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“Why are you leaving academe?”
I ask grad students versions of this question in hundreds of practice interviews every year. I ask it because it’s a pretty common questions asked of Ph.D.s looking for jobs outside academe, and I ask it to assess how they’ll approach talking about how their career is changing.
Most of the time, their first-draft answers just don’t cut it. People’s first impulse is, understandably, to answer the question literally and talk about the things that are pushing them out of academe, in all their messy detail. But that’s not really what the question is asking -- an interviewer doesn’t want your life story. They want to know about why you’re excited and what you can contribute.
What I recommend when I’m debriefing with someone after a practice interview, and what I’m recommending to you here, is to talk less about what’s pushing you out of academe and more about what’s pulling you toward something new. This little shift can help you give employers what they’re asking for and help you better understand your path forward.
Why You Should Avoid the Push
A lot of things may be pushing you out of academe. That’s the case for many of the students and postdocs I meet with every year who are pursuing careers beyond it. They’re facing really bad faculty job markets. They’re sick of the never-ending pressure to chase external funding. They’re frustrated that they spend months writing articles almost no one reads. They’ve experienced microaggressions and bias in academic settings and just feel done with the whole thing. Those are all important reasons for pursuing other paths. But they aren’t the most useful answer to the question at hand.
When you spend time explaining the inner workings of academe -- which most employers don’t care about anyway -- rather than talking about yourself, it can seem as though you’re not ready to leave it. Indeed, one of the main reasons they might ask the question in first place is that they’re wondering how committed you are to the job you’re applying for, as it might appear that you’ve spent years preparing for something else. They may worry that if they hire you, they’ll just have to run another search a few months down the line when you head back into academe. Or they may think that they’re your second choice and that maybe you aren’t very interested in the work.
It can also make you seem negative and bitter. Which, honestly, you might be! There’s lots to complain about in academe and lots of problems that may have made it hard for you to thrive in it. But an interview for another kind of job probably isn’t the place to explore that. In a session with your therapist or a conversation with your friends, you might talk through all the complex messiness of your career, and all your complex and messy feelings about it. An interview, in contrast, is a performance in which you present a version of yourself that is accurate but not complete. And it’s usually a good idea to focus on the positive in that context.
How to Focus on the Pull
Emphasizing what’s pulling you toward a new thing, rather than pushing you away from the old one, can help you both reinforce your excitement and camouflage any bitterness. And it’s not just about tone. It requires a reorientation of your narrative strategy from one that primarily looks backward to one that looks ahead, actively and with some excitement about the prospect of the future.
How exactly you reorient yourself will depend on your circumstances and personality, but here are three approaches to spark your thinking in that direction.
I got excited about something new. Change the scope of the story you’re telling by zooming in on a moment or experience that got you excited about this new path: “During graduate school, I organized a conference that had a ton of moving parts, and I loved the project management aspects of it. So as I finished my degree, I sought out opportunities to hone my project management skills, and I’m excited to do that work full-time moving forward.”
This approach helps you explain why you’re shifting gears while also driving home your eagerness to have a job like theirs. (And zooming in helps you fight the impulse to tell them your whole life story.) Keep in mind that you don’t have to be excited about everything about your new path. Indeed, you probably won’t be. Instead, figure out what is exciting and pivot on that.
Actually, it’s less different than you think. One of the reasons people ask the question is that it seems to them as though the most obvious next step after a Ph.D. is something else like it (even if they aren’t sure what that is). One way you can respond, then, is to emphasize the continuity between what you’ve been doing and what you’re interviewing to do. That could look like helping them understand the “job-ness” of graduate school, explaining what you did as a teacher or researcher in language drawn from their field, or emphasizing personal qualities (curiosity, persistence and so on) that you honed in grad school that you’ll bring to the next stage of your career.
It turns out your setting is perfect for me. They may be asking because they assume that, since you’ve spent so long in an academic setting, you must like it -- maybe to the exclusion of other kinds of places. Think about what about the new context would be a good fit for you and your goals. It might even be worth considering what about the new place is different than academe and what you like about that difference: “I went to graduate school to make a positive impact on the world, and I learned a ton of useful skills in the process. Now, I’m eager to be in a setting where I can use those skills to make a more immediate and larger-scale impact, which is why this career is perfect for me.” Not only will this help interviewers see how you would be a good fit, it has the added benefit of making them feel good about themselves and their work.
Doing this kind of reorientation will help you more successfully answer a land mine of an interview question in ways that are appealing to employers. And it can also help you claim some power in your career shift. When you’re just being pushed forward, you could go in any direction and may not have a choice where you end up. The kind of pull I’ve been talking about isn’t something reaching out and grabbing you. Instead, it’s about you finding something interesting and pulling yourself toward it. Much more than with a push, you can set the route and follow your interests toward your next adventure.