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The #alt-ac Track: Negotiating Your ‘Alternative Academic’ Appointment

collaboration[This is a guest post by Dr. Bethany Nowviskie, Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library. (That's the Scholars' Lab to you and me.) Bethany blogs and can be found on Twitter. She's currently editing an open-access collection of essays by #alt-ac professionals and serving as both associate director of the Scholarly Communication Institute and vice president of the Association for Computers and the Humanities.]

By now, avid ProfHacker readers will have encountered the cipher “#alt-ac:” a neologism and Twitter hashtag that marks conversations about “alternate academic” careers for humanities scholars. Here, “alternate” typically denotes neither adjunct teaching positions nor wholly non-academic (what-color-is-your-parachute, maybe-should-have-gotten-an-MBA) jobs—about which, in comparison, advice is easy to find.

Instead, the #alt-ac label speaks to to a broad set of hybrid, humanities-oriented professions centered in and around the academy, in which there are rich opportunities to put deep—often doctoral-level—training in scholarly disciplines to use. Recent #alt-ac conversation online additionally tends to focus on the digital humanities, a community of practice marrying sophisticated understanding of traditional disciplines with new tools and methods. The digital humanities constitute, in my opinion, the best gig in town—attracting scholars who exhibit restless, interdisciplinary curiosity, mastery of relevant research tools and methods (old and new), and uncommon comfort—in a world that defines expertise like this—with a general assumption that practitioners are jacks-of-all-trades.

If they are to serve us well, academic IT, libraries, publishing, humanities labs and centers, funders and foundations, focused research projects, cultural heritage institutions, and higher ed administration require a healthy influx of people who understand scholarship and teaching from the inside. That our culture for many years has labeled these people “failed academics” is a failure of imagination. Those who gravitate toward #alt-ac positions during or after completing graduate study are often driven to set things in motion in the academic environment, and to set things right. Couple the attractive #alt-ac mission of building systems (social, scholarly, administrative, technical) with an exceptionally sorry academic job market, and it becomes clear that more and more graduate students, post-docs, junior faculty, and underemployed lecturers will be stepping off the straight and narrow path to tenure.

Let’s say that’s you. Much could be written about the decision to shift to the #alt-ac sector, and about the process of seeking and interviewing for a job—but let’s elide all of that. Say you’ve successfully interviewed, and are now in a position to negotiate the terms of the #alt-ac employment you’re being offered at a college or university. (There are, of course, other #alt-ac locales and institutions—and I call on ProfHacker readers to add insights about them in the comments field!)

If this is your first #alt-ac job, you’re likely to feel a little rattled. You’re new to the culture, and still shaking off some of the assumptions that colored your past job searches. Or even if, like me, you never went on the traditional academic market, years of grad school may have taught you some no-longer-relevant things: about your own market value and position in the hierarchy (which is to say, your latitude for action); about what constitutes honorable work; and about the relationship of single, blessed career trajectories to success.

You’ll have to overcome the brainwashing on your own time. I’m only here to tell you how to improve the initial terms of your new job offer. However, I bring up these assumptions because I have both felt them personally and have seen my employees, colleagues, and friends sell themselves short at the #alt-ac negotiating table because of them.

Since I’ve clarified that I’m not your shrink, I should also state that I am not your lawyer. But, as an #alt-ac employee myself and as the director of a department full of them, I have a few insights to share:

Salary

You’re possibly worth more than you think. Job ads often only state that salary will be “commensurate with experience”—and (unlike assistant professorships in humanities disciplines) there’s often no typical starting salary in the varied world of #alt-ac. “Commensurate with experience” puts all the burden on you, to demonstrate that your grasp of the relevant problems and opportunities, and your superior capacity to address them, merit serious money. A research burden is also on your shoulders, because you must not discuss compensation without being informed as to what’s equitable within the institution. Publicly-funded schools and entities typically publish salary figures. If you can’t access that data (but try! search online first, and then call a library reference desk or university-level HR department)—then you must come to the table with information about what people in similar positions are making elsewhere. (This will require some due diligence on geographic variation in cost of living, which can be done with online calculators, so you don’t offer for comparison someone who is making far too much or far too little, relative to your new home town.) And don’t be afraid to ask questions about internal salary equity directly of your HR officer or hiring manager.

