Minor Differences and Diverging Paths

What follows is my talk for a session at the 2013 MLA on “How Did I Get Here? Our ‘Altac’ Jobs.” As always, I’m super excited to be at the MLA and to be speaking about a subject that is near and dear to my heart: new models of employment for PhDs and the training of graduate students. I’m thrilled to be speaking on the panel with a group of alt-ackers whose range of employment far exceeds the usual suspects of digital humanities fields: Donna M. Bickford, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Kathryn Linder, Suffolk Univ.; Liana Silva, Univ. of Kansas; and Sarah Werner, Folger Shakespeare Library. Brenda Bethman and Shaun Longstreet are organizing and providing the scaffolding.

As you’ll see, part of my slides are comics; if it’s not apparent, they are drawn in the style of Randall Munroe’s XKCD. I looked at a lot of his different panels to figure out how to create better stick figures. The idea of the “minor differences” of alt-ac and tenure tracks was inspired by Matthew Inman’s line of Minor Differences comics, which he draws at The Oatmeal. Finally, I got the idea of using hand-drawn pictures for slides from Eric Rochester‘s talk at Digital Humanities 2011 on the panel “The ‘#alt-ac’ Track: Digital Humanists off the Straight and Narrow Path to Tenure.”

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Hi everyone. First off, if you want to tweet what I say, please go ahead. (In fact, I consider it a breach of decorum and hazardous to my SEO if you DON’T tweet what I say.) My Twitter handle is simply my name. And if you want to read along with what I’m saying, this talk just went live on my website at briancroxall.net.

Cartoon of career advice

One of the difficulties of the alt-ac track is that there generally isn’t a lot of good advice about how to get there. This situation arises because the people traditionally providing career advice are those who on the tenure track. (And let’s face it: sometimes that advice is out of date.) This Catch-22 of career advice is part of what motivates this panel, the #alt-academy project, and a growing pool of other resources.

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So in this spirit, I’ll talk briefly about how I got started in my alt-ac job. But first a caveat: I’ve found that when we talk about alt-ac we tell stories about how we got here. But in many ways these narratives are useless as they inevitably describe an idiosyncratic path that cannot be duplicated.

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What becomes useful in such accounts, however (and hopefully), is the transmission of possibility: this story is about pointing out that there are different pathways. If you’re interested in an alt-ac career, you’ll have to figure out your own way, but you should know that there are lots of options that diverge from the tenure track.

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I suppose I started the path to my alt-ac job in the spring of 2009, when the term “alt-ac” did not yet exist. After being unsuccessful on the MLA job market for the second year in a row (one interview, woot!), I applied to two Associate Director jobs—at a large university initiative and at a Digital Scholarship Lab. And what do you know, I got interviews!

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In the end, I didn’t get either of these jobs, but it helped me recognize that I had marketable skills that exceeded the boundaries of the discipline that I had trained in. While applying for tenure-track jobs in the Fall of 2009, I also applied to alt-ac positions including the CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) post-doc, which places recent PhDs in academic libraries for one or two years.

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From 2010 until this past summer, I was a CLIR post-doc at Emory. In that role, I worked to establish DiSC—our Digital Scholarship Commons—which was funded by the Mellon Foundation to explore the intersection of digital humanities and libraries. I also worked with the Library’s Outreach team in connection with emerging technologies, social media, and more.

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What’s tremendously useful about the CLIR post-doc is that it provides a pivot point. A PhD program tends to prepare you to do one thing. After my post-doc, I was prepared to do a few more. I could have easily gone back to tenure-track positions but now I also had the experience to apply for jobs in libraries, DH centers, and more.

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And I’ve been lucky enough that Emory decided they wanted to keep me around. I had developed a skill set that included project management, event planning, and knowing how the university worked. The result was a permanent, alt-ac job that was new to me and a new (and innovative) position at the university. I work primarily in DiSC, but I’m also lecture-track faculty in the English department.

