Sunday, August 04, 2013


Ask the Administrator: Alternatives to Faculty Jobs?

An underemployed philosopher writes:

I have a PhD in philosophy, which I received in 2010, and have had terrible luck on the job market. I had a full-time lecturer position for 2 years (before I was done with the PhD) but have mostly been adjuncting since then. I had hoped to transition into some type of administrative position at a university, but have found that difficult. Do you have any advice on doing that? I initially found your blog when doing a google search for that. However, your post (from 2010, I think) was more for those who are currently faculty and want to make the transition, and I haven't really found anything too specific on Chronicle or Insider Higher Ed.
What I'm wondering about is moving into such a position at a university or college where I am not faculty. Does that happen? Also, I realized that I don't even have a good sense of the type of positions for which I would appear appealing. Obviously positions like Assistant Dean are out. In the past, I have applied to a random set of openings, without a sense of which ones were appropriate to my background. Or do these others want someone with manager/business background? I don't have that--only experience working with students and my first-hand experience with what is needed to succeed as an undergraduate and graduate student.

I have a feeling this is a common question.  

There’s actually a movement afoot among academics who have decided to look for non-faculty positions that take advantage of their degrees: they call it “alternative academic,” or, more commonly, “alt-ac.”  I can’t claim expertise on the alt-ac movement, though I’ve followed it off and on with some interest.  Alt-ac positions include research positions in libraries, work in “digital humanities” (for those who have the tech expertise), various positions in foundations, and administration, among others.

Within the “alt-ac” movement, one of the persistent themes that comes up is making the psychological adjustment away from a goal that you’ve pursued for probably a decade.  There’s a taboo in many graduate programs about doing anything other than a tenure-track faculty position, preferably at a research-intensive place.  Once you get beyond grad school, there’s a second taboo against administration generally.  So kudos on being able to get past the brainwashing, and on recognizing that hey, even Ph.D.’s gotta eat.  No shame in that.

(I had my own variation on that when I accepted a full-time faculty position at DeVry. There was, and still is, a taboo against for-profit higher ed as well.  But I had a choice between adjuncting at more prestigious places, or swallowing my pride and actually earning a living.  I decided to earn a living.  Yes, I would have preferred a nice tenure-track gig at, say, Oberlin, but that just wasn’t in the cards.  I don’t regret my choice.)

Assuming you’ve made peace with the idea, the next step is finding a way to get a foot in the door.  In this case, that involves identifying a likely door.

In some cases, it’s possible to start directly in “administration,” but most of the time, you need to spend some time and build some street cred on either faculty or staff.  Once you’ve shown your talents there, and learned some of the lay of the land, you’ll be much likelier to be able to move up.  I’d suggest looking at roles like “academic advisor.”  A role like that can draw upon your knowledge of the academic side of the college, and can expose you to both the reality of how students make decisions -- it isn’t always textbook -- and how more vocationally-focused programs are structured.  

Grant-funded programs can also be good points of entry.  Grant-funded programs (also referred to as “soft money”) usually have expiration dates, so the jobs they post may only exist for a few years.  In your shoes, that’s not a bad thing; do a few years to get experience and see if you like it, and then either move up or do something else.  The advantage of the time-limited job is that you probably won’t have as much competition for it.

If you’re really savvy, you might be able to parlay experience in a grant-funded program into some level of grant-management experience.  If you get good at either grant management or grant-writing, you will have a host of opportunities.  The major issue there is having nerves of steel when it comes to funding deadlines.  Depending on local context, you may also be able to teach on the side while doing a grant-funded day job.  That will earn you some extra money and keep you in touch with the classroom, without dooming you to trying to live on part-time wages.

Traditional academic administration -- department chairs, deans, and the like -- typically require time in the faculty role.  

The key, I think, is in not thinking entirely short-term.  Yes, you need to make a living, and that’s valid.  But if all goes well, you have decades ahead of you.  Think about a job that will position you well for future jobs.  Any of these would.

When it comes to opportunities at research universities, I’ll defer to those of my wise and worldly readers who work there.  It’s a very different context.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what say you?  Are there other appealing options an underemployed philosopher could pursue?

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

Don't forget things that might be classified like academic-staff like counselor, the writing center, or the center for teaching excellence.

Counselor is usually entry-level and can be gotten with the kind of experience that you're likely to have had via teaching.
Also look at listings on college web sites. Many colleges won't post staff positions in the Chronicle or IHE because they thing that the people they want to hire don't read those publications--and it can be expensive to list there.

If you have time and money, it wouldn't hurt to take a class or two in HIgher Ed administration, which could give you some inkling of the kinds of things you might do and might help you find available positions.

Good luck!
Watch for the university/college/CC category error here!

YMMV (Dean Dad's CC could be different from mine), but at my CC the "academic advisors" on staff have a degree in counseling. The faculty who also do academic advising have learned to value this and send students to them when the problems go beyond sequencing and scheduling.

I know that large departments and individual colleges within a university will have academic advisors on staff who have degrees in the field rather than in counseling. Those could be a good target for you. Since I doubt that philosophy alone would support one, you need to diversify your knowledge of academic programs so you can work with a wide range of students. But be warned that I know of more than one instance where those jobs were the first cut when budgets contracted.

