The Afternoon I Decided to Leave Academia

I remember the day I decided to leave academia with crystal clarity.

It was the end of my third year on the academic job market. I had spent the fall and winter teaching as an adjunct, paying my way to conferences, applying and interviewing for academic jobs, and losing sleep over what might happen if I didn’t land a more secure position.

It was June. I had lined up a few adjunct classes for the Fall, but was hoping to land something more permanent.

That day, I learned that I had come in second for a visiting assistant professorship. It was four courses per semester and it paid $38,000. Not enough, I was told, to really live in the town where the university was located.

If I had landed the job, it would have meant living across the continent from my partner. He had accepted a dream consulting job in Washington, D.C.

And I had come in second.

I walked down the road a few blocks to where one of my faculty mentors lived. I told her my disappointing news. With encouragement, she said, “but you were so close!”

But close to what?

That afternoon, this dream job I had been pursuing for my entire adult life suddenly looked more like a disappointing nightmare. Rather than providing me with secure pay, meaningful work, and the life of the mind, academia had delivered underemployment, stress, depression, and anxiety.

I returned home and called my best friend, Harry.

“I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.” I told him. I felt emotionally depleted, but also liberated by the decision. I had no idea what else I was going to do; I just knew I couldn’t go on being this depressed, feeling hopeless about my future.

Harry understood. He was finishing his PhD in English literature and had struck-out on the job market. Although he’d won a university prize for the best dissertation and had secured a book deal, he couldn’t even land an interview.

The academic job market had collapsed in 2008, had upended all of our planning, and ended our dreams.

I had wanted to be a professor from my sophomore year of university. I wanted the life of the mind, to teach and study history, and to be surrounded with people who were creative, innovative, and passionate about their work. It seemed like a charmed life.

When the job market collapsed, it felt like a bait-and-switch. We had been admitted into our PhD programs because we were promising scholars. Then the jobs disappeared and we were left to figure out what on earth we were going to do with our humanities PhDs.

That Fall, I poured my heart into my teaching, knowing it would probably be my last time in a university classroom teaching history. At the end of my last class, my last semester, I took photos of the empty classroom, cried, and closed the door.

Despite the sadness of letting go of my dream job, I knew I was making the right decision.

The problem was, I had no idea what else I could do, how to begin exploring career options, or applying for non-academic jobs.

In January, I moved to D.C. to join my partner. I was totally lost, lonely, and depressed.

I started my job search asking the question most PhDs ask: what can I do with my degree in this very specific discipline. It turns out, that’s the wrong question to ask. Focusing on subject matter expertise instead of skills traps you into narrow career opportunities.

In D.C., I did informational interviews with people who worked at the archives, but that didn’t align with my interests, and I would probably have needed to earn a library science degree. I already had student loan debt, so taking on more loans for yet another degree seemed like a bad idea.

I started volunteering at an historic house and did an internship at an historical preservation society, hoping to break into historical preservation or public history. But, I quickly realized that those organizations seldom hired historians; they wanted project and program managers, fundraisers, volunteer coordinators, and event planners.

I read job ads, but nothing seemed like an obvious fit.

This all left me even more demoralized and depressed.

After a few months in D.C., I felt like I wasn’t qualified for any job.

If that’s how you feel, I empathize completely.

One day, my partner came home to find me in frustrated tears about my lack of progress on landing a new career.

“I don’t know what I want to do with my life!” I exclaimed.

His advice: “Maren, nobody does. We just say yes to opportunities, and then a new one comes along and you evaluate it and decide if you’ll take that or stick with what you’re already doing.”

That was such a revelation. I had been thinking of “careers” in an out-dated sense: the thing that I was going to do for the rest of my life.

That’s easy to do when you leave academia. You are used to thinking of your career trajectory as graduate student > postdoc > assistant professor > associate professor > full professor > professor emeritus > death.

But that’s not how careers work for most professionals in today’s economy. People apply their education, skills, interests, and talents in a variety of different roles across a wide range of organizations. In fact, most people change jobs every 3 to 5 years, especially at the beginning of their careers

A professional career is not one thing. It’s the sum of all the opportunities we say yes to.

 That has been very true for me.

Becoming an entrepreneur and launching a small start up was not the end result of years of planning. It was the product of a series of events, or opportunities. It also reflects my own interests, values, and skills.

Being the founder of a start-up is not a job for an historian. But it’s a job this historian decided to try.

When I was struggling so much in D.C. to figure out what I wanted to do, I started to conduct research about the career paths of history PhDs. That resulted in a publication in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The editor, Denise, took a chance on an unknown junior scholar who had dug up some interesting research.

From there, the chair of the UNC Chapel Hill history department (my alma mater) hired me to conduct a study of alumni career pathways for our department. And he paid me. He was so impressed by my research that he recommended me to the director of the American Historical Association. I worked on a series of research projects for the AHA. That in turn led to work as a researcher for the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

As I built up my expertise through freelance work and part-time work, I was able to generate more and more opportunities for myself. It wasn’t a career in and off itself, but it was work experience, and it allowed me to become a thought-leader in the field of careers and professional development for PhDs.

This research also helped me realize that my personal struggle to transition from academia into a meaningful full career was not unique. Everyone struggled.

To leave academia is really, really, difficult.  

The PhDs I work with through Beyond the Professoriate are making similar mistakes to the ones I made. When I interview PhDs who now have successful careers, they also highlight how difficult it was to transition, until they learned the formula of a successful job search.