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So, that’s a boiled down version of the path I took to get here today. You can read more in detail in my contribution to the #alt-academy collection. But since my path’s idiosyncracies make talking about it only potentially useful, for the remainder of this presentation I’d like to cover something else about alt-ac. In particular, the minor differences between the tenure and alt-ac tracks. Let’s start with how each side begins life.

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Of course, this is reductive. Just like there’s more to do in grad school than simply reading, there is more to do to explore an #altac path than simply blogging (or even tweeting). You prepare for an alt-ac career by trying lots of different things while in grad school. Take a part-time job somewhere in the university that is not related to your field. Do what you can to explore grant writing or project management. Talk to a librarian or development person.

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Eventually you finish grad school. (Right?) And then you find a job. When it comes to finding jobs on the tenure track, we have the JIL. When it comes to the alt-ac track, there isn’t anything as centralized. You’ll want to check the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. You’ll want to look at HASTAC, H-Net, and PODnetwork. Cast a wide net. And my experience suggests your friends will find jobs for you once they know you’re looking. Most of what I’ve applied to falls into this category.

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Friends are useful because it turns out that there are LOTS of alt-ac positions. In fact, one of the best places to look is on your very own campus. You DON’T have to move to Northwest South Dakota State to get a job! Again, start when you’re in grad school. You can work in Admin part-time as a grad student and that will give you the experience that you really will need to get that same job once you need something full-time.

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Once you have the job, it’s important to realize there are some differences in how you’ll be perceived. People generally know what an “assistant professor” does (even if they radically misunderstand their salary). People really have no idea what a “DH Strategist” is, even other people on campus. (Really, I shouldn’t have drawn the alt-ac side looking so cool; it’s very difficult to explain what I do to people. But when else am I going to get to draw a light cycle?)

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One of the immediate benefits of the alt-ac track that I discovered is what feels like a more manageable work-life balance. On the tenure-track, I knew I could always be writing or reading another article. My evenings now feel like they belong to me, and I do what I want without feeling guilty. Granted, sometimes I choose to work on my own projects and writing that are no longer part of my day-to-day job.

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Of course, the freedom of those evenings does come with a price. I might work a 9-5 job, but it’s a 9-5 every day of the year. Granted, summers on the tenure track aren’t anything like the well-paid vacation that Joe Biden thinks we get.

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We all know that those summers “off” (and unpaid) are really there for the tenure-track people to get their research done. And it never feels like enough time. It’s important to realize, however, that except in very rare cases, research is not the priority of alt-ac jobs. It literally won’t be in the job description. In other words, you can’t go into this category of employment and expect to have all the perks of the tenure-track.

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One of these tenure-track perks is that by and large, you are the God of your own work environment. If you don’t like how an assignment is going, just change it! You don’t need approval. But if you work on the alt-ac track, you’ll find yourself working by committee frequently. And you’ll have to get used to having a boss.

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You’ll also have to get used to slightly different patterns of promotion within the alt-ac track. Some portions of the university world have clear promotion pathways; others don’t have anything like it, since these are totally new jobs. But you’ve got to remember that you deserve a career path in alt-ac as well as the tenure track.

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To conclude: in pointing out some of the minor divergences between the tenure- and alt-ac tracks, I am not trying to say that one career path is inherently better than another. But there are differences—Robert Frost to the contrary—and choosing your path wisely will, in fact, make all the difference.

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8 thoughts on “Minor Differences and Diverging Paths

  1. Thank you for this incredibly reassuring presentation. I’m at the end of my grad training in the social sciences and struggling to understand why getting advice about anything other than the tenure track is so difficult. I’ll be sharing your presentation widely with colleagues (and blogging about it). Be well!

  2. Love this! Can you make it into a Prezi or some such–I would love it even more. I have a lot of thoughts about this, but really want to share it with my grad students–& I will.

  3. Thank you for sharing, Brian. As someone on the last leg of my doctorate path, it was encouraging to see that there is life outside of the tenure track! It will help me to prepare for many opportunities and keep my eyes open to opportunities as they come along.

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