Dr. Yvette Martínez-Vu’s Tips for Switching From the Tenure-Track to an “Alt-Ac” Career
This blog post will offer a few tips on how to make the switch from the academic job market to what some people call the “alt-ac”(1)(2) job market. Specifically I will offer insights on how to approach applying for jobs in student affairs, academic affairs, or university administration from the perspective of a first-generation woman of color PhD. Whether you’re a first year PhD student contemplating what career route to go for or you’re someone who is having trouble securing a tenure-track job, it’s never too early or late to consider your career options.
Here is a step by step set of tips to get you started as you make this challenging and exciting transition:
1. The first thing I want to tell you if you are a low-income first-gen scholar of color contemplating switching from the tenure-track to an “alt-ac” career is that you are going to be okay. There are a number of reasons to leave the tenure track, including the ones I mention in my blog post about my transition. No matter the reason, if your gut is telling you to make a change, then I encourage you to listen to it. Don’t be surprised if during this transition you find yourself experiencing internalized feelings of failure, sadness, resentment, and/or anger. You may feel like you don’t belong in academia or that you don’t have the marketable skills to switch careers but that’s not true. You should also know that not all of your academic colleagues will support your decision to switch careers. Rather than getting discouraged, I urge you to find a community of supportive individuals and start to take action towards applying for “alt-ac” jobs, even if it’s one small step at a time.
I made this decision after being on the academic job market for two years while still in graduate school. I recall shortly after filing my dissertation just how anticlimactic it felt and I kept wondering if the PhD was worth it. I felt depressed and confused.(3) When I told my colleagues and mentors that I had made the decision to apply for jobs in academic and student affairs, some of them were not supportive. In fact, one mentor refused to write me letters of support and another completely stopped talking to me. Some of my friends encouraged me to stay on the tenure-track job market, they would tell me what a strong scholar I was, that academia needed me, that the field needed me, that the students needed me. Perhaps my leaving invoked in them feelings of doubt about their own career paths. I’m not sure. But I chose to make this decision for myself and not for my colleagues and friends. It helped to also have loved ones on my side that believe in me and kept cheering me on.
2. Before you start applying for jobs, you should consider using a career assessment tool to help you understand what work environment would suit you best based on your personal characteristics, work style, and values. Some popular career assessment tools include the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tool, the Life Values Inventory Online, myIDP for science careers, and ImaginePhD.
When I was looking into potential “alt-ac” and post-ac careers, I decided to fill out a values worksheet that I found from a career planning workbook. I listed my top ten work values and then ranked them in order by high priority. Some of my top values included: altruism, leadership, and lifestyle. Given my years of experience working as a graduate mentor for underrepresented students, I knew that I wanted to find a job where I could help others. I also worked as a Student Affairs Officer where I gained a wide range of administrative skills but had little student contact or leadership opportunities. In that position, I realized I wanted to have a leadership role where I could manage a staff and make decisions about one or more programs. Finally, having learned to manage several chronic health issues in graduate school, I knew that I physically could not work over 40 hours per week and sustain a healthy work/family balance so I searched for jobs that did not require me to work after clocking out for the day.
3. After assessing your values, get involved in professional development and networking opportunities within your university. You can join student government or alumni associations, like my friend Dr. Ester Trujillo did. This will expand your network and help you meet high-ranking officials. You can also create your own student groups or collectives based on shared interests. The point is to expand your access to individuals who you may want to meet or who could serve as a model for the kind of career you may pursue.
While I was a graduate student, I became a co-founder of the Chicana M(other)work collective and the Mothers of Color in Academia de UCLA. While these collectives weren’t specifically intended for professional development, my participation in these groups allowed me to meet university professionals who I otherwise would not have met. I recall meeting a director of a student resource center and seeing how involved this person was with their staff and students while also raising four children; the mere act of meeting this individual was eye-opening because I hadn’t realized that it was possible to successfully navigate an academic career and still make time for family at the end of the day. Before this, most of the people I was meeting at the university were professors and graduate students. Few of them had children and most of them appeared to work at all hours of the day, something my body physically does not handle very well.
4. Another important step is to request informational interviews from individuals whose career path is one you’re interested in. Request a half-hour conversation where you can ask a professional questions about their job and let them know why you are reaching out to them in particular. Keep in mind, this is not a job interview. The reason an informational interview is great is because not only does it allow you to network with others but often times these individuals are generous with their time and have great advice to offer.
