My Thoughts on the Alt-ac Lifestyle
Here are a few things that I have been reflecting on as I prepare to begin the new academic year. I have chosen to divide my time between working in an office and teaching part time while continuing to find ways to devote my energy to researching what I love. These are a few experiences that keep me motivated and happy in a job market where the tenure-track is becoming the alternative option for recent graduates.
1. Working for a university as an administrator has invaluable hidden benefits.
I am fortunate to have landed an administrative post in a top research university. Fortunate because my position within an academic community reaps many unexpected perks that are beneficial to continuing my own research. Firstly, I am surrounded by people who understand where I come from as a PhD. I don't have to explain to my co-workers what research at the doctoral level is like because the environment is used to this. Secondly, internationalism is not unusual within an academic institution. Many universities have a larger mindset and broader understanding that people come from different places with different ideas and that this is a good thing. In my case, I work within the center for international studies. This means that I have a full set of internationally-minded people working around me. They are constantly traveling to new places, speaking different languages (yes, even Japanese which I get to use from time to time), and understand the sometimes migrant lifestyle of an academic. Thirdly, the position is part time which allows me to reserve Fridays as a designated day for research, writing, and thinking. My workplace actually supports this and has actively offered me time off to pursue my 'other' interests. Fourthly, library access is priceless as an academic. Because I work for a university, I have full access to a library and inter-library loans when I need them. This has been a godsend for the papers that I had written this year.
2. I schedule time that is just for research.
This would be true even if you had a full-time teaching position. Taking a calendar and placing fun events as well as large blocks of time for designated research has helped me stay productive. My calendar has a category specifically for this time and I try hard to find at least one or tow hours a day during the work week and a good four to five hour chunk over the weekend to do what I need to do to keep my research fresh. Last year I spent a good portion of my time preparing teaching materials for my new classes that I had to teach. Sunday afternoons were spent building powerpoints and preparing all of my lectures in advance of the week so that I would only have to brush up on them the day of my lectures in the middle of the week. This year my teaching load is not as intense which should allow me to have more time to focus on getting some key pieces of research out for publication. But all of this takes time and discipline which is why I block times off in my calendar for non-negotiable research hours.
3. Only go to conferences that are worth my time.
Network, network, network. This is what many people told me as a graduate student and I understand how important this is also in the early career stages. However, I have found that if I designate my energies toward events, whether they are conferences, seminars, or invited talks, I am able to more deliberately and efficiently network. By focusing on a few major commitments rather than try to be everywhere at once, I am able to offer more to my academic community and not feel overwhelmed with commitments. It is also not cost efficient to go to every conference that is remotely interesting to me. When I had a travel stipend during my doctoral studies, I used every penny to travel and network. Someday I may be lucky enough to have a travel stipend again. But for now, it is up to me to find ways to make trips happen. When I do attend conferences, I get in touch with colleagues who will also be there and make an effort to grab coffee or dinner with them to maximize my time there.
4. Keep track of my writing with a writing journal.
I have a spreadsheet that keeps track of my writing so that I can treat myself to a glass of champange when I reach a goal or consider seriously if I should take my computer to a library and sit and write instead. I, like many academics, enjoy the sense of accomplishment. I like seeing some type of progress towards a long-term goal. I keep track of everything I write that I consider to be related to my research. I set a lower word goal this year so that I would actually reach it, but that was before I knew that I would be writing several conference papers. If there are days that I did not write anything but did do research, I make a note of it on the spreadsheet too. This has helped me look back at what work I did on which project before I start something only to discover I had worked on it two weeks ago. On one of the tabs in the spreadsheet I have created a 5 year plan. Here I plot out the conferences that I know will be happening, deadlines for research grants, places where I am teaching, and large target points like a book proposal. It is also very important for me to record major accomplishments here like securing some teaching for a semester or finishing a major writing project. I am very excited that this blogpost will be long enough for me to reach my target goal of 25,000 words for this year.
5. Finding my place as a teacher.
I do enjoy teaching. But it is also true that adjunct teaching in this country has become a major problem. I think that it can also be used to your advantage when used in connection with other larger goals. For me, I see it as a part of a larger portfolio of skills that I am acquiring along the way as I navigate the early years of an academic career. My part-time administration position gives me the time for research as well as part-time teaching. It is nice to still be involved in the classroom at least once a week to interact with students. It also provides an affiliated institution for when I attend conferences and that the class list on my CV will continue to grow to keep me connected to the academic teaching community.
It was not until I started graduate school that I realized how much running and yoga were important to keep me happy. I now value these activities as outlets to get away from the keyboard for an hour. This summer, I decided to sign up for a month of swimming and have been heading over to the pool after work in the office. I know that I could not handle a year's worth of gym membership because of travel and teaching obligations that I have during the academic year. But while things are quiet in August, I have enjoyed taking the time to get exercise in this new form. In the fall, when the weather is slightly cooler, I will pick up running again as a main method of exercise.
This is only one way an alt-ac life might look like. It should be obvious that no one path post-PhD would look the same, regardless which direction life leads you. It is not always easy to juggle different types of work or to adjust to a new life post-PhD. Yet there is also something exhilarating to know that in the spare moments of my day, I have something interesting to think about and write about later. Working in an office outside of my discipline also forces me to think of ways to communicate my ideas and passion to a general audience in ways that are not possible within a classroom. What I have learned in the past year is that a little discipline and strong support from a group fellow academics and friends can make the alt-ac lifestyle surprisingly liberating.