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Leaving Academia: Four Questions to Jumpstart Your Transition to a Meaningful Career
This is the first article in my Transitioning PhD Blog Series, written by contributor Jennifer Polk, PhD.
One of the toughest challenges for PhDs seeking work beyond the professoriate is coming to grips psychologically with what can be a major identity change. It’s a transition that dredges up all sorts of thoughts about what it means to be an intellectually engaged citizen of the world.
This is likely because many, if not most, people who earn PhDs—humanities graduates in particular—want academic jobs. One study, for example, found that 86% of humanities doctoral graduates planned to work as professors (p. 20).
We also know that doing a doctoral degree socializes students into academia. Kelly J. Baker, a higher education columnist with a PhD in religion, argues that academia is a “total institution.” It’s part of the logic of the system that graduate students want to secure research positions at universities after they graduate. That intention is baked into their experience. Alternative possibilities fade away or never emerge at all as students immerse themselves in the academic world.
This article aims to help you think through your departure from academia, just like I thought through mine. The rest of the articles in this series will teach you strategies for assessing your skills, crafting compelling job documents, and networking like a pro. But before you can successfully tackle any of these, you might need to clear out some academic cobwebs. They may be entangling you in a limiting, uncritical mindset and keeping you from truly exploring your options and moving forward in your career.
My Post-PhD Career Journey
Several months after my PhD defense and subsequent graduation, I told people (only half-jokingly) that I was “a loser with a PhD.” I had little confidence in my abilities and couldn’t envision a clear professional future. When I spoke with friends about my search for non-academic employment, I didn’t get much support. “Everyone outside academia is dumb,” one of them said. “You won’t be happy outside a university.” I’d said as much myself in years past. I was no longer convinced I was right.
As I contemplated my future, I remember walking along College Street in Toronto, which at the time felt like a completely different environment from the academic one I was accustomed even though it was minutes from campus. Along College Street, I passed the hospital district, the Ontario legislature, additional government buildings, and the city’s most well-known startup incubator. The distance from the main gates of campus to Bay Street, Canada’s answer to Wall Street, is only four blocks, a 10-minute walk.
As I walked, I thought about my belief that working at a university distanced me from capitalism, a system I had critiqued and which influenced my pursuit of an academic career.
The truth, I realized, was that no one is outside the capitalist system. Not faculty members, not nurses or civil servants, not entrepreneurs or bankers. Why did I believe that working as a teaching assistant was somehow morally purer than working within a large corporation? We are all in this together. Most of us—and this I still believe—do what we think is right within the confines of our own world and the limitations of our worldview. Capitalist or not capitalist was a disingenuous, impossible distinction. I was as much in the muck as other people; I was as much able to make things better as others were.
In other words: I wasn’t a “sellout” for contemplating a career that would take me away from the Ivory Tower.
My own career journey after my PhD had me travel through this and other reflections on the nature of work, my own values, and what it means to be a smart, intellectually engaged, curious person in the world. I say this lovingly: I was arrogant.
I was also ignorant. I knew very little about what went on in all those buildings along College Street and beyond. Like many other graduate students who went straight through from high school to PhD with only summer and part-time jobs along the way, I had a lot to learn.
When I started to explore job possibilities in earnest, I was deeply ambivalent about all of them, including academic jobs. I couldn’t clearly envision myself working as a professor; yet, that was what I was meant to do, right? None of the job ads I saw inspired visions of a happy, meaningful professional future. At the same time, I was stumped when it came to imagining non-academic employment. The one line of work I did know—freelancing as a researcher and administrative assistant—thrilled me less and less over time.
I felt guilty and ashamed about my lack of professional progress while I wrestled with uncertainty. I was stuck between the desire to earn money (though I did have savings) and the desire to no longer hate my life. I felt selfish for wanting to stay in Toronto, where I’d lived for nearly eight years. (How dare I put my own desires above . . . what, exactly?) I struggled with conflicting emotions for several months.
Stories from Other Doctoral Degree Holders
As I connected with other doctoral degree holders in the “alternative-academic” community, I learned that my experience was similar to that of many other PhDs. Let me share a few stories.
