By Stacy Hartman
In 2013, in the third year of my German studies PhD program at Stanford, I started telling people I didn’t want to be a professor. I hadn’t made this decision lightly or quickly, but at that point I felt comfortable enough with it to start telling people I felt should know.
Very quickly, I realized that something about this process felt familiar. It was surprisingly similar to another coming-out process I’d gone through a few years earlier—similar enough that certain lessons carried over. Thinking of sharing my plans to pursue an alternative career as a coming-out process actually helped me when I was in the middle of doing so—it made the discomfort I sometimes felt more comprehensible and gave me a way to contextualize other people’s reactions. It also helped me approach a process that was sometimes very stressful with good humor. And so, in the hope that my experience might help other people as well, here are five ways that I found coming out as alt ac was similar to coming out as queer.
- It is an ongoing process.
I won’t say that it is never ending, because I think it more or less stops once you land that first job. But once you make the decision to start telling people, you’ll be telling a lot of people until you do move on to a job. It gets easier once you figure out not only how to express your reasons for making the decision but also what you might like to do instead.
- Some people will be easier to tell than others.
Talking to my adviser was hard—not because I was afraid he wouldn’t be supportive, but because I was very worried about disappointing him. I found it easier to talk to faculty members who I thought were less personally invested in my success (and for whom my decision did not have direct consequences in the form of job placement data). But telling my adviser was (for me!) the right thing to do, because it made all my subsequent interactions with him far more honest and transparent. It also saved me a much more difficult conversation at the beginning of my fifth year, when he normally would have pushed me to go on the academic market.
- Some people will try and talk you out of it.
No matter how certain you are, some people will think you’re making the wrong choice. They will say things like, “But what if you just haven’t found the right academic job?” and “Are you sure? How can you know?” Very often resistance will come in the form of a compliment—they’ll tell you that you’re too good at research or teaching to leave. Those things are nice to hear, and they might cause you to pause and think about your decision. Reflection is never a bad thing, and you might decide that you do want to pursue academic jobs, either instead of or in addition to other kinds. But if you decide that the decision you’ve made to pursue another kind of humanities career is the right one, remind yourself that the skills that make you good at research or teaching will also serve you elsewhere—there are, after all, myriad ways of being a scholar and educator.
- Coming out is not for everyone.
In many ways, I was very lucky. Stanford is an institution that has been vocally supportive of PhDs pursuing multiple career paths. Russell Berman, who has spoken about this issue on many occasions, was the chair of the German department for four out of my five years there. Although there were moments that were stressful, I never once worried that my funding would be cut or that my adviser would freeze me out. I realize that other people may have legitimate concerns about these things, and in those cases I completely support the decision to stay in the alt-ac closet. That having been said . . .
- If you think your department is a relatively safe space, you should consider coming out.
Like coming out as queer, coming out as alt ac is liberating, because you no longer have to pretend to be something you aren’t. It is also extremely beneficial professionally. When your advisers know you’re pursuing several career paths, they can be on the lookout for the right opportunities for you, and they can connect you with people who might serve as mentors. Coming out also means that you can do projects and internships related to interests outside academia without having to hide them from your adviser, and it means that your adviser will be able to serve as a reference for potential employers.
But perhaps the biggest advantage of coming out as alt ac is that it gives you a community. Once you come out, you will quickly find others who are in the same boat you are. This allows you to pool resources, share advice and contacts, and support each other emotionally, all of which is immensely valuable. Of course, there are ways to find this community without coming out at your institution. There are Web sites such as Versatile PhD that are meant to support PhDs pursuing various career options, and I recommend them especially to people who feel their institution or department might not be terribly open-minded.
The good news in all of this is that I think we have passed a tipping point in this conversation, and coming out gets easier once there is a certain critical mass of people doing it. The phrase “alternative lifestyles” seems pretty dated now, and it’s because these days, in a lot of places, they aren’t alternative—they just are. At some point (I say with optimism) alt ac will also no longer be strange and alternative but rather just be one choice among many that someone with a PhD can make.