Have you ever had the experience of dreading something, assuming it’s going to take hours and hours and be really painful, only to sit down and finish it lickety-split?
Most of the time, it’s because the stuff you have to do is simple and quick, but the emotional baggage between here and getting it done is huge.
It’s why “just write three pages a day” works when you aren’t emotionally tangled up in a project, but fails miserably when you are. It’s why making choices that feel important take forever, even when we know logically that there aren’t huge differences between the two and we’ll likely be fine either way.
Leaving is like that
The stuff of leaving — telling people, looking at what else you can do, writing job materials, applying for jobs — isn’t all that complicated, when it comes down to it. Sure, there are things you’re unfamiliar with, and things you’ve got to figure out, but the logistics are fairly straightforward, even if the proliferation of details is kind of overwhelming.
What’s hard is worrying that your adviser will be disappointed in you and trying to figure out some way to ensure she won’t be disappointed. What’s hard is being afraid you don’t have any marketable skills and beating yourself up for not doing something more practical when you had the chance. What’s hard is regretting that you spent eight years doing this thing you now don’t like and being angry that you have to start over.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t logistical questions
Even though logistics are relatively uncomplicated (hey, anything is less complicated than digging around in our psyches to untangle old patterns), that doesn’t mean they’re obvious. When we don’t know something, we don’t know it, and we’ve got to learn it. That goes double for changing contexts.
When you’re leaving academia, the way the non-academic job search works is far from obvious. How to leave without burning all your bridges is far from obvious. How to translate your academic experience into something a non-academic employer wants is far from obvious.
So it’s not that you shouldn’t spend some time figuring out the logistics. The problem comes when we spend all our time on the logistics, dithering and wondering and getting frustrated, not realizing that it’s going to go a lot better if we address the emotional underpinnings of all that spinning in place.
Anytime a logistical, practical problem is complicated (rather than complex), stop and take a breath. Ask yourself what you’re afraid will happen as a result of solving this. What could happen if you choose one way? What could happen if you choose another way? What reservations or worries are you having about the whole endeavor?
It’s easy to think that addressing the emotional part of things will make it all take longer, and there’s no time! And you have to figure it out right now!
Ironically, when you take time to actually engage the emotional piece, the practical piece often gets done in no time at all — meaning it actually took less time overall than when you tried to ignore the emotional end and force your way through the practicalities. Life is funny that way.
This is the underlying theory of the course I’m teaching next month on the non-academic job search. Yes, we’re going to talk about the logistics, and we’re going to problem solve and brainstorm and apply principles to actual situations. But we’re also going to pay attention to the fears, the anxieties, and the what ifs, because that’s where the power is.
If you’re leaving or considering leaving and you’d like some support figuring out the job search, check it out.
And the next time you notice yourself stuck on something that seems straightforward, ask yourself why. It’s so much more efficient, not to mention effective.
There’s a particular place a lot of leaving academics get tripped up: the idea of qualifications.
In academia, the goal is to become the absolute expert on a narrow slice of something. You’re the cutting edge of this research. Best-case scenario: You’re the acknowledged, world-renowned expert and everyone comes to you to understand it.
Most of the time, the question outside of academia isn’t “are you the absolute most expert, most skilled person at X?” It’s “do you have the skills and experience to do what we need done?
There’s a crucial difference there
We can always learn more. We can always experience more. That’s the whole basis of academia.
But there’s also the concept of good enough. You don’t have to have written grants and won money from every funding body in the world in order to be qualified to write grants for a non-profit. You don’t have to know everything there is to know about project management in order to coordinate volunteers. You don’t have to have a working knowledge of everything a company has ever produced in order to write their manuals effectively.
You only need to know enough. You only need to have enough experience to demonstrate your skills. That’s it.
Focus on the goal
Instead of comparing yourself to the mythical expert, look at what this position is trying to accomplish.
Can you translate complicated issues into clear and compelling reasons why your organization should be funded? Do you understand how grant proposals work? Have you written at least one? Congratulations! You’re qualified to write grants.
Can you put together a plan to meet a goal and coordinate all the moving parts to achieve it? That’s project management.
Can you translate tech-speak into something the user understands — and that answers their questions? You can write manuals.
You may not want to do any of these things, but the point still stands. All you have to do is be able to meet the goal they’ve set out — and convince them you have the requisite skills, experience, and knowledge to meet the goal.
That, of course, is the crux of the job application, but you can’t get there if you discount every opportunity because you don’t think you’re qualified.
Figure out the skills underneath your experience
Academia obscures a lot of the skills and experience we actually have, because it discounts it as service or writes it as something anyone can do. (Trust me — not everyone can write. The awful writing skills that have made you want to cry? They don’t get better.)
