities.
I haven’t even gotten to pivoting into something corporate. You can 100% do that too. I want to free you up to say it is okay to think about your income in terms of your goals for yourself and your family. And it’s also okay to have a ton of fun at those jobs. If you want to work in human resources at a large organization, people with PhDs in the humanities can actually land a position like that with a little work. Again, people who are interested in social media management or project managing, project managers make quite a bit of bank. A project manager is basically somebody who’s midwifing a project, whatever it may be, through certain stages in an institution. Well, if you’ve written a dissertation, you know what project management is like, because you’ve gone from zero to book. I will also say that the Baylor Career Services are really agile in working through all of these options with you and talking through what you need to do in terms of your application materials to be eligible for these kinds of job searches.
So we’ve just been sort of dreaming big over here. I’m gonna stop here because I’ve already been talking for way, way, way too long. I hope this has been helpful. Thank you for your patience. Be well out there.