Finding Your Mid-Career Mojo

Do You Need an Exit Strategy?

Kerry Ann Rockquemore writes that some faculty members, post-tenure, need to consider whether they want to stay in academe.

July 30, 2012

We've covered a lot of ground in the mid-career mojo column including: how to plan your post-tenure pathway, how to move beyond the common emotional blocks faculty members experience at mid-career, how to jump-start your research productivity, how to imagine a new professional identity and construct a mentoring network to support it, and how to say "no." Since we’ve come this far, I would be remiss if I didn’t tackle the ultimate academic mid-career taboo: consciously choosing to leave a tenured professorship.

This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart because two years ago I left my tenured position to become an entrepreneur. I left because I was no longer interested in generating research, I was bored in the classroom, and the work I love and cared about (teaching faculty members and others how to advance their careers) wasn’t labor that was rewarded at my institution. So I left to found the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, and now I get to do what I love as my job. When I tell this to people, they invariably describe my decision to leave as "courageous" or "brave" and I constantly receive requests from people wanting to know how I "escaped the academy."

Honestly, it was neither "brave" nor an "escape," it was simply a choice I made. And because I’ve helped many people think through the process and find the exit door since my own departure, I would like to demystify the process for anyone who has ever contemplated leaving the ivory tower after receiving tenure.

Step 1: Differentiate Resistance From Reality

The most important place to start is from a position of clarity about why you want to leave. Are your recurring thoughts of leaving a form of writing resistance or are they a manifestation of your genuine desire to make a career change? It’s critical to start here because sometimes when we aren’t clear about what we want, or we aren’t committed (in an explicit way) to the academic path, it’s easy to start imagining greener pastures. For example, when you’re in the midst of trying to finish a difficult writing project, pausing to indulge in extended fantasies about what else you might do (or may have done) with your professional life is probably more about resistance than reality.

However, if you find yourself miserable on a daily basis, spending most of your work time on tasks you don’t enjoy, and/or are experiencing prolonged stress-related illness that’s tied to your work, thoughts of leaving are more likely to be flares emanating from your higher self. The key here is to determine whether your thoughts about leaving are really a form of writing resistance (your bodyguard creating escapist fodder to keep you from getting your writing done) or if it’s a stronger and deeper message from the pit of your gut that it’s time to make a change.

Step 2: Get Clear About How and Why You Became a Professor

If you suspect that your urge to leave is more than just momentary resistance, then the first step forward is to step back. What I mean by that is before you move too deeply into any exploration of future alternatives, it helps to pause and take a few moments to remember how you got to your current position. I recommend taking 15 minutes to journal about two important questions:

1) How and why did I become a professor?

2) Do I really want to do this? Why or why not?

There’s something about writing out your story that reminds you about what attracted you to the academic path, returns you to the energy of hope, and gets you even further in tune with the factors driving your thinking about staying or leaving. When I did this exercise, I realized that my path to the professoriate was driven by my desire to teach college students, and it reminded me how much I loved that activity for over a decade. But it also reminded me that research always felt like the tax I paid to teach and that if I no longer enjoyed classroom teaching, it was time to move on and make space for someone else.

Step 3: Plug Into Networks of Possibility

If you’re still moving forward to explore alternatives, this is the point when you will want to connect to new networks to do so. The mistake that people commonly make is to initiate exploratory discussion of leaving the academy with other academics. It’s a mistake for two reasons. The first is that there are deeply rooted belief systems in place that enable so many brilliant people to work so hard, for so little money relative to their level of education ("This is the best job in the world," "Everyone wants the freedom we have," "Nobody ever leaves," "We can’t do anything else," etc.). The mere idea that you would choose to leave after tenure threatens the validity of that belief system and you are likely to get barraged by defensive responses. For example, when I gently started to hint that I might leave, I was told all of the following by my colleagues:

  • "This is a biggest mistake you’ll ever make."
  • "You’ll have zero credibility once you’re no longer a professor."
  • "You’ll never be able to make your business work. Do you know how many businesses fail?"
  • "I’ve invested in your career and you owe me, you can’t leave."
  • "There’s a reason that nobody leaves: everybody wants what we have."
  • "Are you aware of the fact we’re in a recession?"
  • "I wouldn’t do that because you’ll never be able to come back."

