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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The ‘altac’ track seen as worthy choice for many Ph.D.s

A search for the hashtag #altac on Twitter yields articles, conversations, job opportunities and blog posts from and about the “alternative academic” community.

The colloquial term “altac” refers to the growing group of Ph.D.-prepared scholars who work in non-faculty professional positions in higher education, not always in their primary fields of study.

The emergence of “altac” comes on the heels of changes in the job market where fewer tenure-track jobs has led many Ph.D.s to find employment in other types of work. After about 2005, non-faculty Ph.D.s working within universities began to recognize that resources on “non-academic” careers did not fully address the challenges of working in an environment where most Ph.D. scholars are assumed to be faculty members.

The “altac” conversation is helping carve out a new professional identity for those who have chosen alternative career paths without leaving the academy.

“Self-image and a sense of purpose can be shaped by having a name and being part of a community,” said Anne Whisnant, deputy secretary of the faculty. She is mobilizing those at Carolina who have advanced degrees and often continue to do research and teach while serving in Carolina’s centers, institutes and administrative offices.

“This hashtag became a way for people around the country to connect via Twitter and identify relevant resources,” said Whisnant. “But my colleague Donna Bickford and I wondered, ‘Where is the conversation about ‘altacs’ on our campus?’”

Preparing for a broader path

Building on work she and Bickford had done to address that question, Whisnant recently invited Carolina “altacs” to meet for coffee, and a small group has met three times since last fall.  

“Donna and I thought there should be a place for people to talk about our positions, the obstacles we see, and how we might address them,” she said. “Our larger question is: How can the University better recognize and leverage the skills of our non-faculty scholars? How might UNC lead in creating supportive policies for ‘altacs’?”

A public history and digital humanities scholar, Whisnant holds adjunct faculty positions in history and American studies alongside her administrative position with the Faculty Council and other faculty governance committees. She has published a book, co-written historical studies for the National Park Service and co-created the digital history project “Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway.” A portfolio career, she calls it.

Whisnant was expecting a child when she finished her Ph.D. in history. With her husband a tenured faculty member at Carolina, traveling across the country to search for a tenure-track position wasn’t an option. So she became a program director at Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute. Her experiences in higher education, research and working with faculty served the position well but isolated her from the historical research she loved.

Employed at Carolina since 2006, Whisnant has found room and support for both.

A wealth of experiences

Bickford spent years getting her Ph.D. in English, then teaching as a fixed-term lecturer in women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island while searching for tenure-track positions.  

“I was one out of 800 people in the country with a Fulbright, but I couldn’t find a tenure-track job,” she said.

Becoming involved with governance issues as a graduate student, as well as serving on committees and contributing to program development as a lecturer, had prepared Bickford for administration, however.  

Since coming to Carolina, she has blended her administrative role with an adjunct faculty appointment in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. After five years as director of the UNC Women’s Center, she is now associate director in the Office for Undergraduate Research.

She recognizes that some graduate students are discouraged from engaging in activities other than scholarship while finishing their degrees.

“No one is saying you need professional development at the expense of your dissertation,” Bickford said. “But it is beneficial to graduate students to build their experiences and be ready to consider alternatives.”

Like Whisnant, Bob Pleasants, UNC’s interpersonal violence prevention coordinator, wanted to remain in the area after he finished his Ph.D. in education. He loved Carolina, where he received all three degrees, and had made his life – and family – here.

Pleasants said not everyone understands that “altac” careers can be a choice. He, Whisnant and Bickford agree that this career path balances love of an academic environment with other key professional and personal needs.

“Some people just don’t know what to make of your Ph.D. if you’re not on research faculty,” Pleasants said.

He runs the HAVEN program, which trains students and staff to be resources for students who experience violence, and secured grant funding to create the One Act bystander education program for violence prevention. He also lectures in the schools of education and public health as well as in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, where he teaches a course on leadership in violence prevention.

“At every campus around the country, universities are struggling to do violence prevention work well,” Pleasants said. “By having a Ph.D. on campus who is familiar with the research, we can not only use best practices, but also create them.”

Whisnant, Bickford and Pleasants agree that “altac” scholars can contribute significantly to the University’s mission.

“It would be great to find even more ways that we could do that,” Whisnant said.