How I Left Academia: A Recovering Academic’s Introduction – Polizzi 2

Allessandria Polizzi is a certified coach who currently leads education for 7-Eleven. She has been in corporate education, change management and organizational development for over 15 years, earning several honors in her field including a 2012 ”Best Place to Learn in Dallas” award from the American Society for Training and Development, a “Top Innovator Award” from Chief Learning Officer magazine, and Training magazine’s ”Top 40 Under 40? award. She serves on the board of directors for the DFW Learning and Development Director’s Roundtable. She has a PhD in English with a specialization in 20th century American literature from the University of North Texas (2001).

Dr. Allessandria Polizzi

Dr. Allessandria Polizzi

My name is Allessandria, and I am a recovering academic.

Not a lot of my coworkers at 7-Eleven know this about me. They don’t know that I once spent hours on end reading about the trials and tribulations of 18 year olds, filling the margins of papers with phrases like “tell me more” or “show don’t tell.” They don’t know that there is a difference between a degree in Poetry and Literature, and that the decision to pursue the Literature PhD was because it seemed like the more realistic thing to do. They don’t understand the fear of opening envelopes from literary magazines, hoping for their approval, the dread of another conference entry proposal, and the fact that someone would put all of their bets on the slim chance of landing a tenure-track position.

It is just this dream I was going after when I moved my husband and myself to Texas in  1995. We were the only ones to move away for our home town and were full of excitement. I had recently left a very supportive department, where I won the graduate dean’s medal and had started a literary criticism magazine for our campus. I had presented my first conference paper with a close friend of mine and was feeling like, despite the odds, I was going to get through this doctorate program in a tidy 3 years and move on to some romanticized  college town where we would live happily ever after.

And then I began my doctorate program.

A few things happened that dampened my dreams. First off, I did not have the support from the department I was used to. Day one of classes, I had students complain to the department head that my syllabus was too long.  The head told me to shorten it.  I was disappointed that she didn’t back up my expectations for the class.  Later I was student rep on a search in the department. This provided great insight into the whole process…. And I found it to be extremely intimidating and staggeringly unfair. We interviewed some amazing candidates, but the department made an offer to a man who, while greatly talented in his field, tried to pick up on the student driving him to the airport (& who ultimately only lasted only a few years in the actual position). This disappointed me greatly, but I failed to be discouraged.

One summer, I could not get classes to teach and had to find other employment. I landed a temp job as a legal assistant reading construction documents for an asbestos case, which was as boring as it sounds. Standing at the copier, the warm light flashing out in some dusky basement, I vowed I would never take another soul-sucking job again.

A lot of my friends taught technical writing. They always had classes.  I decided this would be my next move.  It was this decision that forever changed the course of my future.

Teaching technical writing allowed me to get a spot a few summers later as a temp for a local telecom company’s training department. I had completed all of my coursework and passed my oral exams, at this point, and was gearing up for a solid year of working on my dissertation. A friend of mine was getting married and asked if I could fill in for him as a technical writer for a communications and training team working on the implementation of a system called SAP. I didn’t know what any of these things were.

I did know, however, that I was going to make more in an hour than I did in a day teaching, so I snatched up the opportunity.

I had never been exposed to the world of business. This was a magical land full of team meetings and group emails. It was a world of deadlines and collaborative discussions. There were bosses and lunches and changes in direction. People said things like alignment, synergy, and at the end of the day. Acronyms were used with a blithe lack of irony. There were cubicles and ID badges.

I loved it.

I kept teaching a few of my classes that fall while continuing to work part-time at the telecom company. I was beginning to make friends in the office, to understand what they were talking about. I thought I had the perfect gig. I could teach a little, work a little, and still make progress on my dissertation. I encouraged my husband to quit his job so he could finish his degree (after supporting me for 6 years, I thought he deserved it). It was only a few months in that I experienced one of the biggest things people worry about. I got laid off.

When I went to discuss this with my dissertation director, she said that academia wasn’t for everyone and perhaps it was good that I leave.  The main thing I took from the meeting was that it was clear to me she had no idea what I was talking about.  In fact, no one in my inner circle had a clue what I was going through.  No one I knew worked in a corporate position. I had a family of educators and government employees. I was on my own, searching for postings online for tech writers and course developers. I dealt with people who thought having a PhD meant you “didn’t know how to work” or that it made you “too stuffy and unapproachable.” And I made a lot of mistakes.

But I finally landed a job editing and then writing training materials. This evolved into a job teaching these classes, which turned into a position leading a project team of developers and trainers. I traveled the world, I learned about business systems, I made friends and grew my résumé, all while I continued to write my dissertation. This process was not easy. My dissertation director dropped me, I was disconnected from campus, and no one seemed interested in seeing me finish.

I did finish, though.

It was surreal going into work after having defended my dissertation and officially earning those three letters. I knew it was a great accomplishment but no one around me could understand it. They would ask me what I wrote my dissertation about, which I would avoid answering because it was on whiteness, work and cultural identity, which makes no sense to anyone and would garner strange looks on the rare occasion I would try to explain it. I didn’t know how to translate this work, the thing I had devoted so much time to, into something meaningful in my new world. To be honest, I still don’t.

One thing I can do, however, is share my experience and help others who would like to learn more about making the transition from an academic path to a corporate one. I can share some of the pitfalls, some of the hardships in the transition, and help others navigate through the process.

