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.