Hiring managers are generally motivated to make sure that salaries are internally equitable, so they don’t later have to go through the nightmare process of making adjustments based on grievances. Job searches are also costly endeavors, so it’s in everybody’s interest to make sure you’re accepting a salary that will prevent you from immediately going on the market again. The name of the game here, for you, is getting that initial offer up as high as they’ll push it—because (unlike with teaching faculty appointments) most institutions are bound by internal regulations about allowable annual increases after an initial appointment—or even have established salary “steps” or “bands”—ranges that are hard to break out of, once you’re in one. It could be the case that you are administratively trapped in an inappropriate “pay band,” even if your duties are expanded or you later change positions within the organization. Negotiation leading to your first offer letter with an institution can be your best chance at long-term salary satisfaction.

Most #alt-ac offers are for full-time, 12-month positions, but some—particularly “research assistant professor” gigs, discussed below—can be 9- or 10-month, academic-year offers. Often the ads for jobs like these will stress that summer salary is dependent on teaching and special projects—which is code for: you may be able to pick up an adjunct class or two and, if you help us write successful grants, you might be able to pay yourself in some way from June to August. Think carefully about whether that kind of situation will be possible (and sanity-preserving) for you. You should also look at the description of the regular, “9-month” position, to determine whether you really believe you’ll be able to take 3 months entirely away from the job each year—or whether calling it a 9-month salary is just a way of explaining why it’s 25% less than they wish they could pay.

Finally, if you have another concrete offer, or a counter-offer for staying in an existing #alt-ac position, for goodness’ sake, mention it! I have heard of several instances where prospective employees have balked at stating counter-offers baldly. You can’t feed your family on good taste or a misplaced sense of gentility. Even if you’re not inclined to accept the counter-offer, you can present it for useful comparison in order to open negotiation on issues including—and far beyond!—monetary compensation.

Status

Can you still be on the faculty? Retaining faculty status can have a number of benefits. Some feel strongly that it improves your ability to keep open the option of future tenure-track employment. (I have my doubts: there’s much more permeability between these boundaries than you, in the throes of your initial decision to pursue #alt-ac employment, are likely to suspect—and the arcana of local faculty/staff class distinctions are likely to be opaque to your future hiring committee, anyway.)

Other benefits are of the immediate, HR variety. An #alt-ac position might already be classified as a “research assistant professorship,” a post-doc within a particular school or division, or an appointment as [insert your title here] on what is sometimes called the “general” or “administrative,” or “professional” faculty. Some libraries, for instance, have preserved regular professorial status for professional, credentialed librarians—not all of whom may teach. Others make appointments in the categories of assistant, associate, and full librarian. (I am, for instance, as Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, going up for promotion from Assistant to Associate Librarian next year with a portfolio that looks for all the world like a tenure packet.) Much depends on the vagaries of your institution. Run-of-the-mill, early-career research-associate positions and very high-level administrative appointments alike can fall into categories in which employment policies—like those governing leave time or eligibility for sabbaticals—mirror the policies for teaching faculty.

But what do you do if the job you have been offered is, technically, a staff position even though the search committee made it clear that your scholarly profile was an important factor in the hiring decision? Or if local policies governing non-tenure-track faculty do not afford you some benefits that are important to you? Even if the position was not so advertised, if the institution wants you enough and the financial stars align, you might be able to swing a joint appointment in a relevant academic department, which (depending on local policies) might afford you status and representation through the bodies that govern faculty as well as staff or non-tenure-track employment. Courtesy titles (the ability to list yourself as “Research Assistant Professor of X” in addition to your primary title) are also not out of the realm of possibility at many schools.

Be careful in either case, though, to make sure that the academic department is entirely welcoming of this arrangement. You don’t want the joint appointment if there’s any hint that a begrudging department has been leaned on excessively or sees this as a short-term financial commitment that might be revisited without warning. (The exception here would be if the financial aspects of a shared appointment have been agreed upon, in writing, by both parties and if you have access to that agreement and feel comfortable that it addresses what happens to your position if either group bows out.)

