In Admin: Four History PhDs Discuss their Alt-­Ac Careers

Lauren Apter Bairnsfather, Pam Lach, Jason Myers, and Anne Mitchell Whisnant, November 2013

In January 2013, at the AHA annual meeting in New Orleans, we four history PhDs working in non-­faculty roles in academic administration-­or "alt-­acs," as recent lingo would have it-­formed a panel as part of a mini-­conference on the Malleable PhD. Like similar panelists at the concurrent MLA convention, we sought to demystify the alt-­ac career track. 

We represent a range of ages and career stages; three of us are employed at the institutions where we completed our PhDs, and one of us earned a master's degree after completing her PhD. We enjoy our work, yet continue to grapple with the uncharted terrain of alternative career paths within the academy. What follows is an abbreviated recap of some insights from our discussion.

The Malleable PhD

The AHA Professional Division will sponsor a second series of sessions to promote broader thinking about careers for history PhDs at the 2014 annual meeting in Washington, DC.

Finding and Loving a Government Job: Part Deux
Friday, January 3, 10:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m., Marriott Wardman Park, Maryland Suite A 

Report on the Current Status of the Mellon-­Funded AHA-­MLA Study: Career Paths for Humanities PhDs 
Friday, January 3, 2:30–4:30 p.m., Marriott Wardman Park, Maryland Suite A 

Getting to the Malleable PhD 
Saturday, January 4, 2:30–4:30 p.m., Marriott Wardman Park, Thurgood Marshall Ballroom South 

Historians and History Museums: An Offsite Workshop at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
Friday, January 3, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. This workshop will take place offsite in the Warner Bros. Theater at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, on Constitution Ave. NW between 12th and 14th St.

On making the transition:

Lauren: After spending five years working in museums in Washington, DC, and Chicago, I went to graduate school to read, research, and write; to gain a deep understanding of specific historical events and processes; and, most importantly, to finish the PhD. Judged by those standards, I was a success. What made the transition difficult was the fact that my program judged success in terms of academic job placement. Nevertheless, I jettisoned an academic career in favor of going to work for a family foundation in a position that drew on my subject matter expertise. I returned to Austin to be an academic assistant to my mentor, and my alt-­ac career was born. After nearly four years as an institutional researcher, manager, and assistant to an associate dean, I am happy to tackle projects that improve the work environment for graduate students, faculty, and staff. 

Jason: My decision not to pursue a full-­time teaching position was easy. I returned from a summer of research in Ireland in 2008 and watched the bottom fall out of the already terrible history job market. When I graduated in 2010 things were not much better. The prospect of adjuncting permanently or ending up somewhere I didn't want to be made me cringe. I wanted a family and a career, but on my terms. I never went on the faculty market and have not regretted it. Instead, I moved to Colorado to be near family and got a job in the Office of Admissions at CU Boulder in January 2011. After almost a year in Boulder I transitioned to a new staff position in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Denver.

For anyone thinking about getting into administration my advice would be to get a job now. Don't worry, you will still be able to finish your dissertation, but acquiring relevant experience will be a terrific boon. I know because this is exactly what I did not do. I focused on finishing my degree, and I entered the job market with a PhD and no experience. Luckily, my uncle, a senior administrator in Colorado, helped me build a network, but not everyone has that luxury. Networking is another must-­do; informational interviews and the Versatile PhD forum are two great ways to do it.

Pam: After several years in a low-­level administrative job after finishing my PhD, I decided to pursue an MS in information science (MSIS) in the hopes of becoming a digital archivist, a profession I'd been curious about since my undergraduate days. Completing a second master's led (through two graduate assistantships) directly to my current job, which combines administrative roles, instruction, project management, and supporting the expansion of digital humanities on campus. The MSIS gave me the credential and experience necessary for my job. But going back to school or pursuing a post-­graduate certificate after the PhD is not the only way to move into administration. Work and volunteer experiences, along with the networks they build, can be just as valuable. 

Anne: I agree completely that networking and building allied skills are both extremely important. I got my first job (as a program administrator in Duke's humanities institute) through a friend I met at a women's book group connected to my sons' preschool.  The administrative skills I had at that time came from chairing a preschool board.  Four years later, with real university work experience under my belt, moving from that first job to my present one, directing the UNC Office of Faculty Governance, was far easier.

