5 Challenges of Navigating a Lifetime Alt-Ac Career

Learning Innovation

What year do you plan to retire?

My Dad fully retired from academia as he was approaching 80. According to my TIAA-CREF Lifecycle Target Date Fund, I am supposed to work until 2035.  Sixty-six seems young to retire for a traditional academic. What about an alternative academic?

Alt-acs are traditionally trained academics working outside of traditional faculty career paths. The trajectory of an alternative academic is not the tenure track. Instead of the assistant/associate/full path, alt-acs are on a non-linear and often less-traveled career journey.

How does a PhD navigate a decades-long academic career lacking the established milestones of the tenure track?

As the status of an alternative academic has only been relatively recently recognized within higher ed, I’m not sure we have enough examples of decades-long alt-ac careers serving as models for the rest of us.

Some of the challenges of achieving a lifetime alt-ac career include:

Challenge #1 – Well, No Tenure:

By definition, alt-acs are not eligible for academic tenure. The job security and academic freedom that accompany tenure are never part of the alt-ac employment bargain. While it is not unknown for universities to let go of tenured faculty through program discontinuation or by claiming financial exigency, the practice is relatively rare and always a big deal. Alt-acs are almost always classified as staff and are therefore classified as “at-will” employees. It is unclear what role tenure (or lack thereof) plays in the longevity of alt-ac careers, but I think there must be some ways in which this variable interacts with career length.

Challenge #2 – Lack of Established Career Progression Steps:

There are two significant career milestones for academics on the tenure track: assistant to associate professor (getting tenure at that point) and then promotion to full professor. Faculty on the tenure track may also assume administrative roles, such as department chair and school or university-wide leadership posts. The promotion path for alternative academics is less clear. Alt-acs occupy an enormous and growing range of roles within universities. Promotion paths tend to follow those laid out for staff but were not designed to nurture and develop careers for non-faculty educators. Everyone needs to feel they are making forward progress in their careers. A lack of legible next steps may push many alt-acs to pursue jobs outside academia.

Challenge #3 – No Sabbaticals:

Most everyone reading this post will never get a sabbatical. The opportunity to take half a year off with full pay or a full year off with half pay after seven years of tenured work is a benefit available to a dwindling few numbers of postsecondary educators. Certainly, contingent, part-time, adjunct faculty, and instructors will never enjoy a sabbatical. Still, for those eligible to take advantage of a sabbatical period to delve deeply into a research project without all the other daily distractions of teaching and service work mightily contribute to career longevity. An alternative academic to take a sabbatical year to do research and recharge would require either quitting or negotiating a leave of absence. Most alternative academics can not afford to do either, and this absence of sabbatical opportunities likely makes it more difficult to sustain that many decades-long career.

Challenge #4 – Career Advancement Can Require Going to Another Institution:

The idea that the only way to make big steps forward in an academic career is to move to another school does not pertain solely to alternative academics. Traditional academics must often move to another university to get a school or institution-wide leadership role. The difference for alt-acs, however, is that it is almost always necessary to apply for outside positions to move forward into ever-increasing responsibility and influence. A traditional academic can have a long career within a single institution where they can occupy many different administrative leadership roles, with the option to return to one’s home department. For many an alt-ac, moving up means moving out.

Challenge #5 – Competition and Pace:

Alt-acs often work in rapidly evolving areas of academic life. The growing demand for non-faculty educators is a function of higher education’s increasing complexity, pace, and competitiveness. Alt-acs often work in roles where the pressure to perform is high while resources are scarce. The dynamic nature of an alt-ac career is one of the attractors to this sort of academic life. Many alt-acs have made the active choice to pursue non-traditional academic career paths. Traditional academics on the tenure track must live with extraordinarily high demands of research productivity, teaching excellence, and an ever-expanding range of service requirements. Academic careers, whether traditional or alternative, are both competitive and demanding. Alt-acs lack the career milestones of their traditional academic colleagues and may never get to shift roles or pause in the face of a never-ending series of career demands.

If you are an alt-ac who has made it through decades of career navigation, it would be great to hear your story.

Please get in touch.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Sunday, October 9, 2022
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Sunday, October 9, 2022