Life in higher ed as an “alt-ac”: a profile of two jobs

The term “alt-ac” was widely discussed in the mid 20-teens, and it’s problematic and misleading but I haven’t seen a better term. Essentially, “alternative academics” are folks with terminal degrees working outside of faculty roles. Either working in industry, or working in administrative positions in higher education, “alt-acs” engage in research, but their “day job” is something other than teaching. 

I fall into this category, and I wanted to share my experience in two pretty different jobs. Since the tenure-track market is mind-boggingly competitive, you might consider looking into alt-ac positions like mine.

My first alt-ac job: Coordinator of Audio Services

This was my first job after my PhD (and it took over a year to land it). My primary roles were to oversee recordings for the School of Music, and to serve as house manager for the main auditorium.

Teaching opportunities: Not only did I teach the Introduction to Music Technology course each fall, I trained and supervised 6 graduate assistants, and co-supervised 20 undergraduate theater techs. For fun, I also offered to coach the student-lead improvisation ensemble, and taught a couple one-off composition lessons.

Research and creative work: Since I had access to the performance halls and equipment, I could make recordings in the off-hours. I also put on a recital, and collaborated with faculty choreographers several times. I was able to get my orchestra piece and first band piece programmed.

Did I use my degree? 

I used my degree quite a lot, and directly. My knowledge of recording technology is certainly fine, but my added knowledge about classical music helped me when working on recording sessions. I also produced the School of Music’s public radio show, which involved curating the music and editing, but also researching and writing the narrators’ scripts.

Ultimately, I was unhappy with the workload and lack of opportunities for advancement. The college-town location limited work opportunities for my spouse. So I left this position after 3 years.

My second alt-ac job: Assistant Director of Undergraduate Research

I started this job as a post-doc (post-doctoral fellow), which was advertised as “alt-ac.” I was hired because of my unique background, with experience in event production, research, and entrepreneurship.

Teaching opportunities: While (so far) I am not instructor of record for any classes, I do lead workshops, provide coaching, and work closely with students on the administrative side of their projects (reimbursements, preparing presentations, etc.).

Research and creative work: I’ve used my audio-video skills to prepare a few videos for our office. I’ve also gained more experience with graphic design while making flyers and social media posts. I’ve definitely expanded my research skills with a better understanding of surveys and statistics, higher ed policy, and program development. This summer I’m going to participate in a Digital Humanities workshop, which will hone some of these skills further. 

Do I use my degree? 

Having a broad knowledge of higher ed, research procedures, and entrepreneurial and nonprofit experience has helped me greatly in this job. My experience with writing, public speaking, and the like has also been invaluable. With students in creative fields, I can help coach a little, but otherwise I’m not directly using my knowledge of music. Is that a problem? No! I feel very lucky to be able to employ these different skills and provide a unique point of view.

Conclusion

Musicians (or anyone pursuing a terminal degree) should consider jobs like mine if they want to remain in the academic world. Access to a university’s resources and network can be an invaluable way to keep your research or creative work moving along. While administrative positions potentially lack the prestige of the professoriate, they can still be quite fulfilling and provide a way to make an impact on the lives of students.

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Welcome and thanks for checking out my work! -adam

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