I know it’s hard, but the second reason it’s so important to connect to nonacademic networks at this point is that when you’re in the early phases of exploration, the last thing you need is guilt, shame, fear, threats, and/or negativity energy. The larger lesson here is that if you’re considering leaving, stop talking to people who have not done what you want to do and start talking to the people who have: entrepreneurs, visionaries, change agents, community activists, artists, healers, nonacademic intellectuals, writers, organizers, politicians, etc. By doing so, you’ll start to realize two things pretty quickly: 1) There is a whole world out there of people who have Ph.D.s and aren’t professors by choice, and 2) Outside the academy, it’s normal to change professions, start over, and reinvent your career multiple times.

Step 4: Experiment and Analyze

The two biggest things that keep people from change are over-thinking and under-doing. So instead of imagining your exploration as one where you have to make some big dramatic change in one fell swoop, why not just come up with some ideas and playfully experiment with them (and I mean actually doing them)? In my own exit process I attended circus school and divinity school and the school of hard knocks (community organizing). Guess what? I failed at all of them! That’s great data (those are three things I can check off my list of possible future directions). None of these experiences were wasted time because they each forced me to step outside my comfort zone and get publicly uncomfortable by letting go of having to be the "expert" and instead becoming a student, and they all helped me to hone in on my true gifts and talents. So stick your neck out a little bit and see what happens.

The goal of these experiments is not just to try new things, but to get closer and closer to understanding your core gifts and talents. Some experiments come with immediate external feedback (such as someone yelling “help her, Jesus!” in the middle of my sermon), but since you’re trying out something new, it’s most important to stay tuned in to your internal feedback: How do you feel when you’re engaged in this activity, how is time flowing (fast or slow) and what is your level of pleasure and satisfaction when you’re done? Each of these data points will start to move you in a particular direction and give you a sense of whether you should continue the experiment or shift gears.

Step 5: Ask the Big Question

At the end of my experimenting stage, I ended up where I started: I’m a teacher. It’s not just what I do, it’s who I am at the core of my being (even if what I love most is teaching those who are also teachers). And with that part resolved, it was time to turn to the big question: What really matters to me? I mean that in the deepest way possible: what’s the change (or impact) I want to work toward in my lifetime? For me, I’m committed to working toward changing the culture and face of the academy so that it is inclusive, supportive, and diverse at the highest levels of power and decision-making. When I got clear about the answer to the big question, I realized that my institutional location was not the best vantage point to work from. The answer to this question is going to be different for me than it would be for a computer scientist leaving the academy to work at Google. But the point is to get honest with yourself about what really matters to YOU and then ask yourself if your current position provides you with the strongest platform.

Step 6: Find the Exit Door

Once you get clear about the direction, you’re only left with questions of form and opportunity. Do you want to start something new or join something that already exists? Do you prefer the ethos of nonprofits, for-profits, or government agencies? Do you know people who can help you to ferret out opportunities to either get a position you want or get your idea/organization/business/movement off the ground? This is the nuts-and-bolts phase, which can be exciting but also requires a tough combination of tenacity and patience.

Leaving a tenured professorship doesn’t happen overnight. You’ll need to plan an exit strategy that takes your commitments into consideration. If you have graduate students, you’ll need to tend to their transition. If you have writing projects in play, you’ll need to figure out how to wrap them up. There will be lots of decisions to make about all of the stuff that is tied up with your former identity of being a professor (e.g., what to do with your regalia, 15 years of teaching evaluations, and data you have laying around your office). And most importantly, you’ll have to prepare to undergo a dramatic shift in your professional identity.

The most critical piece of your exit plan will be your support system and safe space. You will inevitably have moments when all the gloom and doom predicted about your departure will feel like they are manifesting, when momentary setbacks make you second guess your decision, and there will be days you know it would have been easier if you could just teach freshmen how to construct a valid survey question for the 50th time. But what I hear more often than not from people who have thoughtfully and consciously chosen to leave the academy in order to pursue their true purpose is, "Why did I wait so long?"

It’s unfortunate that academic institutions don’t have a culture that supports faculty who choose to leave when the job no longer fits. It seems to me that building a clear exit door from the ivory tower (as opposed to forcing people to dig their own escape tunnels) would be a powerful step in the direction of institutional transformation.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore



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