Trash, Treasures, and Growth: How I Attained My Great Renewal
Transitioning into the academic job market was sobering. My tenures as an undergraduate and graduate student were much shorter than those of others. However, they still left me semi-poor and rejected from several “perfect” positions. The home in which I was raised, 20+ years as an age group, college, and post-collegiate athlete, and early grant and publishing successes had conferred determination, resilience, and disinterest in others’ opinions. Nevertheless, I uncharacteristically sought counsel from my then-girlfriend (now wife), my advisor, and several others.
The “quit lit” is replete with encouragement for academics considering resignation. However, few authors disclose the strategies that they used to exit academia. Here, I share some of the useful advice and wisdom that I gained as I was entering academia, and how I applied it when I decided to leave two decades later.
Put Yourself Out There
What “They” Said: Both when I was entering academia and when I was ready to exit, my wife’s mantra was: “You don’t know where your ‘dream job’ may come from; put yourself out there.”
What I Did: When seeking academic positions, I would scour The Chronicle of Higher Education, review job boards, and contact colleagues. However, putting myself “out there” for non-academic positions necessitated different strategies.
For starters, I learned that industry employers frequently identify candidates on LinkedIn (in fact, all of my opportunities outside of academia have resulted from relationships made through LinkedIn). Accordingly, I created a LinkedIn profile that curated the training and experiences that were most relevant to my aspirational positions. I also identified mentors on LinkedIn who held similar positions to the ones in which I was interested, and met virtually with several of them. Finally, I posted (or re-posted) anecdotes, accomplishments, or news items related to my aspirational position to my LinkedIn profile. This can increase your profile’s “hits” and followers, and demonstrates investment in your targeted area.
Unlike positions in the professoriate, companies in the private sector frequently employ recruiting firms to identify and provide preliminary reviews of candidates. Recruiters are frequently your best advocate; they offer suggestions for refining your resume, insights on the “match” between your skills and particular positions or position types, and often negotiate your salary in the latter stages of the interview process. As such, I keep recruiters on my virtual Rolodex. In fact, I reached out to recruiters with whom I had worked – and that are used by my aspirational companies – even when an appropriate position wasn’t listed.
You Can Grow Out of a Career
There’s nothing wrong with remaining in one position and/or field for an entire career. But let’s also recognize that priorities often evolve as new life seasons emerge.
Periodically assess the alignment between the activities required for your current position, your values, and your interests. Make a table (as I did) detailing the time commitments, tasks, products (a publication? A syllabus?), meetings, service requirements, and even travel requirements associated with your current position. When you examine the list, does it make your stomach turn? Or are there numerous “exciting” items on the list? Most importantly, are there other positions that incorporate the activities that you value most?
My list identified the tasks that I enjoyed and those that I disliked. However, it also illustrated the time that I’d been investing in them, and how time spent on these responsibilities surpassed the importance that I now placed on most of them.
When I finally resigned my academic position, a colleague remarked that my resignation was “just a mid-life crisis.” In reality, my priorities, my interest (read: tolerance) in certain activities – and the amount of time that I was willing to invest in them – had changed from when I embarked on my career in my twenties. The real mid-life crisis would have been to remain in a career that was unremarkable, occasionally-undignified, and poorly-aligned with who I had become.
As I percolated about the mismatch between my “grown up” priorities and my current position, I began reconsidering my career trajectory, and to…
…Consider Accumulating Transferable Skills
What “They” Said: I was fortunate; my surgeon-stepfather was immensely supportive of my liberal arts bachelor’s degree. However, he also emphasized the importance of “transferable skills.” He’d gently remind me, “Now, study something you like; but also get skills that are transferable to the real world.”
What I Did: My inclination to run far, far away from my academic position had emerged at least six years before my actual resignation. Likewise, my actual “exit strategy” from academia leaned on a progressive acquisition of transferable skills that would make me marketable outside of academia. For instance, some positions that I’d investigated required basic competencies in website development. Therefore, I took coursework in website development, basic coding, and basic graphic design. In addition to some of these courses being free, knowledge gained from them was applicable to my university position (eg, by building a website for my research laboratory). More importantly, I added these skills to my resume and highlighted them when I applied for outside positions. I also envisioned that a personal website could act as a de facto “online portfolio” when I applied for outside positions.
