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In my opinion

Don’t make me feel ashamed of my career aspirations

An alt-ac career is not the traditional route for a PhD, but it’s not shameful.

BY ERIN CLOW | AUG 04 2015

Before even beginning my PhD, I had doubts about whether a “traditional” academic career was the right path for me. Once in my program, it didn’t take me long to discover that academia was not where I saw myself for the rest of my life. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I certainly didn’t have the language to describe it, but I was interested in alternative academic (alt-ac) careers.

From very early in my degree program, I was open with my supervisor about not wanting to pursue an academic career after graduation.  To her credit, my supervisor never questioned or doubted my convictions. Rather, she patiently guided and supported my goals. In my department, I was vocal about my post-graduation ambitions. I realize that my positive experiences may not be the norm and that there continues to be a pervasive silence surrounding the pursuit of alt-ac careers.

In part, this silence can be attributed to what I have come to understand and describe as the culture of shame or the process of shaming that happens to PhD students who wish to pursue “non-traditional” career paths. It is an unintentional, yet somehow intentional, process, woven into the culture of departments and the academic community at large. Shaming is an active, meaning-making process that constructs and instills value into the categories of “us” and “them.”

This piece is not about whether or not to pursue an academic career. Rather it is about the valorization of the former at the expense of other possibilities. Valorizing traditional tenure-track careers in academia over all other careers is exemplified in the department-wide emails that are sent out to congratulate recent graduates, current students and faculty members on new academic appointments, recent publications or academic prizes. These are in and of themselves incredible accomplishments, which should be celebrated and acknowledged. But what about goals and accomplishments that fall outside the confines of academia? In my experience, these stories of success remain unspoken and therefore unacknowledged, entrenching and reinforcing the pervasive silence.

Another way that the categories “us” and “them” are built up is through the always-present question of: Why? When I mentioned my desire to pursue alternative academic careers, one of the most common reactions was “Why don’t you want to pursue a tenure-track job? Why don’t you want to be an academic?” Now, it is entirely possible that behind these questions was genuine, judgment-free interest, but the opposite is also possible and, from my experiences, sometimes true.

What if the question were reversed, and we asked “Why do you want to pursue a tenure-track job? Why do you want to be an academic?” These questions seem comical and don’t get asked very often. But, given the current state of academic careers in universities throughout Canada and the United States, these reversed questions should perhaps be asked more often.

Over the course of my PhD, many students confided in me about their desire for alt-ac careers or their questioning of traditional academia. These conversations were cathartic, filled with a full spectrum of emotions, and always took place behind closed doors, as if what we were speaking about couldn’t or shouldn’t be spoken in public. Underlying these conversations were fears surrounding reprisal, a lack of acceptance and stigmatization.  It is precisely this culture of shame and fear, which forces some into secrecy and silence, that needs to be broken.

Change is starting to occur, slowly. Just last year, I and some 50 other graduate students attended a lecture put on by the cultural studies department at Queen’s University, entitled “Hacking Your Graduate Degree for Academic, Post-Academic, and Alternative- Academic Careers.” The school of graduate studies has recently subscribed to Versatile PhD, an on-line resource for PhD students looking to transition from their degree into alternative academic careers. These types of initiatives serve as important and necessary tools in the deconstruction of the binary “us” and “them.”

My desire to pursue an alternative academic career is not a shameful goal, nor is it something that I feel should be hidden. Like all other goals, it should be supported and celebrated when accomplished. Institutional and departmental cultures and communities are not static entities incapable of change; they are continually evolving and transforming spaces. It is time to work together to ensure that all PhD students, regardless of post-graduation ambitions, feel validated, supported and part of an inclusive academic community.

Dr. Clow is a graduate of the PhD program in political studies at Queen’s University. She now works in the human rights and equity offices at Queen’s.