Fatimah Williams Castro, a PhD in cultural anthropology, was offered a postdoc in a great location. If she took it, it would set her up nicely for a successful academic career. “It was the best scenario for a junior scholar,” she later recalled. Even though the situation seemed ideal, Fatimah felt conflicted.
It was one of the crappiest times in my life. I appeared to be [in] an awesome position, but on the inside I was on the fence about pursuing an academic career. I felt like I was letting down everyone around me. Several members of my cohort wanted academic jobs but still hadn’t gotten offers, and there I was with a postdoc in hand but saying, “thanks, but no thanks.”
Fatimah could see herself having a fulfilling career in academia, but only after the first few years. She knew that she wouldn’t get to express important strengths and interests until close to or after earning tenure. “I felt like something in my soul would die if I had to wait that long to express the full range of my gifts and talents.” She turned down the offer.
One of my former clients, Jessica B., was an adjunct instructor at a college in a small US town. She had steady employment, but the meager pay and her own growing dissatisfaction in the work itself were making her deeply unhappy. “I was bonded by guilt to my academic mentors,” she told me. Jessica felt strongly committed to living up to their career desires for her, and experienced guilt when she contemplated veering off that path.
Over time, Jessica embraced a new vision for her future. She reflected on what was important to her, what sorts of work and working environments suited her best, and researched possibilities for employment. Importantly, Jessica realized that her mentors wanted what was best for her, but that didn’t mean they knew what that was. Her career as an adjunct professor was keeping her from crafting a meaningful life for herself.
Kimberley Yates has a PhD in English from the University of Toronto. She moved into university administration after working as a sessional instructor. “I would have thought of my work as an administrator as a ‘loser-secretarial’ job when I was a grad student,” Kim later reflected. “It took me a while to shake the sense that a staff job is a poor consolation prize for failed academics.” Instead, she discovered that “university hierarchies are structural arrangements, rather than Platonic realities. The reality is richer, more challenging, more complicated, and much more satisfying.” She truly loves her job and is confident that her current position is better for her than any professorial role would be.
Elizabeth Keenan worked as an adjunct professor and freelance writer and editor for several years after earning her PhD in ethnomusicology. Her mother-in-law kept telling her she’d do well working in real estate. Whenever she said this, Elizabeth heard, “You are no good at this academia thing. Give it up!” She resisted exploring this potential new career for a few different reasons: “One, real estate is a ‘low-status’ job. When I first told an academic friend that I was getting my real estate license, she cried out, ‘What if you never think again?’ . . . Another friend made a sneering comment about capitalism and gentrification.”
As it happened, Elizabeth moved into real estate, and she learned that it did suit her! She enjoys coaching buyers through the process, visiting properties, researching current market value, and teaching clients about different neighborhoods. “I like my new job, and I’m really quite good at it.” She’s still thinking critically on the job, too. Her teaching and mentoring experience in higher education was relevant to her new career.
I met Serena W. when she was a new social science PhD. She was working in a non-academic job, but her intention was to move into a tenure-track position. (In fact, she’d left such a position to do a doctorate in the first place.) The prestige of academic work had always appealed to her. Over the year we worked together, her thinking evolved. Her job was fun and fascinating, and she was making an impact. These positive thoughts—thoughts that led to ideas about future career directions that took her even further away from university teaching—caught her off guard. She never wanted to build a career beyond the professoriate. But Serena is doing just that, and she’s been successful in her new endeavors.
Jennifer Redig is the managing editor of BiteSize Bio, and has a PhD in molecular and medical genetics. She had a clear professional identity in graduate school and later as a postdoc. When meeting new people, she could easily respond to the ubiquitous “What do you do?” question with, “I am a scientist.” But when Jennifer quit her postdoc and chose to care for her young daughter full-time, she felt she lost that identity.
Jennifer’s decision to leave academia and research was one of the hardest choices she’s ever made. She did so after a lot of soul searching and conversations with her husband. In time, Jennifer embraced a new identity: full-time mom, part-time writer and teacher. It suited her and her priorities well. “Science made me happy,” she realized, “but my kid made me happier.”
