There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and probably just as many in the academy. There are stories warning you not to go to graduate school, and stories warning you not to pay attention to stories that warn you not to go to graduate school (I like the latter stories better). And there are great stories about people who went to graduate school and chose an alternate career path (dubbed altac).
This is my story.
First things first: This altac career path of mine was not Plan B. Taking a job as a social science librarian as I finished up my dissertation, then staying on for more than 10 years now in various library jobs, was not a fall-back* decision because I didn’t think I could cut it on the tenure-track market. I applied for my original library job because it sounded like interesting work that I might be good at. I have accepted subsequent jobs and promotions within the Stanford Libraries, and am committed to a career in academic libraries, for the same reasons — I think the work is important, interesting, and challenging; and I think I have something to offer.
I came to Stanford to pursue a PhD in Sociology because I didn’t learn everything I wanted to learn in college, or in the 10 years after college. I went to a very good school for my undergraduate education (and paid for it by selling my soul, and many years of my life, to Uncle Sam, but that’s a story for a different blog post), but I was a really crappy student. I needed a B average to keep my scholarship, so I did exactly as much work as I needed to, and not a bit more, to earn that 3.0. Years later I realized that a 3.0 GPA at Duke puts you in the bottom half of your graduating class. Thank god I’m good at standardized tests.
Anyhoo … after doing fairly well at regular Army officer type jobs for 4 years (and helping us win the Cold War), I was fortunate enough to be selected to teach at West Point. The assignment was preceded by an all-expenses paid two-year trip to the University of Maryland for an MA in Sociology. A bit of maturity, a lot of fear, smart and passionate fellow students, and the incredible support and patience of my advisor Mady Segal, combined to ensure that I actually took graduate school seriously. And lo and behold, I liked what I was learning, and I liked the process of learning. It turns out you can learn a whole lot more if you actually go to class and do the reading. Talking to other students and to faculty helps too. I honestly didn’t know that as an undergrad.
Those 2 years at UMd were personally transformative for me. I learned how to think critically, I became a feminist, I started (slooowwwly) questioning my sexuality. And then, just like that, the 2 years were up and off I went to West Point to teach leadership and sociology to future Army officers. Those 3 years at West Point were awesome and awful in approximately equal measure. And when that assignment was done, I knew it was time to get out of the Army and go back to graduate school.
I pursued a PhD in Sociology because I wanted to learn more and grow more and challenge myself intellectually in ways that I had been challenged in my MA program at UMd. I wanted more of that. I had enjoyed the teaching part of the West Point assignment, and thought maybe that’s what I would do when I finished my PhD. Along the way, it became clear that I was actually supposed to want a very serious tenure-track job at a real reasearch university. And while I toyed with that idea from time to time, I never actively pursued it.
Starting in my 2nd year of grad school, I worked part-time in the Stanford Libraries’ Social Science Data and Software (SSDS) group, doing statistical software consulting. I always worked at least 10 hours a week, and when I didn’t have other funding, I worked 20 hours a week, and 40 hours a week during summers. I was a single parent by now, so I was basically working as much as possible, because graduate student stipends are calibrated for very very frugal, single, childless people.
As a grad student in SSDS, my job included individual consulting with students and faculty, teaching workshops, and (as I became more senior), planning and leading our consulting, teaching and outreach services. I had gotten a pretty good taste of leadership as an Army officer, and knew that it was something I liked and was good at. I quickly realized that whatever I did after graduate school, I wanted it to be something that allowed me to leverage my academic training and my leadership skills.
Towards the end of my 4th year of grad school, my dissertation advisor asked me if I wanted her to recommend me for a tenure track job in a top-tier sociology program, at a public university a little south of here. The fact that I had yet to have a serious conversation with her about my plans for going on the job market was probably a pretty good clue to both of us that I was likely not headed in that direction. But I appreciate that she asked, and I figure she must have thought I would be competitive for such a job. Around the same time, one of my colleagues at SSDS asked me if I had considered applying for the social science librarian job that was open right here in the Stanford Libraries. As soon as I realized that the only thing making the tenure track faculty job seem at all appealing was what other people would think, while the content of the work and the people I would work with were what made the library job appealing, the decision was easy. The rest, as they say, is history.
That’s my story. It is likely neither particularly unique, nor especially generalizable. But it is true. And I do know that there are plenty of others for whom an altac career path is not plan B. Add my story to the dataset.
* My fall back job is junior high basketball coach. I did it for 1 season as a high school senior and we won the league championship. So I got that going for me.