Creativity is Required for Alt-Ac Career Planning

I’ve been thinking alot about creativity and career planning this week. Not just in a general sense of thinking outside the box, but more in the sense that career planning requires you to flex and use your creativity. And fortunately, for academics, this is one area in which we all excel.

All Work Requires Creativity

This is easy to forget, especially in today’s society where creativity is associated so strongly with only art. Or more dangerously, that it is an innate characteristic or talent, as if it is limited only to a select, chosen few – brainchilds who work in certain professions. Or that it is limited to only certain industries.

Creativity is a skill. One that anyone can use, that you can strengthen, that all work requires to some degree, and that most academics have in spades.

Most importantly, it’s a skill that’s required for making an alt-ac career trajectory work.

But what I have experienced is that hearing that you need to be creative might scare you. First I’ll break down why, what to do about it, and what role it plays in career planning.

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When Careers Go….Sideways

Sometimes I have a client who is stuck. Stuck in a rut, stuck in a dead-end job, or stuck at the top of a ladder by themselves, with (literally) no backup supporting the ladder.

Today I met with a woman who has what on paper is a highly successful career in her industry. She has been with a company she loves for a long time, and she has had many promotions over time and climbed higher and higher within the organization.

Sometimes, that sounds like what we all want, but my point is that it’s not always what *everyone* wants. She doesn’t want the level of responsibility and pressure she finds herself at now.

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Mentoring Approaches: A Study in Contrasts

I used to work in museums. And there were generally two ways to break into the field. The first was to work an entry-level job and eventually move your way up. You would spend your first couple of years being an assistant to someone, answering phones, stuffing envelopes, and staffing fundraisers, with the idea being that you would already have your foot in the door when a better job came open. The second was to take on a position of high responsibilities in a tiny, understaffed (because underfunded) organization. That’s the route I took.

I worked on a staff of 4, which became a staff of 3, and then 2, and so I was in way over my head. And with nobody to mentor me because again: understaffed and underfunded.

Hopefully times are different now, because even then, in 2006, when I reached out to the larger well-established museum in town practically BEGGING someone to mentor me, I got no reply. At all.

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How to Move Forward When There Is No Up

Let’s take a look at my inbox. A question from a reader is as follows:

My college is – literally – the only higher ed game in town. And so even though I work in a staff job that I generally enjoy, there’s no upward mobility. I’ve been here for 3 years and I’m really ready to take on more challenging assignments. I’m in my early 40s and at a place in my life where I just am not interested in getting another degree (already have 2 Master’s). I’m trying to be patient but I just don’t see it happening. The people who are the next level up from me have been here for at least 8 years. What would you recommend?


I can already hear many of my readers nodding their heads. I know I can relate. In my last organization, I put in 8 years and still wasn’t at the level I wanted to be at. And the people who were in the job title I wanted? They’d been there 10+ years. I had proven my abilities – I had excellent performance reviews and was clearly capable of the next level of responsibilities. There just wasn’t a job above me to be given to me. Ultimately, I wasn’t willing to wait it out yet another couple of years…so I left.

So that would be option one.

Moving on to another organization.

You should do this only after you’ve 1 – made clear your desires to your boss, and 2- made a strong case for your abilities to take on something new. Repeatedly. Because it’s not fair to duck out on a boss / organization if “but I want more challenging work, and I deserve the chance” would be news to them. You need to give them the chance to meet your demands.

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No Time to Network? Send an Email

It’s not just introverts who hate in-person networking. It’s also people who are time-pressed. My workplace is pretty good about having networking events during the day – a first-thing-in-the-morning type thing, or a networking lunch – but let’s face it, most places are not. Most networking events are after-hours, often off site at a bar (which raises its own issues of shutting out people who don’t want to be in that environment). People who have dogs who need to be let out, long commutes, loved ones to go care for, groceries to grab just simply do not have time for this.

But fear not! You can network from behind your keyboard. I’ve written about this a bit before, but today I’ll walk you through a foolproof method for connecting with someone new via email.

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Who to turn to for Career Advice

Even though I don’t work directly in teaching or with students anymore, and my husband has left adjuncting for greener alt-ac pastures, I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking of my life in terms of semesters. So as this fall semester comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on my time in grad school at Northern Arizona University. I was pursuing a Ph.D. in history there until 2006, when I made a deliberate decision to leave academia behind.

Actually, that’s not exactly true. Even while I was in the Ph.D. program, I had already made a decision not to pursue academia. I wanted to go into either academic publishing or museums – something *other* than academia. I was all about the alt-ac before that was even a thing!

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