The Road Not (Yet) Taken: On Leaving Academia

Apologies to Robert Frost for being one more twit hijacking his title for my own selfish ends (and maybe more so for managing to conjure - at least in my own head - a link between it and a Sheryl Crow song). But this post has been a long time coming, and it could just as easily be titled "The Ivory Towering Inferno" or "What Color is Your C.V.'s Parachute?" We're equal-opportunity pop-culture offenders here at Curmudgeon laboratories.

Yesterday afternoon, a good friend and colleague who was a couple of years behind me in my grad program, called to talk about what would happen if they left all of this (imagine me throwing out my arms and gesturing to the piles of paper, the shelf not quite secure on the wall, the empty office on a Monday afternoon, the remnants of dry erase marker on my right pinkie...) to go back to the private sector. They're married now, living in a small college town and working in a small department. Their spouse has had no luck finding a job in their field, and they're expecting. Departmental politics - and university politics - are rearing their ugly heads.

They're afraid - afraid of being stuck, of being untenureable, afraid all of this (picture that throwing out of arms again, adding: the low pay, the strange hours, the fears about a parent in the hospital far enough off that getting there isn't quite feasible, etc...) is really all there is. And they, not being a regular reader, were surprised that I was considering the same thing for quite awhile now.

The end of March, you may recall, was when I had decided to set my deadline for whether to think about leaving academia. That deadline is still there, though I've got a couple of things in the air. But odds are that I will test the non-academic waters this year, at least. It's a shame, because I like teaching. And I like my department. And for the most part, I like my students. But as I've started to think about this in terms of a plus/minus sort of situation. The pros:
  • good colleagues in a good program
  • students that don't make me constantly pull my hair out
But the cons:

  • low pay
  • far from friends and family
  • high workload
  • little social or cultural life
  • climate difficulty
My thought has been I could sacrifice some of those things but not all of them. I could do low pay in a place where I had a community, for example, or where I found a cultural life that matched the things I like combined with a lower workload. In a recent job interview, I found myself faced with a combination I'd not really considered: what would I do with a job that had a community for me, had a cultural life, had a lower workload, but might not have paid well or have had a group of colleagues I was sure of? I still don't know the answer to it sadly, though by the virtues of academia, the choice isn't entirely mine to begin with.

If that isn't already enough of a reason to think about taking an off-ramp, someone recently pointed out to me that not only are academics often faced with limited geographic mobility (all those SLACs in the middle of cornfields or, as the catalogs so often put it, "nestled in the foothills/scenic whatnots/backwaters," once they're in a position, they may find themselves faced with limits on how they move within the ranks.

"Most academic job changes are lateral job changes," they said.

Once you're in a 4/4, it's hard to jump to a 2/2. Once you're on the path as a researcher-scholar, becoming a teacher-scholar is a rough transformation. Someone else I read or talked to recently - I can't quite recall - mentioned how they now feel an ethical responsibility to warn prospective grad students about the path they were about to take. Surely somewhere out there, there's a parody of "Pilgrim's Progress" about life beyond grad school. Or maybe it's just culture and society standing in front of us, yelling like Ian McKellan, "YOU...SHALL...NOT...PASS!"

Part of what my friend and I talked about was how to make the leap easier. I've tried to think very carefully about what I'm doing this year to help provide examples of some things that I think might be marketable should I leap from the ivory tower. There are some things I've got control of right now, after all. So what have I tried to do? Well, here's a few things I'm thinking of (though I don't know whether they'll work or not):

  • focus my courses on skills I might want to demonstrate to employers: I tried to think of places where having a Ph.D. might not be cause to lie and to think about what skills they'd want someone to have. Whatever else it is, teaching makes sure you know your stuff in whatever area you're jumping into. Ask yourself who might find someone who knows how to do a specific type of research useful? What else might they like?
  • work on committees that deal with issues that might be of importance outside academia: think only schools are worried about information privacy? or about how best to manage large groups of students? or to get groups of disparate views to agree and take action? Finding a committee that lets you not only participate in an issue that you might tackle outside and taking a leadership role seems to demonstrate skills that are useful in most non-academic settings
  • do service outside the university in areas that I'd like to work in: one specific thing I've done is to begin work editing an electronic journal because while publishing is a logical jump from academia, it seems like it might also be a tough area to break into. But having a bit of experience could help - and having experience with electronic publishing lets you leap into a whole different world because of how vital new tech and training are becoming. This also seems like a good way to network if you're interested in staying in a region but leaving academia.
There are certainly other things worth considering, and I'm sure people will have other things worth considering. We could, if people were so inclined, turn the comments into a moment to talk about specific skills and to brainstorm as a collective where and how those degrees and skills might translate outside. But I'll leave the direction up to all of you (or I'll tackle it in future posts).

