Intentional Alts

Often, pursuing an alternative academic position falls outside of the planned career trajectory of a full-time doctoral student, and both students and advisers do not always take steps to prepare themselves or students for alternative academic careers.

This conversation, recorded in the style of Digital Campus and available  as a Scholars' Lab podcast, highlights the paths of Jeremy Boggs and Sheila Brennan. We are two “Intentional Alts,” and at the time of the recording worked together at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. We share our decision-making processes, work and education experiences, and finish by offering suggestions to those considering similar career paths and to graduate program directors confronting the challenges of training students for alternative academic careers.

"Intentional Alts (MP3)


We begin by discussing our decisions to apply only to George Mason University to pursue PhDs in history. This decision has influenced our attitudes and pursuits throughout our graduate and professional careers. Mason’s doctoral program may be young (accepting its first students in Fall 2001), but it was one of the first in the US to offer a minor in history and new media by drawing on the strengths of faculty whose works comprise some of the earliest literature and projects in the specialty of digital history. With this focus in place, and because the MA at Mason has always attracted public historians and cultural heritage professionals, the program and its faculty are very supportive of alternative academic pursuits.

GMU’s public history focus and new media minor attracted Brennan, who was working full-time as the Director of Education and Public Programs at the US Navy Museum in Washington, DC when she began the program. She planned to continue working in the museum field after completing her PhD. At the time she had taught herself HTML and began designing simple pages for the museum’s website. A few years later, Brennan took a leap by leaving her museum job and joined the staff at CHNM to assist with grant and technical writing, which led to other opportunities, including managing a major digital collecting project. Additional projects allowed Brennan to do public history work at CHNM through partnerships with museums, libraries, and archives, as well as speak at conferences and collaborate on publications.

Upon arriving at Mason, Boggs was armed with a digital history class from his Virginia Tech MA program, and wanted to pursue a traditional tenure track job. But Mason’s program and his own work experience at the Center for History and New Media changed his mind about what he wanted to do after graduation. Boggs first took a Graduate Research Assistant position at CHNM, where he learned basic web design markup and quickly moved into programming with PHP. He was hired full-time shortly thereafter. This position at CHNM dramatically changed his intended path, creating a desire to maintain an alternative-academic career. Boggs' willingness to learn new skills and to take advantage of opportunities available through Mason and CHNM led him to his current position. He recently began teaching a US history survey, and now teaches digital history courses, while honing his development and design skills. He describes how he enjoys some flexibility by teaching courses that appeal to him, while working on innovative digital scholarship without tenure worries.

We go on to discuss graduate humanities programs and debate the value of disciplinary studies and learning practical skills as preparation for alternative academic work. Both of us advocate strongly for students to learn some practical skills, including setting up blogs, building websites, or using digital tools to assist with research.

One recurring recommendation for PhD students in this conversation is that they need to take responsibility for guiding their education and training, and should work with their professors to pursue alternative academic interests during their graduate years. When students encounter resistance to alternative academic pursuits, Boggs encourages them to seek out others through professional networks, such as the thriving Digital Humanities community on Twitter. Other professional associations, such as the National Council on Public History, American Association of Museums, and American Library Association offer support to budding new professionals seeking positions outside academia.

Additionally, Boggs recommends that full-time PhD’s consider publishing some of their research and in-progress writings or digital project experiments publicly, on a website. In exposing their work, students can more easily connect with fellow grads and with scholars working within and outside of academia.

We both suggest that, to encourage sharing of digital projects and traditional works in the online environment, graduate programs can work to secure free server space for their students if that is not already available. By following the model of institutions like Mary Washington University, which provide WordPress blogs for all students and faculty, some graduate programs could use hosted and supported server space as a way to attract new students. This virtual space can also offer a good place for students to learn how to work collaboratively on a large project. Brennan suggests opportunities through seminars for students to co-author article-length papers or websites.

Finally, in support of students interested in gaining experience working at a museum, archive, or library, Brennan asks program directors to allow them to earn course credit in the same way that internships are counted and structured for many MA programs. We all know that every PhD will not secure a tenure-track job. PhD programs need to be more flexible in the ways they implement requirements so as to provide students with experiences and training that will help them do things in addition to research and teaching.

Humanities doctoral students may not always plan to pursue an alternative academic career upon entering graduate school, but they should be encouraged and supported when they change their minds. This audio file offers the perspectives of one recent PhD and one ABD student who choose not to pursue tenure-track jobs, and who enjoy the intellectual life and challenges they encounter in their alt-ac careers.

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