On using historians' skills in our work, and keeping up with our history-­related teaching, research, and writing:

Pam: I use my historian skills daily, from analytical and critical thinking to effective communication. Since my job blends administrative and academic responsibilities, I apply all the tools of the discipline but in different contexts and domains: teaching within and beyond the classroom, engaging in scholarly projects, publishing, grant writing, and serving on committees. My work on the Digital Innovation Lab's public digital history projects gives me the opportunity to think historically in the context of the new skills and methodologies I have acquired as an information scientist: information organization, management, collaborative work, knowledge of technology, and information visualization, to name a few.

Anne: For me, the keys to functioning as a scholar off the faculty track have been my supervisor's support, a flexible schedule, and my ability to secure secondary faculty appointments (and thus a "scholarly identity") in the history and American studies departments.  With these appointments, I teach one course a year (paid as an overload), and get support to attend at least two history conferences annually. The adjunct faculty positions also allowed me to secure grant funding for my course and a major digital history project I've co-­developed with the UNC Libraries. Since 2006, I've published a book, coauthored three major history studies for the National Park Service (NPS), and traveled extensively to speak about my work. The most recent NPS study has just won a major national award.  However, these scholarly accomplishments do not count in any specific way in the annual evaluation of my job performance, which is frustrating.

Jason: Some may be concerned that moving to administration is the death knell of your academic career. While it may take more structure and discipline to get your work done, and funding opportunities may not be as readily available, it is possible. I have published a monograph based on my dissertation, and have several other projects completed or in the works that keep me engaged in the discipline, including a conference presentation this past spring. I would still like to teach a course on occasion, but this is not a major priority.

Challenges we've encountered:

Lauren: The first major challenge of taking a staff position at my alma mater (BA and PhD) was feeling that I needed to justify my choices to people I knew around campus. I also had to prove to coworkers that I am a team player. Like Anne, I found my supervisor's support invaluable.  She has been an ally in changing not only how our office views the role of staff members with PhDs but also how our graduate programs respond to students who leave academia. My main challenge now is figuring out where I might go from here. For those of us with unusual career paths, there is not always a clear progression.

Anne: Lauren's comments resonate with me.  At age 46, with a decade of experience in academic administration and a substantial scholarly record, I find that the question of the "next step" looms large. If I were in a tenured faculty position, "going into administration" might be a logical move, but there is really no path from administration to the faculty.  Meanwhile, most high-­level academic administrative posts seem reserved for people who rose through the faculty.  Therefore, although my midcareer portfolio looks like that of many faculty members, and although I am well-­prepared for an upper-­level administrative position, structural factors in the university leave me uncertain about where I might go next.

Whether we still think of ourselves as historians:

Jason: My answer to that is a resounding, "Yes!"Pam: I'm not sure I think of myself as a practicing historian. I have not, and have no interest in, transforming my dissertation into a book. And yet, I continue to conduct historically inflected work in my job, and I believe I will always think and see the world as a historian does, if with a slightly refocused perspective.

Lauren: My main work responsibilities are research and analysis, and I approach my job in administration as a historian does, complete with the need to consult primary sources.

Anne: I definitely do, and am glad to have had the freedom to pursue my history scholarship within an academic environment, but outside the academic tenure and reward system. I fear that system would have discouraged the public history and innovative digital work that have been the hallmarks of my career so far.  

Concluding thoughts:

Although none of us is certain where our professional paths will lead, we recognize that this predicament is not unique to PhDs who follow an alt-­ac path. With faculty work undergoing enormous shifts, and universities facing myriad pressures, many of the formerly predictable routes are becoming obscured. Even at its best, faculty work, like ours, is a mixed bag of rewards and challenges. A key part of professional success, we recognize, is finding ways to be sure the mix includes most of what is important to each individual-­be it personal, professional, or practical. Our administrative paths have let us do that.

—Lauren Apter Bairnsfather is institutional research analyst for the University of Texas at Austin.

—Pam Lach is the Digital Innovation Lab manager at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

—Jason Myers is faculty and staff support specialist and operations coordinator for the University of Denver.

—Anne Mitchell Whisnant is deputy secretary of the faculty and adjunct associate professor of history and American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.