Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: Breaking the Alt-Ac News

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I am in my final year of a doctoral program in the social sciences. Last week I was lucky enough to receive and accept a job offer in the private sector. However, my adviser does not know — about either the job or my desire to leave academe.

My adviser is old-fashioned and looks down on nonacademic jobs for his graduate students. I plan to finish my Ph.D. before I start work. But I am worried that if I am honest with him about my job, he will refuse to sign off on my dissertation, out of spite. A bit of background — he funded some of my research out of his own grant, thus supporting my work financially as well as intellectually.

I am thinking of holding off on telling him until after he and the other members of my committee approve my dissertation. There is an expectation in my program, however, that students will apply for a fellowship to write up the dissertation. I don’t plan to apply. How do you recommend I proceed? Should I apply for a fellowship I don’t plan to use? Generally speaking, what should graduate students do when they are considering a career outside of higher education, and their advisers are not supportive?

First of all, congratulations on your job! Second, unfortunately, narcissistic advising is just as common as narcissistic parenting. Both are characterized by seeing the advisee (or the child) as an extension and reflection of oneself and, thus, having very clear ideas about what constitutes success and what constitutes failure — regardless of what the object of their projection wants.

It is a fact of academic life that elite Ph.D. departments in some fields seek to reproduce themselves through their alumni. For such departments, the marker of success is for their graduates to secure a tenure-track job at a peer university, or one slightly lower in ranking. The mythology of intellectual exceptionalism and the "passion for ideas" has always animated the academic profession in a way that is not the case for people in those yucky distasteful industry jobs.

That sentiment is still strong in academe — particularly among the older generation of long-tenured professors who acquired their jobs at a point when the overproduction of Ph.D.s and the concomitant adjunctification of higher education were not yet at the level they are at today.

It is unfortunate (and of course a marker of privilege) that many tenured professors hold the same views as your adviser about nonacademic and alt-ac careers for Ph.D.s, despite years of attention on this front from disciplinary societies and academics themselves. Your email makes me want to have a come-to-Jesus-and-get-over-yourself talk with the obstructionists and stress the fact that, while graduate students are investments, they are also human beings. No investment, human or otherwise, is ever a 100-percent certainty. Students changing fields or careers (or pulling a Carlos Castaneda) are a part of the financial realities of a doctoral program and one of the costs of doing business in graduate education.

The best thing for everyone would be for your adviser to be gracious and supportive, and wish you good luck, however much time and money he has invested in your training.

I realize that my wishes for your adviser’s behavior are not particularly helpful for you. I don’t know whether your fear that the committee will not sign off on your dissertation is substantiated as a literal possibility, or if it’s an expression of the anxiety you feel as a result of the shaming that permeates the culture of many a research university on the subject of alt-ac careers. (You can find some previous columns on how to deal with prickly advisers on this issue here and here.) Whatever the case, you need to find out what your recourse might be in this situation.

A good place to start is the campus ombuds office. Another option is the dean of graduate studies (or a similar figure), who may be more sympathetic than your graduate-program director because deans are generally interested in job-placement rates whether the job is in academe or not.

Most universities have mechanisms in place to work around ego problems with advisers. If you can get a sense of what your fail-safe is, I would encourage you to be straightforward with your adviser. Don’t waste time applying for a fellowship you will not use. Share your gratitude for your adviser’s support and mentorship, but own your narrative about why this nonacademic job is the right choice for you.

But what if, after a little bit of digging, you find out that you might be vulnerable to adviser reprisal at your institution? Then I recommend one of two options:

  • First, just sort of drag your feet about applying to the fellowship. Advisers rarely attend closely to timelines, and by just not doing it, you can probably let the deadline pass without your adviser even noticing. I’m assuming here that without the fellowship you can still somehow finish writing the dissertation. So do that, defend, and move on to your alt-ac job, without ever prompting a confrontation with your adviser.
  • Or if that feels unworkable, stick to your original plan, and go through the process of applying for this fellowship. Treat it as an opportunity to practice grant-writing — a skill you can add onto your résumé going forward in the private sector. I do want to add: Some people do have second thoughts after transitioning out of academe. If there is a possibility that after a month at the new job you might decide, "This is not quite what I imagined; I don’t think this is for me," then it might be good to be able to cross the bridge back into academe, and a fellowship application would leave that door open.

In short, my advice is: Do what is best for you. Do not internalize senior academics’ judgment about the alt-ac path. And be pragmatic about protecting yourself, depending on the specifics of your department and institution and your adviser’s personality. Honesty is the best policy unless you are in a position where someone has power over you and does not have your best interests at heart.