It is not easy.  These are very different worlds, with different languages, ways of working, and expectations. I am here to say, however, that it can be done. That you can find a way to add value to the world, to feel fulfilled, outside of the college campus.  And I am here to help.

One step at a time.

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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.


How I Left Academia: A Recovering Academic’s Introduction – Polizzi 2 — 14 Comments

  1. Great post, A! I’m finding that there are really (at least) two major models for PhD “conversion” out. The first quite readily transfers doctoral experience to the new job – e.g. the diss content or related skills are relevant to the new organization (e.g. research, writing, languages, methods). The second is more of what you describe, where a transition is felt as non-contiguous; you are in two different worlds. I remain a big believer in finding meaningful connections between our academic training and “other” work if only because WE are that connection. Whether it’s how you think, or what underlying interest led you to be in those two places, there is always some viable thread. In your case I could imagine your diss expertise becoming useful fodder for a corporate diversity training initiative–the rationale being it will help you better serve the diverse marketplace. But I suppose I should allow a 3rd possibility which is that sometimes, maybe we CAN and should close the door on a prior experience: everything does NOT have to be seamlessly integrated or related. But I’m in interdisciplinary studies so it’s a professional hazard of mine to be unable to hold to that position very often! Thanks for sharing your story

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience! I really enjoyed this post. One of the problems I have encountered in my current PhD program is that we are told very little about the corporate world or about other career opportunities outside of academia.

  3. Thanks, Karen! My skill building really came directly from work I was doing: teaching technical writing and editing for literary journals. This got my foot in the door. Once I did, I quickly built up experience in a corporate environment that would be relevant. The most important thing I can recommend is for individuals to look internally to identify what they enjoy doing and not jump to conclusions too quickly. If you find work you love, no matterthe job, this will lead organically to great work and skills that can translate in business and beyond.

  4. Hi Allessandria, thanks for sharing your experience. Do you have specific advice for how humanities PhD without business or tech background can break into technical writing? Thanks a lot!

  5. Hi Iona,

    There are a lot of writing opportunities you can take advantage of, both professionally and as a volunteer. I first began by working on our campus literary magazine, and then taught technical writing. If you have an interest you are passionate about, there are probably ways in which you can help them and gain experience. Technical writing as a field isn’t as large as it may have been a while ago due to off-shoring, but there is a lot of merit in looking into copyediting or corporate training, which is where I have ultimately landed. What I like about the business education field is that I can still leverage my strengths as a facilitator and instructor while feeling like I am helping others, which is what I enjoyed most about teaching academically.

    Let me know if you have more questions. I will be posting on this more in the future, as well.

  6. Thanks Ira,

    I share your frustration. I felt like I had found out a big secret when I first was exposed to the corporate world and wanted to shout it from the rooftops. It really can be a fun and rewarding career!

    Please let me know how I can help demystify it for you!

  7. Wonderful post, Allessandria, and one thing struck me in particular: “A friend of mine was getting married and asked if I could fill in for him as a technical writer.” You had a connection on the inside who gave you the chance to really shine in a new position. This speaks to the importance of networking when trying to forge a post-academic career. Of the dozens of information interviews I’ve conducted, I’ve literally only met one person who got their job via a formal job post; everyone else was referred by someone they knew. Bottom line: you have to make connections any way that you can. Thanks again for writing this post.

  8. Thanks Jarret. It is absolutely true. While I have applied to job posts, I very rarely have had interviews with just a résumé submission or application. You have to connect with someone who will highlight your résumé to get a human to look at it!!

  9. Hi Allessandria, this is a wonderful and insightful post! I have been reading this and other blogs for the last couple months – post-prelims. I was wondering if you could explain a little more about why you finished your dissertation? I am about to defend my proposal – but I am just not sure that I want to actually write a dissertation. I have been “good” at being a student, writing, coming up with “original” ideas (all things a “successful” grad student does), but until Prelims, I never really explored what being a professor means or how to get there. Honestly, now that I know more, I doubt that it is the path I want. So, I am considering how to prepare myself for the transition outside of academe and just wonder if writing a dissertation is worth it. I like my topic, I have great support, but after 4 years and another 2-3 more, if being a Professor isn’t my goal, does it make sense to finish? Does having the Ph.D actually matter to employers or co-workers? Obviously, this is a very personal answer, but in your case, what about the Ph.D. mattered that you finished it even when the odds were not in your favor? Thank you!!

  10. Pingback: You Have an Interview. Now What? — Fruscione #3 | The Professor Is In

  11. Hi Allessandria,

    Thank you for such a great piece. I am one of the fortunate few who landed a tenure track job, but to be honest I’ve never felt completely comfortable in this world. Approaching my fourth year as an academic, I’m feeling more and more like it’s time to choose a different career path so I can free the position up for someone who really belongs here.

    I have searched online for various technical writing positions and as soon as I look at a few ads I’m immediately intimidated. I feel like I don’t have a way in. I don’t have any contacts in the corporate world, nor do I have the 5+ years of technical writing experience that many ads call for. I have some experience with editing a few literary journals, but that’s about it. I don’t even know what additional skills I need to make the transition. Do I need to learn grant writing? (Is that the same as applying for a fellowship?) Do I need skills with web development and graphic arts for layouts of newsletters and such?


  12. You once helped me prepare to present at a conference. I don’t know if you know this, but I thanked you in The Journal of American Culture when the paper was eventually published in there. This was long, long ago. 🙂

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