The Decision to Leave Academia: A Dialogue with Chris Humphrey of Jobs on Toast

A few weeks ago I discontinued (temporarily, I hope) my skype career consultations, particularly those related to the fraught question of whether or not to leave academia.  I discontinued these because I’ve been dealing with a health issue that, while thankfully not serious, has been a wake-up call to me to  seek a better and more sustainable work-life balance.  Don’t be alarmed!  This will have no impact on any of the document related work I am doing or will do for current and future clients, or webinars, or blog posting.  It’s just the skype consultations that are being reduced at present.

In any case, after I made that announcement on the TPII Facebook page, Chris Humphrey of the website Jobs On Toast, got in touch to inquire about the clients who had been seeking consulting on the decision to leave academia.  That prompted the dialogue that I have reproduced below.  I like the Jobs on Toast website and blog, which is dedicated to providing, in Chris’ words, “Positive and practical support for PhD careers outside academia.”   Chris gives good advice for Ph.D.s contemplating non-academic careers, and also provides a resource list of other websites to visit.  One thing Chris and I have in common is the goal to make the non-academic career less a sign of ‘failure’ than a sign of entrepeneurial spirit.  He did it, I did it, and we’re both vastly happier that we did.

Chris Humphrey <> Tue, Jan 8, 2013 at 12:26 AM
To: Karen Kelskey <>
Hi Karen,
Happy New Year to you! These are certainly interesting times to be involved in careers advice and academia !
I saw your Facebook post yesterday saying that you wouldn’t be accepting any more clients who were looking for advice on quitting an academic career.
I was wondering whether the main bulk of enquiries that you were receiving were from clients who were in the early stages of their career, e.g. Adjuncts or post-docs, or from actual tenured staff who already had many years of experience?
It would be interesting to know, as in my current blog (Jobs on Toast) I explain how PhDs can market themselves for a career outside of academia and get themselves a great job. But it could be worth researching and writing a special series of posts on ‘the decision to quit’, if there was a big enough potential audience for such info and advice.
I could certainly address the early years leaver segment, as I made that decision after 3 years as a post-doc, but before securing an actual lecturing position in the UK.
Your view on what you perceive is wanted/needed by the community in this area would be much appreciated.

Karen Kelsky <> Tue, Jan 8, 2013 at 10:14 AM
To: Chris Humphrey <>
Good to hear from you, Chris!  Happy New Year to you too.These are almost all people who are still looking for the first tenure track job.  Some of them, though, are pretty successful; like I had one who was just offered a tt job, but now is in a crisis about whether to take it.Some are still in mid-Ph.D. program and find that they despise the culture of the academy and the lifestyle they see their profs living.But these are not mid-career people; they are just starting out, and profoundly disillusioned, not just with their challenges in finding work, but truly in asking themselves whether this is the work that they really want.  I think it would be great if you wrote a blog post about it.  I’d promote it.BTW, I’m also seeing a trend of Ph.D.s launching into their own businesses as entrepeneurs, and I am wondering how we can create a website or resource for those kinds of people as well.Karen

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Karen Kelsky, Ph.D.

aka, The Professor
~I tell you the truth.  About grad school, the job market, and tenure~

Chris Humphrey <> Thu, Jan 10, 2013 at 12:28 AM
To: Karen Kelsky <>
Hi Karen,
That’s very interesting to hear. This group is what I consider to be the direct target audience for my blog, although my starting point has been that my reader has already decided to search for a job outside of academia, and I’m explaining to them what they need to do next to get started on a great career.
I haven’t written so much about making the actual decision to keep with academia, or whether to take a new path (I don’t like the word ‘quit’). Mainly because to me it is very difficult to write generically about the pros and cons of leaving academia – everyone’s circumstances are so different.
(That’s where consulting is so much easier because it’s possible to understand each individual’s circumstances and tailor one’s advice accordingly).
Also I am always quite conscious of not wanting to put down or denigrate the academic route and say that outside academia, it’s an easier life or better paid or there are more jobs. I don’t want to get into petty comparisons as I have many friends in academia and the greatest respect for those who endure what it is turning into!
To me, at the heart of it is the fact that ABDs/PhDs only have one strategy for finding a job, and what I’m trying to do is teach them a second strategy. In my opinion much of the turmoil people feel is that they are heavily invested in one work route (academia), but the end result isn’t a fairy tale, either in terms of job availability or working conditions. This mismatch makes people feel bad.
However if people can learn that there is another perfectly valid work route. and start to see themselves from the perspective of a non-academic employer – a PhD/ABD is well-educated, motivated, has great communication skills, is good with IT, ethical, a quick learner etc – they can realise that they have so much to offer, and then all they need to do is learn how to market themselves for a post-academic job (the easy bit!). The Versatile PhD website has lots of examples of people who have taken this route. But blogging about it can help to bring a personal perspective to the subject.
So if the demand is there, I will write a post! I have in mind something with a title along the lines of ‘Why you feel the way you do’ but let’s see how it turns out.
Thanks for the conversation, much appreciated!
Best regards
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Karen Kelsky <> Fri, Jan 11, 2013 at 8:55 AM
To: Chris Humphrey <>
I just think the more people who start talking in an open and POSITIVE/PROACTIVE way about the permeable border out of academia, the more we can disperse some of the bitterness and empower people to make other choices….    that’s just a big dream at present, but i think it’s important.  So many ex-academic blogs are very bitter and angry about the failure to succeed in academia, rather than the delight of forging success outside of academia.

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Chris Humphrey <> Thu, Jan 10, 2013 at 12:28 AM
To: Karen Kelsky <>
Hi Karen,
Just to say that I completely agree with you!It is certainly one of the aspirations of my own blogging project to shift the language around PhD careers towards passion, practicality and positivity – the more upbeat writing that’s out there, the better!

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


The Decision to Leave Academia: A Dialogue with Chris Humphrey of Jobs on Toast — 1 Comment

  1. The University of Cambridge has an excellent publication for helping new academics understand and tailor their skills, CVs, cover letters, etc for non-academic and academic audiences.
    It includes great plain language, blunt advice and a variety real-world examples of documents from Cambridge PhDs successful in getting good academic and non-academic jobs, including a handy table that translates academic terms for skills to “real world” equivalents. Excellent for both understanding how all that time and effort actually taught you an excellent set of transferable skills. However, the book is very difficult to come by as it only directly available to Cambridge students and staff – I only happened across a copy by chance. If there’s any way to can get your hands on a copy, do so!

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