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From Side Hustle to Alt Ac: Choosing a Different Path

Interviews with two academics who pursued alternative careers after graduate school.

March 25, 2018
 
 

Neelofer Qadir is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Follow her on Twitter @_neelofer and check out her website.

March can feel like the doldrums for folks on an academic calendar. Spring Break is behind us, and the end of the semester is a touch too far away. And, for those of us on the job market, the tenure-track cycle is coming to a close as offers are being made for the very few jobs out there, which means, for many of us, rejections have begun to arrive in earnest. Understandably then, this time of year is a good one to reflect on one’s academic trajectory and career path. Similarly, it’s no surprise that the small but growing genre of “quit lit” receives its highest volume in the dog days of winter [“This Is Not Quit Lit” “Calling Academe’s Bluff”].

But, what happens to our departed colleagues? For all the ways that quit lit allows us to air grievances with systemic issues in our profession, nevertheless, we rarely learn what paths our colleagues ultimately took. Their future employment is rarely documented in departmental data; it certainly is not announced in the newsletter or weekly bulletin. In fact, because of the sharply different timescape in which one applies to and perhaps moves between jobs outside of the academy, folks in alt-ac positions may have changed jobs in the time it takes to endure one academic job market cycle.

First, I want to reframe the experience of leaving the normative academic career path, and, second, show the range of jobs my graduate school colleagues now hold. Toward that, I sat down with two colleagues who for different reasons work in alt-ac positions. We discussed how their current work relates to their academic research and teaching as well as what alt-ac paths offer them that the Academy simply could not.

Note: These conversations have been condensed significantly and edited for clarity.

Hari Stephen Kumar is a learning and development specialist on an internal training team at a global software company. In addition to his day job, he consults and gives talks on diversity and inclusion in academia and community organizations.

Neelofer: What kind of work do you as a learning and development specialist for a global software company?
Hari: My work is about energizing and motivating adults to learn and grow by tapping into the part of their job that’s meaningful for them and by helping them develop a growth mindset in which they recognize that there is no innate limit to what they can do. I do this by helping an internal training team develop educational experiences that are challenging, that involve the stories of the participants, that normalize failure, and that give them tangible experiences of success.

Neelofer: You have an interesting trajectory in academia, where you went to graduate school for engineering, worked in the industry, then returned to graduate school for a humanities degree and now you’re back at the organization where you worked prior to beginning your PhD. How did these experiences influence your research, teaching, and current work?
Hari: I came back to graduate school in the humanities because I wanted to teach at the college level and what motivated me to focus on a different field than engineering were my social identities. I wanted to know more about how race works, how people tell stories about themselves that are so divisive. Some of the courses I took helped me understand that but my real goal was to teach young people how to be aware of these stories and how to question them. That much more important part for me, my graduate courses did not help me do. In that case, it was all about the experiential learning I had with my students in the classroom. I believe that the most undervalued part of graduate school is learning how to teach and in that way, I was a misfit because I had fun while teaching. I didn’t see my teaching work as something I did only for the stipend and that the real work was research. Graduate coursework, for me, was the distraction.

Neelofer: What kind of courses did you teach and what did you learn about pedagogy through them?
Hari: I learned how to motivate learners by walking in my students footsteps. I was teaching required public speaking and writing courses. These courses had standard syllabi but there was some leeway in adapting them. Because of these parameters of a course that my students didn’t want to take and I supposedly didn’t want to teach, I had license to experiment. I was engaged in the genre disruption work from the beginning. None of the courses I took in pedagogy prepared me for the work I do now because the value of those courses was to prepare me for a narrow field, a narrow approach to problems. It was pretty ineffective at engaging with real world problems. I consider my current work critical pedagogy but that course disappointed me the most. I didn’t learn about actual teaching in that class. Most of my learning happened outside of coursework.

Neelofer: What else were you doing during graduate school that took place outside the classroom, that set you onto the path you’re on now?
Hari: I had two jobs during graduate school because I had a kid to support. The first was teaching and the second was a position at the Instructional Media Lab, where I worked on technology and teaching. In this job, I worked with professors from across campus and the teaching problems people faced were really quite similar. I would have back-to-back one hour sessions with a physics professor who had been tenured for 30 years and a theatre professor who was non-tenured and a person of color. They had very different experiences in the Academy, but my goal was to figure out how to engage them and help them reach their goals in the classroom.

Neelofer: How did you make the transition from graduate school to the work you’re doing now?
Hari: While working on my comprehensive exams, I applied for and got a position working with Amherst College faculty to support their teaching. My previous work at the UMass Instructional Media Lab and teaching set me up to have a lot of success in this position. One of my projects was to work with faculty on restructuring the assessments students completed at the end of the semester. From there, I became the director of educational development at Springfield Technical Community College and from there to my current work at a global software company. During this time, I also decided to leave my PhD program. I see graduate school as having failed me in many ways. I didn’t realize until after I left how much my learning disability affected me and it became clear in a way during my exams that it wasn’t during coursework. Many academic structures leave out so many learning abilities and what counts/doesn’t count as a demonstration of knowledge.

