There’s a lot of advice out there for people making the transition into alt ac (or what we at the MLA call “connected”) careers. Most of this advice assumes that those considering an alt-ac career have abandoned their first career goal of becoming a faculty member. After all, no one in their right mind would put themselves through a PhD program unless they wanted the holy grail of a tenure-track position.
This assumption is very often true, but not always.
I have certainly met graduate students for whom a connected career is the first choice. Many of these students choose to do a PhD not for any sort of professional advantage but because they have an intellectual question they’d like to answer. I realize that not everyone will agree with me on this, but I think satisfying intellectual curiosity is a great reason for doing a PhD in the humanities.
If you’re one of these graduate students—or if you’re someone who figured out in your first or second year that you don’t want to pursue an academic career—then you are especially well positioned in that you can make your PhD work for you early on—even starting with the application process.
First of all, make sure you go to a university and a department where you’ll be valued. When choosing between a prestigious program where you think you’ll have to stay in the alt-ac closet and one that is less prestigious but will allow you to be out and proud, I would recommend the less prestigious one every time. Finding this out before the application process is tricky but not impossible. Are there faculty members in your field who have been vocal about this issue? Where do they teach? Pick through the many articles, essays, and reports that have been published on connected careers in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed to see who’s participating in the conversation.
Whether to mention in your application that you are interested in a connected career is really up to you; it depends on how much you anticipate your future career informing your graduate work. But certainly once you’ve been accepted, you should consider being up front with your potential advisers. I recommend asking for information about a department’s graduates from the last five to ten years and seeing if you are able to find out anything about the students who didn’t take tenure-track positions or traditional postdocs. Very often the list you’re given only mentions the ones that did, so you might have to ask the chair or director of graduate studies for more information.
Once you’ve chosen a program, consider being strategic in your choice of dissertation topic. Your dissertation doesn’t have to have anything to do with your future career, but it can. Some departments are becoming more open to alternative forms of the dissertation. Digital humanities projects, projects involving qualitative or even quantitative data analysis, projects that incorporate pedagogical research, and collaborative interdisciplinary projects can all help you in the eventual job search. Choose a topic that is interesting and relevant but also able to be completed by the time your funding ends.
This brings me to my final piece of advice: finish in five. I understand that life happens even in graduate school, and sometimes life happening means the dissertation takes longer. But my experience is that if you set the goal of getting out in five years early on, it is achievable. It can seem attractive to apply for more funding and put off a daunting job hunt for another year in a safe and familiar environment, but most of the time there’s nothing to be gained by it. If you’re faced with that urge, take a long, hard look at your motivations and consider whether that extra year will really put you in a better position.
It’s important to be open to change early in your career. If you discover in the course of your PhD that academic jobs are something you’re interested in, by all means pursue them. But keep in mind that the amnesia that can set in during graduate school is amazing. I’ve spoken to a number of people who entered their PhD programs intending to pursue a connected career but somehow completely forgot about it because all anyone ever talked about were tenure-track jobs. They wasted a lot of time and energy on the academic market before remembering why they decided to get their PhD in the first place.
In short: be open-minded, but remember why you’re there. In the end, there is no single holy grail.