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Ask the Oracle

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Ruth Hickerson answers a question from Stephanie Hartzell, the Graduate Student Representative for ORWAC. Dr. Hickerson is an Instructor in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

Although experiences at all levels of academic life are diverse, we tend to center a certain set of experiences, constructing a normative path from graduate school through tenured professorship that may not be desirable or possible for all early scholars in the field. What have your experiences with a nontraditional academic life been? What advice would you give to graduate students who are considering straying away from the tenure-track academic path?

I’ve been considered nontraditional in all of my academic pursuits. I went back to get a bachelor’s degree when I was 29 years old, entered a master’s program at 33, and received my PhD a few weeks before my 41st birthday.

I was more surprised than anyone when school was ended up being something I was good at. After floundering at large state universities I found a home at a smaller Jesuit school. The Jesuit philosophy of using your education to improve the lives of others resonated with me—for the first time, my academic endeavors had meaning beyond my own accomplishment.

As I advanced through my doctoral program, I became increasingly sure that the traditional tenure track was not for me. There are many reasons I felt this way, and none of them matter. What matters is that there are many different reasons for pursing a graduate degree and many different paths to take after earning it. The singular focus a traditional academic career required was not something I was drawn to. I like variety and required more freedom. I so admire colleagues capable of the kind of tenacity and focus required to pursue the tenure track, but it just wasn’t for me.

I was also disillusioned with the academic life that animated around me. I realize this is not uncommon after the completion of coursework, the navigation of a bureaucracy, and the defense of a dissertation. You see your department and the people in it in a different light than when you entered your first year. I loved teaching, but it was becoming more difficult for me to remain in a production-oriented academic environment and continue to feel like I was truly using my education in the service of others.

I also needed to be realistic about the limitations of the current job market and the needs of my family. There were fewer tenure track jobs available and I saw brilliant colleagues struggling to find work in their discipline. Those who did find tenure track positions often had to make significant personal sacrifices—uprooting lives to move several states away remains among the most common. I did not want to move any further away from my ill mother. All of these factors made me realized that I needed to take a different career path—one that would make me a living, play to my strengths, and afford me a measure of work/life balance.

I didn’t realize this is something that would be so difficult for faculty in my doctoral program to hear or accept. They seemed genuinely shocked that I would go through the entire program – courses, papers, presentations, comprehensive exams, and the dissertation – only to declare that their version of academic life was not for me. A few of them voiced concern about what I would do if I wasn't going to pursue the tenure track.

Honestly, this was never a worry for me. Perhaps this is because I had a career history before I returned to higher education. I'd worked in finance, human resources, organizational training and development, and human services. I’d been a corporate, government, and non-profit employee. And I gained valuable skills in my PhD coursework that I knew were translatable in other contexts. So I said goodbye to my committee on the day of my dissertation defense and assured them I would be fine. They assured me I was making a huge mistake.

I decided to focus on what had originally excited me in my coursework. Most of my graduate professors were critical cultural scholars and their focus on oppression and power imbalance appealed to me in the same way the Jesuit’s message of working for social justice did. I knew this work would be valuable as a means for drawing attention to and perhaps even partially addressing issues of inequality, and I sought out opportunities that would allow me to do just that.

I began working with a variety of nonprofits doing research, data analysis, and report writing—skills that I was well prepared for thanks to my training as a graduate student. From there, I found opportunities in organizational assessment, training, and intervention, web development, curriculum development, and course design. Eventually, I became the director of student services at a college that serves a predominantly nontraditional student population—a position that allowed me to draw from both personal and professional experience. 

In each of these positions, I believed I was making a difference in the lives of others. I helped nonprofits keep their funding so they could assist underserved populations. I bridged literal distances so that people could engage in personal development in virtual forums without having to travel. I offered guidance for nontraditional students who had previously been told education was not for them and watched with pride as they became college graduates.

Eventually, my administrative position moved me further and further away from the students I was serving. The hours became overwhelmingly long, and I was finding less joy in my work—my sense of using my education in the service of others began to diminish once again, and I knew it was time for a change. When I thought about what I might do next the answer was easy—I wanted to teach. I became aware of the uptick in more secure, appointed, non-tenure track positions that didn't exist at most universities when I first embarked on a post-grad job search. I decided to leave my administrative role and return to teaching full time. In my current position, I’m able to engage in academic life on my own terms. You have to find what works for you.

As I reflect on all of these experiences and consider where I am now, there are a few pieces of advice I can offer to graduate students (or anyone) who are considering straying away from the traditional tenure-track academic path.

First, trust yourself.  If you honestly feel like a traditional path is not for you, know that you are free to pursue something different, and that you have many options. Others may express disappointment and surprise, but it is you who has to live with your choices—this is your life. Don’t get caught up in saying yes to please the professors whose approval you've been groomed to seek out as a student.

Second, remember that everything you’ve done counts. It all matters. It all fits in someplace.  The skills you’ve developed as a graduate student are desirable and transferrable and can help you earn a living outside of academia. Every experience you’ve had prepares you for something else.

Third, understand that people seek out education for a wide range of reasons and with a variety of goals. There are likely others in your program who are also considering embarking on a different path. Begin having those often-avoided conversations about nontraditional career trajectories and work to normalize these conversations in your department. Having honest conversations about what you do and don’t want to do with your education will help everyone to find the path that best fits them.

Finally, wherever you go, be a valuable member of every organization you join. Say yes to new challenges. Continue to master new skills. Make meaningful contributions. Use what you’ve learned to improve the lives of others. Never stop learning.



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