How to deal with the loss of
your academic career

How do you start to think about a career change after you’ve invested so much time in an academic career? How do you deal with the loss of an academic career you’ve always wanted?

First, admit that endings are difficult. It is normal to feel scared and avoid thinking or talking about loss. However, to successfully transition out of academia you’ll have to come to terms with the changes that are inherent to major life transitions. Perhaps you had to say goodbye to colleagues and friends and move across the country. Perhaps you had to reinvent a career for yourself without institutional support.

Whether you’ve left academia voluntarily or not, it is important to take some time to process the changes you are undergoing.

Here are some strategies for navigating the emotional aspects of leaving academia.

Give yourself permission to grieve

Transitions begin with letting go of something you assumed or believed. Perhaps you always pictured yourself as an English professor in a liberal arts college, or saw yourself managing a chemistry lab at an R1 institution. It is normal to feel disappointed, sad, anxious, or even angry if this doesn’t happen.

Endings involve a sort of death, and it is healthy to let yourself feel these emotions.

Take some time to journal or make a list of the activities, things, and people you will miss as you move on in your career. This list will be different for each person, but here are some items that may be on your list.

I will miss:

  • library privileges including access to online journals and interlibrary loan;
  • the engaging discussion of seminars;
  • international travel to academic conferences;
  • campus life;
  • classmates and colleagues;
  • mentors and advisors who have helped you grow professionally.

The exercise of acknowledging the aspects of academia that you loved–and of the experiences and people you cherished–will help you to realize your values and potential future career paths. You may want to consider integrating the values you uncover in your own job search, so keep a running tab!

Find a community of support

A community of support can make life’s challenges more bearable and help you feel less alone. Have a look at the social resources in your life. With whom can you open up about your challenges, dreams, and aspirations?

While your family and friends may not understand exactly what you are experiencing — remember all of those questions regarding your dissertation? — they most likely want to show you their support as best as they can.

You might also consider making trips to a nearby city to visit (non-academic) friends for the weekend if you can. These weekend visits can be welcome distractions and something to look forward to when the uncertainty of an academic career becomes disorienting. Maybe sharing your feelings and grief with these friends can help you not feel judged.

And of course, finding a group of people who are undergoing a similar experience can be particularly uplifting. In the Beyond the Professoriate Community, members share their journeys with each other and learn useful coping tools in the forum, webinars, and open discussions.

Express gratitude

If your next career move takes you to different places and situations, do take time to say goodbye and express your gratitude to those who have made your experience in academia more pleasant. Write cards or notes to your strongest allies. The process of writing can be useful to verbalize your gratitude.

Have coffee or lunch with your mentors, friends, classmates or colleagues, especially those who have supported your work as you are taking your next steps into the professional world. You may be surprised to find that they are curious about your path and considering their own job options.

Make room for new growth by letting go

While endings may be painful, they also symbolize the clearing away of space for new growth.

On one hand, starting a new career can seem frightening–on the other, it can mean new opportunities and the agency to re-frame your experiences. Perhaps the end of one career means an opportunity for you to dive into other interests and professional desires. Or maybe it is the chance to finally live in the location of your choosing, or near family and friends.

Try to find positive aspects of the endings you are facing. Think of some activities that you had to “give up” during your time in academia that you have been dreaming about picking up again? Perhaps you have been wanting to spend more time with family and friends. Or maybe you love winter sports and have been working as a visiting instructor in a small liberal arts college in Oklahoma.

It’s time to re-imagine how your life could be.

Clear away the old habits, attitudes, and outlooks

Our minds are like vessels, and we cannot put new wine in them before clearing them out. This process may sting, as it involves the end of an old life.

In his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges speaks of the five-fold process that marks life’s endings. Major transitions usually include times of:

  1. disengagement – a time of separation from a familiar place in the social order
  2. dismantling – a time of unpacking relationships or identities that you have lost
  3. disidentification – a time to experience not being quite sure of who you are
  4. disenchantment – a time to discover that your world (in this case, your academic world) is no longer real
  5. disorientation – a time of emptiness and confusion

We’ve spoken with many PhDs who have experienced each of these processes as they begin the physical act of moving and clearing out their campus space. The act of sorting, reorganizing, scanning, recycling, and packing papers can be sad, but it can also help you to process the changes happening and make your next steps feel more real.

So if you are in the process of moving on, ask yourself what old habits, attitudes, and outlooks you have that might be preventing you from moving forward towards new growth?

Aim for a true transition, not just a change

Remember that endings also mark the beginning of an inner process of transition. By coming to terms with losing your academic identity, you may discover what does not fit you anymore. You may become a new person–or rediscover a part of you that was lost. You may seek new things from life. This is all okay.

As difficult as it may seem, keep pushing forward and don’t hesitate to seek the support you need.

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