A tricky alt-ac identity

I listened to an episode of Nerdette, one of my favorite podcasts, on a walk today. I thought this episode would be about climbing Mount Everest. (And it was). But part of the conversation was also about how Melissa Arnot Reid explains her career as a high-altitude climbing guide. Here’s a couple paraphrased excerpts:


Tricia Bobeda: At what point did you realize that you’re so good at an activity that you turned into a career?

Melissa Arnot Reid: I’m think I’m still figuring that out. I always say half in jest that what I’m really good at is walking uphill, slowly, which is not a marketable attribute. But it’s something that I have made into a career. I didn’t know this could be a career. It’s been a surprise to me.


But here’s the part I loved the most, as it REALLY resonated with me:


Tricia Bobeda: And how do you explain at a dinner party what you do as a career?

Melissa Arnot Reid: I struggle with the dinner party question, to this day. I usually say I work at Starbucks. It’s something that is really hard to explain to people and for me, it became a career, I guess, once it was what I was doing to support myself financially. So I used to talk around it.


How do you answer “So what do you do?”

blank-business-card
Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay

I find this “what you do” question so difficult, and I know so many of you do, too.

First, maybe, like me, you don’t work in your academic area. So you might not feel exactly like a “real” geologist, museum professional, or lawyer. And yet, you don’t feel like all that grad school was for naught. So you hear academics introduce themselves as “I’m a neurobiologist” or “I do cybersecurity” and you’re like “oh boy. Okay, I guess I’m an ‘Admissions Officer Sr.’ ”

Then there’s those of us who work a day job, something that may not be all that interesting or noteworthy or tied to your identity. But before you respond to the question with pure honesty (“I just work at Safeway” or whatever), you’re weighing how to explain your true aspirations & potential. After all, your fellow dinner party guests might know someone who knows someone in your field…or have a professional connection for you. This question is so tricky, particularly when your self-esteem has taken a blow and aren’t feeling like crying into your drink that you ‘would like to be’ the attorney you are…but since you can’t find work, you are now doing people’s taxes to make ends meet.

Then there’s many of us who are so-called “slash” workers, someone working multiple simultaneous jobs or careers. Maybe you have a side hustle on top of your “real world job.” Maybe you work at Starbucks because the only gigs available in your field are part-time, grant-funded and could end at any time. Or maybe you’re an adjunct, but because it pays diddly, you’re also working at the grocery store on nights & weekends. So do you respond that you’re a consultant when hardly any money is coming in yet, a lab biologist, a faculty instructor?

There’s workers who are decently content with and proud of the work they do…but their job title is off or dumb or obtuse. Some have it easier than others; when you can just use a lay or working title, it’s easy to say “I’m a grant writer” instead of “I’m a Research Advancement Administrator, Sr.” But when your true career aspirations and aims are only a small portion of what you do, like 10% or less, then saying “I’m a curriculum developer” when you hardly get to build curricula feels…dishonest? Inauthentic? Something.

And finally, there’s the academia problem. If you have your Ph.D. and work in higher ed, you instantly garner the respect that a terminal degree commands. So you can toss that comma Ph.D. into your signature line even when you’re in a staff role. People notice. And faculty are more likely to respect your suggestions when you’re a Ph.D. but working as an instructional designer because you’re someone who “gets” them. In fact, in my department, our email signature allows you to put credentials after your name ONLY when they are terminal degrees. It’s as if nobody gives a bleep if you’re a CPA, PMP, have a Master’s degree, or are all-but-dissertation.

Maybe, someday I’ll just introduce myself as a career coach. But right now, I’m still in the talking around it phase. I’m ABD. Working in a staff job that requires only a Bachelor’s. Working in a field that is (mostly) unrelated to my major and grad work. With this side gig of career coaching. That I started after doing it for free as part of my service to my university. So I am, at times, a training manager (my day job), a career coach, a passionate advocate for lifelong learning, but almost never an anthropologist.

ETA: Turns out I’m not the only one thinking through these issues. I found this Inside Higher Ed article, “Negotiating Our Alt-Ac Professional Identities” by Joshua Kim. Go read it, it’s good!

Close Menu

Looking for a Change?

Join Us

Premium articles, resources, & tips to change the course of your career. 

Subscribe now

Academics at Work respects your privacy and treats your personal information with the utmost care.View our privacy policy here.