‘Academic’ Means More Than Tenure Track
The discourse about academic vs. nonacademic careers omits a category of fulfilling careers that students might be interested in pursuing, and we should stop framing job opportunities that way.
About a year ago, I made a career transition into professional and academic development support for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. I have found the work immensely fulfilling, and as with any other new position, I spent quite a bit of time in my first several months trying to catch myself up to speed on the lingo of the profession.
In particular, given the amount of programming that we develop for graduate students exploring diverse career options, I started tuning in more to how people were talking about the career landscape for doctoral students. As I read more of the literature, I started noticing the frequency of references to “academic vs. nonacademic” positions. As someone who obtained a Ph.D. in microbiology and ultimately pursued a career in higher education administration, this terminology was not new to me; I had heard it many times during my own doctoral education as I weighed various career options. That said, I started to realize that this phrase presents a false dichotomy for students who are considering diverse career options.
To highlight what I mean, I’ll briefly describe my own career trajectory. I knew when I defended my dissertation in 2013 that a tenure-track faculty position was not for me. I was strongly committed to science and teaching, but my heart was not at the bench. After moving to Michigan to be closer to my husband, I cold emailed a physics professor at the University of Michigan to learn more about an educational reform project that he was leading and asked if I could be involved in any way. That email led to my first full-time administrative position at the university as a project coordinator. The connections that I made led to two years as an instructional consultant at the university’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, then a position supporting undergraduates as the associate director of the Science Learning Center.
During each of those transitions, I reflected on the new skills that I had developed in each role. As a project coordinator, I learned how to lead a diverse team, keep a complex project with multiple moving parts on track, manage a budget and drive organizational change. As an instructional consultant, I gained expertise not only with one-on-one consultations, but also in developing and executing complex programs and events. As an associate director, I managed full-time professional staff.
I also began to carefully track which pieces of my work I found most energizing and fulfilling, as well as those that left me drained. That reflection on my skills and the work that I love to do, along with a long-standing commitment to graduate students and graduate student mental health, led me to UM’s Rackham Graduate School, where I am now happily developing programming for graduate students and postdocs in STEM.
Changing the Discourse
Why am I describing my own career path? Over the course of seven years, I have held four positions that have either required or been strongly benefited by a Ph.D., and each of them has been in the academy. To say this another way, they are positions that are non-tenure-track but academic in nature. One goal that I have for writing this piece is to start to change the discourse of academic vs. nonacademic careers, because it omits a category of fulfilling careers that students might be interested in pursuing.
In a previous "Carpe Careers" essay, “Academic Careers You May Not Have Considered,” David McDonald highlights several academic but non-tenure-track positions including tenure-like roles, library affairs, research administration, diversity and inclusion work, student affairs, academic affairs, institutional research and assessment, and campus relationship building. In another excellent piece, Chris Golde delves further into the wide variety of options open to Ph.D. students in academic administration. One thing I particularly like about the latter article is the section on the value added to such positions by having a Ph.D. Although it won’t be required in every job, individuals with a Ph.D. bring a distinct perspective and skill set to the work required. Aside from the positions and roles I have already mentioned, I also have Ph.D. colleagues at the University of Michigan who work in technology transfer, program evaluation, science policy and outreach, and in research scientist positions in laboratories on campus.
So how exactly does one prepare for academic positions beyond the tenure track? Golde provides great recommendations -- to attend career panels, conduct informational interviews and find ways to actually do some of the work that individuals in these positions do on a daily basis. To these, I would add that you should also try connecting with relevant professional organizations. For example, if you are exploring faculty development, you might request to be added to the email list for the Professional and Organizational Development Network, or POD. If you are interested in a position like mine that supports graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, I would explore the resources of the Graduate Career Consortium and Council of Graduate Schools as a starting point. You can unearth more of these professional organizations by adding this question to the informational interviews that you’re conducting. (Because you’ve already set those up, right? If not, see this excellent resource from ImaginePhD to get started.)
Additionally, I encourage students to utilize online career exploration tools like myIDP, ImaginePhD and Versatile PhD. MyIDP is geared toward those in the sciences and provides in-depth assessments on skills, interests and values to help you explore 20 different career paths, many of which can be found in the academy. ImaginePhD, while broadly applicable across disciplines, is more tailored toward students and postdocs in the humanities and social sciences. In addition to providing skills, interests and values assessments like myIDP, the creators of ImaginePhD collaborated with various developers to create a library of job simulations, which can be found on the InterSECT website. (Several of these simulations are for positions in the academy.) A third tool called Versatile PhD provides a tremendous amount of free content, and if you have access to an institutional membership, you might explore the real-life examples, which document sample job postings, as well as full application packets from people who secured those jobs.
As you use these career development tools, continue to read as many job postings as you can to get a sense of what institutions are looking for in these academic, non-tenure-track positions. When I have run workshops on these tools in the past, students comment on how encouraged they are to see the breadth of diverse careers available to them based on their distinct skills and interests. They also tend to cite values clarification activities like this one described by Melanie Sinche (author of Next Gen PhD) as particularly enlightening when thinking about the kind of work that they see themselves doing in the long term.
Last, I encourage students to seek out experiential learning opportunities, even where they might not be broadly advertised. Examples of such opportunities that might exist on your campus include internships, immersion experiences, project or contract-based work, job shadowing, or volunteering. If you are interested in a specific type of academic work (such as educational development, advising or technology transfer), reach out to the unit on your campus or at a nearby institution that does that work and see how you can get engaged.
Such experiences can provide you with a more in-depth and structured opportunity to explore a career of interest. They can help you gain critical skills that you might not otherwise develop in your Ph.D. program, and they can ultimately lead to connections that are instrumental in landing a position in a particular field. Many students who have participated in internship programs through Rackham explain that although it first seemed daunting to take a few weeks or even months away from their dissertation research for an internship, the benefits from the experience far outweighed the risks.
The students who tend to be most successful in such internships set clear expectations with both their site advisers and dissertation advisers, make connections with people across the company (including conducting informational interviews), and think ahead of time about the goals that they have for the internship experience. Experiential learning opportunities are available for academic, non-tenure-track positions, but they might not be as clearly posted as other opportunities, or you might have to help craft an experience where a formal program does not exist. If you have the option, I would recommend setting up an appointment with an adviser (ideally, a career adviser) in your department or graduate school to discuss the options that are available, and how you might start to reach out to units that could help you craft one of these opportunities.
When I think back to what started to shape my career, I realize that it was a love of teaching. I sought teaching opportunities as an undergraduate, and as a graduate student, I took courses in pedagogy and pursued a teaching certificate through the Delta program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the wealth of academic jobs available to me that would allow me to teach in some capacity. But every role that I have held since graduate school has included a teaching component.
My Ph.D. colleagues across the university would likely tell you something similar if asked the same question. Maybe it wasn’t teaching, but they were drawn to academe because of a love of research, supporting students, engaging in outreach opportunities or something else entirely. Although many of us recognize this only in retrospect, thinking about what you find most fulfilling in your current work, completing values assessments like those mentioned above and/or reading a resource like Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans might help you identify these themes earlier.
The truth is that colleges and universities can support myriad career paths and not just tenure-track faculty positions. If you find yourself drawn to aspects of academe but do not want such a position, take heart that you can find many rewarding careers in the academy beyond the professoriate.
Gina Shereda is program lead for STEM professional development at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.