Thursday, December 11, 2014

Another One Bites the Dust, or, an End of Term #Altac Update

I've got 5.5 working days left in 2014--less, if today is a snow day like it might be. It's hard to believe that another term is over, that I've been working full-time in FGS for nearly a year and a half now. It's very hard to believe how agonized I was about leaving academia, to remember the long, awful time (years, really) of not knowing what I would do with my life post-PhD. It seems silly now, all that agonizing, but it really wasn't. It was a symptom of not knowing who and where would value my graduate training, of not knowing that there were workplaces that could be as, or more, fulfilling than an academic department. I'm learning about more and more places and people that do value what PhDs bring to the workplace every day. And I'm as convinced as ever that leaving academia was exactly the right decision for me, and could be for so many others. I've spoken to quite a few readers over the last couple of months--thank you, you lovely people--who have expressed their appreciation for being able to see what an #altac job, and an #altac life, looks like from the other side, from the inside. I wish I'd had more access to that kind of information and perspective myself, and I thought it might be time for an update. How's this #altac thing going, a year and a half later? What's it like?

It is, in short, pretty great.

Yesterday was a excellent example of my new normal, and pretty representative of why I love it. I woke up, as I do, at 5:15 and worked on my dissertation for a couple of hours. The lack of pressure--not feeling like my entire future rests on this one document--means that I enjoy my writing time most days, and I definitely look forward to it when I wake up in the morning. (Say what? This was definitely not the case when I was writing full time). Yes, writing can still be excruciating, but I know what a bad writing day feels like (oh, do I) and it's been a long time since I've had one as bad as those I had before I took my #altac job. I relish writing as time for creativity and independent work, in contrast to the more collaborative and administrative work I do when I get to the office. And just needing the dissertation to be defendable, not appealing to some mysterious hiring committee, means that I'm taking risks with my writing that feel very right but that I never would have taken had I been taking this dissertation to market. Instead, I'm hoping to publish it as a work of popular literary history, which means that more than three people might actually read it. Huzzah!

After writing comes getting dressed in real clothes, which I still like doing (it helps that I'm a total pencil skirt fetishist and love an excuse to buy beautiful ones and wear them every day), and then about 45 minutes in transit, which I used to read Nigel Slater's delightful The Kitchen Diaries and make grand baking plans for the weekend. The idea of spending at least an hour and a half every day commuting was probably the most worrisome thing to me when I got offered my job, but it's turned out to be no big deal--I go north when most commuters are going south, so the train is usually quiet, and I mostly just read and relax. At the office, I spent most of my day reviewing the final draft applications submitted by our eight Trudeau Foundation Scholarship nominees and compiling their final packages, which is very fulfilling work. I've been coaching and supporting these students since May, and they are, without exception, brilliant, kind, committed, and interesting people who are doing important research, research which I've taught them to write and talk about in ways that are compelling and direct. Working with them is definitely the best part of my job. Of course, I also spent a good part of my day answering email, and then polishing up a PowerPoint presentation about the research being done by our top doctoral students for our annual Scholars' Reception. At lunch, I curled up with a book at the campus bookstore, which is actually a very cozy place to hang out. I love how much time I have to read now, and how I don't feel guilty about reading things that aren't dissertation-related.

In the afternoon, I got to hear the Provost say lovely things about those same top graduate students (things I wrote for her, which is pretty fun), hang out with many of the students I helped win major scholarships this year and last, and spend time outside of the office with my co-workers, all of whom I like rather a lot. At the end of the night, a very senior administrator smuggled me a giant piece of blue cheese from the cheese tray to take home. When I got home, a home that was sparkly clean because I can now afford some help around the house (as Aimee says, we have more money than time) and full of fresh produce (CSA delivery FTW!), I made dinner while my partner finished his last assignment of the term (like me, he works full time and studies part time). After dinner, I continued re-reading Sandra Djwa's biography of P.K. Page--I'm on a big Canadian literary biography kick, which is really driving my writing at the moment--with my cat in my lap, and got so cozy that I fell asleep on the sofa. I didn't think about my day job once.

It was a great day, and I have lots of days like it in my #altac life. Of course, not every day, or even every month, are like this. The fall rush is a real challenge, especially this year when I was developing a dozen Banting postdoc applications and forty Vanier and Trudeau applications simultaneously, while also executing the launch of our Graduate Professional Skills program and coordinating all of our normal scholarship competitions. There were some 18 hours days and many weekends spent working. Sometimes, when 7:30 am rolls around, I do really wish that I could sit and keep writing just a few hours longer. I've figure out how to make time for writing despite the fact that I come home from work mentally wiped out, and don't get home until nearly 7, but I haven't quite figured out where exercise fits into this schedule.

But now that I'm doing most things at work for the second time, my anxiety level is so much lower, as is my understanding of where and how to prioritize. I've found ways to stay engaged with my same academic community, just in a different capacity--I'm still doing the MLA, Congress, and DHSI this year, but I'm now speaking about graduate professional development and careers instead of poetry, and I'm teaching, instead of training, at DHSI. Even better, work pays for me to do some of this. I've got a bunch of exciting research projects and conferences in the pipeline, and opportunities for more come my way as part of my day job. I get paid well, I have great benefits, and I live exactly where I want to. I am convinced that no tenure-track job would give me all of this, and when a position in my field, in my current department, came up earlier this term, I didn't feel even an ounce of envy. It also makes me really happy to talk to others, who I hear from more and more often, who have taken #altac or #postac jobs and are totally contented with their decision. Many of them, including me, have written transition stories for From PhD to Life, which I encourage you to check out if you haven't already. Where are All the PhDs? is another great resource.

So, that's me, reporting from the #altac. Another term bites the dust, and I'm off for three weeks to do all the holiday things and hang out with Erin in Vancouver at the MLA. Wishing you all a restorative winter break and the happiest of new years. See you in 2015!


  1. I really enjoyed this piece! But I think it's curious that many #altac folks use the term "leaving academia" to talk about their work. You didn't leave academia/higher ed -- you're just not faculty. It sounds, in fact, as if what you do is actually quite academic and that you are still very engaged as a scholar. So why do we say we've left? When really we haven't, we're just doing something other than a traditional faculty path.

  2. HI Brenda -- "altac" stands for "alternate academic" in the original use of the term. So this is exactly the kind of position captured by the term -- in the academy but not a professorship. The term is now being used pretty loosely to mean "anything but a professorship" whereas myself I like the term altac to mean in the university and postac to mean outside it.

    1. Hi Aimée -- I know how "altac" is usually defined -- what I was reacting to was Melissa's assertion in the first paragraph that she agonized over "leaving academia." And I've heard plenty of other altac folks talk about their work as non-academic even though they are working within a university doing academic-type work. That's what I find curious.


Drop us a line! We're angling for vigorous commentary, but we will cut loose any vitriol dragged up from the depths.