As a doctoral student in rhetoric and writing who came to graduate school with an interest in the connections between the arts, social justice, and community-engaged scholarship and with experience working in various nonprofit settings focused on literacy and arts, I have always kept one eye on non-academic positions and the possibility of seeking out professional development, assistantships, and research opportunities that would situate me well to follow my gaze back to the nonprofit world whence I came. As I get closer and closer to looking the job market in the eye next year, I find myself thinking increasingly about the best ways to market my academic research, teaching, and administrative experiences and skills for the traditional tenure-track professoriate, even as I continue to develop additional skills and experiences. Now is great time to be interested in these types of positions because universities are increasingly attentive to how they can prepare graduate students for these types of jobs, and Michigan State University has many related initiatives, including the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative and the CHI Fellowship.

As someone interested in public humanities, I recently attended a workshop hosted by the MSU Graduate School called “‘Alt-Ac’ and ‘Post-Ac’ Careers in the Humanities: Navigating a Shifting Landscape,” facilitated by Dr. Kristy Rawson, Assistant Director of Graduate Career Development at the University of Chicago, which was introduction to the discourse surrounding career possibilities beyond the traditional tenure-track professoriate. The workshop focused especially on understanding emerging concepts and rhetoric surrounding types of available jobs and emerging terms used to discuss this burgeoning trend.  In this post, I’m going to discuss a few takeaways and share some resources for diving deeper into this conversation.

Because much of the workshop attended to navigating the shifting rhetoric regarding positions beyond traditional tenure-track professor appointments, the workshop begin with differentiating between “alt-ac” and “post-ac.” According to Rawson, alternative-academy positions, or “alt-ac” as they’ve come to be known, are jobs within the academy that are alternatives the professoriate tenure-track, but frequently emphasize positions that involve doctoral training. Post-academy “post-ac” careers or, on the other hand, involve the public and non-profit sectors such as libraries, presses and publishing houses, museums and cultural centers.

Rawson recommended a handful of practical steps for a graduate student interested in pursuing alt-ac and post-ac jobs, including:

•    Develop a portfolio: Count and document everything, Rawson said. I think this is the professional development equivalent of “pics or it didn’t happen.”

•    Analyze job descriptions: Keep any eye out for position descriptions that interest you. What language do they use? What types of skills and experiences do they call for?  I keep a file I call “Dream Jobs” in which I’ve been compiling job descriptions for a couple years. Not only has this helped me figure out which kinds of jobs align with my skill set, but I also have an increasing sense of how to talk with people across contexts.

•    Seek out volunteering and internship opportunities: Because if we know there’s one thing grad students and academics have an excess of it’s time, right? Well, no, but these types of experiences can be invaluable in the long run, even if they’re one-off or short-term experiences. Be sure to collect recommendations and evaluations from your experiences for your portfolio.

•    Conduct informational interviews: Contact professionals holding positions that interest you and ask to meet with them briefly, over coffee or during office hours. Not only will you gain more information about career paths, but informational interviews might also serve as networking and mentoring opportunities.

•    Think about transferable skills: How can you apply the experiences you have to other situations and settings? Think big and broadly, I know one faculty member who frequently discusses and has published on how her work as a bartender translates to pedagogy.

These tips only begin to scratch the surface of this topic. If you’re interested in digging deeper to into the discussion of professional development and post-ac and alt-ac jobs, here are some resources for further reading that you might find useful:

In the comments, I’d love to hear about other resources, conversations, and tips you have for professional development for graduate students interested “alt-ac” and “post-ac” careers.