Before Stepping Off the Tenure Track, Here’s What You Should Consider

By Fatimah Williams Castro, Beyond the Tenure Track

I remember when I made the decision to apply to graduate school. I was really excited about the prospect of being able to dig into topics that really interested me and to make a life and career out of my interests. For example, I really wanted to dig deep into the questions of race and political mobilization among black populations in Colombia, South America. I wanted to take an in-depth look at the relationships between constitutional laws recognizing black populations and the diverse lived experiences of blackness in Colombia. I wanted be a professor. I wanted to be paid to read, write, and teach about topics that I was passionate about. What could be better?

Fast-forward six years. I’d had a great run as a graduate student. National fellowships. International conference presentations. Publications in refereed journals. As I prepared to graduate, I started to have doubts, even though I’d just been offered an amazing postdoc. I had a nagging feeling of unease. What if the academic path would not allow me to exercise some of the best parts of my personality and talents—at least not until after tenure—if I could bear it that long?

What if I decided not to pursue an academic career?

I’ll admit, the very thought felt indulgent and selfish. I was the first person in my family to earn a doctorate. I had received fellowships and recognition from organizations that support diverse scholars. I knew that just 4% of all earned doctoral degrees in the nation in my graduation year were conferred to African-American woman (and even fewer to black men). Who exactly did I think I was? People were counting on me—and literally counting me—to help turn the tide on the low numbers of faculty of color and to contribute great scholarship to my field.

Ultimately, I stepped off the tenure track. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have the information or resources to get me to exactly where I needed to be. So, I created them. Those tools led me to a great postacademic job in the nonprofit sector and later to management consulting. Following my goal to see all academics leverage their voice, talent, and skills in careers that are meaningful to them and that offer respectable compensation, I’ve become a speaker and coach to academics. Today, I’ve helped hundreds of graduate students and faculty make a successful transition into professional careers.

I came to understand through my own journey and through working with other academics that deciding to leave the academy comes with the burden of responsibility—to self, family, community, and any programs or groups that may have supported the research or graduate education. Because of this, it’s not an easy decision to make. Only you can determine what’s right for you, but here are five things that you should think about and/or do as you contemplate this decision.

1. What’s going on in your life that is causing you to doubt an academic career?

Let’s face it, you’re an adult with real responsibilities and people you’re accountable to. The birth of a child. A partner’s job relocation. The need to increase your income. An aging parent who requires your assistance. Any of these life events can be important when considering whether or not to remain in an academic career. Before taking the leap, consider if a temporary break might help you reconnect with your work as a scholar. Ask yourself: is your degree and career trajectory still aligned with your interests and career goals?

Doctoral programs span a good portion of our adult lives taking anywhere between 5–10+ years to complete. During this time, your ideas about your preferred lifestyle, career, and way of working may have shifted. Map out your updated career goals, interests, ideal work environment, and lifestyle goals to see if the degree is still a core requirement for getting there. This process is kind of like doing a personal strategic plan.

2. Are you clear about what you would like to do, have, or be—for yourself and for those around you? What do you want present in the next stage of your life? In how you use your time, in your personal relationships, in your daily routine, and in your work environment?

It’s okay if you don’t have all of the details for your dream career, job, or life. Just jot down as much as you know right now. When you can articulate your vision to others, it allows them to rally to support you. It also allows information and resources to come your way, while opening opportunities that you otherwise wouldn’t know about if you kept silent. Mentors, peers, and a career coach can help to sharpen your vision once they know what you want.

3. Get information and take advantage of resources in support of your goal.

This is the fun part. Exploration. Get as much information as you can about your interests outside of the academy. Conduct informational interviews, and attend professional events in your area or events around your interests that have nothing to do with research and teaching. Talk with a friends, family members, and career coach who can help you consider career options and industries that you may not even be aware of. There are no shortcuts to getting to a new career, but at least you’re working toward a goal and vision that you can own, rather than one that was handed to you as default because supposedly “people with a degree in __________ (fill in your discipline) do this ___________ (fill in the career)” or “people your age do that__________(fill in the career)”—or any other standard line you’ll hear.

4. Be open to careers with similar features or characteristics.

There may be activities that you have yet to learn about or to consider that mirror aspects of your vision. I had a client who enjoyed her doctoral research in history, but she expressed that she really loved mentoring students of color and students from underrepresented groups. Since her primary aim was to work with students more than it was to do research, I suggested that she seek out opportunities that allowed her to do that mentoring and program development for students. There are great career paths available in college preparatory organizations and higher education administration for someone with her interests. Sometimes the path we want only takes shape as we pursue it, as much as we know of it at the time.

One way to get in touch with careers that are in your interest area is to consider the ecosystem of your interests. Take stock of the organizations, programs, or funding streams that exist to address your areas of concern. Tracking down these will help you see how different industries and professions approach these topics or challenges.

5. Take the sting out of failure.

Ask yourself these questions: What does it mean to fail? What would it look like if I failed? How would I move forward if this endeavor “failed”? By the time many grad students and faculty reach me for coaching, they feel like they’ve given up on academy and on themselves. Some are working through deep feelings of shame and rejection, and the feeling that they haven’t been successful in their careers. Some were not awarded tenure as they expected, while others have made the choice that their relationship with academia needed to end. No matter the impetus for change, they all share a lingering sense of loss and failure.

Asking the questions above help you to identify what failure is and isn’t. You may find that failure is not as overwhelming as it appears to be. There is always a next step and a second avenue if the original idea does not come to pass as you had hoped.

Once you’ve considered these five things, it’s time to create a plan. Get my FREE guide, “30 Strategies to Launch Your Nonacademic Career Transition” to help you do just that. Find out the most common assumptions and missteps that academics make when leaving the academy, so you won’t have to stumble as I did to find your new career path. With the right support, you can find a meaningful career outside of the academy should you choose to do so.

Fatimah Williams Castro is a career transition and professional development coach to academics. She blogs weekly at Beyond the Tenure Track, where you can also find her downloadable guide “30 Strategies to Launch Your Nonacademic Career Transition.” Fatimah presented at the inaugural Beyond the Professoriate conference in 2014.

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