/ academia

The other side of the tenure tracks

This is a short presentation I'm giving today at the Society for Music Theory, in a session on career opportunities outside the professorate.

I graduated from Yale with a PhD in music theory in 2011. I landed a tenure-track job before graduation, but it wasn't a healthy place. I loved my students, my department colleagues, and many others, but the administration was toxic. It wasn't a safe institution to be at, for a variety of reasons. And it became clear quickly that tenure there wasn't really tenure. After less than two years at that institution, I realized that I would have to leave.

I was fortunate enough to find a full-time, multi-year, non-tenure-track job at a fairly prestigious institution. But while I loved many aspects of my job there, it wasn't financially sustainable for my growing family. Despite teaching multiple overload courses each year and working various side-hustles, we were having difficulty making ends meet. When my contract was up for renewal, I was on the market ― mostly hoping to get an offer that would lead to a financially sustainable counteroffer so I could stay put. But when all the chips fell, it was clear that while we might be able to swing staying put for another year or two, it wouldn't last. So we decided to take the bird in hand and move our family across the country for the third time to our current home in Virginia.

This tale of financial stress and chronic cross-country moving is increasingly familiar. People always ask if I'm military. Nope. Just a twenty-first-century academic.

Now, I'm still in academia. Kind of. I work as an Instructional Technology Specialist at the University of Mary Washington. Instructional technology is a relatively young profession, but it's growing fast. I haven't crunched the numbers, but there are definitely more openings each year for instructional technologists, instructional designers, and other teaching-with-technology positions than there are positions for music theorists. And the work is really interesting ― and in a field that can be a very comfortable field for someone leaving the faculty track.

Being an instructional technologist means filling a hybrid role. My job involves faculty development ― helping faculty use technology in their teaching, as well as develop a more critical digital pedagogy. I'm also more-or-less the systems administrator for two of our main digital platforms: a large, multisite, legacy blogging platform called UMW Blogs, and a program called Domain of One's Own, which gives every student, staff, and faculty member at UMW a domain and web hosting for free. I coordinate with our hosting company to help keep the system running, and my colleagues and I help faculty use it creatively and critically in their courses. My colleagues and I also do a lot of what we call "ed-tech R&D" ―  testing new apps, devices, platforms, and services that may or may not be helpful for our institution. Several of us in my department have PhDs and get to teach on a limited, but regular, basis, which helps our R&D and our ability to work meaningfully with the other faculty. Our team also administers and offers faculty help with our learning management system, Canvas, supervises student aides, collaborates with faculty, staff, and student tutors on a variety of projects, designs websites, writes, edits, ... Oh, and for the first time since graduate school, I'm paid to do research. And I have a lot of flexibility about what I'm researching and what form that research takes.

In a lot of ways this is my dream job. I've always been "hybrid" and interdisciplinary at heart, and I work with an amazing team. I also get to do a lot of different, interesting things. And because of that, I'm building experiences that could help me in a variety of possible Next Jobs. I could potentially move up the ranks at UMW, which would quickly lead to administration. I could stay in ed-tech, which could mean staying in universities or moving laterally to a company that develops digital technology for education. I could move into software development, web development, systems administration, data science, or social media management. In fact, that was one of the attractive things about this job when I took it. Not only were the job and the people great, but it would let me try out a few different things and lay the groundwork for moving into a non-academic field should I decide that's they way I want to go.

This kind of job is what is often called "alt-ac" (or alternate-academic). It's still in a university setting, but off the faculty track. And while instructional technology jobs are often staff positions, ours at UMW are in a special hybrid category called Administrative/Professional Faculty. Our jobs look a lot like staff when it comes to HR administrivia ― vacation days, hours worked, holidays, job security, etc. ― but we answer to the provost, and only academics sit in positions above us in the university hierarchy, including the president. This setup helps retain a lot of the creativity and flexibility that we crave as (mostly former) academics, while instituting some important checks and balances that keep our jobs manageable.

For example, I have a 12-month salary instead of a 9 month salary. That means I earn more money per year than I ever did as teaching faculty. Ironically, I also get more time off! When I was teaching, I had to take on extra courses ― including summer courses ― to make ends meet. Between those courses, and course prep and grad student training that had to happen outside the 9 months I was officially paid for, I had little time off left. Add to that the unpaid research I was expected to do if I wanted to move up the academic ladder, and I had maybe two weeks off a year. Now, I get two weeks off for winter break and 10 other holidays when the university is closed ― and unlike teaching faculty, we only occasionally work on our days off. Add to that three weeks paid vacation (which increases up to six if I work for the Commonwealth of Virginia long enough) and 8 sick days per year (which roll over each year, and some of which I can use to take care of a sick family member), and I have far more real time off than I ever have. Generally speaking, my evenings and weekends are mine, too. And when things come up that I do need to take care of outside normal work hours, I get comp time to make up for it. Alt-ac life has been much better work-life balance for me.

I mentioned before that there are regularly more jobs open in instructional technology and instructional design than there are in music theory. While I don't have hard stats on instructional technology, I do have stats on music theory, which I published on my blog one-and-a-half years ago, right around when I took this job. You can read the full post, "So you want to be a music theory professor..." on my site, pushpullfork.com. But here are the highlights:

  • There are roughly less than 30 tenure-track theory-only jobs in Anglo-America each year.
  • The majority of tenure-track jobs go to graduates of just five universities.
  • Not everyone who graduates from those five programs land tenure-track jobs.
  • Most tenure-track jobs don't go to people who just graduated.
  • Few music theorists get to choose where they live.

This is a scary situation. But it's not all dark. As I wrote in that blog post,

We tend to think of getting a PhD in a field, but not landing a tenure-track gig in that field, as a failure. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are numerous fiscal and political factors that have led to an increasing number of those scenarios in the past few years. It's not true that "all good people get jobs" anymore — if it ever was. Not getting a tenure-track gig doesn't mean you're not "good people." Further, a good PhD program *should *instill skills and modes of thinking that are applicable in a wide range of fields. Finding a job where you make a good living, can choose where you live, and have an appropriate work/life balance is a success, even if the job is outside the field in which you specialized in grad school.

If I can leave you with one important takeaway today, it's this:

Music theorists with PhDs have some incredible, important, in-demand skills to offer outside of music faculty jobs. Bringing those skills to those jobs is a success, not a failure, especially if it helps you improve your or your family's life.

Transferring those skills to other domains can take time and effort. But it's worth it. Even more so if you're still in school and have the opportunity to develop them in parallel. For example, taking your writing and editing skills and applying them in a couple articles as a freelance journalist or technical writer. Taking the math you learn in set theory, group theory, transformation theory and testing it out on non-musical data, perhaps something from data.gov. Taking that ability to explain complex, technical, historical trends to undergraduates and consulting with local businesses on how to more effectively train new workers on proprietary platforms. In most cases, all of this work will help you as a theorist, as you expand the diversity of applications you can put your analytical mind to, and as you learn approaches from other disciplines that can be brought into musical analysis and pedagogy. These are the things I really wished I had done more of during graduate school. I've done them since, and it's opened up many more doors. I only wish those doors were open before those three cross-country moves with multiple children in tow.

Don't get me wrong. A life teaching music can be a wonderful thing. But doing so with a sustainable income while living where we choose, or where is best for our family, just isn't an option for an increasing number of good music theorists, researchers, and pedagogues. But the PhD still has value, and so do we.

In my small discussion group, we'll work on identifying those areas where our skills and interests most overlap with other career paths, and work out some ways to start transferring and building our skills, so we can have the kind of success we've been working towards for years.