It’s hard to believe it, but getting a Ph.D. is no longer a surefire way to become a tenured professor. Reports from 2014-’15 reveal that roughly one in five (or fewer) doctorate students with Ph.Ds secure a tenure track position at a college or university within the first year of graduation.
For someone looking for a full-time teaching job, academia is a tough market. At colleges and universities in the U.S., full-time or tenure-track professors make up just over 20 percent of faculty. Currently, the majority of teaching jobs available to someone who recently obtained a master’s degree or a Ph.D. are part-time, adjunct or non-tenured positions.
How the Decline of Tenure Led to Alt-Ac
The prevalence of adjunct faculty at colleges and universities in the U.S., including top schools like Harvard University and other Ivy League institutions, has been on the rise for the past few decades. As schools look to cut costs, they’ve reduced the number of full-time, tenure track positions in favor of part-time, adjunct teaching jobs. Whether or not this move is detrimental to students is debatable, but the trend is clear: becoming a tenured professor might not be the best option for most graduate or Ph.D. students.
Instead of desperately searching for a full-time or tenure-track teaching position, many professors have started to embrace an alternative academic career path. Dubbed Alt-Ac (alternative academic) or Post-Ac (post-academic), these teachers have started to look outside of academia for career opportunities, as a way to combine their love for teaching with a job that offers higher pay, better job security and more stability.
Viewing Alt-Ac as a New Opportunity, Not a Failure
Alt-Ac often refers to individuals with doctorate degrees who don’t work as university professors. This includes people who work in libraries, at think tanks, nonprofits, museums, and historical societies, in journalism and within some academic departments, such as digital technology specialists. Alt-academics use the research, writing and teaching skills they acquired while obtaining their doctorate in a field adjacent to academia.
For some recent Ph.D. grads, it can be hard to embrace the idea of being an alt-academic. Most doctorate students have spent nearly a decade working towards their degree, and many have developed a passion for teaching they don’t want to let go of. Within academia itself, not becoming a professor after getting a Ph.D. can be seen as a failure. Along with the immense pressure to secure a full-time or tenure-track teaching position, Ph.D. students might feel isolated or unsupported in their search for a job, whether it’s in academia or not.
The Value of a Ph.D. Outside of Higher Ed
Currently, the number of people working towards a Ph.D. far outweigh the availability of full-time or tenure-track teaching positions at colleges and universities in the U.S. Because of this, most Ph.D. candidates must at least consider a career outside of academia, or embrace a more alt-academic career path.
Whether they realize it or not, someone with a Ph.D. already has many of the skills that are considered highly valuable, both in and outside of higher education. Ph.D. students have the ability to analyze data, explain complex problems to non-experts, synthesize new solutions, edit and critique written work, manage large, multi-year projects and work with time constraints and limited budgets.
Navigating a Career Beyond Academia
For both current professors and Ph.D. candidates, there are many opportunities outside of academia, but the higher education model doesn’t necessarily encourage or prepare someone to pursue this type of career.
Considering a more alt-academic career path doesn’t have to start with a big job change. Having a Ph.D. in the social sciences or humanities can lead to a variety of freelance work, such as writing for an online or web publication or consulting on a project for a nonprofit, a local business or a startup. Adjunct professors can also use their expertise to become a speaker and speak at local events, conferences and corporate functions. These freelance “gigs” can be supplemental income for instructors who want to continue teaching, or could lead to a new job outside of higher education.
When looking for a position beyond academia, it’s important that adjunct professors and Ph.D. candidates translate their skills and experiences into the language of their targeted career. In the nonprofit realm and the business world, academic jargon might confuse a recruiter or a hiring manager. It’s also important to keep an open mind in your job search. Nonprofits, companies and government agencies might not have the exact position you’re looking for, but the role could provide valuable work experience that moves you in the right direction.
Shifting The Mindset
Embracing an alt-academic career path often requires a leap of faith and letting go of preconceived notions of what life as a professor should look like. The reality is that full-time or tenure-track teaching positions are few and far between. Also, the pay for adjunct and part-time teachers is notoriously low. According to the American Association of University Professors, reports from 2012-’13 revealed that the median pay rate for part-time faculty members was only $2,700 per three-credit course.
Seeking opportunities outside of academia doesn’t have to mean giving up teaching altogether. There are professors who have found a balance between lecturing part-time and securing other types of freelance work as consultants, speakers, researchers, journalists, etc. Big opportunities outside professorship abound, but it’s about embracing the mindset of an adjunct entrepreneur, which goes beyond seeing oneself as an alt-academic. An adjunct entrepreneur is not only open to opportunities outside of higher education, but also successfully navigates both the business world and academia. Adjunct professors are already free agents, and it’s time to start acting like it.
A Resource for Alt-Ac, Adjuncts and Anyone with an Advanced Degree
Inside Scholar is a resource that connects academia with the nonprofit and business world. For adjunct professors, alt-academics, and anyone with an advanced degree, Inside Scholar helps working professionals pursue opportunities that match their skills and expertise. Keep reading Inside Scholar for more tools, tips and information about the future of higher education, and how to secure opportunities in the corporate world as an adjunct professor.