Monday, March 04, 2013


Ask the Administrator: Administration as Alt-Ac?

A longtime reader writes:

I'm writing because, having decided to leave teaching, I'm looking for some advice on two potential directions that I hope you (and your wise and worldly readers) can help me with.
By way of background: I planned on being a college professor since sometime in high school. At my own 'snooty liberal arts college' I majored in History then went on to a major research university to earn my PhD in the same. It wasn't until the end of that process that I came to appreciate the awful job market and my professors' ignorance of alternative tracks. My post-doctoral landing was softened somewhat by a two-year research postdoc. During that time I did my first adjunct teaching at a California State University campus. That opportunity led to others at nearby CSUs. Now I'm in my first full year as a 'freeway flier.' I love the teaching, but the financial compensation is awful and the job insecurity is worse. In the meantime, I'm not getting any academic writing done, not only because I don't have time but because I'm just not motivated to write to the in-discipline crowd in the required forms.
I've concluded that for the sake of my family and sanity I can't continue on this track . Adjuncting will never provide enough compensation or stability. And without major publication accomplishments I'm just not likely to find tenure-track work in this combination of a glutted labor market and budget squeeze. (Nor would I necessarily want to enter a 'publish or perish' situation.)  
Though I've applied for community college work, those jobs are scarce enough around here that it's not worth holding my breath. So, after six years working on the Ph.D., two more as a research postdoc, and another year of teaching, I'm looking for a new career.  
Two paths come to mind as potentially building on my skills and interests. One would be entering the administrative side of university life. I've now been connected with a broad range of area schools, giving me a somewhat unique perspective. I know their students well and enjoy my work with them. I worked for two years as a Resident Advisor while an undergraduate and enjoyed that work too. But in my experience top administrators either have a background as tenure-track faculty or degrees in Education. If I start a career in the admin side of higher education, am I heading toward a new ceiling I don't yet see? And what kind of job should I look to start in if I want to be able to grow into positions of greater responsibility as I develop greater skills? 
The second path would be to move into public policy work in education. My graduate work focused on late-twentieth century political history, with an emphasis on ideas and institutions, so I think I have the mindset for public policy work though not the usual training. I have experience writing and speaking to non-academics about contemporary topics, including some (paid) articles published with an online journal. But I just don't know that landscape well enough to know where to start. Could you recommend some organizations that you think are doing the best work in helping address the current crises in higher education? 
Of course, at this point I'm open to any additional suggestions. If you were in my shoes, what other options might you consider?

First, congratulations on deciding to rewrite the script.  It can be hard to let go of a long-held goal, but it sounds like you have a perfectly good reason to move on.

The trendy term for what you’re looking for is “alt-ac,” or an alternative to a traditional academic career.  (As William Pannapacker noted on Twitter, these days it’s more accurate to refer to academic careers as alternative, given their scarcity.)  

My entire career has been “alt-ac,” though I don’t know if the term existed back then.  So I’m very much of a supporter of the concept.  And there’s no shame at all in wanting to make a living that can support your family.

You’re right that certain administrative jobs require a background as full-time faculty, but some don’t.  Tutoring or academic support centers often require some teaching experience, for example, but it doesn’t have to be full-time.  Some grant-funded programs look for people who can blend academic qualifications with some sort of either advising or managerial skill.  If you have the chops for it, advising centers can be a way to move up.  The trick is to find careers that offer ladders, rather than ceilings.  

The public policy area is outside my experience, so I can’t really speak to it intelligently. (That’s particularly true in California.)   Any wise and worldly readers who can shed informed light are invited to.  

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what say you?  Are there other, better options?  Is there a realistic path from a history Ph.D. to a public policy role?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Although I don't want to encourage you along the academic path, you might first look in a different state, even in some alt-ac career paths. California is a mess.

I'll second the suggestion about slipping in through the academic support side of the house. If you have personnel management and leadership skills, those will come through and you will move up like the director of our center did. Ditto for grant funded programs. The management and budget skills shown there have also pushed some people up the ladder.

As for public policy, Newt Gingrich has a history BA! The path followed by one person I know in that "sphere" (whose background is not too different from yours) included some drone work in the Washington bureaucracy in an area related to his academic field, and then actively cultivating the contacts that got him into a staff position where his political and management skills got noticed. (My impression at the state level is also that top staffers can be a breakout position.) After that, he went into the think tank - government shuffle as administrations came and went.
Hey OP-

I can't help on the Alt-ac side of things, since I just don't know that area all that well.

A few suggestions/options on the public policy side:

-Look around for elected officials who care deeply about education/have higher education as a major priority (either because that's their background, or because they have a cc or 4-year college in their district). Then call/email and find out if they're hiring. Higher-up electeds (Governors, Senators, Members of the U.S. House) have their pick of experienced education advisers, but you'd be surprised how much your skill set would be valued by a local state senator or city councilman. No, your work wouldn't likely be focused exclusively on higher ed issues, but you'd get a chance to work on some of it, while using your contacts and getting experience in a field outside of education.

-Look to non-profits/advocacy groups that care about higher ed. I'm not from California, so I can't highlight any specifically, but do some searching/ask around. You wouldn't start all that high up on the organizational ladder, but the nice thing about non-profits (especially small ones) is that they can be a great place to network and build a skill set.

-Not that this is a particularly easy field either, but it's worth looking around to see if any museums in your area are hiring, especially in Education Director roles.
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