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In June of 2022, I resigned from my position in the professoriate to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector. I had been following academic “quit lit” on blogs and social media with great interest for years, but the prevalence of those conversations on the internet did not prepare me for the responses I received from my community when I announced my departure.
My emails went out to everyone in my academic networks. In some cases, I explained that it was unlikely I would have the capacity to continue a research project and, in others, I simply wanted to share new contact information. The replies contained sentiments like, “How did you pull it off?” or “Would you look at my résumé?” Others said things like, “You should be proud—that was brave” or “In your position, I would have done the same thing.” Some of those emails came from tenured faculty, whose careers at prestigious universities would be the envy of most humanities and social sciences Ph.D. students aspiring to a job as a professor.
In the time that has passed since I resigned, I have reflected on the content of those emails. My announcement lifted an embargo I didn’t know was in place on a conversation many people want to have—about not only the career prospects for students enrolled in Ph.D. programs but also the marketability of a doctoral degree, especially in the humanities and social sciences, in various work environments. That conversation is naturally linked to the growing prevalence of contingent-labor jobs on higher education campuses.
The irony is that folks on social media or on journalistic platforms like this one are having such discussions at record high rates. So why, then, is it that no amount of conversation on these topics seems to meet the ever-increasing demand for it?
The answer is that we will never meet the demand for more dialogue until we can address the root causes of the need for it. For many Ph.D.s, pursuing a career outside the professoriate is isolating. Some of that isolation is inherent to all career changes, regardless of sector, and some of the isolation is distinct to abandoning a career as a faculty member. Throughout this and other upcoming articles, I will offer my reflections on the isolation experienced by those who transition away from the professoriate, framed around the sentiments expressed in the emails I received when I announced my departure. I will also share what I’ve learned on my journey in hopes of breaking through the conversational embargo for someone else.
Here are the key sentiments I heard when I announced I was leaving the professoriate.
“Faculty members at my university don’t understand my quandary or know how to help.” Increasingly, the vast majority of Ph.D. students who want tenure-track positions in the professoriate will not obtain them. Yet even when doctoral dissertation advisers are aware of the decline in job openings, they often receive no formal training from their employer on how to mentor students who will inevitably not work on university campuses. The incentives of these faculty to solve this puzzle are personal more than professional—they help because they care about their students and not because their job incentives align with helping.
Further, rarely does a Ph.D. adviser have firsthand experience. Most advisers have not sought employment outside the professoriate since receiving their own Ph.D.s, nor have they been a hiring manager for a staff position who reviews résumés instead of CVs. Even the Ph.D. adviser who is most dedicated to their students’ employability is not much better equipped to provide mentoring than the students they advise.
“I don’t know how to pick a new career path.” I have encountered this sentiment in many of the conversations I have had with folks since submitting my resignation. The challenge of selecting a new career path has two main components:
1. “I want a career that is mission-oriented and more than a paycheck …” Individuals who elect to pursue a Ph.D. often do so at least in part for immaterial reasons. My dissertation topic was motivated by my deep love for storytelling. I have friends whose work is dedicated to solving problems that have afflicted people they love. I recently met a group of oceanographers who were all enamored by all things maritime for reasons they couldn’t succinctly articulate.
When people contemplate a departure from the professoriate, those kinds of affective relationships to their work surface. A job search with affective criteria is isolating, because the task of identifying and replicating the source of that affect is a daunting personal challenge. Additionally, members of a Ph.D.’s nonacademic community, who may never have experienced an affective relationship to their own work, may inadvertently render a desire to love what one does absurd.
One group who will undoubtedly share this sentiment about a mission-oriented career is other university faculty members, who may wield it to dissuade colleagues from searching for alternatives. In my experience, the sentiment is also shared by folks who have elected other careers of service, whether as K-12 teachers or members of the armed forces.
… and 2. “I don’t want one of the commonly pitched career alternatives.” Staff roles in higher education are commonly examined alternatives for Ph.D.s looking to leave the professoriate. The advantages of this strategy are fairly clear: universities understand the value of a Ph.D., former doctoral students are intimately familiar with how the sector operates and a large portion of the people in one’s professional network hold jobs in higher education. But still, many of the frustrations that drive Ph.D.s to abandon the professoriate—reduced state funding, the corporatization of the classroom, the increased need to “sell” a university degree to students and parents, among others—also plague administrative offices on university campuses.
