I am not very definite about what I want to do when I grow up (and get my PhD) but I'd hate to be thinking about the career I might embrace later as a plan B or a backup plan... it still makes it sound as if the academic tenure track is the Holy Grail that only a Happy Few will reach... but alternate paths are not failures, are they?
(I understand that I am being petty here but I am wondering if there is any resentment under this choice of words, whether for you Bean-mom of for the Mad Hatter. I hope not!)
Why does a it have to be "Plan B"? I think that, in general, one should have a backup plan regardless of whether "Plan A" is to get an academic tenure-track position. So even if your dream is to teach middle school science, which most will agree is not a typical path, you should think about Plan B in case things don't work out. And things might not work out for many, many reasons besides not getting the job. In fact, you might get the job and eventually decide you don't like it. Having thought of other plans will make the transition easier if that happens.
I don't think of Plan A and Plan B as being set in stone. When I was a grad student, getting a tenure-track position was Plan A and everything else was Plan B. But once I decided that that wasn't what I wanted, getting a research position where I could do mostly benchwork became the new Plan A, and working in a biotech start-up, for example, became the new Plan B. Who knows, perhaps someday the biotech start-up will become Plan A. I think having some flexibility in this regard is the key to happiness!
Are alternative paths considered failures? That will depend on who you ask. Obviously, I am not of that opinion, but there are people I know in my field who do think so. Some tenure-track faculty view their own career path as the one everyone else should aspire to, but there are also those in alternative careers who share that opinion. Some of them think that way because they were trained by people who thought that. Some tried for the tenure track, didn't make it, and can't get over their feelings of disappointment and insecurity.
The idea that people might think of me as a failure because I have an alternative position used to bother me quite a bit. But I have since come to a few realizations: (1) I believe I could have gotten other positions, including academic tenure-track positions, if I had decided to go for it, (2) people who know my work or have worked with me respect me as a scientist, and (3) I can earn the respect of those who don't know me by continuing to produce good work. Of course, there will be some people who will always see me as a failure because of my position regardless of my actual scientific performance. There's not much I can do about that and frankly, if I were in a tenure-track position at a state university, those types of people would find me a failure for not being at Harvard! So I'm going to work hard to try to earn people's respect, but I'm not going to let some people's disapproval ruin my life or dictate what I do.
Is there resentment at having my career be labelled "alternative"? The word "alternative" does not bother me. In my experience, the people who are most likely to be bitter and resentful about that word are those who are in alternative positions because they tried and failed on the tenure track. As far as I am concerned, "alternative" is a convenient catch-all term for what I view to be choices that do not receive equal and fair coverage in discussions about career options among academics.
Of course, it would be better if there were no "traditional" or "alternative" career paths...just different career paths. But I think quibbling about semantics is a low-yield and impractical activity. For example, we could call this blog "The Everything-But-Academic-Tenure-Track Scientist" or "The Differently-Traditional Scientist" or all sorts of other names that do not include the word "alternative". I don't believe that that would change the minds of those who think that people with alternative careers are failures. A much more effective way of changing academic culture with regard to career options is to promote open discussion and to encourage people to make career choices based on what they want to do rather than what they think they are expected to do. And that is precisely what I hope this blog will accomplish.