Elucidating ‘alternative academia’

Alexandra Swanson is a graduate student in the Department of English.

Humanities Without Walls Predoctoral Workshop Internal Competition
Deadline: November 1, 2021
Workshop dates: June 17–July 1, 2022
The University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities will host HWW’s annual summer workshop for doctoral students interested in learning about diverse careers for humanists. Through a series of workshops, talks and site visits, participants will learn how to imagine possible futures and leverage their skills and humanities training towards careers in the private sector, the nonprofit world, arts administration, public media and many other fields.

From the very beginning of my PhD program, I have been open to considering careers outside of academia since, as all humanities doctoral students know, there are more of us than there are available professorships. I have always taken solace in the oft-repeated mantra that humanities PhD graduates are highly employable beyond academia at career diversity panels and professionalization meetings, but I have to admit that I was never exactly clear on what types of jobs that mantra referred to.

Attending the Humanities Without Walls National Predoctoral Career Diversity Summer Workshop this past summer, however, was a clarifying experience. Every day for three weeks, presenters from different professions and from across the country Zoomed in and spoke to us about their careers. Each of them shared what they liked and disliked about their work, their work-life balance, the culture of their industry, their level of job security and so on. Across the board, the speakers were even willing to answer taboo but crucial questions like, “What is a typical salary for someone in your field?”

From working for the federal government, to working at a nonprofit, to working at a consulting firm, HWW presented a wide array of career options. But what I liked best about the workshop, I think, was the way that it insisted that we don’t need to leave academia entirely behind us, even if we do ultimately decide on an alt-ac career.

In my experience, it’s all too easy to feel like one’s dissertation will only ever be of interest to other academics and that leaving academia necessarily means washing your hands of years of research. But on the first day of the workshop, Megan Stielstra, a Chicago-based writer, asked us to compose timelines that marked the major moments in our personal, nonacademic lives that eventually pushed us to pursue our particular dissertation topics. Drawing these links between various personal milestones and our research helped remind me that most academic research has nonacademic roots and implications. Later, Stielstra asked us all to pair up and pretend like we were interviewing for our “dream job” (which, for many of us, was an alt-ac position) and explain how our dissertation was relevant. Once again, I found myself looking for and readily finding ways that my academic research might have consequences in the nonacademic world. The more the workshop went on, the more it became clear that it’s all a matter of framing.

Further, many of the members of my cohort expressed particular enthusiasm for learning about careers that might allow us to mix and match parts of academia with other professional sectors. Those of us who value teaching above all else, for instance, might plan to work in a community college or a secondary school, where research is not required and teaching takes up more of your day-to-day. Those of us who love reading academic scholarship and attending conferences might explore a career in academic publishing, where one can keep up with the latest trends in academic research without being expected to produce it. Those of us who identify most strongly as writers could look into freelancing or content generation, while those of us whose hearts are in research might consider museum work.

Alexandra Swanson

Nearly all the HWW presenters had earned humanities PhDs, which meant that my cohort not only had the chance to ask them about the everyday practicalities of their jobs, but that we could also ask how they got to where they are from where we are now. While describing their paths out of tenure-track academia, a number of the presenters stressed the benefits of nonlinear career paths and the possibility that one could collect an entire bouquet of different jobs before retirement.

When we asked what we could do to prepare now for alternative-academic careers, the speakers encouraged us to conduct as many informational interviews as we could find time for. In fact, conducting at least one informational interview was an HWW workshop requirement. They also advised us to complete internships and part-time gigs in fields of interest to us whenever possible and to utilize the career services at our own universities to the fullest.


Headline image by Denys Nevozhai via Unsplash