Here is a sample email:
My name is Yvette Martínez-Vu and I am a recent PhD graduate from UCLA’s Theater and Performance Studies program. I am in the process of exploring potential career paths in higher education administration, academic affairs, and student affairs, and I am particularly interested in jobs related to supporting undergraduate research for underrepresented students.
If it’s not too much trouble, I was hoping we could meet to talk about your work as the Director of the Mellon Mays Program at X University. I understand that this may be a busy time but I would appreciate if you could meet with me even if it’s for half an hour. Thank you in advance for your time.
While conducting informational interviews, I chose to reach out to individuals in hybrid academic/administrative positions. For instance, I met with a Director of Undergraduate Advising, a Director of Undergraduate Research Programs, and a Director of TRIO Programs. Each of them had a job that included a combination of directing one or more programs, advising students, and teaching. My conversations with them confirmed my decision to go this route because the more I heard about their day-to-day life, the more I wanted to be in their shoes. Some of them even offered advice or were willing to review my drafts of job materials. From these informational interviews, I gained enough information to abandon other career paths that I had been considering, which included becoming a National Fellowships Coordinator, a Research Analyst, or a College and Career Counselor.
5. Let’s say you’ve now identified one or more set of jobs you’d like to apply to. At this point, you should start to consider your job-level, salary range, and location. Regarding job-level, I’m referring to whether or not you have to apply for entry-level, mid-level, or top-level positions. If you have a PhD and some administrative experience, I would recommend you apply for mid-level (e.g. Assistant or Associate Director) positions. If you have a Master’s and little to no experience, then I would recommend entry-level positions (e.g. Student Affairs Officer I or II). For those of you that have plenty of job experience or perhaps worked full-time while in graduate school, then I would recommend applying for top-level positions (e.g. Director). Also, unlike the academic job market, where we are often encouraged to apply for jobs all over the country and even the globe, for the “alt-ac” job market, conducting a targeted job search based on a set salary or location will be a more efficient way to apply for jobs.
After conducting informational interviews, I made the decision to apply for mid-level positions. I already had six years of experience mentoring students and over a year of experience working as a scholarship advisor, which meant that I felt comfortable in an office and administrative setting. To identify a minimum salary, I looked at the average pay rates for individuals in positions that I was applying for. Some ways you can do this include looking up the public UC compensation information or the pay scales on the Civil Employees Resource website. You can even look up some salary information on Glassdoor. With my PhD in hand and administrative experience, I decided to apply for jobs with a minimum salary of $60K because it was a median number from the salaries I found online and it was what would be enough to cover my bills, credit card debt payments, student loan debt payments, childcare tuition, and support a family of three on one income. I also decided that I would only apply for jobs in Southern California (close to home) or in Chicago (a city I’m fond of). With these parameters in mind, it was much easier to find jobs that would be a good fit for me because I knew the type of job I wanted to apply to, the pay that I would negotiate for, and the location that would make me happy.
6. If you’ve reached this point in the process, you’re now ready to start searching for jobs. You’ve likely been searching for jobs all along the process but now you’re ready to find a few job ads that closely align with your background, experience, and what you want to do. Some online job databases to identify jobs in higher education include the Chronicle Vitae, Higher Ed Jobs and Inside Higher Ed. The difficult thing about applying to certain “alt-ac” jobs is that they could be cross-listed under “Faculty & Research,” “Administrative,” or “Staff” positions which means more searching on your part. You can also search for jobs under associations listed within your discipline or search the HR pages for universities you’d like to work for. Finally, you can always search for jobs at large national job database sites like Indeed or Idealist. I mostly searched for jobs on Chronicle Vitae, university job websites, Indeed, and Idealist. I searched for jobs with keywords like “Assistant Director,” “Assistant Dean,” “Undergraduate Research,” “McNair,” “TRIO,” “Chican*,” “Latin*,” “Student Affairs,” and “Academic Affairs.”
Oddly enough, multiple individuals sent me the job ad for the position I have now. I didn’t find it in a database. I recall a friend, a mentor, and a colleague all sending me the same job ad. Each of them knew I was making this transition and so it helped that I was on their radar. Another tip I could offer is to make sure your community or network of friends knows that you are on the "alt-ac" job market and knows the types of jobs you are applying for. I often do this for friends as well. If they tell me they’re looking for jobs, say in TRIO programs, and I’m getting those job emails from a listserv, I’ll go ahead and send those out.
