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“I failed.”

Saying this, Brian Croxall sounded rather proud. He was speaking to attendees at the recent Alt-Ac workshop, hosted by HASTAC on the eve of its fifth annual conference, held in Ann Arbor, Michigan the first weekend in December. What he meant was that according to traditional academic standards, he failed to get a legitimate job worthy of a recent recipient of a PhD: a tenure-track position. As he explains in his insightful article, “Playing for Both Teams,” he applied to 148 academic positions over the course of three years and landed “three MLA interviews, two phone interviews, and two local interviews.” But no job.

Jeepers crow, as we say in the tiny state I’m from.

He also applied to four alt-ac positions, received interviews for them all, and now thrives in his job as a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow and Emerging Technologies Librarian in the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University. Therefore, says Brian, “I am a success.” He’s absolutely right.

Until Croxall made his declaration, it never occurred to me to think that anyone who manages to wring out a PhD should be considered a failure if he or she takes an alternative job in academia. Even in the most robust cultural and economic climate, it seems narrow minded to believe that a PhD in the humanities has to lead to tenure, whether in a position at a research university or one with a 4/4 load teaching freshman composition and rhetoric.

But Croxall’s statement about failure reflects a common sentiment. Consider the article “Changing the Way We Socialize Graduate Students,”  published last January in the gloomy Chronicle of Higher Education. Leonard Cassuto writes that  “most people with the gumption to complete a PhD” feel they “deserve[  ] an academic job … with a low teaching load and generous research support.” Most of us on the market or planning to be know the chances for such a job are slim. But entitlement and disappointment arise, Cassuto argues, because graduate students are socialized by their departments to believe they’ll get a tenured position that reflects the ones held by their own teachers.

The solution to this problem, Cassuto writes, is that teachers “need to teach students about their disciplines. That means teaching them what the professional world of their field looks like and how it works, both inside and outside the university.” But what if teachers are as socialized to the idea of the tenure-track position as the students? My professors are really good at what they do. I don’t necessarily expect them to know about existing employment beyond the university walls or even inside them, such as at the library.

Croxall’s solution for digital humanists is to apply to alt-ac jobs, which range from programming to scholarly support to foundation administrators. Jobs, in other words, that require critical thinking and collaboration, skills valued by digital humanists. To be sure, alt-ac does not just refer to jobs in the digital humanities. Cassuto, who is a devoted and much-loved teacher at Fordham University, acknowledges this: “We have to prepare Ph.D.'s to seek jobs of all kinds.”

I’m bothered by the notion that teachers need to do this preparation for students. Graduate students should also take on the burden of discovering what’s out there and take the initiative to prepare themselves for alternative academic positions.

At the Alt-Ac workshop in Ann Arbor, Fiona Barnett explained that as a graduate student she formed several student groups based on her academic needs, groups which have since become fixtures in the English Department at Duke. Shana Kimball, another speaker at the workshop, described the interviews she conducted with editors at various publishing entities at the University of Michigan to learn about the profession and plan her career. (Cassuto refers to this practice at Michigan, as well.) Now she is the head of Outreach & Strategic Development at MPublishing at the University of Michigan. Similarly, job seekers should consider their needs and find ways to address them. Form a group of like-minded students along with others who have had experience with alt-ac jobs to pool ideas. Call in speakers from the home institution and nearby ones for suggestions about how to respond to a job listing and turn the CV into a resume (that’s what we did at the Alt-Ac workshop). Stage mock interviews. Read Croxall’s essay to feel inspired and get more informed about the alt-ac job market. Spread the word about what you learn by tweeting, blogging, Zoteroing, and GoogleDoc-ing (please forgive those last two verbifications).

#Alt-AcSUCCESS = taking the initiative for yourself; paying attention; volunteering your ideas; thinking creatively; working around others’ beliefs; looking around corners; looking at the crowd while everyone else gazes at the sunset.

Questions for the HASTAC Community: What are your alt-ac success stories? What challenges have you encountered or foresee by taking the initiative to ensure a chance at success in the alt-ac post-PhD world?


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