One way to unobscure them (reveal them?) is to map out everything you’ve done and ask yourself what skills and experience are already in there. You’re qualified for much more than you think you are — trust me.
After walking dozens of people through master resumes, I can only laugh at how many conversations I’ve had that began, “Well, you said you aren’t qualified for X, but actually you have Z, Q, and W.” And then they start laughing, too. It’s a nice thing, being able to help people see how awesome they are.
Dean Dad has an interesting and useful post on how to figure out departmental norms while you’re interviewing.
Basically, figure out what it is you really want, and ask specific questions about those particular things.
As Captain Awkward would say, Use Your Words.
A friend of mine recently got the opportunity to apply for a full-time marketing job at a company she loves. She’s been doing marketing for years, and six months ago, this was exactly what she wanted.
In the intervening period, though, she’s taken another job, one that will lead a different direction. And she’s loving the new work. She’s excited by it. She’s challenged by it.
But when the old-desired opportunity showed up, literally at her desk, she got conflicted.
The shoulds come knocking
It’s easy to get caught up in what jobs we think we should apply for, what careers we should pursue.
Sometimes it’s about previous experience or prior desires, as it was for my friend. Sometimes it’s about prestige – about certain careers being “good” and others not. Sometimes it’s about our families of origin and the kinds of jobs or careers they pursued.
Unless you’re actively unemployed and need a job to pay the rent and buy the groceries (and that is very, very real), I’d recommend passing on the shoulds. Because the shoulds are a one-way ticket to stuck and stasis.
Stuck and stasis are not helpful
When the shoulds are involved, it’s easy to tell ourselves that it’s just “for now.” Just until we find something better.
Maybe that’s staying in your graduate program. Maybe that’s adjuncting. Maybe that’s teaching at an institution you don’t fit in a place you hate. Maybe that’s teaching high school when you really don’t like teenagers. Maybe that’s taking an office job that bores you silly at your mom’s organization to get your foot in the door.
But here’s what happens after that. We’re kind of comfortable. We’ve gotten a few more lines on the resume. The work isn’t painful, but it’s not challenging or interesting either, or the working environment takes a constant toll on us. Maybe we’re even getting paid a decent salary.
And so, when it’s time to actually go find that other job, the one we actually truly want, we hesitate.
Change is doable
The reason people get trapped is that they’re afraid. Changing jobs and careers takes a lot of work, and it’s hard to have confidence that you can do it successfully.
But the way to gain confidence – and thus keep yourself moving towards your actual goal – is to understand that changing jobs and careers is a process. It’s not exactly a linear process, but it’s a defined process none-the-less.
And the way to get comfortable with that particular type of change is to get familiar with and comfortable with the process. The situation will always be different. But the process, the process is always the same. (Says the girl who’s changed careers three times!)
That’s part of why I’m teaching this new Becoming Post-Academic class – because I want you to learn about the process enough to be comfortable, and so be comfortable going after what you really want.
If you’re interested, you can learn more by clicking here. But however you do it, give yourself the gift of learning about the process, so you can step into it with confidence, with grace, and with success.
When I was in high school, two friends of mine cracked up one day reading the Help Wanted section of the local newspaper, because a company was advertising the position of sausage handler.
What did a sausage handler do? They had no idea. But the very opacity of the position led to years of jokes.
You probably don’t want to be a sausage handler
One of the things we miss, being in academia, is the wide variety of jobs it takes to accomplish even the simplest of corporate, non-profit, or government missions.
Because we live in a world dominated by disciplinarity, we don’t see the ways those disciplines get combined, sliced, blended, and superceded out there in the working world. We don’t see the sausage handlers, or the market researchers, or the non-IT project managers, or the organizational trainers, or the strategy captains, or the investigators, or the user design experts, or the inventors.
Because we live in a world of strict credentialing and clear pathing, we don’t see the various serendipitous ways that people get and become qualified for jobs. We don’t see the ways jobs are more about skills and fit than they are about degrees.
But outside of academia, jobs are being invented daily that don’t have paths or credentials, because the jobs themselves didn’t even exist yesterday. But something changed and now we need someone to do this particular set of things. Voila – job.
Finding out what’s out there can be fun
You probably won’t run across sausage handling jobs very often (at least I hope you don’t!), but one of the best ways to explore your options is to actually go out and scan job boards, company job postings, and anywhere else you see jobs listed.
What jobs are out there that you didn’t even know existed? What jobs look interesting even though you’ve never even considered it?