Neelofer: What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Hari: I can do three big things that were not possible in the same way in academia. I train as opposed to teach, which means that I can explicitly say that my ‘students’ are looking to do something useful. That’s a dirty word in academia – that there’s a vocational angle – but it’s not something I have to worry about, which is refreshing. How do I work with a community organization on understanding #BlackLivesMatter, or create a social justice workshop for beginners? It’s a totally different way to think about learning because I have to think about an audience that will walk away at any point. The second thing is my speaking and performing work. My writing didn’t fit [in academia]; it was considered non-traditional because I wanted to be in conversation with normal people. Communicating with them is a lot harder than communicating with scholars. And I like it. The third thing is organizational change: there are any number of structures in academia resistant to change because of professional dysfunction. In private and non-profit sectors, which are much more nimble, [people are] open to change in those ways.

Neelofer: And, what advice do you have for people who are navigating the alt-ac path?
Hari: The hardest part about leaving graduate school was that I had realized that I didn’t know when I started is that despite not wanting to become a scholar, I had become one – a scholar of performance studies. That was a persona I grieved when I left. My advice to others? Don’t get sucked into yet another conveyer belt: [academia] is just as exploitative and dangerous an industry as any other. Embrace failure and learning. Stretch. There are more interesting problems for me [and you] to solve than solving a PhD.

You can learn more about Hari’s work at www.kineticnow.com.

Isabel Espinal is a research services librarian, working in subject areas such as Afro-American Studies, Native/Indigenous Studies, Latinx Studies, Anthropology, and Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies.

Neelofer: What kind of work do you do at the UMass Libraries?
Isabel: I collaborate with several academic departments to support the teaching and research that their faculty and graduate/undergraduate students do. Much of my work in this area is about anticipating their needs: what kinds of tools do they need to do their work, what resources are useful, and what literature reviews they need.  I am also involved in professional organizations for librarians, especially in caucuses and divisions committed to increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the profession.

Neelofer: Can you tell me more about the work you’ve done in professional organizations for librarians?
Isabel: Because of how white the profession is, I look to our conferences as a way to build a different network. These are people who I have a deep connection to even though I may only see them once a year. Now, we can be more connected through digital technologies. Some organizations include the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color, the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, Reforma: National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking, Asian Pacific American Librarians Association. And, they have a very good relationship with each other. Through these networks and conferences, I have been pushing libraries to make intentional changes to their hiring and recruitment. At UMass, I am working on a proposal to create a two-year fellowship where people would work at our library while earning their masters in library sciences.

Neelofer: Compared to our other colleagues profiled here, you began working as a librarian before starting a PhD program. What prompted you to chose that path?
Isabel: I did my masters in library science to work as a public librarian and I did that work for a while. My goal was to serve the community and work in a library where the mission was to serve everyone, at any level of literacy. Family circumstances led me to academic librarianship and working at the UMass libraries led me to the American Studies and English PhD, where I defended my dissertation on Dominican women’s writing last Friday!

Neelofer: Congratulations! Tell us a bit more about the work you did in your dissertation and how that transition into an academic department was for you.
Isabel: Thank you! I think it’s a common story. When people of color hear that I’m getting a PhD, they say ‘wow, I always wanted to do that.’ In some ways, that could’ve been me, too, if I had continued the path that I was on before I came here – the person who says that could have been me rather than it actually being me. It’s something I was interested in as an undergraduate but college was a traumatizing experience for me because of the atmosphere of always having to prove yourself and the deeply harmful ways we talk to each other. I came to librarianship first because it was a way to do intellectual work that I was really drawn to without the toxic judgement behaviors I associated with academia. Being an academic librarian helped me grow comfortable in the culture of academia because here I was teaching graduate students and faculty things. I was able to cultivate a sense of my own value and I could apply what I learned in my courses to my library work and vice versa.

Neelofer: Are you considering transitioning toward a tenure-track path now that you have your PhD in hand?
Isabel: In some ways, I would love to do a hybrid position, but at many institutions you have to do one or the other because we create identities around a job. I can offer a lot more than: new literature to introduce students and colleagues to, for instance. But, working as a librarian allows me to do a lot of the academic work I find rewarding, without the same pressure to publish. We have publication expectations but there’s a better balance.

Neelofer: What are the more rewarding aspects of your library work? And what advice do you have for people considering an alt-ac path?
Isabel: The project I mentioned above about partnering with writers and librarians to do more community facing work is a big part of it. Libraries, in general, compared to academic departments have more resources and networks to do the community facing work that is important to me. One exciting opportunity I have had, in part because I am bilingual, is when the U.S. embassy in Spain invited me to do programming for librarians in Spain. It was an all-expenses paid trip that allowed me to do exciting work and build international connections. For people who are considering a path in the libraries, there are opportunities: some of them require a library science degree, but others don’t. There are a lot of technology pathways through digital humanities, open access, archives positions in college and university libraries. One of my new colleagues in the digital media lab has his PhD in chemistry. He used a lot of the technologies the media lab uses so he was able to parlay that experience into his current position.

You can learn more about Isabel’s work through her research guides and check out her publications on her ScholarWorks.

If you’re inspired by these profiles and want to learn more about how to re-imagine your career path or reflect on the transferrable skills you have, check out Ideas on Fire’s upcoming webinar, Using Side Gigs to Explore Career Options (April 9, 2018, 1-2pm with Dr. Kate Drabinski; free and open to the public).

[Image courtesy of Flickr user Meg Lauber under a Creative Commons license.]

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