Separately, my stepfather had emphasized the importance of “learning a trade.” This is because skilled trades (eg, plumbing; website development; nursing) confer specific competencies that increase likelihood of employment security, and/or can provide an additional income source. In my case, I enrolled in a weekend-based graduate program to become a licensed occupational therapist. This choice was a natural extension of my research, which focused on restoration of arm movement in stroke survivors. However, even if stroke rehabilitation was not my area of research interest, healthcare workers are always needed.
I should also note that it doesn’t matter when you embark on your new journey. Despite not knowing the specific healthcare field that I would enter, I began taking prerequisite courses for a healthcare career at community colleges when I was a new Assistant Professor. And nowadays, one can often enroll in virtual prerequisites – and even substantial portions of “trade programs” – without matriculation to a campus.
What courses, certifications, or trade programs could you explore that would be complementary to your current profession, while also fulfilling your career interests? Concurrently, which steps will place you on a path towards that new vocation, even if you aren’t entirely certain what that profession will be?
One Person’s Treasure is Another’s Trash
By 2017, I had attained a full Professor position at a R1, and my team was the most productive and awarded in the field. Moreover, the approaches that my team had developed were being used internationally. Yet, I was working 70+ hours per week, causing me to increasingly miss important family events. And let’s not forget the travel, the constant grant writing (I had supported my salary through grants for my entire career, and my contract stipulated that I continue to do so), and the constant demands of teaching and mentoring.
When I understandably resigned from these circumstances, our research director called my resignation a “waste,” citing my successes, and insisting that my tenured position was a “treasure.” Another colleague stated that she “couldn’t believe” that I had left this “cherished opportunity.” Upon hearing these comments, my wife rolled her eyes, stating, “one person’s treasure is another’s trash.”
My academic position was not trash. That said, standing next to posters with hands clasped, and designations that no one outside of my small field even recognized are now firmly in the rearview mirror. I recall – but cannot relate to – the value that I placed on these once-treasured activities and honors.
Be assured that you’ll be astonished how quickly your former career?—?and the acerbic words of others?—?fade into the ether. Have enough perspective to realize that your colleagues who are still “in the trenches” simply hold different interests and values at this time. Be the bigger person while also recognizing that you neither have to explain nor defend your choices. When you or others doubt your transition choice, reflect on the decision points and relative advantages that informed your move.
Fear Is An Obstacle to Change
With COVID’s emergence, my crazy workload eased and became virtual. Student meetings and data collection stalled. Yet, the specter of eventually returning to in-person frustrations and long hours loomed. Recalling the multitudes of wise words from my wife, I resigned in early 2020.
I now realize that I wouldn’t have had the gumption to resign had COVID not occurred. “F.O.M.O.” (Fear of Missing Out) delayed my resignation. “What about that conference that I attended (and chaired) annually?” “The textbook that I’d agreed to write?” “Who’s going to carry forward that class that I’d developed and nurtured?”
It’s natural to experience fear – and even loss – for activities in which you’ve invested so much. I offset these feelings by contemplating the exciting tasks in which I would be engaging in my new position and in my new life. Once in a while I also reminded myself of those activities in my academic life that I was glad to discard, and all that I’d gained by leaving those “important” tasks behind. With my eyes and heart planted firmly on the future, “important” tasks from my past evaporated, and my F.O.M.O. vanished.
While I’d resigned from positions in the past, my exit from academia constituted my “great resignation” and, moreso, my “great renewal.” I’ve embraced a new career in medical communications, and I treat patients using that occupational therapy degree for which I worked so hard. Meanwhile, my personal life is decorated by family, writing, and rediscovered hobbies, including semi-professional musical performance.
Embarking on a new or altered career path requires time to optimize your resume and socials, and to assure that your skills align with your aspirational position. But, most of all, such a transition requires incredible gumption. Therefore, in addition to strategies that I’ve suggested, consider establishing a support system (in person or virtual) and a mentor(s). Both will provide objective feedback and keep you on your path. I am grateful for the support and experiences provided by colleagues, and, more recently, by sites like The Professor Is Out. These resources kept me future-focused and reaffirmed my transition out of academia.