by Karen Cardozo
Here is a sentence I never thought I’d say: I was tenured and promoted (in April 2017, to Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts).
Now, here is another I never imagined I would utter: I am giving up tenure for a job as Executive Director of Career Development (starting January 2018, a senior staff position reporting to the president of a small women’s college with co-ed graduate programs—Hollins University in Roanoke, VA). After decades in New England, I never expected to move to Virginia mere months after observers worldwide (not, unfortunately, including the U.S. president) condemned White supremacist violence in Charlottesville.
What explains the strange twists and turns of my career path, including my decision to give up tenure almost immediately after gaining it? One word: authenticity.
[I realize a likely alternative may be lunacy, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it!]
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown clarifies that authenticity isn’t an essence that one “has,” it’s the ongoing practice of living in alignment with your deepest values. Likewise, we must reframe the concept of a career—not as a singular outcome, but as a lifelong practice of recalibration that allows you to stay in your sweet spot, where you can freely contribute your unique gifts to the world.
In my forthcoming book Careering Toward Authenticity: A Guide for Academics Who Want to Get a Life, I offer ample evidence that the world and its institutions are changing too rapidly for the traditional vocabulary of “a career” and its “track” to be useful any longer. I just attended an eye-opening symposium at Stanford on The Future of Work that affirmed this strongly. Indeed, the alternative meaning of career is related to the word “careen,” which means to veer uncontrollably in one direction or another! Such is the world of work in the 21st century. No-one knows this better than “the new faculty majority” who have discovered after a long academic slog that there’s no there there. It’s time to stop focusing your “career” and start careering!
Amidst such uncertainty and rapid flux, the best compass is to identify your own core values and strengths, while enacting a full “landscape scan” to identify organizations and allies who share your interests, regardless of the sector (or region!) in which they are located. You need never ask “To Ac or Not To Ac?” Go ahead and apply for academic jobs or strive for tenure while also exploring fitting alternatives. Don’t wait around to see what becomes of “Plan A”—explore all fitting options, including creating your own job as an entrepreneur who can meet needs you’ve identified through your academic expertise and/or personal experience..
As I explained in an early post, my professional life has unfolded largely in Massachusetts, where my two-body problem (plus aging parents and my kids’ preference for their public schools) restricted me to a regional search—a limitation more often experienced by women, for reasons both obvious and subtle. When no tenure-track job materialized after 7 postdoc years, I decided to return to my early roots in career counseling. Yet no sooner had I “switched careers” in 2012 than I landed a unique tenure track job (the only one I applied to that year). In a small department of interdisciplinary studies where I also coordinated Women Studies and Leadership programs, the disparate threads of my prior endeavors came together beautifully. Among other authentically driven pursuits, I pioneered courses such as East Meets West, Leading Women and World of Work , allowing students to explore the ancient and contemporary question at the heart not only of career coaching, but also many intellectual and spiritual traditions: Who am I and Where Am I Going? Have you asked yourself that question lately? And if so, did you answer honestly?
As my “sidecar” identity as a PhD career coach gained traction (thank you, Karen Kelsky and our amazing clients at TPII!), I began to wish for a role that would integrate both my academic training and my proclivity for career coaching. So when Hollins recruited me out of the blue at the recommendation of a search firm that knew my profile (because I had applied to one other similar job), I was struck by the way that their position contained all my “keywords”–careers, women, leadership, diversity and interdisciplinarity. Wanting to meet the folks who issued this intriguing call (which turned out to include an inspiring president and alumnae/trustees), I agreed to a campus interview. I decided not to worry about relocation just yet, reasoning that the no-holds-barred expression of my values in my job talk would likely eliminate me from consideration—as it has in the past at institutions that did not appreciate my brand of authenticity.
But before I knew it, I was entertaining the Hollins job offer and then accepting the job. I didn’t expect to like the college, its people, and the region as much as I did. As another incentive, the Hollins senior staff is a photonegative of the Trump administration—mostly women, with better representation of people of color than I have been accustomed to “up North.” Don’t get me wrong: I have no illusions that my new campus will be a nirvana where familiar institutional challenges don’t apply and I achieve spiritual enlightenment at last (although I continue to strive toward the latter!). Nor do I know what I might go on to do from there. What I do know is that I genuinely liked the folks I met at Hollins; I love the mandate of championing the ongoing importance of women and the liberal arts in the changing world of work, and I am excited about the prospect of collaborating with alumnae and faculty to create groundbreaking career exploration programs, including an excellent new resource in Designing Your Life.
For all these reasons, I will move to Virginia – a place I never imagined living. This is possible in part because my youngest son just started college. When my partner and I anticipated an empty nest, we never guessed that I would also fly away! So, like many in today’s economy, we will now experiment with a distance relationship and “creative” telecommuting arrangements. But I knew I would take the job when my dear husband, a lifelong lawyer who prizes stability above all, said: “This is the perfect job for you – you should take it.” With that, I fully submitted to careering as my blogs and forthcoming book encourage you to do. I no longer try to predict the future; I commit only to making informed and authentic choices in the present.
Here’s what careering toward authenticity feels like: going for the biggest job you’ve yet held, while feeling the least stress you’ve ever felt. Exploring an option out of genuine interest rather than desperation. Being pulled toward something rather than running away from something else. It feels… FUN! And yes, also scary. But in that roller-coaster-riding way in which the adrenalin of a well-chosen risk makes you feel fully alive.
In the end, I couldn’t muster enough counter-arguments about why having tenure should lead me to turn away such a fitting and timely role. So I followed the advice I always give my clients: don’t be avoidance-based; be affinity-driven. Learn to pivot away from what no longer serves you toward what does. In my next post, I’ll tell you about a number of recent clients who have done just that!