7. After combing through the sites and you’ve created a list of applications to submit, this is when you should be tailoring your job materials. It’s fine if you started drafting cover letters, CVs, and resumes in advance but please remember that each document needs to be tailored. For example, it is not wise to copy-paste a cover letter you used for a tenure-track job if you’re applying for a student affairs position. Similarly, I would not recommend using an academic CV if you are applying for an “alt-ac” job that specifically asks for a resume. Keep in mind, as my friend Calvin Ho reminded me, that a resume highlights your skills while a CV highlights your accomplishments. As someone who has gone through the process of evaluating applications for a full-time position in academic affairs, I can tell you that I’ve seen individuals with PhDs make some big mistakes, including focusing too much on their research and teaching achievements rather than their administrative and other transferable skillsets.
How did I approach the tailoring process when I was drafting job materials? First of all, I worked with a career consultant who reviewed my materials. I understand not everyone can afford this, and even I couldn’t afford it either but I contacted different consultants and asked if they offered discounted rates for low-income individuals and I found someone who was willing to offer me a generous discount. (FYI, I too offer discounted rates for undergraduate and graduate students who come to me for copyediting services.) From working with this consultant I learned how to take parts of a job description and organize them into themes that I could then use to organize my cover letter. Similarly, I would reorganize my resume according to headers that fit the job description themes and then delete experience that wasn’t relevant. Please don’t forget this very important step and remember that just because you have a PhD this won’t necessarily mean that you’ll get an interview for an “alt-ac” position; you must show that you have gained the skills necessary for that position to increase your chances of making it to the interview stage.
8. If you’ve done the work required to find job positions that are a good fit for you and to tailor job materials, then the last step I would recommend for you to take is to work with an interview coach or have a friend or colleague help you practice interviewing. Interviewing is a skill that requires practice or rehearsal, even for those of us that consider ourselves strong public speakers. It’s not easy to provide clear, direct, and concise answers to questions that you may not have anticipated. Sometimes interviewees have trouble staying on topic or they never get to the point of answering the question. Also, it’s common among those of us who identify as women of color, to undersell our skills while interviewing. For these reasons, I recommend practicing as much as possible. After every practice session, review your performance, identify any areas you need to work on, and then make a plan for addressing it in the next interview.
I must confess that I didn’t take this step, I didn’t work with a coach or have someone help me practice interviewing. I did my best to practice on my own. And when I was interviewed for a similar position as the one I have now at a different university, I didn’t get that job. But what I did do was that I requested to meet with the head of the interview committee. In that meeting, I asked for their feedback on my interview in person. Some of the feedback I received included underselling my grant-writing skills and not expanding more on my knowledge of undergraduate programs. I then used that feedback and applied it to my next interview and that was the position I ended up getting.
In closing, making the decision to change career paths is not easy for anyone, especially for first-generation women of color PhDs with children. After going through this process myself, I try not to get too worried about where my career will take me especially since I’m in a position where I get to serve low-income, first-gen, students of color. I may change jobs in the future, but what eases my mind is knowing that I have the skills and can take the steps necessary to make that switch to another position that balances my social justice commitments with my need for maintaining a work/life balance.
(1) "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. For a full definition, see Bethman, Brenda and C. Shaun Longstreet. “The Alt-Ac Track: Defining Terms.” Inside Higher Ed, May 22, 2013.
(2) I realize that some readers may disagree or feel uncomfortable with the use of the term “alt-ac” because as an “alternative” job it positions academia at the center or as the desired job outcome with a PhD, when that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. However, I choose to use the term “alt-ac” because it references jobs that are still affiliated with academia but that are separate from tenure-track professorships.
(3) If you want to hear more about depression in graduate school, I talk a lot more about those feelings of depression, including navigating postpartum depression in graduate school, in the Chicana Motherwork Podcast, Episode 10.
Dr. Yvette Martínez-Vu is the Assistant Director of the McNair Scholars Program at UCSB. She is an interdisciplinary scholar with a PhD in Theater and Performance Studies and a BA in English Literature from UCLA. Dr. Martinez-Vu also provides freelance academic coaching and editing services for undergraduate and graduate students.