Iam in my final year of a doctoral program in the social sciences. Last week I was lucky enough to receive and accept a job offer in the private sector. However, my adviser does not know — about either the job or my desire to leave academe.

My adviser is old-fashioned and looks down on nonacademic jobs for his graduate students. I plan to finish my Ph.D. before I start work. But I am worried that if I am honest with him about my job, he will refuse to sign off on my dissertation, out of spite. A bit of background — he funded some of my research out of his own grant, thus supporting my work financially as well as intellectually.

I am thinking of holding off on telling him until after he and the other members of my committee approve my dissertation. There is an expectation in my program, however, that students will apply for a fellowship to write up the dissertation. I don’t plan to apply. How do you recommend I proceed? Should I apply for a fellowship I don’t plan to use? Generally speaking, what should graduate students do when they are considering a career outside of higher education, and their advisers are not supportive?

First of all, congratulations on your job! Second, unfortunately, narcissistic advising is just as common as narcissistic parenting. Both are characterized by seeing the advisee (or the child) as an extension and reflection of oneself and, thus, having very clear ideas about what constitutes success and what constitutes failure — regardless of what the object of their projection wants.

It is a fact of academic life that elite Ph.D. departments in some fields seek to reproduce themselves through their alumni. For such departments, the marker of success is for their graduates to secure a tenure-track job at a peer university, or one slightly lower in ranking. The mythology of intellectual exceptionalism and the "passion for ideas" has always animated the academic profession in a way that is not the case for people in those yucky distasteful industry jobs.

That sentiment is still strong in academe — particularly among the older generation of long-tenured professors who acquired their jobs at a point when the overproduction of Ph.D.s and the concomitant adjunctification of higher education were not yet at the level they are at today.

It is unfortunate (and of course a marker of privilege) that many tenured professors hold the same views as your adviser about nonacademic and alt-ac careers for Ph.D.s, despite years of attention on this front from disciplinary societies and academics themselves. Your email makes me want to have a come-to-Jesus-and-get-over-yourself talk with the obstructionists and stress the fact that, while graduate students are investments, they are also human beings. No investment, human or otherwise, is ever a 100-percent certainty. Students changing fields or careers (or pulling a Carlos Castaneda) are a part of the financial realities of a doctoral program and one of the costs of doing business in graduate education.

The best thing for everyone would be for your adviser to be gracious and supportive, and wish you good luck, however much time and money he has invested in your training.

I realize that my wishes for your adviser’s behavior are not particularly helpful for you. I don’t know whether your fear that the committee will not sign off on your dissertation is substantiated as a literal possibility, or if it’s an expression of the anxiety you feel as a result of the shaming that permeates the culture of many a research university on the subject of alt-ac careers. (You can find some previous columns on how to deal with prickly advisers on this issue here and here.) Whatever the case, you need to find out what your recourse might be in this situation.

A good place to start is the campus ombuds office. Another option is the dean of graduate studies (or a similar figure), who may be more sympathetic than your graduate-program director because deans are generally interested in job-placement rates whether the job is in academe or not.

Most universities have mechanisms in place to work around ego problems with advisers. If you can get a sense of what your fail-safe is, I would encourage you to be straightforward with your adviser. Don’t waste time applying for a fellowship you will not use. Share your gratitude for your adviser’s support and mentorship, but own your narrative about why this nonacademic job is the right choice for you.

But what if, after a little bit of digging, you find out that you might be vulnerable to adviser reprisal at your institution? Then I recommend one of two options:

  • First, just sort of drag your feet about applying to the fellowship. Advisers rarely attend closely to timelines, and by just not doing it, you can probably let the deadline pass without your adviser even noticing. I’m assuming here that without the fellowship you can still somehow finish writing the dissertation. So do that, defend, and move on to your alt-ac job, without ever prompting a confrontation with your adviser.
  • Or if that feels unworkable, stick to your original plan, and go through the process of applying for this fellowship. Treat it as an opportunity to practice grant-writing — a skill you can add onto your résumé going forward in the private sector. I do want to add: Some people do have second thoughts after transitioning out of academe. If there is a possibility that after a month at the new job you might decide, "This is not quite what I imagined; I don’t think this is for me," then it might be good to be able to cross the bridge back into academe, and a fellowship application would leave that door open.

In short, my advice is: Do what is best for you. Do not internalize senior academics’ judgment about the alt-ac path. And be pragmatic about protecting yourself, depending on the specifics of your department and institution and your adviser’s personality. Honesty is the best policy unless you are in a position where someone has power over you and does not have your best interests at heart.

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