/Alternative-Academic Vs. Tenure-Track Careers

Alternative-Academic Vs. Tenure-Track Careers

Blog: Learning Innovation

Performance review season has rolled around once again at my institution. Participating in this process has caused me to reflect on alternative-academics' career paths (alt-acs) and how this progression differs from that of a traditional tenure-track academic.

The career progression of a traditional faculty role is both narrow and tightly structured. Faculty careers are built over decades, but they all share three major milestones. The first milestone is securing a tenure-track assistant professor job. This first gate in a traditional academic career is the narrowest. The odds of even getting on the tenure-track vary widely between disciplines. Still, the overall picture is one of severe mismatch between the supply of PhDs and the demand for new assistant professors. 

The second milestone (after 5 to 7 years) is promotion from assistant to associate professor. At most colleges and universities, this promotion also comes with tenure – although again, there is variation based on the local context. 

The final and last academic promotion for a professor is elevation to full professor, which again varies widely by institution. There may be other jobs that professors may take, such as department chair or associate dean. And some professors will move to permanent academic leadership roles (deans, provosts, presidents, etc.). Still, the overall map of a traditional faculty career is well marked. (If treacherous).

The career path of alternative-academic is less defined than their faculty counterparts. Alt-acs lack the clear milestones the define a tenure-track academic career. Nor is there an established rhythm or tempo to an alt-ac career. Nothing comparable to a tenure-clock. No up or out.

There seem to be lots of alt-acs with some variant of "director" in their title nowadays. But the path for internal institutional promotion for alternative-academics can best be described as opaque, and for many, non-existent. Gaining increasingly levels of responsibility and authority for alt-acs often requires moving to a different college or university.  

One way to compare the traditional and alternative-academic path is to look at the factors determining career progression. The table below looks across three dimensions of academic work: education, service, and scholarship.


Tenure-Track Academic




Consulting / Managing


Committee-Work / Advising

Professional Association Contributions


Peer-Reviewed Publishing & External Funding

Professional Presentations / Social Media / Peer-Reviewed Publications

For tenure-track academics, promotion is based on the variable weighting of a professor's three main tasks: research, teaching, and service. (Usually weighted in that order). For alt-acs, the work in the "education" column tends to be with faculty (educational developers) rather than directly with students. (Many alt-acs teach, but teaching is seldom counted in performance reviews or promotion decisions).

Service for faculty tends to mean internal committee work and student advising, where for alt-acs, the analog to service might be contributions to their professional associations. (In a sense, all alt-ac work is "service").

The meaning of scholarship also differs between traditional and alternative-academics. For tenure-track faculty, the scholarship that (mostly) counts is peer-reviewed publications and, in some disciplines, success at securing external research (grant) funding. For alt-acs, scholarship might include contributions to professional associations (giving talks and writing articles), social media activity, and sometimes publishing in academic journals or academic-press books.

The difference between traditional and alternative-academics is that research productivity is essential for faculty careers (particularly at research-intensive institutions), where scholarship is of less (or uncertain) value for alt-acs. Building a national reputation around one's writing may help alt-acs get the next job at another institution. Still, scholarly productivity (however defined) is seldom given much weight in internal non-faculty promotion decisions.

As the number (and proportion) of academics who follow an alternative vs. traditional path grows, will the alt-ac career map begin to come into sharper focus? Might we see a shift where alt-acs have legible career milestones and established gateways, similar to traditional academics' career paths? Or will alt-ac careers continue to be mostly improvisational, with little visibility into next steps?

Will institutional performance review processes evolve to better align with the work (and priorities) of alternative-academics? Currently, alt-acs mostly follow the same review process as all staff (or all professional staff) at the colleges and universities that they work. There is seldom feedback from colleagues at peer institutions regarding the regional or national impact of alt-ac service or scholarship. Little provision is made to include, much less measure and evaluate, the scholarly impact of alt-acs.

Is alt-ac career progression on the radar of university HR departments and the minds of academic leaders?

How have you thought about the progression of your alternative-academic career?

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