How to land an #altac job at a university

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This past Saturday, I was a panelist at the “Beyond the Professoriate” web conference hosted by Jennifer Polk and Maren Wood. I participated in their higher education panel, where four of us talked about our experiences working in #altac positions still within the university. (Other panels focused on corporate jobs, non-profit or government jobs, and more for PhDs.) My fellow panelists offered some great advice, and there was an active Twitter backchannel throughout the day. If you’re interested in the conversation, you can search for the conference hashtag, #beyondprof, or check out the Storify feed that Jennifer put together after Saturday’s discussion.

I promised to blog about my talk. We only spoke briefly, about 10 minutes total, describing both our current positions and then offering advice from experience. I narrowed my time down to three main points for PhDs or EdDs who are interested in applying to alt-ac jobs within universities or colleges:

1. Work Your Network

Searches for these professional positions work quite differently than tenure track jobs. So, work your network just like you might have to for an industry position — both in order to hear about new postings and in applying and interviewing for them. Search job boards at schools all year round, not just during hiring season. Contact people you know within units to ask them about positions potentially opening up, or to find out more about the job once it has been posted. Ask them to put in a good word for you if you’ve applied, or ask faculty or others you might know at the university to put in a good word for you with the person in charge of the search. The hiring also works on a much shorter timeline than tenure track positions, so do your research early in the process and keep yourself fresh on the job and unit if you are called for an interview.

2. Show Them Your Vision

So, what kind of research should you be doing for these jobs? This is where the leg work for the position comes in. You may know that many alt-ac jobs are relatively new within universities, at least in the long history of higher education. This means that for many of the institutions you would be applying to, a particular position could be brand new, like mine was, or at least have a short history. You want to understand where the position fits into the structure of the unit (a specific college, the Graduate School, extension education, and so on). Who is the supervisor? What are the goals of the job, and how does that fit with the mission of the unit? Who has been in the job previously (f you can find out)? Search that person to find their expertise.

When you know the basics of the unit and the position, you are primed to do the most critical work in applying: show them your vision. In my case, the position of Director and Thesis and Dissertation Support Services was a brand new role. The Deans in the Graduate School knew they wanted to hire an expert in writing across the disciplines and genre theory who could offer writing instruction and support to graduate students across the university. They wrote the position and had it approved by the Provost, touting their vision for improving graduate degree completion for NC State.

However, they had very little insight into exactly how this mission could be executed. This is where I swung for the fences in my application and interview. In my cover letters, I wrote briefly about a vision for this brand new office and how I would use my research from my PhD to develop genre-based services for graduate students. This got my application noticed. For my interviews (I had three total), I assembled a complete package of my vision for Thesis and Dissertation Support Services: I mocked up a one year plan, complete with a list of seminars and workshops, each with their own learning outcomes; I included strategic planning such as meeting with Directors of Graduate Programs and college deans to learn about graduate student needs across the university; I developed a plan for a week-long Dissertation Institute for doctoral candidates (which I will actually be running next week!).

It was risky to spend so much time mocking up what the office would look like, but in the end, this showed the hiring committee that they could have confidence in hiring me because I had a vision for the building an office of graduate student support from scratch — something they didn’t know how to do but knew they needed to hire. I also demonstrated that I would need very little supervision to get the office off of the ground. This is key for many alt-ac positions at universities, as they tend to have very little day-to-day supervision (of course, depending on the unit). But overall you are expected to work independently, make sound decisions, and do work that overall contributes to the success of the unit without relying on approval from others.

The key with showing them your vision is that you make yourself valuable to the institution. Many deans or faculty in charge of hiring alt-ac positions have a hard time visualizing the jobs because they are much more familiar with the tenure track and adjunct faculty models. So, show them you can do the job by showing up with a plan.

