Irony in the Alt-ac Movement
This, or some more or less tragic version of it, is a common story in the academe.
As such, I understand those who seek a PhD with the intention to pursue a career other than as a traditional academic. If only a small fraction of those with the degree land full time faculty positions, while the remainder are left scrounging for part time work, then a reasonable response is to generate alternative career paths for the degree. Less dramatically, some PhD candidates simply discover that the traditional work of an academic or the environment in which it is done does not suit their tastes.
In either case it makes sense that institutions develop programs that facilitate the pursuit of alternative, non-traditional career paths. In this way the degree is not retired and graduates enjoy productive, fulfilling work lives - and love lives.
There is, however, a problem with the alt-ac response. Ironically, the response utterly depends upon the traditional academic career it is meant to avoid and so ultimately reintroduces the very employment perils of the PhD it is meant to avoid.
In no small part, impetus for the alt-ac movement is the crisis in higher education. However any group of post-graduates might feel about what to do with their degree, we have not solved the numerous problems faced by higher education, including, for purposes of this discussion, the academic labour problem.
What someone does with their education is their own business, of course. But also, of course, in the first instance they must get the education. Whether your aim is a traditional academic career or an alternative one, we must first solve the academic labour problem. Without this, all of our choices are limited.
At its core, the alt-ac movement is one that champions choice and must overcome opposition from an entrenched academic culture with expectation and education designed for traditional career paths. Members of the movement must lobby for curriculum, infrastructure and faculty that can support the paths they seek. But like all programs of study at all levels, the current higher education system fails us and cannot hope to meet our needs - traditional or otherwise.
Life is about choice and I made mine. I chose one love over another. Some would say, "So live with it." And I have. At the same time, if life is, as the alt-ac movement insists, also about generating better options from which to choose, then I have done that too.
I have created an alternative model (or "alt-mod") for the provision of higher education that does not rely on technology, increased government funding, philanthropy or scarce institutional resources to correct the academic labour problem - and much else that ails higher education. In fact, I have created two alt-mods. They make it possible to facilitate the work of as many traditional academics as the market demands - including the market for non-traditional academic careers.
I admire those who fight to choose their own path. I hope it is clear that where education and career are concerned the ability to do so requires correction of the academic labour problem. The choice to be a traditional academic is inextricably tied to the choice not to be. None of us can fully enjoy the freedom to choose our path until we address this problem head-on and not merely attempt to sidestep it with alternative careers for the PhD.