Getting Ready to Leave Academe

Greta Perel offers some first steps for those thinking about alternative careers.

March 8, 2018
Image of exit sign

Spend a gut-wrenching afternoon gorging on quit lit and you’ll find there’s no shortage of reasons why people leave academe. People leave because they didn’t make tenure, because they lost funding, because they can’t stand yet another year on the job market. People leave because adjuncting has exhausted them physically, emotionally and financially. People leave because the only alternative to publishing is perishing. People leave because they’ve simply lost interest and want to move on.

There’s no telling what drives a person to flip over the desk and pack up the office -- breaking points are as unique as fingerprints. But how does one exit the ivory tower? Well, that’s not so clear in the quit-lit canon -- fortunately, it’s not too difficult, either.

Step 1: Take Care of Yourself

No joke, leaving academe is stressful. It can feel like failure. It’s depressing. It’s emotional. All those feelings are normal, but they can get exhausting real fast. That’s why leaving higher ed means that you have to take care of yourself. Sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Fresh air and sunshine. That kind of stuff, every day.

For years, you’ve pushed your limits, pursued impossibly high standards and beaten yourself up when you couldn’t reach them. Those are some bad habits, and quitting means you have to make some new ones. That means ditching the constant self-flagellation. That means resting your body, feeding it well and doing things that just feel good -- hanging out, taking it easy and not working so damn much. Take your self-care seriously and you’ll have a much easier exit.

Step 2: Think About What You Want

We’re used to going where the jobs are, teaching outside our interests and writing for the reviewers. When do we get to be picky? Never, for most academics. Despite having three little letters behind your name, it’s hard not to feel like a beggar for your teaching and research. And everyone knows beggars can’t be choosers.

Or can we? You can when you make the decision to quit, and being picky is exactly what needs to happen at this point. So be picky! What do you want out of your work? What kind of problems do you want to think about? What do you want your day to look like? What motivates you? What do you want to be known for? Whom do you want to be around, and where do you want to be? What perks do you need in your life? Start working on that list of demands! Make it long, detailed and incredibly juicy.

Step 3: Tell Your Academic Co-Workers

It’s one thing to admit to yourself that you need to leave. It’s another when you admit it to other people. It’s hard not to wonder whether you should skip the awkward conversations all together.

But when you leave, it’s important to say goodbye to your co-workers in the classroom, lab and library. Open up about what you’re doing and how you feel. Tell them what you’re looking forward to in your next career and what you’ll miss about the one you’re leaving behind. Be honest with them. More often than not, you’ll find that you’re not the only one who feels that way -- and that is a really, really good feeling.

Step 4: Talk to People Who Have Cool Jobs

Almost there! Hands down, this is the best part of leaving -- you’ll take your demands from Step 2 and start looking for job titles, descriptions and organizations that line up with your wish list. Then head to LinkedIn and start searching for people who have those titles. Set up time to talk with them; ask what their work is like and how they got their start. Ask for lots of advice, just don’t ask for a job -- that’s not what informational interviews are for!

Don’t forget to work your network, either! Start asking friends, co-workers and acquaintances if they know anyone who works in positions you’d find interesting. It can be as simple as asking, “I’m looking for someone who does research for tech companies. Do you know anyone who does something like that?” or “I’m interested in instructional design -- know anyone who does training and education for an organization?” Ask away and be amazed at what turns up!

Talk about what you want, ask for introductions and, before you know it, you’ll start learning about new opportunities. You’ll start getting introductions to people who very much want to hire you. In short, it’s around this time when you stop leaving academe and you start arriving at your new career.


Greta Perel graduated as an unemployed Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in 2012 and now owns a consulting practice within the marketing and advertising industry. She also works to support transitions out of traditional faculty careers.


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