Of course, if the job has previously existed, your research and visioning will look a little different. You may want to be a bit more conservative in your planning, as you’ll have an existing structure to work into. Learn as much as you can about the program or office; if you can’t answer basic questions about it in the interview, you’ve blown your changes. Know what you like about the job or programming, and know what might be some things you could advocate to do differently or add as new. Overall, your goal is to show you understand the role, fit into it, and can help them grow and be successful. Which brings me to my third point:

3. Understand the University

If you land an interview, and as well if you are offered the job, you have to understand what role your position plays in the larger university picture. You also have to understand how to manage the daily operations of your job. This requires research and a good bit of knowledge with certain processes within the university (some that you won’t discover until you start). For your interview, you should absolutely know the strategic plan and mission of the university, as this guides the work the units do on campus. How does your work contribute to that? Be able to speak to this in your interview. Don’t brag about your knowledge, but know for instance that your university is focusing on internationalization, so part of your job as Career Center Director might be increasing the university’s international internships (and put that in your visioning documents!).

You’ll also need to know things like where funding comes from and how it can be spend. For example, in North Carolina, state-funded institutions like NC State cannot spend state monies on food or beverages. In my case, the likelihood of my office getting a budget AT ALL was slim to none (and indeed, my budget this year was $0), so I talked about how I could build services that could help graduate more students while using no funds at all.

Don’t fret though: This is where your time spent doing a doctorate comes in. You’ve probably served on committees, attended functions across campus, and had other experiences where you’ve gleaned insight into the university. Especially if you are applying where you got your degree, put this information to good use! And if you’re still early in the process, know that taking on some of the opportunities that come your way are an important element of professional development if you are interested in pursuing alt-ac jobs.

Of course, these are just the three key points I focused on this past Saturday. There are plenty of great sites with alt-ac advice out there — perhaps that’s a good idea for a future aggregated links post! What other advice do you have for folks pursuing alt-ac opportunities in higher education? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Hunt Library Writer

Great links: All the best advice on dissertation writing in one post!

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Most of the search hits to my blog are related to finishing thesis and/or dissertation writing. There are many great authors and bloggers out there sharing great advice for dissertation writing (along with other graduate student issues, too). I thought it would be useful to aggregate what I think are some of the best pieces of advice out there, so that it could all be easily accessible in one place!

*Note: all links to external sites will open in a new tab or window.

Understanding the dissertation genre

Demystifying the Dissertation” blog post series from Inside Higher Education, written by Peg Boyle Single who has an excellent book by the same title

On the different types of literature reviews: “Not all literature reviews are the same,” via Pat Thomson, doctoral writing expert and book author

Six steps to writing a literature review by Tanya Golash-Boza

Writing your dissertation conclusion, Part 1 and Part 2, via Pat Thomson (two excellent posts on this difficult part of your dissertation!)

How long is the average dissertation? by Marcus Beck — scroll to the bottom of the post to see the average length in your field!

Writing tips and strategies

Using a spreadsheet to keep track of your writing progress via yours truly

How to deliberately practice your academic writing with some great advice on how focusing on verbs can help you improve your academic writing via The Thesis Whisperer blog

How I wrote my PhD thesis in 3 months by James Hayton

Top 10 Tips for Fast Thesis/Dissertation Writing by James Hayton

10 Ways You Can Write Every Day by Tanya Golash-Boza

A faculty member’s advice for finishing your dissertation via Claremont Graduate University’s Dissertation Bootcamp blog

Five time management ideas for part-time students, by part-time students via The Thesis Whisperer blog

Dissertations and baseball: You’ve got to “live to fight another day” from Jim Brown

Dealing with your committee

Are you on the same page as your supervisor? Some advice about how to talk to your chair and committee members about the type of writer you are and the feedback you need to success via The Thesis Whisperer blog

How to communicate effectively with your thesis supervisor by Dora Farkas

Dealing with negative face-to-face feedback from your committee – great tips for handling a difficult situation, via Pat Thomson

blogs dedicated to graduate student writing

The archives of these blogs are a treasure trove of information and advice for thesis and dissertation writers. Bookmark these and search them when you need to!

The Thesis Whisperer by Inger Mewbern

Patter by Pat Thomson (She’s currently [as of March 2014] writing about her book writing process – this is a fascinating series for anyone who is thinking of writing a book from their dissertation or after the diss process)

James Hayton (Formerly “The Three Month Thesis”) by James Hayton

Finish Your Thesis by Dora Farkas

Explorations of Style – A Blog about Academic Writing by Rachael Cayley

What’s missing?