What I think matters most is being able to sit down and figure out your priorities - does the job matter or does location or lifestyle or some other thing entirely - so that you can make your decisions with a bit more structure.


5 Responses to “The Road Not (Yet) Taken: On Leaving Academia”
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kermitthefrog said...

Location may end up mattering to me in the job search, so I'm very deliberately collecting evidence that I'd be a good high school teacher or some sort of educational administrator. This includes helping run pedagogy workshops, serving on a committee that organizes guest lectures, teaching a course that includes a broader range of students than 18-22 y.o. undergrads, and (potentially) teaching at a high school age summer program next year.

I've been considering publishing as well, but it seems as though you're right in that publishers look for experience. At the moment, I feel completely unmotivated to take some sort of unpaid internship in a profession I'm not convinced I want to enter in the first place, which would be the simplest option.

March 24, 2008 at 5:27 PM

I've been thinking a lot about your options 2 and 3, since I'm making very serious (mental) gestures towards leaving but am definitely in the swim for another year. I haven't had much luck so far figuring out how to get on interesting university committees. But on #3, since I've been thinking of historic preservation and public history as possible next steps, I'm planning to join the local preservation society in my U town next year. If it all turns out to be way too much local politics and not so much architectural goodness, well, I will have learned something useful!

March 24, 2008 at 7:02 PM
lonna said...

I think this depends a great deal upon your area of expertise. My husband was an assistant professor at a R1 school in the middle of nowhere Midwest, and I was a spousally-hired post-doc in a different department. After 3 years we realized that there would be no more spousal help for my career and there was nothing for me in the area. We also realized that living in the middle of nowhere was devastating to us. So my husband left academia for industry. But he's a scientist and there were more industry openings for him than there were for me (an experimental psychologist). It was the best thing we every did. We now live outside of NYC, and my husband has a new challenge everyday at his job, and he's still teaching the B.S. level scientists in his lab. I think he felt like he was beating the same dead horse in his research program at the university. I ended up getting a 5/5 teaching position at a nearby community college. I'm not doing research, but I'm helping people understand the importance of social science and I'm helping them get a much needed education. I think location and cultural opportunities matter much more than people want to admit. Probably even more so if you are single. We had a toddler son when we moved and we wanted him to see a much bigger and diverse world than was available to us where we were.

March 25, 2008 at 8:32 AM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

It's interesting how often we think location won't matter. One of the things I've been advising (because I was somewhat advised - mostly by friends) was to try and land in a place that I'd like. Knowing what I do now, that advice means more but is harder to achieve.

Thinking about it, as Thoroughly Educated points out, landing a targeted committee role can be tough at some universities. Here, the surest way to find yourself on a committee is to complain about something loudly somewhere up the chain of command (or in a large forum). It seems like you could target similar things via a form of service or service learning, too.

And Lonna's point about the difficulty or ease some careers have in making the leap is definitely true. Similarly some theoretical approaches are more likely to be able to make the leap. But I think even for those coming from tougher spots, there are ways to make the shift easier.

For myself, I've looked extensively at non-profit and some varieties of civil service, and have been pleasantly surprised that there are ways to make the leap. From a research standpoint, any large company dealing directly with people is likely to, at some point, need someone who can direct that sort of research.

What I'm finding is that the ability to think of creative ways to employ what I know is yielding a few surprising possibilities so far.

March 26, 2008 at 1:57 PM
Professor Zero said...

I really wish I'd allowed myself to think this logically some time ago. That is: I did think this logically, but not out loud, as virtually everyone I knew would have called it "spoiled." It isn't - it's realistic and grown up.

October 14, 2008 at 11:26 PM