If there are no logistical red flags associated with such a joint appointment, you still might not press for it if you believe the culture in the academic department would be unfriendly. What would the appointment mean in terms of your active participation in teaching? in the committee work of the department? How do they treat their adjuncts? Have they hosted other joint appointments or faculty-level “research positions” in the past? How did things turn out for those people? Would you have desk space? Don’t be greedy here, if you are already being given another office across campus—but a willingness to create a dedicated office, some swing-space, or at least a shared landing-spot for you in the academic department may indicate the degree to which you’d feel welcome in other ways. And even a courtesy title may be a local liability, if you sense your colleagues would be uncourteous about it.

On the other hand, you could also just stuff it, ignore the categories, and accept a staff position—from which you then actively demonstrate to everyone around you that you remain a scholar, with a difference, in your new role. (One major caveat here is that many schools forbid “staff” members, as opposed to faculty—even of the non-tenure track, “general” or “administrative” sort—from serving as sole PI on grants. Although it’s possible to collaborate, as a staff member at places like those, with someone on the faculty and be listed as co-PI, this could be a major emotional and/or practical deal-breaker for you. Ask this question!) In general, however, maintaining your sanity while maintaining your scholarly profile as an “alternative academic” depends to a great degree on the next category.

Research

High on your list of priorities for a new, #alt-ac position may be the ability to keep up with scholarship in your field. This may mean time for revising past work for publication, undertaking new research and writing projects, teaching the occasional course, or simply reading in order to stay current in your discipline. This is strictly evening-and-weekend stuff for some #alt-accers, but many of us have “research time” either written formally into our job descriptions or informally instituted as workplace practice. (In my own shop, it’s a little of both—which works well, because we are able to keep Fridays, as “research days,” free of meetings and other distractions, and I am—as a manager—able to demonstrate both up and down the org chart that we hold ourselves accountable for research time well spent.)

Particularly if this is your first #alt-ac position, I encourage you not to negotiate for and undertake that kind of research time with an eye solely toward “staying marketable” for future tenure-track positions. This way lies madness. Do it instead because you love the content, want to continue to make meaningful contributions, and firmly believe anything you’d do in this vein would add value to the institution that’s hiring you. If it’s just a grind to keep your options open, your work will suffer on both ends and you and your hiring manager will know it. And—to put it in the plainest terms possible—don’t be a jerk. You’re being hired to do an important job, not to cruise while you’re revising your dissertation and waiting for the market to improve. You’ll make the rest of the hard-working #alt-ac crowd look bad.

A better question than, “Will I have time on the job to pursue my own scholarship?” is something on the order of, “What’s my ability, within the position I’m being hired to fill, to shape the mission of the group and bring my own academic research interests to bear?” In other words, does your job description lend itself in any way to your personal research interests? Any answer to this question will be highly revelatory. The most surprising thing you may learn is that the job is less precisely defined than you may expect. In a supportive and decently-resourced environment, this can be good: it means you have latitude to define it yourself, matching your strengths and interests to the needs and goals of your organization and making it up, in the most exciting way, as you go along. (But trust your gut as to whether the job is only superficially vaguely-defined. Ask questions designed to reveal what the institution would consider “success” and—if that turns out to be a fairly precise thing—whether you will have the resources to achieve it.)

If it turns out that your new place of work can’t grant as much regular, on-the-clock research time as you would hope, or that your duties cannot be made to align in obvious ways to your scholarly passions, you may still choose to take the job. Other scholarly benefits accrue almost by default to people who work in colleges and universities. These include free and easy access to primary sources (special collections) and secondary research materials, like databases and journals. Therefore, before you sign on the dotted line, you should ascertain whether your school subscribes to your journals or has other holdings you need—or whether you will have consortial borrowing or interlibrary loan privileges in your new position. Newly-hired teaching faculty often receive a little discretionary budget meant to augment library collections. Is there any chance of something similar in your new position?

