Thoughts on making the most of APSA for the alt-ac attendee

26 August 2019, 1300 EDT

Graduation Cap and Diploma on White with Soft Shadow.

C/o Bluestocking, 2008 Uyen Le

APSA is nearly upon us again, and I thought I should write something profession-related as I got back into blogging. My first thought was to make fun of annoying questions, but I already did that (six years ago…but still relevant). And there is a lot of advice floating around for grad students or others on the market. Instead, I thought I’d focus on an area where my experience is more unique: navigating academic conferences while working outside academia (or alt-ac*) and–in my case–trying to get back in.

For just a little context, I am currently in a tenure-track job but had always been on the policy-academia border. I worked in the defense industry in DC before grad school, and continued working part-time after I started (as I attended school in DC). I then switched to the think tank world (working part-time with the Pew Research Center). After graduating, I went on the academic job market but ended up getting policy jobs–first with the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Responses to Terrorism (START) and then full-time with Pew. After a few years out, I decided to try the academic job market again, and got my current job.

During my “alt-ac” time, I still attended both APSA and ISA, although I felt a little out of place. And then there is the diminishing but still present disapproval of “policy track” PhDs. In my first year, someone in my cohort announced that it “wasn’t worth it” to get a PhD if you’re not going to teach. When I was ABD, a new grad student said faculty had recommended they talk to me as someone “kind of on the policy side” (I’m still not sure if that was seen as a positive). And after one of my first job talks, the chair of the Department said “well…that seemed..very policy relevant” (I’m pretty sure that was negative).

Things are changing with great initiatives like Bridging the Gap and APSA’s own efforts, but the impression remains. So I thought I’d pass on some of my reflections from that time.

How can someone not in academia benefit from an academic conference? It may be useful to clarify why those in academia go to conferences. We go to get feedback on our works in progress (and to force ourselves to finish those manuscripts). We go to network. And we go to stay up to date on the latest research.

For alt-ac folks, obviously, one way to make use of academic conferences is to stay prepared for the academic job market (if you’re hoping to get an academic job): the usual job market advice will apply there. But there are a few other ways they’re useful:

  1. Make yourself keep writing academic papers: Even if you don’t want to get back into academia, academic publications can still be useful. They buttress your “brand” as an expert in your area. Your employer may also value them; a consulting firm, for example, can market their well-published experts to clients (although they won’t count for much on your annual evaluations). It’s hard, though, without tenure pressure, to force yourself to do this work; moreover, without academic colleagues it’s tough to get good feedback. Conferences can help a lot here.
  2. Bring in an outside perspective to academic discussions: It can be annoying when someone tries to poke holes in academic studies by claiming “real world” experience. But you can still bring a lot to panel Q&As. Many scholars enjoy hearing how their work can inform policy or advocacy discussions, and most also appreciate constructive feedback on things they may be missing. The usual rules of conference Q&A apply (no 20 minute comments, no [unjustified] angry denunciations, other stuff I’ve discussed), but within those guidelines an alt-ac attendee can be a valued participant.
  3. Bring an academic perspective back to your place of employment: Alt-ac employers’ willingness to send you to an academic conference will vary. Both of my alt-ac jobs were kind of “academia adjacent” so they sent us as long as we were doing work-related presentations. But part of the selling point of PhDs in non-academic jobs is the deep substantive and methodological expertise they bring. Attending an academic conference is a way to get access to the latest empirical studies or methodological advances, and thus ensure your continued value to your employer. You can also “sell” your attendance to the employer as a way to spread the word about the organization (if it’s relevant to academics).

And these are all relevant even if your goal is to eventually get an academic job. Even if the conference papers you present are mostly relevant to your alt-ac job, it keeps your CV going for the academic job market. The outside policy or advocacy perspective you bring to conference discussions can help distinguish you from other applicants (even if, just being honest, some schools will look warily on people who didn’t go right into academic after grad school). And other academics’ interest in alt-ac jobs can actually help you network; I connected with a senior professor who reached out because one of their advisees was interested in a policy job and wanted to chat with me.

Anything you’d add? Feel free to post other thoughts in the comments.

*I’ve seen some discussion on Twitter that people don’t like this term, as it seems to present this path as inferior to academic jobs. I can see that, and am happy to use a different term if there’s a better one.