As the dialogue on abandoning the professoriate has proliferated, Ph.D.s and former professors alike have sought employment as UX/UI researchers; that option is often presented as another viable career path. It is true that many tech companies fill hard-to-staff researcher roles with bright Ph.D.s, well versed in research and analysis. Those careers offer solid paychecks and benefits in our nation’s most desirable urban environments.
But what to do if you simply don’t want that job? Process of elimination is a good method for picking a career path, even if it takes longer than alternatives. But rejecting the two most common alternatives to jobs in the professoriate reduces options when looking for a mentor.
“How do I look for a job that meets other life criteria?” As I write, I am working with a career coach on discerning how to puzzle my employment into my other life pursuits. My resignation from the professoriate was motivated partially by my desire to live in certain places. I also have a partner, and his career prospects played a role in my decision, even if he didn’t want them to. I desire a vibrant social life, cultural activities, easy access to a waterfront and good food. Above, I mentioned a tenured university faculty member who replied to my emails and expressed their envy of my decision; this sentiment is the one that underpins that envy. Many professors wish they could live closer to family or find time for a neglected hobby.
The problem of fitting work into life is not unique to individuals looking to leave the professoriate, and I am not convinced that it ever has more than a fleeting solution. As life changes, the place of work within it will also always change. What is distinct about this question for folks leaving the professoriate is the overload that accompanies suddenly having many options. The career transition is a fresh opportunity for inventorying priorities and re-optimizing choices that have become automated over time for many other professionals.
“The nuts and bolts of a career transition are elusive.” Because the number of job opportunities in the professoriate has declined, academic departments and the colleges that house them have rolled out formalized training on how to best position oneself as a candidate when applying for those jobs. On many campuses, the equivalent training for seeking jobs outside the professoriate does not yet exist. In all fairness, each sector or industry may well require its own niche training, and the mission of equipping Ph.D.s to identify careers outside the professoriate is likely a taller order than most critics would be willing to acknowledge. In response to a call for formalized training on job seeking, many university administrators would likely point to their underresourced career centers and then advocate for the less formal resources that now appear on blogs and in social media.
As a result, the “How did you pull it off?” sentiment was prevalent in the email responses I got in reply to the news of my resignation. I benefited from informal support as I built my résumé, combed through job ads, submitted applications and learned how to leverage networking platforms like LinkedIn. Much of that support came from family and friends who knew my academic work well and helped me pull the jargon out of my descriptions of my career experience. Although much of the advice I received was tailored to my search for a job at a nonprofit organization, most of what I learned would apply across sectors. Universities that offer Ph.D.s could very well organize informational sessions on the various topics that arise when assembling job materials. At the very least, those sessions would attract like-minded students from across the campus who might not otherwise and who could share information.
“I need a conversation partner, and the partner I desire is not present.” Perhaps the largest variable that contributes to the isolation of career transitions for Ph.D.s is the desire for, and lack of, a specific conversation partner: the university. In a world where a university can tend to view Ph.D. students in terms of the prestige they generate, the cheap labor they provide and the union fights they start, it is no surprise that those students feel the absence of the university’s mentoring about career prospects beyond the campus. When university campuses do have robust career advising for Ph.D. students who would look beyond the professoriate, the career centers and programs they offer are driven by a handful of dedicated staff who have coalesced around an important mission. Those staff members make a big difference in the career prospects of their mentees but are often disempowered to interrogate either the rendering of graduate school as “not real-world experience” by other sectors or the university’s dependence on the labor of graduate students and negligible regard for what happens when they finish their studies.
The last of these sentiments—related to the absence of the university as conversation partner—is perhaps the greatest contributor to the isolation faced by Ph.D.s looking to leave the professoriate behind. Folks will continue to stay hungry for dialogue on whether, how and when to leave until that isolation is acknowledged and explicitly addressed.