Be aware that library collections budgets are suffering everywhere, so—if that’s just not possible for you—you should still ask what your avenue to a subject librarian might be, since these are the people who field general purchase requests. Connecting with your subject librarian is a good idea anyway, because he or she typically circulates news about lectures and events of interest to particular departments. Even if you’re not a member of the department, “your” subject librarian will probably respond very positively to a request that you be kept in the loop.

If you will continue to pursue your own research during work hours or with the use of what could be called substantial university resources, perhaps the most important conversation you can have as you switch to an #alt-ac position has to do with intellectual property and open source—that is, with your ability to assert ownership and/or freely give away the products of your intellectual labor. Policies governing this crucial issue for staff and non-tenure-track faculty generally differ from those that apply to teaching faculty and students. Who owns copyright or the ability to patent your work? Who can sign off on an open-source or Creative Commons license? I have written about these problems elsewhere. “Substantial university resources” is a phrase that’s open to local interpretation, but could mean much less than a gigantic, costly laboratory: it could mean as little as the hourly equivalent of your salary while you’re researching or writing. This one—as a policy matter—is bigger than you, so it will not likely be negotiable as part of your contract, but it is certainly something you and your future supervisor should be aware of and have a strategy for adhering to, turning to your advantage, working around, or challenging—depending on your shared ethical stance.

Perks

If you’ve been a grad student or contingent faculty member before taking your first #alt-ac position, you will likely be delighted at the opportunity to place an equipment order. Yes, your employer is going to provide you with the gadgets—and sometimes even tech books and other goodies—you need to do your job. The first question to ask, is: “What’s in line with what other staff are using?”

Ask this question for two reasons: your grad-school parsimony may drive you (as it did me!) to demand too little. I still recall shamefacedly questioning the IT staffer who suggested I order an extra laptop power-cord for travel and home use about whether the University of Virginia could really afford such extravagance. On the other hand, finding out about the equipment norms among your colleagues will also prevent you from kitting yourself out to an obscene degree—especially if you will be working with staff who, for whatever reason, were not able to make specific equipment requests. Before making a final equipment decision, be sure to find out about the “technology refresh rate” in your organization. In other words, how long will you be living with this stuff? Does your department lease its equipment (which means there will be a predictable turnover rate), or will it be purchased outright? If you are purchasing your desktop computer, a laptop, or any kind of mobile gadget, you may want to ask about extended warranties and whether your department is budgeting for replacements and upgrades. Outright purchasing—especially if future tech budgets aren’t protected from on high (for instance, through dedicated endowments)—also makes buying top-of-the-line models, maxxing out your RAM, and taking other steps toward longer-term satisfaction with your equipment much smarter. Even the shiniest new laptop will be a sorry beast four or five years from now.

Professional development opportunities are another frequent perk of #alt-ac employment. This phrase may ring of job-related seminars (or, worse, “webinars” and “retreats”), but actually often means both attractive internal and external opportunities. Internal programs may include tuition remission to the tune of a course or two per semester—which can, over time, provide you with a free graduate degree: allowing you to complete your PhD, or acquire that second one you need like a hole in the head; or return for a new degree like an LIS or MBA, perhaps unrelated to your original field of study but highly relevant to your new career. Other internal opportunities could include competitively-awarded research grants and sabbaticals. You should also ascertain (again, without raising red flags about your commitment to the job for which you’re being hired!) whether you will be eligible to apply for external grants and fellowships, and whether employees at your institution are granted annual, matter-of-course travel and professional development budgets that they can spend in consultation with a supervisor or at their own discretion. For purposes of comparison, it may be helpful to know that both staff and faculty-status employees at the University of Virginia Library are currently granted $800 annually in travel funds (sometimes supplemented at the department level, and always doubled in the first two years of faculty employment) as well as $2000 per year in tuition funds, which they can spend on UVa classes or certified courses and training programs elsewhere. That said, every school and unit is different, and the most important thing for you in considering and negotiating #alt-ac employment is to ensure that what you’re being offered is equitable locally and not so paltry as to make you miserable.

