How Can Universities Help Grad Students Pursue Alt-Ac Careers?

My initial plans when making this blog really didn’t include commenting much on the state of academia. I felt, and still feel, that others are covering that topic better than I can. But while I initially thought I didn’t have anything to add, a recent Twitter conversation showed me how important it is that we all talk about this as much as possible. I’m not changing direction – I’d still consider this a history/teaching blog, but nonetheless I have some suggestions that would significantly smooth grad students’ transitions from academic to non-academic jobs. Since I’ve spent some time working in the non-academic world, I think I can add a bit to that conversation. 

I think universities are falling far short of preparing grad students for the possibility that they won’t end up in academic jobs. To be honest, I’m very skeptical of university administrators acting like “alt-ac” was their plan all along. That’s not true. The graduate education system was by and large designed to produce professors, and those of us who ended up in alt-ac jobs did so as a fallback. That said, that doesn’t mean this can never change. But it will take work and effort on the administrative level. Universities are increasingly paying a lot of lip service to alt-ac careers while not really making any structural changes that would help students actually succeed in that pursuit. Much of the way grad schools are organized in fact actively sabotages students from succeeding in alt-ac careers. I think some of these problems are relatively easy to fix, and can have huge positive changes if universities are really serious about supporting alt-ac careers.

Disclaimer from the start: Most of my complaints go above the department level. This shouldn’t be interpreted as a criticism of individual departments. Personally I found my department nurturing and supportive of students exploring alternate careers. But departments can only do so much without administrative support, and it’s here I think the changes must take place.

Having been in non-academic work environments, I think a few administrative changes can serve graduate students much better than the current university structure.

Give graduate assistants work titles. Those of use who have been grad assistants know it’s an actual job with real responsibilities and duties. Further, those responsibilities and duties have to be met while we’re satisfying our own course and degree requirements, which is hard work in itself. We learned how to manage our time juggling work and school requirements. I remember what I was a GA, I’d get up at 6 AM and work for a few hours getting my administrative work done, then I’d spend the rest of the day doing my readings and papers. 

But you know who doesn’t know all that? Employers. When they look at your resume and see “Graduate Assistant,” it sounds like a student job with little responsibility. Someone who didn’t go through this process doesn’t know what being a grad assistant entails – nor should they, there’s no reason they would. Most employers haven’t gone through the process. The simple fix here is giving grad assistants real job titles that correspond to their responsibilities. Then a hiring manager skimming over resumes will see a real job title and connect that the work experience. It’s a simple but potentially powerful fix.

Let grad students work during their fellowships. I admit that I didn’t find much of the graduate experience exploitative – that’s probably a testament to my institution because I’ve certainly heard horror stories from others. But one aspect that I do find exploitative is being unable to work during fellowships. For those unaware, graduate fellowships typically prevent a student from holding outside employment without approval. And even with approval, in my experience this limits you to 10 hours per week – not even part-time. This not only leaves students in a tough financial position, especially in high-cost areas, but it prevents them from building up work experience that will be crucial if they end up seeking non-academic work. Lacking work experience and networks outside academia leaves students helpless if they do indeed seek and alt-ac route.

And let me break some news – grad students violate this stipulation all the time. How could they not? Grad student stipends are usually around $20-25,000 a year, depending on the institution, before taxes of course. Then naturally there are other fees that universities charge grad students that whittle that stipend down further. After taxes and fees the average take-home pay is probably less than $20,000. That puts students in extremely tight financial situations if it’s their only income. So of course students break this rule and work on the side. Why should merely surviving be a rule violation? I know schools want to make sure they aren’t paying students to do nothing, but there has to be another way of ensuring this without committing students to poverty. Perhaps some kind of monthly review where students present the work they’ve done? Just spitballing here, I don’t have all the answers. The overall point is that restricting students from working during their fellowships is not only exploitative in the short-term, but it prevents them from succeeding in non-academic careers as well. If universities are actually serious about helping students in alt-ac careers, this stipulation has to go. 

Stop talking about “soft skills.” Yes, grad students do develop a ton of skills in grad school. For myself, I’m pretty confident I could do almost any entry-level job that doesn’t require specialized training. I know many friends and colleagues who could say the same. But again, you know who doesn’t really care about that? Employers. Employers don’t want hypotheticals. We should understand that hiring someone is always a risk. Employers gamble that the person they choose can do the job they need done. Making the wrong call can be an expensive mistake. Realistically, employers don’t have much incentive to take a risk on a humanities PhD when there are 10 MBAs applying for this job. Though I’ve personally heard several business owners complain about MBA-holders not performing well, they still go with the known quantity. I’m sure there are a handful of more creative employers who will take that chance, but in my experience they’re in the minority. If you want to land that job, you need something concrete to show. 

That’s where the previous two items I mentioned come in. They will give grad students that actual, concrete resumé padding that they’ll need to get their feet in the door. If universities don’t provide that help, then unfortunately all their alt-ac talk falls short. 

So have I missed anything? Am I maybe being unfair? I’d love to hear any thoughts and suggestions you might have here! I definitely don’t have all the answers. 

Cheers and good luck to everyone

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