It is amazing what a deep knowledge of logic can do. I know one philosopher who writes software. There might even be openings for people who can make sense of the Affordable Care Act regulations.
At my college, counselors have master's degrees in counseling and academic advisers have master's degrees in student services and/or in an academic discipline. In my experience in hiring for these staff positions, I've noticed that individuals with PhD's often don't answer the supplemental questions that are part of the application process. This is a big mistake. My suggestion is to be sure to thoroughly understand what you are supposed to submit as part of your application, sell yourself on your cover letter (and be sure to ANSWER ANY QUESTIONS as part of the application -- don't rely on your Ph.D. and vita to tell the story), and let the review committee understand not just why you want the position but what you can offer to the position that would be unique.
I guess that there comes a time in the lives of a lot of aspiring academics when they finally come to the realization that they have made a bad career choice. It may come at the time when they come to terms with the fact that they are of only ordinary ability and they are never going to be a superstar with a whole bunch of ground-breaking research papers to their credit as well as a couple of highly-regarded monographs under their belt. Perhaps it comes when they are approaching middle age and are still adjuncting, repeatedly applying in vain for that elusive full-time tenure track job. Perhaps it comes when they realize that their discipline is completely overcrowded with new entrants, and that their chances of ever getting full-time employment in their field are not much better than the odds of winning the PowerBall lottery. Time to throw in the towel and think about a career change.

But what might someone with a PhD degree in something like philosophy, history, or English consider as a possible alternative career? If they wanted to remain in a collegiate environment, perhaps they could move into administration. However, most college and university administrative positions seem to require some amount of teaching and research experience, and they also require some sort of advanced degree in that particular administrative discipline. A career-changing PhD might have to go back to school to get that required degree. Fortunately, these are fairly easy to obtain, and there are lot of colleges specializing in awarding advanced degrees for administrative-type positions. Frequently, all that is required is a few courses, plus a thesis which is little more than a glorified term paper. Perhaps with such a degree in hand, one might have a reasonable change of obtaining a full-time administrative position in a college or university. But administration is not immune from budget cuts and layoffs either, and it may be that the last administrative hire is the first one to get laid off when times get tough or enrollments decline.

Maybe a PhD in a liberal-arts discipline who is contemplating a career change will have to get out of academics altogether and consider going outside of the college and university environment and look at the corporate world. This will certainly be much more difficult to do than it would be for a STEM PhD, who has many more options for doing research in industry. Perhaps one might try to look at non-profits which are working in areas that are similar to what the candidate worked on as a graduate student. Maybe there is a way one can network with other liberal arts PhD holders who have been faced with similar difficulties.

Good luck. It is a tough world out there.

I feel your pain. Having not secured an academic position after graduate school, I turned to local government. The willingness to write or decipher policy, apply for grants, or work with contracts may be suitable area for you. Throw in a couple of public admin courses and you would probably be a great admin analyst/policy analyst. Once you are in the door, other opportunities usually surface. Just my $.02.
If you don't have a sense of the types of jobs that are appropriate, then yes, it will be difficult. Particularly when you are making a big switch, you need to be able to sell yourself, and you can't sell yourself as a good fit for the job if you don't understand what the job requires. So I would suggest a LOT of informational interviews with anyone you know who works at a college/university to understand what you may be going for, and how your past experience might translate into different skills. Talk to people who've already translated similar experience into academic staff jobs.

The problem here is that universities vary a LOT (eg, CCPhysicist and Laura Blankenship above). There are places where a phd places you out of contention for advising jobs, but I happen to be at fancy-pants university with an interest in hiring phds to relieve their faculty of all service work. Hence, they hire advisors, fellowship officers, teaching/writing center directors, registrars with phds. There are also a lot of half-teaching/half-admin jobs here, such as running honors programs, or running the operations side of interdisciplinary programs or research centers, under a faculty director. These are typically NOT people moving from faculty positions at the same university. I know one large public university that hired a phd in the field to be their department advisor, which I'm guessing is a mix of advising and a lot of paperwork of tracking grad requirements. Another friend is a grant officer at the NEH.

My office has hired a few phds with no previous formal advising experience since I've been there, and some issues we see: 1) are you mentally ready? we want people who will love the job, not consider it second best 2) are you strategically ready? A resume is an entirely different creature from an academic CV, and sending an academic CV is the kiss of death for my boss, it means you don't understand the shift. 3) are you ready to be a generalist instead of a specialist? I'm a historian, but I have to be able to explain how a biology major gets started doing research.

Here's some examples of what I mean by translation: I have a very skills-oriented resume. My dissertation is on my resume under "research and data analysis" and under "grant writing", but not as a dissertation per se. My service on the board of a small professional organization no longer speaks to "status in the field", but demonstrates my experience with event planning, and doing a website & newsletter. Being a postdoc in a lab requires mentoring undergrads, which is a form of advising (but only counts for you if you point it out as such). Teaching gives you skills in public speaking, in understanding students, and so forth, but it's unlikely that a staff job is hiring you for your knowledge of the content that you taught. If you don't have a skill that is listed in the job requirements, do some basic research and develop a plan for bringing yourself up to speed. There's a ton of spin required.

There are a lot of resources, including consultants who will help you develop that spin. Try the sites Beyond the Ivory Tower and Leaving Academia to get started. Somewhere there is a tumblr where phds just describe the job they have now, which would give you a sense of the range of possibilities.

Good luck! Been there, and I got very lucky. I wish you the same!
Apologies--I was listing the two sites above from memory, and neither search really brought up what I expected. Try How to Leave Academia, The Versatile PhD, and a book called So What Are You Going to Do With That.
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