Teaching: A further perk, for some positions, may be the ability to teach courses. Teaching can happen in a number of ways. One is as a routine part of your job duties, in which case you will likely not be negotiating for extra pay, but may have an opportunity to come to an understanding about how the assignment will be handled—especially if it was not at first evident to your employer that “teaching release” (or on-the-job time granted for course prep and instruction) should be written into your job description or formal, annual goals. If the teaching is to be routinized in an academic department, you may also want to get some aspects of that arrangement in writing. (And see my discussion of “courtesy titles” above.) Finally—especially if you are the first #alt-ac hire in your organization, or the first one to desire a formal teaching partnership with a separate, academic department—you may want to suggest to your new supervisor that a financial arrangement could be made to offset your time. My staff sometimes teach semester-long graduate and undergraduate courses in their academic specialties. A reasonable funding transfer from the department that solicits their services has allowed me to hire graduate student assistants to pick up the resultant slack on our end—with a side benefit of providing those grad students (from the very department that is indirectly funding them!) with valuable methodological training and hands-on experience. Insert “administrative experience,” “project-management experience,” or whatever service your shop provides, and this model may be transferrable.

Teaching could also happen outside the loop, if you are adjuncting for pay, either at another school or within your home institution. (In the latter case, you and the department chair hiring you should be sure to familiarize yourselves with local regulations about overtime assignments or “academic overloads.”) Either at home or elsewhere, if you are being paid money for teaching, beyond your primary salary, you must be scrupulous about your time. Be sure that you and your supervisor agree on how to handle or offset any teaching or holding of office hours during work time—and make sure that you will be able to handle the level of after-hours course prep and grading that you are about to sign up for!

One last word about teaching “off-the-clock.” What you do in your own time is your own business. I have witnessed at least two #alt-ac job negotiations (neither at my own institution) go sour when the potential employee began asking too many questions, too early in the courtship, about on-the-side teaching and research. You do not need to ask your employer’s permission to take a second job, especially if you are confident that it will have no bearing on your ability to meet the responsibilities of your primary position. Many employers are slightly cautious about their #alt-ac hires. Does someone who trained so long to be an academic really want—and understand the demands of—an “alternative” job? If most of your sticking-points seem to be about making the position you have been offered into something more closely resembling a teaching faculty appointment—or if you are suggesting, by sheer dint of energy in questioning, that you will be more engaged in seeking adjunct teaching than in taking care of local bidness—your potential employer may think twice. If an offer has already been made, he or she may even start feeling buyer’s remorse. And that’s no way for you to start a new career.

Assessment and Advice

How will you be evaluated and assessed in your new position? Most institutions have an established, policy-driven practice of holding annual reviews, for which you may be asked to submit a written report of your accomplishments over the course of the year, before sitting down for a heart-to-heart talk with your supervisor. This can also be accompanied by formal goal-setting for the coming year—in which case, next year’s annual review will address the degree to which you met those goals.

Now, that’s the Platonic ideal of the annual review. In practice, assessment and employee evaluation varies widely. Even within a single institution, I have experienced a variety of customs. As a post-doc and, later, member of the research faculty in an academic department, I was frankly not even aware that I was supposed to be undergoing annual reviews. As a librarian and administrator, I both review and am reviewed. You may be inclined to think that benign neglect of the annual review process is just that—benign, a blessed relaxing of the red tape that seems to be threaded around so much of what we do in an academic setting. I advise you to make sure that you are formally assessed by your supervisor on a regular basis, and that you retain an ongoing record of that assessment. I am convinced of the self-interested value of this bureaucratic exercise by the few horror stories I’ve heard: about employees with no ability, in the case of a dispute or questionable termination, to demonstrate that they have been praised for consistent and high-level service to their organizations.