Of course, this is just a selection of great posts and blogs that I have been saving over the past few months of developing Thesis and Dissertation Support Services. What other blogs or specific blog posts deserve to be listed here? Leave a comment, and I’ll update the list! In future posts, I’ll share my list of academic publications that are the most helpful for dissertation writers, graduate student job searching blog posts, and emerging resources for #alt-ac job seekers.

MacPhail’s “No-fail secret” to finishing your dissertation

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Yesterday, Chronicle Vitae published a quite good article on dissertation writing by Theresa MacPhail, titled, “The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation.” The secret:

Just sit down and write.

Now, to a certain point, she is entirely correct. I see many students who run analyses upon analyses of their data, read articles upon articles, and overall do many different tasks on their dissertation BUT write it. So yes, there comes a point (and it’s sooner rather than later) where you just have to sit down and write.

More specifically, she advocates writing every day, and for very good reason. MacPhail asserts,

“Writing is thinking. It takes time and it’s supposed to be challenging. The biggest mistake I’ve seen most graduate students make is to mythologize what I call ‘the moment of genius.’ Because writing is thinking, brilliant thoughts do not just appear on the page after long hours of arduous musing on a subject. In my experience, the best ideas almost always come about through the act of writing itself.”

Her article is very good, and I’d recommend that graduate students read it in its entirety for an important perspective on the hard work of writing and the importance of keeping your dissertation work “in your head” everyday, as I say it, because the ideas will come more easily when you make a daily date with your writing.

The only caveat I want to add to this is that there are very real obstacles for students undertaking a dissertation. A dissertation is an occluded genre for doctoral students–there is rarely any formal instruction for writing it, and they only take part in it once they are required to do so to graduate–which makes the idea of “sitting down and writing” difficult for those who do not know what they are sitting down to write. Much of this is disciplinary, as different fields tend toward different types of dissertations, and much of this is more local–doctoral advisors’ requirements for their students can widely differ, even within the same program at an institution.

This is a key reason why my office, Thesis and Dissertation Support Services, exists. There can be scholarly writing instruction for a dissertation, and this type of writing instruction can empower graduate students beyond the completion of a dissertation. If they can learn to recognize the patterns of argument and key features of work in their fields, they are also equipped to do the writing required of them in their research careers after they finish their doctoral degrees. A great example of this is John Swales’ “Create a Research Space” model for writing scientific research article introductions. At NC State, many of the dissertations in the sciences, and increasingly in other disciplines, are comprised of three or more stand alone research articles. While students can intuit some of the elements of a research article introduction from years of reading and perhaps a bit of writing, there is a lot of value in having a workshop and discussion about the CARS model, why the three moves exist, and how students can do them to fit into their own disciplinary conventions.

As a writing across the disciplines scholar whose research focuses on those in the sciences and engineering, I know that our work has value to graduate students and faculty across the institution. For example, I find that advisors intuitively know what makes for a good introduction, but they generally cannot articulate why. They tend to show students an article they feel does a good job and suggest that they emulate this, a strategy that is limited in its success because students are not learning why introductions are structured as they are (and they can get highly frustrated writing as novices trying to emulate seasoned experts). By just trying to emulate writers, students are not learning how to situate their work within a field and articulate its significance. But by providing instruction in this model, students in our workshops learn the how and the why–and now they can export this knowledge to their dissertations and research genres beyond, like grant proposals, conference presentations, and more.

We are making the implicit explicit for our doctoral students. And why not? It might be the only scholarly writing instructions students ever receive in graduate school.

So yes, to finish your dissertation, you must sit down and write. But when you have a stronger understanding of the genre expectations, history, and context, then you are more likely to be successful when you do. Seek out resources as you are developing your dissertation proposals to better understand the genre and the expectations. If you’re at NC State, come to our Thesis and Dissertation Support Services events. If you’re at another institution, follow me on Twitter: @makautry, and ask your faculty where you might find resources like this on your own campus.