Leslie's Voice

7 Lessons from Leaving Academia

After ten years of working in higher education, I decided to switch careers and get a job in industry.
Here’s what I learned in the process.

A washed-out photograph of a college classroom filled with empty desks and chairs.
Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

It isn’t unheard of for professors to leave the world of higher education. Professors are regular people, and regular people choose to switch careers all the time for any number of reasons. However, the pandemic made the situation much worse for teachers and instructors. More than half of college faculty have considered a career change or early retirement in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. After all, pandemic burnout is rampant in academia. Female professors are especially disadvantaged. But there’s also the rampant job losses and falling salaries that have forced many college and university lecturers, instructors, and professors to seek more stable and lucrative opportunities elsewhere.

There’s a whole genre of writings by former professors discussing why they left–“quit lit”–which is sometimes characterized by humblebragging. Yet, for academics who are curious in making the jump to alternative careers but hesitant to commit, these writings can offer useful permission, advice, retrospectives, and encouragement.

I’ll spare you the navel-gazing details of why I finally decided to leave, how it made me feel, and what I’m doing now. Instead, I’d like to share something more valuable: a list of significant takeaways that I didn’t realize I needed to learn during my transition to the corporate 9 to 5 world.

1. People are not their professions.

Work is what you do, not who you are — or so the saying goes. But as a young faculty member–regularly the youngest one in my department or college–I wore my title like a badge of honor. There’s so much prestige in being called “Professor” that of course it became a part of my identity. I used it in my social media usernames. Insisted on my students using this prefix that I earned. So when I left the academy–I felt a bit of a vacuum in my identity. I leaned into it to try and remember who I was before my job took over my whole life and all of my free time and left nothing for friends or family or for myself. What has resulted is an unexpected journey in self-discovery and enjoying activities that are not tied to productivity output or CV lines.

2. Work-life balance is not a myth.

Work stays at work. This doesn’t just mean before you clock in and out for the day. In industry, everyone takes their breaks very seriously. There’s an expectation that when you’re off the clock, you get up and away from the computer. I have to train myself to take my lunch break–the whole hour, no skimping–to cook a fresh meal, play with my kiddo, fold some laundry, and not even think about that project I was just working on. It’s there waiting for me when it is time to go back, but until then, it doesn’t need any of my brain cells. Turning off my work brain while I’m not working helps me stay fresh when I am actually expected to be productive, but more importantly, it has helped me be more present with my family members and have more meaningful interactions that are not overshadowed by work stress or a daunting, never-ending stack of grading looming in my periphery.

3. Academic skills are valuable, transferable, and worth compensation.

Given the amount of time and effort required to become an academic, it should seem obvious that the research, writing, and project management skills required for attaining a terminal degree and developing curricula for post-secondary instruction should be handsomely compensated. Yet, many academics are exploited for their knowledge and labor–especially if they are contingent faculty members earning substantially less than their tenured colleagues. In my shift to industry, it has been a pleasant surprise to not only see these skill sets more fairly compensated, but to also witness the enthusiasm of non-academic colleagues eager to learn and apply academic tips and tricks to revise and improve industry workflows. (That’s not to say academia does things best always–I’ve also found many industry innovations to be exceptional, and have been happy to adopt them accordingly.)

4. Industry standards and expectations are high.

During my on-boarding, I heard over and over again how corporate leadership had very high expectations for all employees. While this was daunting at first, it was also a massive relief to hear that leadership’s interest in the employees’ ability to perform was grounded not just in achieving required benchmarks for the company, but was also a genuine investment professional development and growing in-house talent. There’s none of the one-upsmanship that characterizes so much of academia–instead there is the expectation of colleagues bringing each other up to their own level, and helping each other push to the next. It is easier to push yourself and work hard for a supervisor, manager, or boss when you know they have your back and will help you do the thing, even if the thing is ambitious and feels a little out of reach.

5. Corporate culture is crucial.

Learning about the self-stated goals, values, and purpose of a company can really make or break the experience of moving into industry. I did not realize how much I needed to work with an organization that shared my guiding principles until I was at a company whose internal and external messaging deeply resonated with me. Knowing that I am contributing to a larger missions that aligns with my vision of a better future boosts my morale and makes me a harder worker since I’ll take pride in what I do and why I do it.

6. Nothing matters more than networking.

Its not who you know, but who knows you. This was my ticket out of academia. When I made the decision to leave, I activated my support network, reaching out to former coworkers, classmates, and to friends that had made the jump outside of academia. I let them know I was looking, advised them on my skill set, asked for advice and to keep me in mind if any positions opened up where there were. I had several colleagues take a peek at my resume and cover letter and made revisions based on their observations and tips. After months of aggressive job-searching and no requests for interviews, a reference from a friend helped me get my foot in the door for a preliminary interview. If I hadn’t made meaningful connections in my previous education and employment situations, I may not have been able to leverage that network to help me move into the next chapter of my life.

7. It is possible to still be an academic even without an academic appointment.

I have found that, ironically, now that I am no longer in academia, I have more time for academic things. So, I have chosen to keep doing what I enjoy. A lot of this is service work. I love being an editor for a literary journal. I will continue to serve on the board of a regional conference committee until my term is over. And I don’t think I will ever be able to stop doing scholarship and research. I cannot bring myself to give up on the two academic essay collections I have under contract that are almost finished. I shipped out a third academic collection to potential publishers just this past week. I occasionally co-host an writing podcast where I academically nerd out with friends about literature and craft. And clearly, I’m still writing articles.

Leaving academia was not a decision I made lightly, but it is still a decision I am glad to have made. I hope these lessons from my transition help you if you are also thinking about leaving academia or are considering switching careers. But I want to know–have I left something out? What else would you like to know? If you’ve also make the jump to alt-ac–what would you add? Tell me in the comments, and let’s keep this conversation going.

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