I am often asked about the utility of talking #alt-ac with your dissertation director or academic mentor. As with every aspect of that relationship, your mileage may vary. Many senior professors will be baffled by your questions, having had little experience in the nine-to-five world (even the academic flavor thereof) and none whatsoever with job negotiations for hybrid professionals. Others have been known to become hostile upon realizing that a star student is looking for #alt-ac employment. If either case is true for you (and, hey, do this anyway!), you should focus your attention on your school’s career counseling center or on the services of an #alt-ac friendly director of graduate studies. If those resources aren’t available to you (or again, regardless), you may find that the HR director of the organization hiring you is a more impartial font of counsel than you might suspect. (These people are highly trained to understand good workplace practices, to mediate conversations that promote understanding among supervisors and employees, and to interpret local policy while simultaneously pushing it forward to accommodate changing norms and needs.) All this is not to discourage you from talking with your diss advisor. In the best of situations, an academic mentor may have brilliant advice for you—or, at least, the conversation that you open up will help him or her know how better to respond to the next bright grad student stepping off the tenure track.

I have also been asked if dissertation directors should “go to bat for you,” after you have been made an offer, in helping to articulate your value to the institution. In most cases, the answer is a thousand times no. Your mentor’s direct involvement will make you seem unprofessional and overly-dependent, and effusive letters or phone conversations about the high quality of your scholarship (the only assessment many dissertation directors are qualified to make) may worry your future employers that they are hiring someone unprepared for the “alt” in “#alt-ac.” Scholarly mentors and dissertation directors should never get involved in negotiations after an initial offer has been made (unlike in academic appointments where, I am informed, on some occasions a mentor may work his or her connections with the department that has made an offer, to secure a better package). The time for your advisor to put in a good word is when the hiring committee calls him or her for a reference. Yeah, you’re a grown-up now.

The best advice to be had about #alt-ac careers comes from people who are in them—and believe me, you’ll continue needing guidance well past the job-negotiation phase! Chances are good that your new organization has instituted or toyed with the idea of a new employee mentorship program. Here, again, your HR director will be essential in helping to match you up with someone whose career path is similar to your own. In a university setting, you can broaden your circle and get a quick sense of hot issues for #alt-ac employees by attending the open meetings of your Staff or General Faculty Council, the elected bodies that correspond, for staff members and non-tenure-track faculty, to a typical Faculty Senate. If an officially-acknowledged group does not exist to represent your needs and views, create one! You’ll easily find great models for this at other schools, and you’ll be recognized for your leadership at home.

If you are interested in the digital humanities, you’ll do well to stay connected with the THATCamp movement, mentioned in ProfHacker and the Chronicle numerous times. Regional THATCamps are a great opportunity to connect with fellow #alt-ac professionals, as well as with interesting faculty and graduate students in an egalitarian atmosphere (which—sad to say—you may start noticing and valuing). A similar vibe is to be found at the annual DH conference, which alternates between Europe and North America, and is to be held next year at Stanford University. DH has been a bastion of alternative academic goodness since it was known as ACH/ALLC, a joint conference, beginning in 1989, of two of the three #alt-ac-friendly professional societies that currently sponsor it. One of those societies—the ACH—sponsors a mentorship program that revs up around the annual conference. Watch the Humanist email list for announcements about this opportunity to be connected with experienced (and often quite distinguished) #alt-ac mentors.

For always-on help and advice, take to the Internet. While I am not a member and can’t speak from experience, people I respect have recommended the online community at The Versatile PhD. For me, the most helpful commentary and best connections are centering around the #alt-ac hashtag and its expanded DH community on Twitter. (Look, for instance, at the outpouring of #alt-ac-relevant advice that made it into Brian Croxall’s recent “Open Letter to New Graduate Students.”) And stay tuned for an announcement in ProfHacker about the availability of an online, open-access version of the essay collection mentioned above. It’s the work of dozens of contributors, writing and speaking from a variety of perspectives and in several different formats, in an attempt to reflect on experience, both theorize and pragmatize the issues, and above all offer useful models and sound advice to a coming wave of new colleagues.

Now (in the great ProfHacker tradition) it’s your turn!

Please ask questions—or share your words of wisdom to help new #alt-ac folks make smart employment decisions and negotiate their way into happy-making and productive alternative academic careers.

[Image by Flickr user Orin Zebest; Creative Commons licensed.]

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