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  1. Marcia / August 5, 2015 at 13:15

    Your point is well taken; given the thoroughgoing lack of tenure track jobs, the politics of hiring and employment in academe, the move to precarious work inside academe, and the glut of graduate students, there will be/is no option but to move to alternative careers. These factors raise the question of why the myth of tenure track jobs continue to hold.

  2. Matt / August 5, 2015 at 14:59

    Very interesting point, one that touches close to home for me as I’ll be starting my PhD in September after a couple of years working. I’ll personally be honoured if I am able to one day become a tenure-track professor in a Canadian university; however, realistically, this isn’t my #1 ambition. I want to be involved in research and feel the experience learning more about qualitative research with the experts will be nothing but beneficial for me.

    I’ve encountered a number of fantastic individuals with PhDs in a wide variety of disciplines who have had very unique opportunities come up because of their degrees. In my experience, there are a number of non-traditional jobs that require traditional degrees. This observation – one that I’m not always sure that others who haven’t taken a break from academia may overlook because they haven’t been exposed to it – partly guides me in my goal of completing a PhD.

    As a side note, those pursuing graduate degrees seem to be questioned about what they could possibly do with a degree in [insert social science or humanities program]. Isn’t it interesting that those in traditional academic roles also seem to project their own life experiences on their students, maybe even at times defensive from previous experience(s)? In my opinion, one set of expectations in ‘real-world’ work or academic work is too narrow. It comes down to the ability of mentors to coach their students and, in my own idealistic understanding, support them in their own long-term goals while collaboratively meeting more short-to-medium term goals.

  3. karen / August 9, 2015 at 16:58

    I’m not sure I agree with the basic premise that grad students are shamed about wanting alt-ac careers. I’ve always encouraged mine to pursue other goals, knowing that there are so few jobs in academia. I think any professor in touch with the realities of the job market is the same.

    I think it may matter more in some fields where publishing (co-authoring) is the reason for taking on grad students in the first place. In this case, faculty forgo their own research to raise funding for and then supervise students undertaking research and get co-authorship. If students aren’t motivated to publish because it won’t mean as much to a non-academic career, then the faculty get short-changed.

    In the humanities, grad students pursue their own topics anyway, and co-authorship with supervisors is rare, so it matters a lot less.

  4. Luke / August 13, 2015 at 12:09

    Could it just be that because research directors have pursued their careers within academic institutions, they don’t have much knowledge of the non-academic professional environment and thus are unable to offer the same level of concrete support or understanding that they would academic work? That is certainly the situation I face when I try to help my wife, who is in the legal field, with her career projects… I can only be useful up to a point, but that doesn’t mean I’m not as proud of her professional achievements as I would be of an academic’s, or that I think that her career is any less important than my own.
    As for the idea of turning around the question and asking academics why they want to be academics, it seems to me that we DO regularly have to answer this question, when being asked to reflect on our teaching, or to justify the value of our research when seeking funding or fulfilling one of the many other senseless bureaucratic tasks administrations increasingly love to impose on us. Otherwise, when we’re not doing that, isn’t it only natural that within our departments, there is enough mutual understanding amongst us that we shouldn’t need to constantly explain or justify our decision? Or maybe we’re simply sick of talking about it by then? Is the author planning to spend all of her coffee breaks as an alt-ac commisserating with her colleagues on her decision to work as an alt-ac? Seems to me that would get monotonous after a while.

  5. Shawn Warren / March 12, 2016 at 23:09

    Hello Dr Chow

    At two points in your article you broached the topic of why you chose not to pursue a traditional career as a professor in the academe. I was disappointed you didn’t identify your reasons why, even though you correctly point out there is no shame in such a choice.

    I wonder, if an academic career was more like this – – would you have elected for it? In your experience, do you know others who would?

    Changing how academic service is provided – by making the career one of an independent professional in private practice, rather than a union represented employee in an institution – would certainly have given you more to think about. It would have given you the option to control your working conditions in ways no possible as a staff or faculty employee.

    Keeping in mind the diversity of choice you champion, do you think such an option should be made available to us?