Leaving the Academy: A View From a Creative Field (A Postac Guest Post)

Dr. Richard Graham is our newest post-ac coach.  He has a Ph.D. in Music Technology, and is dedicated in particular to helping those in creative fields make the transition to industry. He will be contributing a three-part series of posts to the blog. This is his first.


Richard’s Bio: I am a guitarist, music producer and former academic from Northern Ireland. I received my PhD from Ulster University in 2012 and I am now the CEO of music technology, Delta Sound Labs, in the United States. My work in the music industry spans guitar and computer-based performance, music production, synchronizations for TV, film and video games and music education outside of higher-level institutions. My company focuses on the development of hardware and software for creatives, with a specific interest in modular synthesis and audio effects plugins and has recently engaged in projects at the Technicolor Experience Center in Los Angeles and Stax Music Academy in Memphis. I maintain a personal website for personal music projects and research at http://rickygraham.com and my company website is located at http://deltasoundlabs.com.

Twitter: @rickygraham


Leaving academia was, unsurprisingly, difficult. It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. It happened gradually over a number of years.

I was fortunate enough to walk out of a PhD straight into a tenure-track job with a decent salary and benefits. The first few years were incredibly tough, but as time went on, things improved. I received more support for research, as well as pre-tenure course releases to permit adequate time to publish and present my creative work. I built a pretty solid tenure portfolio and had some great references lined up for my tenure case. I had the full support of my fellow faculty members and the Dean. Everything was set for success.

Concurrently, my wife Laura, also a professor, and I were experiencing the two-body problem. We had three house payments in two continents and spent three months apart from one another due to working on separate continents. It was a pretty ridiculous situation to be in after five years of attempting to find work in the same city, which shouldn’t have been unrealistic given our job locations (New York and Boston). We’d had enough and decided to reset in her home state of Tennessee to be closer to her family. So far, notwithstanding some transitional teething issues, this was the right choice for us. The cost of living is much better and we are near her family. We even have lunch together on a regular basis. The quality of life has drastically improved by tearing off the bandaid and forcing simplification without too many guarantees.

Was this easy? No. The sunken-cost of time invested was difficult to set aside. My final year on the tenure-track was easily the best of the bunch. I was teaching an enjoyable graduate course online and presenting my work at institutions all over Europe. My work environment had steadily improved over the years and that only made the departure process more difficult. The turning point for me was when I sat down and really thought about what making tenure would really mean for me. Did I actually want to be a tenured professor? Did I want to succeed at something and see it through to the end? Sure, but not at the expense of my happiness and family. At that point, my teaching load and research support was finally sufficient, but if I were to make tenure, I would propel towards increased administrative and teaching duties with less time for creative projects and less research support as I would no longer be considered a priority. I didn’t care about the title or stature. I wanted my time back and I wanted to feel less pressure in my life.

The cost of living was also a factor. There was simply no longevity in a salary that wasn’t commensurate with the cost of living. We could barely afford to rent in the same town as my university, never mind entertain the idea of a mortgage payment. Each year we watched as our lease renewal included a more than $100 a month increase in rent. Even if I had successfully achieved tenure, the jump in salary would still be insufficient to offset the exponential rise in the cost of living. That was no one’s fault but my own, of course. I accepted the salary without knowing how best to negotiate for higher pay. I knew nothing of the area going into the job, the cost of living, or prospects for property investment in the city to which we would be moving. It was all very exciting at the time for a 26 year old ABD doctoral candidate, but the result was a total mess.

With that said, plenty of what I achieved as a tenure-track professor is immediately transferable to multiple creative industries. Leaving academia doesn’t mean that years invested are lost. Simply put, it’s a matter of reframing and relaunching. The good news for the majority of creatives is that a lot of what you’re doing already as part of your creative practice is probably situated pretty close to where it needs to be for the post-academy life. Practical teaching and research experience is easily reframed as a consulting service, whether that be music production or software development. I have discovered that my experiences designing and producing mixed-media installations and music performances that I completed as part of my tenure dossier are highly sought after by small media companies. This is particularly the case with spatial audio for gaming and mixed-reality platforms. The market is rife with those who want to do it but don’t know how to do it. The bottom line: there’s plenty of work to be had as a consultant for those coming from the arts. More generally across all academic specializations, experience in running conferences, creating and managing curricula, and serving on a variety of committees are directly mappable to multiple kinds of project management scenarios in my related industry. I will delve into more specific examples further in the next blog post.

My wife Laura has made the courageous decision to leave academia, too, and pursue a law degree – something she always wanted to do –  and I have started a music technology company. I have more time to do what I want. Life is simpler with fewer commitments and my mental and physical well-being have improved as a result. Do I miss academia? Generally, no. I miss the faculty I would call friends and my students. Now I am able to prioritize family and career goals better aligned with my interests without constraint.

Over the next two entries, I will present my real-world experiences from my own transition from the academy to creative industry including how I have reframed my skill sets to better suit industry job opportunities, specifically contract work, obtaining additional certifications, and private instruction. I will also discuss how I have approached the development of my music technology startup, Delta Sound Labs, the challenges I have faced so far, and future plans for the business and my post-ac life.

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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.


Leaving the Academy: A View From a Creative Field (A Postac Guest Post) — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Where Are The People? Building Community Around Your Services and Getting Paid – #Postac Guest Post | The Professor Is In

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