It’s hard, and we need help.

This is what led me to start Beyond the Professoriate. I wanted to teach graduate students and PhDs how to launch successful non-academic job searches because we have so much to offer.

Beyond Prof’s research shows that there are so many ways that PhDs can leverage their education.

Looking back, here’s what I wish someone would have told me about leaving academia

1. You are not your degree.

This is the biggest mistake PhDs make.

In academia, we are conditioned to think of ourselves by our subject matter expertise. The entire institution is structured around departments where everyone teaches and studies a specific discipline.

Asking “what can I do with my degree in this very specific field” is the wrong question because it traps us into a narrow list of career opportunities.

And, your subject matter expertise might not even be the thing you’re most passionate about.

Instead ask yourself why did I earn this degree in the first place. If you say, it’s because I love history, or Shakespeare, dig deeper. Why? What is it about this very niche thing that is satisfying to you?

The truth is, you’re pursuing this discipline not because it is the definition of your interests, but because it allows you to express and explore things that you find intellectually interesting.

Then, ask yourself: what is it that I love about my work? If you say teaching, dig deeper. What is it about your teaching that you love? Is it the opportunity to talk about your subject matter expertise? That’s not teaching, that’s knowledge transfer. Or perhaps you love talking about ideas or facilitating conversations. Maybe you really love curriculum design and development.

My point is, you are not defined by your degree, and what you do next is not limited to your subject matter expertise.

For me, I was interested in history because I’m interested in the power of stories, and the way we use stories to make sense out of our reality. It’s why I studied narratives of sexual danger in the 18th century.

It’s also why I love helping PhDs define and articulate their career stories during their job search.

It’s also why marketing is my favourite part of running a business.

I would never have thought that marketing would have been another subject that I would find as equally fascinating as history.

And guess what? If I’m looking for career opportunities for communicators, story tellers, and marketers, there are numerous opportunities and career pathways. That’s very different than public history, museums, and historic houses.

2. It’s your skills that open doors.

Leaving academia requires us to have a different relationship to our degrees. Rather than seeing the degree as an integral part of our identity, we need to see it as something we accomplished through the application of our skills.

Your expertise and all the things you did while earning your PhD – your course papers, dissertation, publications, courses you designed and taught – those are examples of how you applied your skills, with success, to execute projects.

In your next career, you’ll apply those same skills to conduct new research and deliver new projects.

You are not an historian, or anthropologist, or ecologist. You’re a highly educated professional with a rich set of skills that you applied, with success, for the past number of years.

Now, you will take your education and these skills that you’ve developed and apply them to solve new problems, and overcome new challenges, in a different setting.

You’re taking your PhD with you — but it will be the skills, not the subject matter expertise — that will be of most value to employers.

3. Just get started!

The hardest job to land will be your first job out of academia. Why? Because you’ll lack a lot of the linear work experience employers value in job candidates.

This means you may need to do contract work, part-time, freelance, or entry level positions in order to get your foot in the door.

That’s o.k.

Hiring managers operate on the idea that past behavior is the best prediction of future behavior. If you’ve been successful in a similar role in a different organization, that increases your chances of being hired.

Once you have evidence to show hiring managers, you’ll have greater opportunity to advance in your career.

So, get started. Say yes to interesting opportunities and see where they take you.

Remember, people change jobs every 3 to 5 years, so if you don’t like your first non-academic job, that’s o.k. You can pivot.

But the next time you move, you’ll have work experience in the professional workspace, and it will be easier for you to find new opportunities.

Finally, experiential learning is critical in deciding what jobs, roles, and responsibilities you will find most valuable. You simply can’t know that you’ll love or hate marketing or project management until you’ve given it a shot.

Through non-academic work experience, you’ll learn more about yourself, professional workspaces, the kind of managers you work best with, and the kind of organizations where you’ll thrive.

You don’t have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life, just what you’d like to try next.

4. You can’t do this alone.

 There are so many reasons why networking is critical to career success [links] but you have to build a community of people who can help you.

You’ll have so many questions about your career transition — what entry level positions should you aim for, what do hiring managers value in candidates, what does pay and compensation look like in this field — and so many more.

The best people to answer those questions will be professionals who work in that space. They are your subject matter experts who can give you advice.

Plus, did you know that 80% of jobs are filled through networking, and an estimated 70% of jobs are never posted?

You need a community of professionals who can help you by telling you when jobs come up in their organization.

It’s not uncommon to leave academia and need to build a new professional network from scratch. But we’ve interviewed hundreds of PhDs at Beyond the Professoriate and they were able to build new networks.

Get active on LinkedIn and start connecting with alumni. Join the Beyond the Professoriate LinkedIn group. Reach out to people who work at employers of interest.

Remember: you are employable.

There are so many ways for smart, creative people to build meaningful careers. The skills you’ve developed while earning your PhD are in demand.

The biggest challenge will be to provide those concrete examples of work experience that hiring managers are looking for.

If you’re still in graduate school, or if you have a few months before your current academic contract runs out, get started building those skills.

Take online courses, or freelance, or volunteer. Get creative!

Lots of PhDs leave academia every year and successfully make the transition. There is nothing special about them.

What they do is leverage their skills, cast a wide net for new opportunities, and build a community of professionals who can help them.

You can make it happen for you, too.

L. Maren Wood, PhD is the Founder of Beyond the Professoriate. She earned her PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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