One more story: Geography PhD candidate Rebecca Enderby had to wrestle with her self-identity as an “intellectual” who earned a living teaching yoga. Meeting fellow PhDs who also taught yoga helped her see that the practice of yoga is intellectual, as well as physical. She needn’t abdicate her intellectualism to don her yoga leggings. Now, over a year later, Rebecca teaches several classes each week, and loves it. She’s also designing health and wellness programs for academics that draw on the principles of yoga. Rebecca no longer has any qualms about being an intellectual who happens to work beyond the professoriate.
Four Questions to Ask Yourself
If these stories resonate with you, it might be time to sort out your thoughts about academia, scholarship, and science vs. the world beyond the Ivory Tower. Your beliefs may be narrowing your thinking, keeping you from beginning a new, wonderful career beyond the professoriate— or within it.
“What are my assumptions about working beyond the professoriate?”
Do you, like I did, question the ethics of working for a corporation? What makes you wary of doing so? Do you think nonprofit organizations are less morally dubious? What about social innovation companies? Where do you draw the line?
“What is ultimately most important to me about my professional life?”
Be real with yourself. Do you need to earn a good salary because you’ve got student loans to pay off? Are you burned out and want to work in a supportive, relaxed environment, even if it means doing work seemingly unworthy of a PhD? Are you being a snob about the career you think you should pursue given your degree, when in truth other things are more meaningful and important to you?
“How can I best provide—financially, emotionally, and otherwise—for the well-being of myself and my family?”
We too often let other people’s desires sway our own thinking. What’s best for you, really? Your loved ones have your best interests at heart, but only you know what feeds your soul. I give you permission to stand up for your own values, strengths, and priorities.
“What am I most afraid of when it comes to contemplating a career change?”
That you’re disappointing your mentors? That you don’t have the right skills? That you’ll be bored? That you’re wasting your degree? Once you get clear about what’s really going on, you can either call BS (lovingly) on your fears or come up with a strategy for getting past legitimate issues.
Contemplating these questions thoughtfully will help prepare you for your transition—and for the remaining topics addressed in this series.
My New Career Path
As for my own story, it’s been about six years since I finished my PhD. After I defended my dissertation and handed in the final version in February 2012, I continued to work as a freelancer, as I’d done on occasion in the past. I took on new contracts but ultimately grew frustrated. In the fall of that year I attended workshops about non-academic careers, read What Color Is Your Parachute?, started doing informational interviews, and hired a career coach. That last step was a big one for me, but it turned out to be an amazing investment in my personal and professional development.
You can read more about my journey on my blog and in articles I’ve written and podcasts I’ve done since then. The short version is that in 2013 I started taking coaching classes to learn new skills, and launched a business as a career coach. The following year I collaborated with Maren Wood, a fellow history PhD and contributor to this series, to organize an online professional development conference for PhDs. Be on the lookout for the 5th annual Beyond the Professoriate conference this May!
As I write this in early 2018, I still run my coaching business, From PhD to Life. I also manage an online community called Self-Employed PhD—check it out and join us if that describes you. For the past few months, I’ve spent most of my time working with Maren on Beyond the Professoriate, which is now a year-round business offering a variety of online and in-person services to institutions, and individual graduate students and PhDs seeking non-academic employment. I’m really proud of this work and so excited to see it grow and develop.
I no longer feel any guilt or shame about the path I’ve chosen, and I don’t have any regrets. I know without doubt that the work I do now is deeply meaningful and rewarding for me. I use my strengths and develop my skills every day, and I have a lot of fun doing it! Of course, like all jobs, this one has its moments, but it suits me better than the path I was supposedly on as a PhD student. I am grateful to those who supported me along this journey—and I am grateful to myself, for the commitment I made to sorting out what I actually wanted out of my life.
About Jennifer Polk, PhD
Jennifer Polk, PhD, is a career coach and educator. She regularly facilitates professional development workshops and delivers presentations for graduate students and postdocs. Her University Affairs blog was a three-time gold winner from the Canadian Online Publishing Awards. Jen’s essays have also appeared in Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Globe and Mail, Academic Matters, as well as in three books. More recently, she was an expert panelist for the 2021 Canadian Council of Academies report, Degrees of Success, on the challenges PhDs face transitioning to employment. In addition, Jen currently serves on the board of directors for CAGS, the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. Find Jen online at From PhD to Life.