One of the biggest challenges people have when they’re considering leaving academia is expanding their sense of the possible. There are far more opportunities out there for you than you know about, but until you go looking, you won’t know what they are.
Starting June 12, Jo VanEvery and I are leading a class designed to help you find out more about your own career possibilities. You can find out more by clicking here.
The inimitable Sisyphus, who has been looking for a job for a while now, describes an all-too-common situation in academia:
A while back I had decided that I need to just give it up and move back into my parents’ house, but then little things keep popping on the horizon that look like possibilities, and I think, hey, I might be able to get this one and why bother dealing with moving if I’m going to be moving somewhere permanent soon anyway? Then that oasis turns out to be a mirage, and I keep crawling along.
Anyone who’s struggled with finding a job has had this experience — the just-missed, the nearly-there, the what-if. It’s the incrementalism that kills you. “But this next one won’t take much effort, and what if it’s the one? But this next one won’t take much ….”
So how do you decide enough is enough and it’s time to move on?
Give yourself the gift of a limit
The problem is, there’s no clear cutoff. There’s a limit to how many times you can take the bar exam, but there’s no limit to how long you can spend looking for a job.
And that means you have to create limits for yourself.
This is most easily done at the beginning. How long are you willing to do this? One year? Six months? Two years? What feels reasonable? What feels like enough time to find out what’s what?
And then you mark it down somewhere, make a date with yourself to reassess.
It doesn’t mean you have to stop at that limit. It only means it’s a point at which you stop, you look around, and you see what there is to see.
A few things you might see
When you do stop to look around, there are a few things that are worth thinking through.
- Has anything changed? That is, has something happened externally to improve the situation? Has something happened internally to improve the situation? What’s different now than when you set off on this particular phase of the adventure? What does that suggest about moving forward?
- How close have you come? If you’re repeatedly getting almost-there but not quite, it may only be a matter of time. If you’re knocking on door after door and not getting much response, it may be better to cut and run.
- Do you still want it? We can be creatures of inertia and bull-headed to boot. Do you still want this or is it now mostly a matter of pride? If you got the job tomorrow, would you be exhilarated or would you think, “well, shit”?
And now what?
Depending on what you find when you stop to look around, you may want to set another “let’s look around” date and keep going, or you might want to take this opportunity to choose something else. What else is appealing? What else can you do?
That’s not to say either is an easy choice, just that you have the choice. But you won’t consider your choices unless you give yourself the time and space to do so.
What if the beginning was a long, long time ago?
If you’re in the midst of it, see if you can take a break right now.
Ask yourself the questions above. How long have you given to this? How long are you willing to give to this?
It’s really easy to be motivated by pride and it’s shadowy sister, shame, to just keep pushing through, to keep trying, to make one last effort for the 57th time.
But stop and look. What do you want now?
Also? This sucks. And it’s not you.
Whereever you are in the process, though, and whatever choices you make when you stop and look around, know these two things.
This process blows. It’s distressing, demoralizing, and crazy-making. The process itself, the time it takes, the amount of work, will make your head explode even if you’re successful. And if you aren’t getting the offer you want, then it’s even worse.
And finally, it’s not you. You’re fabulous and wonderful and smart and talented. The system is pretty broken, and “success” here looks a lot like “sheer, unadulterated luck.” Sometimes we have it, sometimes we don’t. It doesn’t have to mean more than that.
For most academics on the semester system, there’s about two months left to go. (A lot of you are on spring break now, or near it, and I can hear the sighs of gratitude from here!) And that means that, if you’re thinking of leaving, this is a good time to start thinking about applying for other jobs.
One of the most frequent questions I hear is about how those of us who have only ever been academics of one status or another can market ourselves to the outside world. There aren’t a lot of job ads for thinkers who can manage hordes of post-adolescents, after all.
While I don’t think you should think about post-academic careers entirely on the basis of skills (your passion is the most important thing), at some point you do have to put pen to paper (or cursor to document) and figure out how to convince some that you’ve got what they want. So let’s talk about what transferable skills you likely have.
A few things you’re probably really good at
Public speaking. You’ve probably been doing it three, six, nine, twelve times a week for years. That’s more public-speaking time than most public speakers have. You know how to organize information for people listening, you know how to deliver it, and you know how to deal with questions and comments that come up. It’s easy to think this is something “anyone can do,” but trust me, it’s a skill. I didn’t realize just how not-common a skill it was until I was part of a group presentation to a company’s executive team and blew everyone away with my ability to make sense without looking at a piece of paper. Seriously.
Training. It may be called “education” instead of “training” or “development” or what-have-you, but you’ve spent years putting together multi-week training systems with objectives, goals, and thoughtful ways of reaching them.
