The fact that our blog is necessary points to the fact that stepping away from academia is no easy task. One reason for this is that there are many subtle and not-so-subtle messages you receive during your graduate training that make it especially hard to imagine a future away from an academic setting. Even though I was fortunate enough to have amazing mentorship from faculty, who really did have my best interest at heart, these messages or narratives about the academy are built into the ethos of the university and it is almost impossible to avoid their affect. Despite my positive experiences, it took a lot of hard thinking and rewiring in order to get to where I am today—leaving the academy, or at least the TT, without regrets. In order to get here, I primarily had to think through and ultimately expose the academic myths that contribute to what I call the academic vortex—a force that keeps those in the academy from getting out or considering other options. Exposing these myths is only the first step in getting out. Our future posts will provide practical advice on how to pry yourself away from the academic vortex.
Myth #1: If you leave, or don’t get a TT job, you are a failure and not good enough.
truth: I was recently told by a reputable source that 75% of people with PhDs do not work in the academy. Does that mean that only 25% of people who get PhDs are “good enough” to snag a TT job? Hardly. We all know that the academy is not a meritocracy. Much like everywhere else, it has more to do with who you know than your talent. We all know this, but the myth of failure and not good enough still circulate because it simply validates and legitimizes those in power. This isn’t to say that those who have TT jobs haven’t worked hard or don’t deserve their positions. I’m simply saying that success comes in many shapes and sizes and we shouldn’t measure success by one single standard—the coveted TT job.
Myth #2: As a PhD, you are only trained to do one thing—be a professor.
truth: This was a myth that took me a long time to expose. I knew for a while that I didn’t want to pursue an academic job, but I didn’t think my skills and experience had prepared me to do anything else besides teach or research. Only after months of researching jobs and careers did I discover that I have a lot of skills and experiences that corporations, non-profits, and government agencies find valuable. Writing, researching, project management, analytical and creative thinking, curriculum design are just a few of the skills that most PhD’s in the humanities have, and these skills are in high demand outside of the university. This website https://careercenter.umich.edu/article/phd-transferable-skills was especially helpful in figuring out how to translate my CV into a Resume. Once I was able to see that my training was actually valuable outside the academy, I was able to match my skills and passion of teaching into a career—instructional design (more on this later).
Myth #3: Academic work is the only work worth doing or that can be fulfilling.
truth: First, let’s be honest, how many academics do you know that truly find their work fulfilling? Sure there are some who absolutely love their job and feel they are making a difference through their teaching or research. And as a graduate student, I even found my work of teaching, mentoring, and researching fulfilling. But I was in a highly supportive environment. There’s no guarantee that I would land in an academic setting where my research would be valued or my teaching seen as important. Simple ask Dr. Boson how fulfilled she felt on the TT.
The truth is that there are a lot of non-academic careers that can be just as or perhaps even more fulfilling than academic jobs. And personally debunking this myth has changed my ideas of what it means to have a career and what that career should represent. In an ideal world everyone should be able to fit their career to look like this: https://instagram.com/p/0gKLCOMx4p/. However, I'm skeptical that this is possible for everyone or that everyone wants to fit into this model. Why do all of these aspects, "you love it," "you're great at it," and "the world needs it," have to come together into one thing? Why can't we match 2 or 3 of them with our career, and then do the other 1 or 2 on the side? For example, this blog is Dr. Boson and I combining 3 of these aspects, "you love it," "you're great at it," and "the world needs it." We're passionate about helping others like us and we find this work fulfilling, but it's not our job.
This model seems predicated on another myth #4: You’re identity is tied to your job or career. Or, you are what you do.
truth: This myth is not unique to the academy; people in other professions also get their identity entangled with their career in unhealthy ways. But it is an issue that those leaving the academy have to deal with. We put so much of our self-worth and ourselves into our work, that walking away or saying no, almost feels like walking away from a part of yourself. Realistically, changing careers or professions, does demand reimagining yourself, what you’re good at, who you are in the world, and who you are to others. But this isn’t a bad thing, and it’s something I’ve begun to embrace and find exciting. Ultimately, I’m not my job or career, I’m someone’s partner, a friend, a daughter, a sister, an athlete, a writer, a thinker. I’ve also have discovered things about myself and things that I enjoy doing that I didn’t know because my identity and my time has been focused on academics for the past 11 years. I love learning about nature, or how things work, and doing things with my hands. Certainly I could have discovered these things as an academic, but stepping away has given me a new perspective and hopefully a healthier outlook for the rest of my paid career.
Myth #5: If you leave the academy, you will never have smart coworkers, or you’ll never be able to talk about books again.
truth: As I stated above, 75% of graduating PhD’s work outside the academy. Universities don’t have a monopoly on smart people. There are plenty of organizations, corporations, and government agencies that are filled with talented, interesting, and smart individuals. It’s true that your co-workers may not care about the same things you care about. But you can engage with communities and people outside of your job. Yes, it’s nice that in the academy it may be easier to find others with similar intellectual interests, but it’s still possible to have intellectual conversations and communities outside the university setting.