Going alternative

2015 felt like the year I lost my friends. They left academia for a more desirable alternative. Some were frustrated with the insatiable demands of academia to relocate your life every 2-3 years to another country, others were discouraged by the lack of clear career pathways and opportunities, others were saddened by the deep loneliness of academic work or excluded by a workplace culture lacking in diversity.

In response, my friends went alternative. They closed their field notebooks, cleared their lab benches and moved into professional (that is, non academic) roles within universities, into government work or into consulting work.

A good friend recently finished his PhD and “alt-aced” his way into a professional role at a university. Cameron enjoyed his PhD research but also enjoyed spending a chunk of his PhD candidature as an intern in a role supporting PhD students. He helped other PhD students through their programs by helping provide training workshops, one-on-one consultations and working to develop policy for higher degree research students.

When thesis submission time came around, Cameron was a little a sad about giving up a life of research but the benefits of an alternative academic (alt-ac) career vastly outweighed the benefits of an academic career. There were roles opening up, chances for professional development and promotion, job stability and an opportunity to work in a group with other people.

A research career might prove to be intellectually satisfying, but was guaranteed to be lonely and precarious. Cameron loved universities and research but that didn’t mean he needed to be the one researching. After a few false starts, Cam aced an interview and started a job in research management. He’s now on his way to helping researchers navigate the grant application and management process.

It’s not all rainbows and kittens. For a start, Cam has mentioned that some academics have been pretty rude, perceiving him as stupid because he is in a professional role, not an academic one. But for the most part Cam is happier in a supporting rather than a doing role.

Last year, another friend al-aced. Amy was disappointed with her experience in a research group. Put simply, her group leader was bully and she felt stressed going to work. She loved science but was frustrated with the culture that allowed a bully to succeed. First, she felt pushed onto the outer as a woman of non-English speaking background in a male and Anglophone dominated institution. She also felt that her communication and teamwork skills were not valued, and that this limited the impact of her work.

She left for a government role and is now using her science skills to communicate technical content to policy makers at a regulatory body. She loves it! Her manager is insistent that she keeps her links with academia and encourages her to take time off to organise community events and speak about her transition to a government science role. She sleeps better, eats better and feels good about her work.

Alt-ac careers are beyond our narrow definition of an academic. Alt-acs are still on campus in research offices and student support, in statistical consulting or business management units, or they are public historians, librarians, museum curators or professional writers. They haven’t left academia, so much as transformed it.

Cameron and Amy are just two examples of friends who responded to their discontent of academic work by finding alternatives that require their academic training. These alternatives are not an acknowledgement of personal failure to achieve an academic career, but rather a reaction to academia’s failure to accommodate diverse skills and interests.



2 thoughts on “Going alternative

  1. Nice post!

    I started off academic life as a PhD student in theoretical physics. I loved academia but didn’t love being an academic so went into IT support at a University. This role morphed into what we now call ‘Research Software Engineer’ (see http://www.rse.ac.uk/ for details). I spend my time helping researchers get the best out of their code and it’s wonderful!

    There are many fulfilling roles in academia that are not academic.

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