Why teaching is not the thing you love
(Notes from Maren)

In my work I talk to a lot of PhDs about their career transition process — what they worry about and what they fear they’re leaving behind. One of the big concerns that comes up often is a fear that they’re leaving behind their students and their love of teaching.

Now, when PhDs tell me they love teaching, I stop them.

Because teaching isn’t the thing you love. It’s a manifestation of your values, interests, and talents.

When you prepare your syllabus, write a lecture, deliver a lecture, or lead a discussion group, you’re engaging in activities that align with your values and interests.

Teaching is just ONE manifestation of that interest.

It’s about more than teaching: find your optimal career pathway instead

And that’s why when we talk about building our “Optimal Career Pathway” at Beyond Prof, we’re talking about digging deeper into what your skills, values, and interests actually are. We have to move ourselves out of the space where we’re currently working so that we can identify what your values or interests are that are being met through teaching.

Because if you assume that what you love is teaching — which is a profession — then the only place where you’ll be happy is in a college classroom.

And while you may really love that space and activity, it’s a costly mistake to assume that it’s the only place where you’ll find similar career satisfaction. (And, please, don’t think of teaching as a calling or vocation. That’s just a lie we tell people to justify paying them terrible wages. Teaching is a job. It’s a profession. And it’s just one place where people with your talents and skills work, I guarantee it.)

It broke my heart to walk away from a college classroom

Let me tell you a personal story.

I’m one of those people who said she loved teaching. And it broke my heart to walk away from a college classroom. But I was so miserable and depressed working as an adjunct. I didn’t see a future for myself in higher education. And so I had decided to walk away – with no plan – from academic teaching.

I remember my last class — after my very last lecture as a history professor, I stood at the front of the classroom and took pictures of the empty space because I knew that was it. And then I cried all the way to my car.

And I really struggled to figure out what else I could do.

But the reason I struggled is because I’d never really thought about what it was that I loved about teaching — or, to rephrase it, I didn’t know what my values and interests were that were satisfied by teaching at the college level.

Over this last summer I worked with a cohort of PhDs exploring their nonacademic career options. And as they each shared their worries and concerns, I heard echoes of my past self. I heard people talk about their subject matter, and how much they loved empowering people with knowledge, or how they could challenge the way people thought about the world. I heard people talk about how much they LOVED curriculum design and development — especially creating a syllabus. And people talked about facilitating discussions and asking questions — getting other people to do the talking.

I loved all these things too.

But here’s the thing — these experiences are not limited to teaching in a college classroom. Other people share our values and interests, but they go into other careers and professions.

For you to be able to find new spaces where you’ll thrive requires you’ll also need to unpack what really energizes you. And you have to disentangle it from the locality of the classroom.

So what happened to my “love of teaching”?

So, how did I eventually find a career that provided me with equal satisfaction to teaching? Well, I think of what I do at Beyond Prof.

First, the work I do sharing resources and content every day is an opportunity for me to mentor and advise others, to share knowledge and tips and strategies. I do that in our podcast and webinars — but now instead of just reaching a few people, I’m reaching thousands of people every year. My impact as a thought leader is much higher than when I was teaching.

Every day, I think about how to share information with people to help them solve problems. Whether it’s working on our SEO strategy for our blogs, email campaigns, marketing support to universities, UX design of our e-learning platform, working on the podcast, or a strategic plan for customer support and engagement — all I’m thinking about is how can I deliver information and resources better, increase engagement, and build relationships with people.

I get to mentor and advise team members, too. As the head of a company, I find ways to identify the talents of my team members, find opportunities for them to grow and shine, and give them feedback on their work. The nice thing is that instead of a power imbalance that I had with students, I’m now working with colleagues, advisors, and team members.

And it’s so fun.

Our team works hard and we find a lot of meaning in knowing that when the solutions we create at Beyond Prof work, we change lives. We reach more people with our resources and programming, we create more jobs for people, and we make a small dent in helping to change the landscape of academia.

Disassemble what you love about “teaching”

The nice thing about getting outside of the classroom is that it allows you to disassemble teaching into its components. Here’s my check list for instance:

  • Mentor and advising: I still do that, just in different ways.
  • Strategic thinking and geeking out on a subject I’m passionate about: do that every day with my team.
  • Empowering people with information that can change their lives: yup, check.
  • Knowledge transfer and thought leadership: love how I get to work on that now.

Plus, I get to collaborate with colleagues instead of focusing on students. And I’m working to solve pressing problems. So, the work I’m doing now is actually more exciting to me, plus it still provides me with the same satisfaction I got from teaching.

But the other thing I learned is that there are core components of teaching that I don’t love. I’ve hired teaching and learning specialists to help me turn my research into curriculum. While I can do it, developing and designing curriculum is not my passion. So, in lots of ways, I don’t actually love teaching. I loved parts of it, but critical components — nope, not me.

And that’s what so awesome about leaving academia and exploring careers beyond the ivory tower.

You can unpack these different components of what you do and identify what it is you really love about teaching and research — then find new, exciting spaces where you can have similar career satisfaction.

If you’re one of those people who are staying in academia because you love teaching, or your subject matter expertise, or research, you’ve mistaken what you do in academia for your interests.

Instead, you have passions and interests that are being met — at least in part — by your academic work.

That’s why at Beyond Prof we have people spend so much time in the Discovery stage of their job search. It’s the time when you need to reflect on who you are, what you do, and what you love, so you can dislodge yourself from your academic career and find career satisfaction elsewhere.

So here’s what to do next if you’re stuck

  1. As you’re teaching this fall and winter — if you say you love teaching and that’s what’s keeping you in academia — it’s time to dig into what your true interests are, and how teaching is but one space where you have that satisfaction.
  2. As you network and talk with people about their careers — ask them what they find energizing about their work — and see where people with your interests find career satisfaction.

It’s often a lack of imagination that keeps us from exploring career options — we can’t imagine what work is like in other spaces, so we default to what we know (academia).

But step outside your comfort zone a little, talk to people, explore, BE CURIOUS.

And I guarantee that you’ll be able to find similar career satisfaction in other spaces, and other ways to “teach” — whatever that means to you.

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