Reimagining Graduate Assistantships for Alt-Ac Careers

Reimagining Graduate Assistantships for Alt-Ac Careers

Photo credit: Jessica A. Hutchins

By Jessica A. Hutchins

What if universities harnessed the power of their size and the variety of their endeavors to help Ph.D. students gain career experience while still in school?

It is easy for newly minted Ph.D.s, especially those in the Humanities, to feel that they are only qualified to teach; apart from their research, this is the work that they have been doing in grad school. (This may be one of the reasons that so many go either willingly or unwillingly into the adjunct trenches.) Through more varied and tailored assistantships, graduate students would gain exposure to a variety of fulfilling careers as well as hands-on experience, becoming more competitive on the non-academic job market.

In my case, my advisor and department chair expressed support for my alternative career search but they had no resources or guidance to offer. I was in the dark saying yes to every opportunity that came my way in the hope that it would make me more competitive for jobs outside of the academy. I wrote an encyclopedia article, attempted to curate an art exhibit, and took on leadership roles in student groups*. The result was a chaotic CV and an even more chaotic job search.

What if in lieu of a semester or two of teaching, Ph.D. students in the Humanities and other teaching-intensive fields could acquire career skills through other kinds of assistantships? In addition to the missions of teaching and research, universities are sprawling enterprises that curate library and art collections, publish books and journals, and are staffed with experts in business administration, information technology, fundraising, marketing, and many other fields. A graduate student who spends a semester or two working in one of these areas would gain exposure to alternative careers and begin building a competitive resume.

For example, in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fordham University English Professor Leonard Cassuto profiled a unique course of study developed by a then Penn State English Ph.D. student and her advisor that would lead toward a non-academic career in writing. In reading this piece, I was struck by two points in particular: 1) the advisor took on the challenge of helping his student prepare for a career track that he himself was not an expert in and 2) they found ways for the student to get practical experience through assistantships that were not limited to teaching. In short, the advisor and advisee successfully overcame common points of resistance that could have derailed the student.

In this hypothetical world of alt-ac assistantships, graduate students would not stop teaching altogether. In fact, teaching allows grad students to develop transferrable skills in communication, collaboration, and project management (although they often need help articulating these to potential employers). It would simply mean that there would be assistantships available beyond teaching for motivated, alt-ac oriented graduate students to get their feet wet, explore some career options, and develop needed skills and experience to better position themselves on the existing job market.

*A side note about student groups: Many faculty think of student groups and student governance organizations as places to gain useful job skills like teamwork and project management. But the experience gleaned from such groups depends on the content and mission of the groups as well. My leadership experiences primarily consisted of event planning, rather than the writing, publishing, communications, or curatorial work that I imagined myself moving toward after graduation. Student groups have a role to play in graduate professional development, but they are not a replacement for the actual work experience offered by the assistantship.