What’s in a Name

My organization is growing rapidly. We’re at around 35 people now, with the intent to grow to about 70 by the end of 2018. Every few weeks I take a meeting with the newest member of the team. I tell them about my work, how I envision my work will intersect with theirs and answer any questions they have. Towards the end of the conversation I tell them that when they introduce me to people in a professional capacity, especially anyone in higher education, that I prefer they introduce me as Dr. Dell. I preface it by saying that it will save me from sending an awkward email later on and that while it shouldn’t matter, it does.

It matters to me and it potentially matters to the people to whom I’m being introduced. For the first time I’m working in an organization whose mission isn’t explicitly higher education. While it’s not a flat organization, it’s fairly casual and all of us are are involved in each other’s work – it’s a typical start up. Titles don’t matter a whole lot to us, though we are led by a four star general. He enjoys bud light lime and pizza. As I said, we’re pretty casual.

But how I’m introduced matters to me. It matters because I worked extremely hard over a decade to finish three degrees before I turned 30, an arbitrary goal I was committed to achieving. It matters because before I had collected my dissertation data I replaced my dissertation chair and my entire committee, quit my job, moved 400 miles to a new city where I didn’t know anyone, and started a new job.

It matters because so much of my identity is wrapped up in being an “academic.” Now I am #altac -someone with academic training but with an alternative career. It’s a term I quite enjoy and it resonates with me. There’s also a rich online community that has helped me to process my new identity.

It also has the potential to matter to people I interact with on campuses. While higher ed leadership no longer exclusively comes from the faculty, and hasn’t for some time, having a terminal degree lets people know that I can speak their language. All campuses are unique, but to many it commuicates that I understand some of the challenges campuses face and their organizational structure. This latter part could very well be in my head, but a shared sense of identity is important in higher ed. It’s something we discuss often.

I’ve been asked quite a bit about the term altac. I don’t know it’s origin, but I do know that finding this community has been a great help to me. I went through a period of depression and uncertainty when I was no longer who I thought I was – an academic. Now I understand that there are lots of us out there and they are extremely supportive. To learn more, I encourage you to follow #altac and #withaphd on twitter.

May 2015, officially Dr. Dell

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