Leaving Tenure Behind

Eliza Woolf interviews a woman who gave up tenure to focus on a career path outside academe.
March 7, 2011

Ann Daly, a former tenured women’s studies professor at the University of Texas, spent decades pursuing other professions — journalism, academic scholarship, and teaching — before discovering her true calling. After 17 years publishing and teaching in women's studies, Ann decided to put her expert knowledge on women's lives and issues to use outside the academy. She gave up tenure and now operates her own website and business as a life/career coach, public speaker, and author for professional women. As a coach, Ann’s primary goal is to help women in a wide variety of professions to discover confidence and achieve their ambitions. The author of five successful books, including Clarity: How to Accomplish What Matters Most, Ann has also recently published a new audiobook for professional women seeking to change careers, Do-Over! How Women are Reinventing their Lives.

Q. You began your career as a journalist. What prompted you to pursue a Ph.D. in performance studies?

A: After several years as a feature writer at a major daily newspaper, I realized I had hit my learning limit there. At that time, I aspired to become a dance critic, so I went to graduate school in order to learn more about dance and performance. Lucky for me, the New York University Performance Studies program included an outstanding feminist theory faculty. I had been thinking, writing, and advocating for women since high school, when I wrote my original oratory speech about gender roles in Brazil, where I had spent the summer of my junior year. I immediately took to feminist theory and criticism in grad school.

Q. After 17 successful years as a women's studies professor, why did you decide to leave your tenured position in the academy?

A: I was dissatisfied and bored for a long, long time before I made my escape. My reasons were several. First, academia wasn’t a good fit for me. I’m a high-autonomy person, and my university had become increasingly bureaucratic and committee-obsessed over the years. Second, my foundational intellectual questions about women and culture were leading me outside into the "real world." Third, I got bored in such a static environment. Seventeen years is a long time to be teaching the same thing in the same classroom and discussing the same problems in the same faculty meeting room. Fourth, I wanted to develop new capacities. The supreme irony is that my core desire, to constantly learn and grow, was thwarted within the very cultural institution that is supposed to advance learning.

Q. Now you run your own life/career coaching business, focusing specifically on helping women achieve their ambitions. What’s involved in that?

A: I work with smart, successful women who want to take it to the next level. I help them get clear about what they want, and how to get it. My clients are professionals and executives. I also coach several professors, as well! I bring a special level of insight to their career challenges.

Q. Did you have any business experience before starting your own company? What lessons have you had to learn to make your coaching business a success?

A: No, absolutely no business experience. Not so much as a childhood lemonade stand. The better question is: What lessons didn’t I have to learn!? Some days I woke up begging for someone to hand me a syllabus, but it was really the thrill of learning a dozen new things a day that kept me jazzed. In fact, my mantra for several years was: “Live and learn.” It was my way of reminding myself that it’s all a learning experience. What I didn’t get right the first time, I’d nail the next time. No need to beat myself up for it. The scariest things I had to learn were how to reach out and network, how to market and sell, and how to think/plan strategically. Five years later, those are among my favorite skills and activities. Go figure.

Q. What inspires you the most about working with women in particular?

A: I am never so high as after a private coaching session. I am constantly amazed, inspired, and humbled by my clients' hunger to grow and willingness to risk what’s comfortable for what’s possible. Many of my clients are over 40, and what I just love about working with them is that they’ve let go of the "disease to please." They don’t give a fig about what the world thinks about them anymore, and they are poised for blast-off. They are pure potential energy, on the verge of becoming pure power. As a feminist, I’m thrilled to witness the release of power, one woman at a time.

Q. Are the skills you learned in the academy, both as a graduate student and as a professor, useful in your work today?

A: Absolutely, I see my work today as a continuation of my research and teaching. In terms of content, my coaching is deeply informed by feminist theory. In terms of form, my coaching grows out of those years helping graduate students define their own research agendas. I trained in deep listening and strategic questioning. I think of coaching as simply a different form of teaching.

Q. You’ve recently published a new audiobook, Do-Over! How Women are Reinventing their Lives. Can you tell us about it? What’s next for you?

A: The Do-Over! audiobook is an anthology of essays I’d written for publications, as well as for my own e-letter. It’s a series of stories and strategies about all sorts of real women who have reinvented themselves. It’s a very personal work, too, beginning with my dad and ending with my mom. So it’s kind of memoir-meets-self-help-meets narrative. I also put together a series of workbooks to help readers customize their own reinvention roadmaps. (I was always the queen of handouts.)

What’s next? I am focusing on a media strategy to expand my reach. Much of it is online, social media. I’m thinking about starting up my own Linked-In group. This summer I am going to create a “career audit” product for younger women, who I find are realizing pretty quickly that they need to proactively shape their career early or risk stalling out in their 40s.

Q. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with other Ph.D.s who might be considering nonacademic careers?

A: It’s a big, beautiful, exciting world out there! I highly recommend it.

If you’d like to read more about Ann Daly’s transition out of academe, visit her website and sign up for her free e-letter at http://www.anndaly.com


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