11 things you need to know about leaving academia

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

I’ve been working on the Leaving Academia project, on and off, for three years now. And there are 11 things that I absolutely know are true about leaving academia. They are:

1. You can do it. You can leave academia and survive. You can leave academia and THRIVE, in fact.

2. It is incredibly scary. Figuring out what to do in your post-academic life can feel like one giant question mark pressing down on you with a weight similar to that of writing a dissertation; with enough time, though, and enough self-reflection, you will figure out what you want to do.

3. Your whole life won’t come tumbling down into shambles if you leave academia.

4. You have tons of options for your post-academic career (even though it may not feel that way), many of which have nothing to do with your area of study, but have everything to do with your core skills (e.g. project management, policy analysis, consulting, organizing).

5. You are not crazy if you want to have a satisfying job in a city you actually like and to have your partner and family living with you and to live near your friends.

6. You might not switch immediately into your dream job right away but you will get to your dream job a hell of a lot more quickly if you bail from academia now rather than never (in fact, in my case, I didn’t want to jump into a challenging dream job; first, I wanted to just take an intellectual break with an easy job that had solid pay and fab benefits). It might take a few years for you to select the organization that you really care about and climb your way into the job of your dreams. However, just because you might start out closer to the bottom than you would like isn’t reason enough to stay in a career stream that might not ever offer you any satisfaction at all.

7. If academia WAS your dream job but you’re tired of living in the adjuncting/contract teaching trenches, there are other options for you to use your passion for teaching/learning, your communications skills, your love of reading and your skills at writing and researching. Remember, people — this is the knowledge and information economy we are living in. A.B.D.’s and Ph.D.’s hold enormous currency in this era.

8. One really big secret: most people outside higher ed don’t give a shit if you leave academia, so don’t bother feeling guilt about leaving. Sure, some people like your grad supervisor or your faculty chair might be disappointed. But are you really going to make yourself responsible for their feelings, while totally denying yours? Come on. Leave that parent-child dynamic back in your family of origin where it belongs.

9. One other really big secret: a lot of people will actually be jealous of you if you leave academia. Sure, their jealousy might come out in the guise of contempt and guilt-making (oooh, if only I could name names and point fingers, here!). But just like the boy who is cruel to the girl he has a crush on, those unhappy people who try to rain on your bold career change have their own problems to sort out. Don’t make their problem your problem.

10. I also want to challenge the idea that once you leave academia, you can never go back. I have heard of a handful of examples of people returning to academia, either decades later as they channel their post-academic professional successes into academic work or as they return simply as adjunct/contract faculty. The sands of academia are shifting and my hunch is that the re-formulation of universities into job farms and knowledge-provision centers, and with the increase of private money (oops, I mean “partnerships”) into universities, that the door does not slam shut as firmly as it used to.

11. The other really, really big secret: You deserve better than the life you may be having and the treatment you may be getting in your grad school career. Grad school and adjunct teaching can suck out your soul; being on the tenure track can be fraught with fear as you wonder if this is what you really want to do, and if you want to do it in the city you’ve ended up in. You don’t have to put up with it any more. You have all the skills and resources you need to plan out a realistic, do-able career change. Just look at some of the people who have done just that: Buffy Sainte-Marie (Ph.D. Fine Art, University of Masschusetts), Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (A.B.D. Finance, University of Alabama), Bust magazine founder Debbie Stoller (Ph.D. English, Yale), and the hottest one of all: the incredible Miuccia Prada has a Ph.D. in political science. Miuccia Prada! If that doesn’t serve as inspiration for becoming satisfied and successful in life beyond academe, I don’t know what does.

Is there anything I’ve missed? What would you like to add to this list?

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