A Chicana Mother-Scholar’s Transition from the Tenure-Track to the Alt-Ac Track
I was a straight-A student from elementary school up until college. I was the student who was “on-track,” and college bound. In high school, I was admitted into a math, science, technology magnet program in the northeast San Fernando Valley, earned A’s, worked part-time jobs, and did theater. I applied and was accepted into several four-year universities as a low-income first-gen and underrepresented student. Upon graduating, I was one of three valedictorians and my future seemed bright.
I started my freshman-year at UCLA and, not surprisingly, I experienced the culture-shock that most students like me face; it was my first time being away from home as well as my first time being around white, middle-class, and highly educated people. I struggled to earn A’s amongst my highly competitive peers but by my junior year, I was “on-track” again. I learned how to navigate the system and was earning A’s again. Eventually I was admitted into the prestigious Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, received mentorship and guidance, applied to graduate school, and got into a fully funded PhD program. Academics was something I enjoyed, something I thrived in, and it only made sense for me to continue on this track in graduate school. At the time it made sense for me to work towards becoming a professor so that I could continue motivating students like myself to pursue higher education. This work led to me earning a PhD but rather than become a tenure-track professor, I’ve chosen a different career path. I’m writing this blog as I made the transition from being a PhD candidate for two years on the tenure-track job market to the newly minted PhD who secured a position as an Assistant Director for the McNair Scholars Program.
Writing this has allowed me to reflect on what it means to be “on-track.” Who is on track? Am I on-track? If I look up this idiom in the dictionary, I’ll get answers that indicate that it means to be on schedule or to be progressing as planned. But whose schedule are we referring to? Whose plans are they?
For me, choosing to leave the tenure-track represented a formative moment where I chose my own values over the values of others. I chose to create my own schedule and plans, versus those imposed on me. During my last year of graduate school, as I was applying for jobs and getting interviewed for academic positions, I realized that I valued service first, then teaching, and then research. It was then that I decided I needed to find a job that was aligned with my values and academia, particularly the R-1 tenure-track route that I was on, did not match my values.
Going from a tenure-centric mentality to a value-centric mentality has drastically impacted my perception of academia and my productivity. Rather than valuing myself on external forms of validation and external professional tracks, I'm constantly reminding myself to redefine what it means to be “on-track.” Being “on-track” for me now means taking actions that follow my own values, even if they go against institutional expectations. Valuing myself also means seeking internal forms of validation that can include asking myself questions like: do I enjoy the work I’m doing? And is this work helping me, my family, and my community?
The position I have now can be labeled under the umbrella term of “alt-ac.” Alt-ac is a term that came out of twitter to refer to positions that exist within and around the academy but that fall outside the tenure-track ranks (1). One could say I’m now on an “alt-ac” track, or an administrative track. Ironically though, I hold an academic title; I’m an academic coordinator, which means that I’m responsible for independently managing the programs and staff that come out of the McNair Scholars Program office. It’s an academic title because academic coordinators serve academic departments and research units. We still have teaching and research-related responsibilities but the work we do is mostly administrative.
The world of academic administration seems to be very different from the academic world I was in as a graduate student. First, as an administrator, I am granted a lot of independence and respect from my peers and employees. As a graduate student, though, I often felt micro-managed, infantilized, and exploited. As an administrator, my life revolves around the programs and students I serve whereas in graduate school, my life revolved around my research. Finally, as an administrator I work a fairly stable 40 hours per week in my campus office while in graduate school I held a flexible schedule but found myself working everywhere and all the time, including evenings and weekends.
I started this position just three months ago and can say that the transition has been challenging but was the right decision for me and my circumstances. I relocated with my family that includes my husband and son. My husband is a Marine Corps veteran who left the military with a series of disabilities that have affected his ability to secure full-time employment. My son has special needs—he was diagnosed with apraxia and autism last year. And I have a series of chronic health issues that require that I have constant access to doctors and medications. Having to support a family and prioritize my health certainly also played a role in my choosing to leave the tenure-track. Unlike my peers who were willing to work as lecturers or adjunct professors for little pay and no benefits, I knew that immediately after filing my dissertation, I needed a job that could pay the bills and provide benefits. My family and I could not survive otherwise.
While I love my job, I don’t want to imply that my transition thus far has only been joyful. I constantly battle feelings of imposter syndrome. Even though I maintain a stable schedule, I often feel like I’m not doing enough. I am also the first among my close circle of friends to graduate and go off the tenure-track route, which leads to feelings of isolation. I’m also often reminded that it’s not easy to get over academia’s tenure-centrism— or the dominant discourse in academia that assumes a single structure (tenure-track) and outcome (earning tenure) for the professoriate (2). For eight years, I was convinced that I would become a tenured professor, just as from elementary school to high school, I was convinced I’d become a theater practitioner. Cutting ties with a goal you’ve developed over years isn’t easy to get over. Like a relationship, leaving the tenure-track sometimes feels like getting over a bad breakup with an abusive partner. That’s not to say that academia is abusive to all. Mostly, it means that for me it was the right decision, at least for now, to leave.
I’m now starting to feel more settled in my new position and setting but not quite settled in terms of my identity as an independent Chicana mother-scholar. I’m still trying to define for myself what my research and publication goals are, since they are not tied to institutional or professional requirements. I’m learning to identify new career goals so that I can continue to advance professionally. I’m also building networks of support and reaching out to other Women of Color scholars I know who are in similar careers as me. Of course, I also have the Chicana M(other)work collective and the Mothers of Color in Academia de UCLA group that I can count on. Building community is something that is integral to my survival because without it I often feel isolated or lost.
What I’ve learned is that the nepantla state never ends (3). I still feel in between, interstitial, like I don’t quite fit in anywhere. But that’s part of the drive that kept me wanting to learn as much as possible when I was younger. I figured I would one day learn so much and work so hard that I’d get to the point where I felt comfortable and successful but that’s not the case, and neither is it my goal anymore. Now, as a Chicana mother-scholar, my goal is to continue trailblazing, to create new paths dictated by my personal values, to feel uncomfortable, keep growing, and teach my son how to build community along the way.
(1) Bethman, Brenda and C. Shaun Longstreet. “The Alt-Ac Track: Defining Terms.” Inside Higher Ed, May 22, 2013.
(2) Cardozo, Karen M. 2012. "Contemplating Contingency: Toward a Post-Tenure Politics." Modern Language Studies. 42 (1): 65.
(3) Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1999. Borderlands: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books: 237.
Yvette Martínez-Vu is the Assistant Director of the McNair Scholars Program at UCSB. She is an inter-disciplinary scholar with a PhD in Theater and Performance Studies and a BA in English Literature from UCLA. Her research areas include Chicana and Latina feminist performance, devotional images and objects, and intersectionality in motherhood studies.