With all the talk of alt-academic and post-academic transitions, we thought we’d explore what some of those career shifts look like—especially for adjunct professors who knew they needed to make a change and just had to figure out how. That’s the goal of our “How I Got Out” series. Have a suggestion about who should be featured next? Reach Josh Boldt on Twitter (@josh_boldt). Or join our Flexible Academics group to talk over transition strategies.
Alyson Indrunas, a 40-year-old scholar, used to drive to three different schools each day to teach freshman composition as an adjunct in northern Washington. She and her adjunct colleagues were often referred to as “I-5 flyers,” named after the major interstate near Seattle where several community colleges are concentrated.
The good news for Alyson, back in 2003 when she began teaching as an adjunct, was that work was easy to find. All the community colleges near her were hiring adjuncts to fill their open classes. She had no trouble cobbling together six sections of comp every quarter.
The bad news was those six sections often took place at different schools. And the pay from this huge courseload was barely covering the expenses she and her husband were incurring. Things got even more difficult in 2009 when her husband, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington, lost the funding he was receiving from his program.
Despite Alyson’s exhausting teaching schedule, she continued to apply for tenure-track positions at local community colleges. She was hoping to eventually realize her dream of a full-time position teaching non-traditional students and adult learners. She landed some interviews, and twice was informed that she was the runner-up candidate in the job search. But the full-time position never came.
Alyson knew she needed to make a change. When her husband’s funding dried up, she was teaching six classes per quarter at Everett Community College, yet she was still somehow classified as a “part-time” employee. Things weren’t working, and she was ready to try something new.
A Move Online
Alyson’s plan all along had been to add a Ph.D. to her English studies master’s degree and teach at a college. But over the years, her interests started to shift. For one, she was paying attention to the academic job market and she knew a Ph.D. in English was a risky career move.
But the change she made in 2009 was about more than just getting a job. Over the past few years, Everett Community College had been slowly expanding its online course offerings. Many of the full-timers at the school resisted teaching these new online sections, so Alyson picked them up to supplement her schedule. Turns out, she liked teaching online.
Alyson started noticing that her online classes were filling up with non-traditional students who had no other way to take classes. She recognized that discussion boards were active around the same time each day, which she later learned was nap time for the children of her adult learners. She even had some soldiers who were taking her classes from Afghanistan.
Alyson realized that online learning was the only hope some people had of advancing their education. A formerly silent demographic of students could now take college classes as a result of courses like hers.
This was a particularly sensitive point for Alyson, who is a first-generation college graduate. She saw in her students characteristics that reminded her of her own blue-collar roots. Online education opened doors for working people who were a lot like her own family members.
Alyson combined this personal interest in teaching non-traditional learners with a little job market research, and quickly realized that many postings for college jobs mentioned an interest in people with experience and training in e-learning. She decided her best bet was to return to school and earn a second master’s degree in education, with a focus on e-learning and adult education.
Lucky for Alyson, she lives in a state that makes it easy to go back to school and change careers. Washington has a tuition-exemption program for state employees that allowed her to take eight credits each quarter for free. It’s a great benefit to state and university employees, but sadly, it’s slowly being chipped away with each new state budget.
Even as she worked on her new degree, Alyson continued to teach three or four courses each quarter at Everett Community College. She wanted to keep her foot in the door and stay connected to the field she hoped to enter. During her studies, she won a grant to teach educational technology to other teachers, which solidified her new career choice.
Four years later, she had a second master’s degree and she was on the job market again—this time with a brand new plan.
Her opportunity soon came when an instructional-design position opened at the very college where she was teaching. She got the job. Shortly thereafter, she was promoted to the position she now holds: Director of e-Learning.
A New Career
According to Alyson, teaching online as an adjunct is great experience for someone interested in her new line of work. Her responsibilities as an e-learning director build on the skills she gained as a professor.
An important part of her job is assisting other teachers with technology and with the college’s learning management system. Her experience is crucial here because it helps her relate to the teachers. She knows their day-to-day experiences and frustrations.
“Adjuncts interested in a career in instructional technology should really emphasize their ability to relate to teachers and students,” she points out. “That experience and relatability goes a long way in this job—being able to speak the language of the classroom.”
Another valuable skill Alyson learned as an adjunct is adaptability. She advises any adjunct looking to make a career transition not to underestimate the importance of being flexible in a new career. Remembering her own experiences as an adjunct, she points out that adjuncts are nothing if not adaptable.
“How many times have you accepted a class at the last minute? Walked into a classroom without notes after rushing from another campus? Conducted student conferences on the fly?” she asks. “That’s adaptability, and it’s a great skill to stress in a job interview.”
Finally, Alyson mentions that an adjunct’s willingness to take on huge workloads and push harder than many people also translates well to an administrative position. This strong work ethic came out during her first week on the job, after which her boss reminded her that they didn’t have to do everything during the first month.
“I was so used to pushing myself to squeeze everything in that I just hit the ground running.” As Alyson points out, this is another selling point for someone currently living the adjunct life. Adjuncts are no strangers to hard work.
How She Got the Job
Alyson advises anyone wanting a position like hers to start developing a strong digital footprint. She was a self-professed Twitter skeptic with no Google search results until she took an educational-technology MOOC taught by Alec Couros. From that class, she learned quickly that she needed to start creating an online portfolio of work if she wanted a job in this field.
She created a blog, set up a Twitter account, and started trying to connect with other people in educational technology. It wasn’t long before she was making real connections and learning about the ed-tech space. Now she has her own philosophy for online learning and digital collaboration.
An avid biker, Alyson thinks of online learning as being like a municipal bike-share program, in which one person rides a bike a few blocks and then leaves it for the next person, who rides it a few more blocks and then leaves it for someone else to pick up. Online learning allows for this kind of collaboration on a much greater scale than ever before. We can “share bikes” with people all over the world, which is one of the most exciting things about the job to Alyson. She’s come a long way since her days as a Twitter doubter.
This metaphor struck me as being particularly poignant, especially given the way we’re using this digital space right now to share stories and ideas with each other. I asked Alyson what she hoped other adjuncts might take away from her philosophy and experiences.
She recommended that adjuncts keep a foot in the door while making their career transitions. Her own experience shows that it’s possible to successfully change careers and not give up what you love doing. She referenced the growth of the quit-lit genre and pointed out that sometimes we can actually just change directions without leaving.
“I almost walked away. Hopefully this will help someone else who is thinking about leaving and encourage them to stay.”
Image: Alyson Indrunas backpacking in Washington's Olympic National Park.