Management. Recognizing peoples’ skills, helping them notice and develop skill deficiencies, providing ongoing and tactful feedback, helping people understand how projects fit into their larger path — sounds like advising, teaching, and management to me.
Defining projects. Say there’s a problem you want to solve. How do you figure out how to do that? Initial inquiry, defining the problem, defining resources, setting out probable paths, and then doing the work — sound familiar at all?
Event planning and management. If you’ve ever been involved in planning or holding a conference, you’ve done event planning.
Writing and editing. If you’re in academia, you write. You might even write for public audiences. You likely edit your own work and that of your friends and colleagues, and you might have had a stint on a journal.
Consulting. Do you help other people, including graduate students and advisees, figure out what they’re doing? Bingo.
Grantwriting. If you’re in the sciences, you’ve got plenty of experience writing applications to get money. If you’re not in the sciences, you might very well still have plenty of experience doing this. It’s a real skill many non-profits need.
Okay, so I have transferable skills. How do I talk about them?
I’m not suggesting that you’re going to write your resume by saying you “consulted” with graduate students or you “engaged in public speaking on an ongoing basis.” That’s doublespeak of the worst kind, and it won’t help you.
However, thinking about what you do as an academic in terms of the skills you’re applying and what they’re called in the real world lets you do two things.
First, it helps you write a skills-based resume. If you aren’t applying for a job that has a close and clear relationship to what you’ve been doing, then framing your experience in terms of skills will help you help them understand why you might be worth interviewing.
Second, it helps you think through your cover letter. Contrary to popular belief, the cover letter should be more than an elaborate address label. It’s the place where you get to make the engaged, impassioned argument that you have the skills and experience they need to do what they’re doing — no matter what it looks like your resume says. Being able to relate what you’ve done to what they need is an invaluable help.
For example, when I was applying for an editing job, I was able to talk about my ability to handle unfamiliar subjects by explaining how I taught technical writing classes, in which students would focus on their majors and their specialties. (I also got to talk about deer contraception, which was great fun and helped me stand out.) It’s not obvious to someone outside of academia, but that experience was pretty much exactly what an editor faces, and it was persuasive because I obviously understood the challenge.
Deer contraception? Really?
Um, yes. I really did mention deer contraception in a cover letter, and it was perfect for the job I was applying for. (Matching your tone to the company’s tone is key!)
You may not have an outrageous example to throw in, but the bottom line is that you’re fabulous and smart and skilled. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have gotten this far in academia to begin with. There are many other organizations that would benefit from all of the experience, passion, and talent you’ve got in spades. You just have to frame it in a way that they, and you, can see.
Let’s face it: There are a million different resources for how to write resumes and cover letters, and your local public library, not to mention your university’s career center, probably has feet upon feet of shelf space devoted to writing job materials.
What they don’t cover, however, is all those sticky questions that come up for those of us who have left or are leaving academia.
- How do I explain my research when it’s not relevant to the job I’m applying for?
- How do I explain why I left academia without sounding like a loser, a crackpot, or a chronically dissatisfied person?
- How do I prove my workplace skills when all I’ve ever done is teach classes and research my topics?
- What fears are employers likely to have about PhDs that I need to pay attention to as I’m writing my application?
- How do I get references when I don’t want to let my colleagues know I’m leaving until I have a job?
I’m offering a free, 90-minute teleclass on Wednesday, February 3 at 8pm ET to talk about just those sorts of questions. So if you’re thinking about leaving and want some academia-specific guidance on how to make the leap in your job materials, sign up here.
If you want the info but can’t make the call, sign up anyway — I’ll send the recording out to everyone who signed up.
And if you’ve got specific questions you want me to talk about, put them in the comments here or shoot me an email. I’m looking forward to it!
Let’s say you’ve decided to leave academia. You’re awash in a complicated sea of emotions: grief, anger, bitterness, relief, hope, fear. And now, in the middle of all of this difficult, emotional work, you have to explain to someone else that you’re leaving.
Maybe it’s your chair, maybe it’s a favorite colleague, maybe it’s a parent or a grad school friend. But you have to explain it in such a way that they get it and accept it — and preferably without you either launching into a bitter rant or falling into a weeping puddle at their feet.
And on top of your own fears about falling apart in some way come the fears about their judgment, criticism, doubt, and anxiety.
So what do you do?
