Concrete Strategies to Support #AltAc Students
I wasn't the first graduate student in my program to go on to a career that wasn't a tenure track job, but I was on campus during a period of increased awareness of the diverse professional paths for PhDs inside and out of the academy. In my work with clients, and in my own experience, I have found many faculty hesitant to engage directly in conversations about future career options with their students. While this hesitancy may be a result of faculty caution, it often reads to their students as unsupportive or dismissive. Thankfully, there are several concrete strategies that faculty can employ that take neither excessive amounts of time to master nor add greatly to the list of duties they can be expected to perform.
- Don't make assumptions about the career paths your students are drawn to, or are considering. There is no correlation between the strength, innovation, or passion of a student's research and their future career path. The job market is capricious, and students are now entering PhD programs viewing the tenure track as one option out of many. When in doubt, ask your students: where do you see your PhD fitting into your future goals and plans?
- Learn what resources your institution offers and suggest them freely and enthusiastically. No one expects faculty to be perfectly well-versed on all the intricacies and challenges of the alt-ac job preparations and market, but many institutions are investing time and resources into helping students learn about their options. Familiarize yourself with the resources available, and offer them as opportunities that are just as exciting as field-specific ones. Just offering this information can be a powerful step that you value your students' efforts in exploring alt-ac careers.
- Include broadly considered professionalization in the list of tasks you expect your student to complete, and follow up accordingly. Just as you might check in about the progress of a chapter draft, or ask about a conference or talk that your student attended, check in about professionalization. This sends a powerful message that these tasks are part of the degree, just as writing and conferences are.
- Advocate for students' diverse needs behind the scenes. Is there a grant for students to pursue an unpaid professionalization opportunity that is currently limited to academic jobs? Is there a larger discussion about careers in the department that grad students aren't privy to? Be a voice for your students behind the scenes, making it easier for them to reach the resources they need.
- Connect with former students, and grow your network as conscientiously as you might your academic one. Do you know informally that a student of yours has gone on to an alt-ac career? Send an email to follow up with the students you don't see regularly on the conference circle to see how they are and what they're up to. Many alt-ac professionals are more than happy to network with PhDs to shed light onto a path that they found dark and confusing, and you can help to facilitate those connections if you keep up with your students no matter where they land.
No one expects faculty members to become experts on the range of careers available to PhD students, nor how to effectively prepare their students for those careers. But by taking a few simple steps to make conversations about those topics easier to have, both faculty and students become more comfortable about talking about the reality of the academy and PhD career paths.