• Nicole Papaioannou, PhD

Why I Went Alt-Ac

Updated: Aug 18

For the 6th grade yearbook, my classmates and I were asked where we see ourselves in the future. My response was "a fashion designer with a PhD." Basically, I knew from the age of 10-- maybe even earlier-- that I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree.


At 22, I committed to the decision and pursued a PhD in English at St. John's University in Queens, NY. It took me a bit longer than I thought it would, but I completed my PhD in May of 2018.


There were questions after graduation. Did I want to be a professor? Why did I bother with an expensive Masters and PhD only to pursue a career in a somewhat (I'd argue not really) unrelated field? Since I know I have friends in academia who have considered career moves and friends in the private sector who've considered continuing their education, I wanted to share some of my own experiences in hopes that it would help illuminate some pathways.


Let's start with the most popular question first: Do I want to be a college professor?


The short answer is no.


I LOVE teaching. But what I learned from writing my dissertation and being a grad student is that I don't enjoy the hypercompetitive, publish or perish environment of academia, and I don't think I'd ever want to be forced to write, teach, do service, etc. just for tenure and not because I was truly compelled by the belief in my work. Writing my dissertation was not easy for me. I was enthusiastic about the work I was doing, but it was still a challenge to get it all put to paper. That said, I do really enjoy working with students, collaborating with colleagues, and immersing myself in research. I get my fix by mentoring new instructional designers and teaching live online workshops.


Of course, I also think you should never say never.


If you don't want to be a professor or academic administrator, then what good is a PhD, especially in a humanities-based field?


A PhD is an opportunity to develop your expertise and to write and think in ways that the business world doesn't always allow.


It is typically a research-based degree. That means I spent the 7 years of my program immersed in the literature of the field, discussing issues with people also thinking about these issues in deep and meaningful ways. I also performed my own qualitative and quantitative institutional review board approved research. This level of thinking is something you just don't get the opportunity often.


As I studied, I taught undergrads and learned about teaching writing, which is how I developed my own philosophy of education and a management style.


I started my first blog as a result of the work I was doing in grad school, and I got the opportunity to learn from and work alongside some amazing people.


That said, a PhD is a research-based degree. If research doesn't interest you, don't do it. And don't go in thinking you'll become a tenure track professor after because that dream is a reality only for a very small few. Have it as a goal, but have a back up plan.


Do you see any of your research reflected in the work you do now? They seem so different!


Yes! Every day. My dissertation focused on student engagement and transfer of learning, particularly looking at students who decided to move class-assigned writing into other contexts (just because they wanted to, not because it was required). I didn't use the word at the time, but I think it's in many ways about applied learning. It's called "Momentum: Why Students Move Writing Beyond the Curriculum," and it's available via ProQuest if you want to dive deeper.


Anyway, as an Instructional Designer, one of the questions I constantly ask myself is: how do I get students to use what they're learning in this learning experience in other contexts? I am a good instructional designer because I learned to design for writing contexts, learner performance, and different levels of literacy.


What advice do you have for people who want to move away from the academy?


Learn the language of business. The work we do as academics can be repurposed for the private sector, but the ways in which we talk about our work can hinder our ability to reach people outside of academia. Focus on three things:

  • Impact / results

  • Data stories

  • Action plans

And stop poking so many holes! This was a hard habit for me to break, but most people are only looking for you to ask a few big questions, not to constantly critique because "nothing is ever perfect." Perfection is an academic pursuit. In business, we need to get things done, we need to get them done efficiently, and we need to make a profit. We can't wait until things have been analyzed from 500 angles.


I did this a lot in the beginning, and it undermined my ability to lead effectively. It's great for grad class, not great for meetings with the C-suite.







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