How to Talk about Leaving Academia Without Sounding Miserable – #Postac Coach Post

Today’s new post is by our stellar #postac coach Adrienne Posner.

Adrienne Posner is a Program Manager at Google and works on various internal and external educational initiatives focused on creating a more diverse workforce. Adrienne received her BA in Art History from UC Santa Cruz, completed a fellowship in Critical Theory at the Whitney Museum, and then took a detour into the non-profit sector, working for a time for a political action committee. Returning to school, she received an MA in Art History from UCLA and then applied to the Comparative Literature program at UCLA where she received a second MA, advanced to candidacy, and began work on a dissertation before deciding to leave the academy altogether.

Adrienne’s experience consulting with grad students began as a teaching assistant trainer and continued in her work at UCLA’s Graduate Writing Center, where she coached grad students through organizing, writing, editing, and filing their dissertations. Though no longer an academic, she is still actively engaged in working in higher education, both via her work at Google and via her consulting work helping graduate students navigate both academia and the non-academic job market.

Coaching Philosophy

As someone who has worked in the non profit sector and the museum world and then transitioned back into academia and then moved between academic programs and then back out of academia and into the tech sector, I have significant institutional knowledge and a wide range of experiences in a variety non-academic settings. If you’re on the fence about how or if to proceed with your degree, if you already have your degree but are considering a change, if you aren’t sure what skills or experiences make you marketable outside the academy, if you’re simply curious about what kinds of alt-ac jobs are out there, or if you want to better understand the tech landscape and how to apply for and get work that feels sustainable and personally meaningful, I can help.

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I hesitate to jump on the bandwagon of writing a blog post that underscores just how uncertain “these times” are because I don’t personally find that kind of statement very helpful. So let’s just say: there are many people out there right now, academics and non-academics alike, who are truly unsure of what is happening or what is about to happen with regard to their employment status. For those academics who do not yet have tenure, for those cobbling together many adjunct positions and hoping for something to come through, for those who are 9 months into a 1 or 2 year post-doc and are anxious about their continued funding, even for those tenured faculty in underfunded departments all around the country, the anxiety must be fairly acute. Many are either rightfully nervous about future academic job scarcity as they hit the job market or they are worried they will lose the perhaps already tenuous positions they do have. 

Suffice to say: there are a lot of people out there thinking about making a change, and hoping that change will insulate them from the volatility of the market. And perhaps there is a way in which the prospect of a global pandemic and subsequent economic collapse gives us all permission, even in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety, to imagine other possible futures for ourselves; at the very least it may alleviate some of the pressure and angst many academics feel over admitting their unhappiness, for there is now a very practical reason for reevaluation of priorities and for preparation for an uncertain future. What this all means is that, if you are an academic starting to think that maybe you should look for a non-academic job, then you are in good company. 

But how do you talk about yourself in this context? How do you position yourself as the best candidate for a role when, most likely, what is pushing you toward that role isn’t necessarily passion for the work or interest in a particular industry, but more negative emotions of fear, desperation, or misery, or more transactional concerns over needing better pay or more time off? Career coaches and advice blogs will all tell you that it is a cardinal sin of the interview to cast your former employer in an even remotely negative light, or to suggest that you were ever even a smidge unhappy in the past, or to intimate that something about your current situation is less than ideal. In fact, if you listen to the advice, all of your answers are supposed to make you sound like you sincerely believe that you were put on this earth to do the job for which you are interviewing, and that everything in your life has been preparing you for this moment. So what do you say when the truth doesn’t quite lend itself to these polite, optimistic answers and instead runs the risk of making you seem like a complainer, a quitter, or, even worse, just miserable?

When I decided to quit academia and started to apply and interview for jobs, I remember being asked over and over in various interviews at various companies: why did you leave academia? I had read my fair share of those aforementioned career advice blogs, so I felt strongly at the time that telling the truth was simply not an option, sure that my answer would reveal me to be a little bit odd or maybe a slightly unstable person in the middle of an existential crisis, with nothing positive to say about academia and nothing of value to offer to the current role. So I tried on different answers to see which one would fit. I said: “I have some experience in [insert job title] and I’ve always wanted to get back to it” (nope, not really). I tried: “I’ve always been interested in [insert name of industry]” (not even a little). I even found myself saying: “I have a friend who is a [insert job title] and I’ve always been curious about their work” (not even close, also: bad answer). Invariably I would follow up these statements with a few short, explanatory sentences while secretly crossing my fingers under the table, hoping I would sound like a well adjusted, reasonable person. The problem, of course, is that I no doubt came across as insincere. I absolutely was insincere: I was straight up lying.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that sometimes what motivates us can feel like a negative emotion, but at the root of that there is often something far more positive. For example, the other side of the coin of fear of the unknown and anxiety about the future is of course the desire to feel safe and secure, and to have a sense of confidence in and control over your life. Similarly, what may seem purely transactional, for example, the desire to make more money or have a better emotional relationship to your work, also have their roots in a wish for stability, balance and overall happiness. What I also didn’t realize at the time is that it’s OK to be truthful, that any place where you would actually want to work is also a place where the interviewer won’t recoil in horror if you say you had a fraught relationship to academia, and will likely be receptive to expressions of ambivalence and sensitive to the nuances of what motivates people to make life and career changes. If they aren’t, then they just helped you dodge a bullet.

If I could answer the question now, I would absolutely tell the truth, and I would say something like this. “So much of what I did as an academic I truly enjoyed. I loved teaching, reading, writing, all of it. But there were also aspects of that work that didn’t suit me; for example, generally speaking academics have poor boundaries between their academic and their personal life, generally speaking they aren’t compensated for the full spectrum of their responsibilities, generally speaking they are stressed and work too hard and that hard work too often goes unrecognized both by their peers and by the institutions that employ them. I left academia because I realized that it was possible to pursue what I loved about academia – the relationship building, the research, the writing – in a role where I would be more equitably compensated and where I would have a better work/life balance. Furthermore, as an academic, the more specialized you become in your research and in your work, arguably the fewer and fewer people benefit from your knowledge and your experience. I am interested in pursuing a career where, as I grow in my experience and knowledge, I am able to positively impact more people, not fewer.  I am now exploring career paths where I can use the skills and experiences I have honed over years in the academy but in a context that is more suited to my own happiness and in an organization that better aligns to my values.” That would be the truth, and it would be a good answer, too.

Now, while we are all waiting to see what happens next in the world, is a good time to think about your own narrative, to align yourself with your own motivations and priorities. Perhaps you want to spend more time with your family, or to feel like you are paid according to your worth, or perhaps you just want a stronger sense of certainty about the future. As we all inhabit this strange limbo, it’s a really good time to take stock, a really good time to do some research and prep work, and a really good time to prepare for change.

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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.

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