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.

Fall semester happenings

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I’ve gotten pretty behind on updating the blog this month, so I thought I’d do a post with “quick hits” on the the things I’ve been up to and what’s on my radar in the coming weeks. I need to focus on writing more – both scholarly and non (including the blog!) – so here goes!

I’ll start with some good news: I’ve finalized my dissertation committee! My chair will be Carolyn R. Miller, SAS Institute Distinguished Professor here at NCSU. The other three members of my committee are Bill Kinsella (Communication), Nancy Penrose (English) and David Rieder (English). They are all members of the CRDM program here at NCSU, and I’m so excited to have a great team behind me. The next step now is finalizing my exam reading lists, which I’ll do between now and the new year, so that I can begin reading for exams in January. My exam areas are (approximately; subject to more specific language as I construct the lists): rhetorical genre theory, rhetoric of science and environment, and digital media theory.

I think I’ve settled in to my administrative jobs with both the Campus Writing and Speaking Program and the First Year Writing Program. I’ve hosted a few successful workshops thus far and have a few more planned for the year with the CWSP team. One of my major projects for the FYWP will be coordinating assessment of our recently-implemented hybrid writing classes in conjunction with our large program-wide assessment in the spring. These admin roles are a welcome change of pace from teaching, and I think the jobs really agree with me – but, to get used to all the meetings!

Next week I’m traveling with Susan Miller-Cochran to give an invited talk on hybrid writing classrooms for a group of instructors in the mid-West. I’ve written before about teaching hybrid classrooms both on this blog and my WPA Hybrid Guide site, and I’m really looking forward to working with instructors at other institutions. I definitely plan to write more after the trip and will hopefully share some Tweets as we travel, too.

In two weeks I’m heading to Cleveland for the annual conference for the Society for the Social Studies of Science. I’ll be presenting my research (done with Ashley R. Kelly) on discourse about nuclear energy in the Carolinas post-Fukushima. CRDM students just heard this week that we’ll receive some funding for conference travel this year – that great news arrives just in time for this conference! I’m so glad to be in a program that can support our professional development activities and has administrators that will go to bat for us to get us the much-needed funding.

 I’ve taken on a few service-oriented tasks this fall as well – conference proposal reviewing, textbook reviewing for a publisher, throwing my name in the ring for a professional organization’s board – and am glad to start (net)working with professionals in the field beyond NCSU. I know it’s important for my development as a scholar, but I’m also keenly tuned to the discourse I hear for/from graduating CRDMers and the job market. My biggest struggle as I do my PhD is not the work itself, but what kind of work I take on. There is so much work associated with being a scholar, educator, and administrator that the real issue seems to be what work is most beneficial for my professional growth and – let’s be honest here – getting a job. Balance is a word that I hear frequently. Too much service and committees might think a candidate can’t get research done. Too much research (if there is such a thing) and committees won’t think a candidate is a team player who will make a good departmental colleague. Or is it just that when you’re a PhD student, you just need to make your CV as long as possible? As the accomplishments of newly-minted PhDs get better and better every year, the idea behind getting a tenure-track job seems to be doing as much as humanly possible.

Back to reading!

Uncertainty about the academy

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A concise, poignant post the other day sparked a snowballing conversation across the Internet about life as an academic, specifically in the humanities. An excerpt:

Because I am being limited personally, financially, professionally, and creatively…
Because I want to continue to love it…
Because sometimes I consider how my light is spent…
Because there are other places where that training and preparation will be rewarded, respected, and used…
Because I am capable of more than I can do here…
Because leaving the system is a reclamation of the dignity and agency it has attempted to take from me…
I am leaving the academy.

The “doom and gloom” articles about job prospects in the humanities abound (so do the satirical videos about graduate school, too), and now, we’re hearing from someone (albeit anonymously) that she is quitting (yes, I’ll call it that). 

Today, a response to the post piqued my interest: “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ to Lose, Motherf*cker.

The reason “because” had to be written is, well, …
because we have colleagues who would rather beg for scraps than be ethical
because T Th classes are more important to us than pointing out flawed curricula. Because if we do point that out, we might have to teach on Fridays.
because no matter how much we bemoan the loss of tenure, we do so out of self-interest. Because we believe we are owed something for years of grad school and poverty.  Because we are entitled.
because we are afraid of rocking boats when others are begging for our jobs.

Quite frankly, this dialogue is downright frightening for a current PhD student. What am I getting into? What kind of job future/security am I going to have? It’s very romantic to think that I’m going to learn for the rest of my life, help others learn, and make the world a better place, but I’ve got to be practical too – I need to make a living. (Allan has a great job, but – I was not raised to rely on men for my living!) So how can “my generation” of academics (ie. those up and coming/just starting out) approach these issues? Should we get used to the idea of tenure falling by the wayside and participate in conversations to develop a new system for promotion/job security that rewards us for hard work and benefits the university at the same time? Can I really live with having “a job” because others do not, even if the conditions are far less than ideal?

At a more personal level, this also has me wondering how to position myself as a scholar in an interdisciplinary PhD program. If more traditional English scholars (literature, composition) have a hard time finding jobs and working within the system of their department, where does this leave an interdisciplinary scholar? In terms of identity: Am I a rhetorical scholar with the ability to also teach communication courses? Am I an English/Communication interdisciplinary scholar? Am I a media scholar that specializes in rhetoric? What will allow me to be more marketable and/or find the right fit of an institution for my career? This is a struggle I see for some of us in this new, up-and-coming CRDM program. I love it – what’s not to love about learning more than one discipline? – but at the same time, I am concerned about the “working conditions” and job potential that lie ahead.