First, you plan
You know the people you’ll likely have to tell, so figuring out ahead of time how you’ll explain it will give you a road map to follow when all you want to do is fall apart. And that means thinking about the following things:
- What’s the purpose of telling this person? Yes, it’s to inform them, but there will almost always be other, more subtle purposes attached. Maybe you want to get the hell out of Dodge without explaining to your department chair that your program’s supervisor is a micromanaging, condescending prick. Maybe you want your parents to believe this is the right course without asking you a lot of questions. Maybe you want your best friend to understand just how deeply hurt you are by this whole stupid situation. Figure out what, in your heart of hearts, you want them to come away with. Then figure out if that’s both reasonable and possible and plan from there.
- How close are you with this person? How much detail are they entitled to? How much detail are you comfortable sharing? The friends who had lived through my struggles already got the down and dirty. The colleagues I mostly said hello to in the halls got the abbreviated “opportunity” version of the story.
- What’s their relationship to academia? People inside academia are going to be more defensive about the whole glorious system than people outside it, however much they love and care about you. If it’s still paying their bills, they have a vested interest in believing it’s not a horrible place — even if you think it’s the most venal institution to grace the face of the Earth.
- What version of the truth should they get? We leave for complicated reasons, and few people will really get the whole story. Should they have the version that focuses on the opportunities you’re moving towards? Should they have the version that focuses on realizing that you and academia aren’t destined for the life-long love affair you thought you had? Should they have the version that explains how academia left you at the altar or stole your boyfriend or beat you up in a dark alley after stealing a decade and all your money? Stick to the truth, but remember that the truth is multifaceted.
- How do you want this conversation to come about? Where should it take place? When should it take place? Should you plan a date, or take advantage of circumstances? Should you phone, email, or explain in person? Some conversations, like the one you’ll have to have with your chair, may have to be in person. Others might benefit from an email-first-then-talk strategy.
- What do you need for self-care around this conversation? For particularly difficult ones, you might want to have a confidant waiting in the wings to help you process it, you might want to be alone with your journal, you might want to go out for ice cream to celebrate. Knowing that you’re being taken care of will help you keep going.
- What reminders will help you keep your center? Unfortunately, we don’t usually get to get to the other side of the emotions before we have to explain what we’re doing. And that means figuring out what you need to hold on to to be confident of your decision. For some people, writing down the real reasons for leaving on an index card to carry around will help them remember. Some people need a favorite figurine or the perfect sweater or a piece of jewelry that helps them stay connected to their centers. I had a Scully doll. To each her own.
Then, you practice
So much of deciding to leave is emotional and therefore not entirely able to be articulated. Except that, unfortunately, you have to articulate it. That’s where practicing comes in. If you have a supportive spouse or partner or friend, ask for their help. If not, an empty room will do.
- Remember how we were all supposed to have the 30-second, 2-minute, or 5-minute description of our research for the job market? Practice having the 30-second, 2-minute, or 5-minute explanation of why you’re leaving. Repeat them out loud until they feel fluent.
- Brainstorm what the other person might say and how you might respond. Will they be shocked? Angry? Sad? Nervous? Elated? Do they tend to be critical? Supportive? Sarcastic? Withdrawn?
- Notice what you’re comfortable sharing and what you aren’t comfortable sharing. Stay with comfortable.
- Notice what parts of the explanation feel most emotional for you and brainstorm ways to deal with that, whether it’s letting yourself express the emotion or finding ways to avoid the topic altogether.
Then, you let it go
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that you won’t be able to anticipate every eventuality and you won’t be able to control how any other person responds or reacts. But thinking about what you want to accomplish and how that might happen gives you much better odds of getting through conversations without falling apart — or doubting what you’re doing.
And, as always, remember that this is hard work and that you’re likely to be a little delicate. Be gentle with yourself. Remember that it’s okay to fall apart. It’s okay to need help and hand-holding and hugs. It’s okay to be nervous and anxious about explaining this enormous decision to the rest of the world. And remember that, soon enough, you’ll get to the other side.
You can dress me up but you can’t take me anywhere, apparently.
I spent an hour the other day trying to convince a young colleague of mine not to go to graduate school. Well, let me rephrase that. I told him that if what he wanted was the experience of graduate school on its own, well, that’s all well and good. Graduate school is pretty much awesome if you’re a self-starter who can handle living on pennies. If he thought it would lead to a job, though — run away! Right now!
But by the end of the conversation I couldn’t tell him to go to graduate school for the experience, either, because why take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt and lost wages and blah blah blah when you could find a couple of like-minded people, a nice neighborhood pub, and read all the continental philosophy you want while hollering about holes in your friends’ arguments?
What would you tell him? He’s young (24 maybe?), really smart in that perfect-for-graduate-school-in-philosophy way, and thinks he’d like teaching. Inquiring minds really want to know.