10 Totally Do-able Steps to Start Preparing for the Alt-Ac World

The majority of students that enter the Ph.D program in Spanish and Portuguese will not end up as a tenure-track professor. Some of us will have to leave our studies midway, but even amongst those who graduate only about half will find jobs in academia, and well under half will find tenure-track jobs in academia. I am not an expert on this topic, I haven’t even been successful at finding an alt-ac job yet, but I have spent a lot of time thinking and researching about it and I’ve come to realize that not a lot of people are experts so I would like to contribute a drop in the bucket of the world of alt-ac knowledge. Here are the tips I’ve gathered. 

  1. Start early. Now. Yes, now. For most students alt-ac is a backburner thought if not an afterthought. It’s totally fine and reasonable if alt-ac is your plan B, but you want to start thinking about it earlier than the fifth or sixth year of your PhD in order to best set yourself up.
  2. Ok so you’re willing to start, but how.  Schedule time. Just as you schedule your dissertation writing, it’s worth scheduling some job prep time. Maybe it’s an hour every Friday. The world of alt-ac can feel overwhelming and like a rabbit hole, you can end up very frustrated, discouraged and like you have nothing to show at the end of hours of researching alt-ac jobs. So break it down into one or two hour chunks, and at the end of that chunk you’ll have accomplished spending an hour or two prepping for the alt-ac world.
  3. What might you do in that  hour? An easy place to start is to explore a website like Imagine PhD or Versatile PhD. Warning: you can spend well over an hour on either of these websites. To me they can be very overwhelming. But this is why I suggest scheduling time. You’re just going to poke around, take an assessment, read some transition narratives for one hour. And then you exit and feel good about the effort you’ve put in. If there’s something pending, write it on your to-do list for the next week’s allotted time. Avoid the rabbit hole. 
  4. Look for jobs on a site like Indeed.com. This is of course another rabbit hole, and chances are you are not applying to anything right now. However, set a timer, type in some key words and see what there is out there. Here’s the words I’ve been looking at: researcher, qualitative research, Latin America, writer/editor, instruction/teaching, advocacy, consulting, coordinator. It’s good to start making your own list of key words as you go, such as skills that the job posts ask for that you might list on your resumé or key job search words for the future.
  5. Go to an advising appointment. There’s a couple of people you want to get to know. Annie Maxfield (annie.maxfield@austin.utexas.edu) and Tatem Oldham (t.oldham@austin.utexas.edu). They are both experienced and wonderful and will meet with you for free hour-long advising appointments until the day you graduate. Their office will also take free headshots for you, so go to your appointment dressed professionally and knock off two items with one visit. Not sure how to use your appointment time? They will ask you about your interests and suggest some career paths to explore and/or go over/help you build a resume, cover letter or LinkedIn account. I promise you can get something useful out of a meeting with them regardless of what stage you’re in.
  6. Subscribe to the alt-ac list serve to find out about, amongst other things, some of the awesome alt-ac workshops you should be going to on topics such as identifying your transferable skills. Bonus: there’s generally free coffee and tacos. Bonus #2: Tatem came from a therapy background and will validate you in ways you don’t even know you desperately crave.
  7. Prepare a resumé and a LinkedIn account. There’s lots of online resources to help with resumé creation (here’s some to get you started) in addition to the advising meeting and workshops mentioned above. As far as LinkedIn goes, you really want to get on it way way before you actually need a job. The alt-ac world is all about contacts and connections, you’ll be collecting those as you go and LinkedIn is a good way to keep track of them. It’s not Facebook, you don’t need to be friends with someone to “connect.” For example, if you went to a workshop they presented at and you write a note in the request, chances are they’ll connect with you. 
  8. Speaking of LinkedIn, be mindful as early as possible about building a network. This can seem overwhelming if you spend all your time in the academic world but chances are you don’t really spend all your time in the academic world (although it can feel like it). Personally, I find that jobs I’ve held (including graduate assistantships) outside of my department are my richest source of contacts and quite frankly career possibilities, so I would highly recommend considering them. Also, hobbies and things you do outside of the university can build your network, such as if you are involved in a dance community. Lastly, think about your family and family friends. All of that is network, too. 
  9. Another useful and important way to build your network is to conduct informational interviews. This can be the hardest/weirdest and most impactful thing to do. The process goes something like this:
    • Let’s say you went on the websites, or looked through Indeed.com, or talked to an advisor and figured out that careers in curriculum design might be of interest to you, or careers at a certain company. 
    • You find someone who works in that field/company that has a PhD ideally from UT or even better if from your field (you probably find them on LinkedIn). 
    • You send them a message/e-mail and say something along the lines of “Hey, I’m exploring transitioning out of academia into your field, this is what I already know about you/your work/your company, would you be willing to answer some questions via e-mail/phone/over coffee.” 
    • An advisor can help you figure out what questions to ask but generally speaking you’ll ask about how they made the transition, what their day-to-day responsibilities look like, what a career trajectory in that field might look like, and what skills you should build on/highlight if you want a job in that field. Make sure you’ve googled a little so you’re not asking questions that the internet could’ve answered for you, but generally speaking PhD’s outside academia know how hard it is to make the transition and are very generous with their time.
    •  If you make a good impression, they may reach out to you when a relevant job in their company becomes available or put in a good word for you if you apply for such a job.
  10. Be kind to yourself. And good luck!
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