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During the last two years, the academy has seen a significant exodus of faculty and staff who are moving not just to different institutions, but out of the academy altogether, driven by burnout, disillusionment and demoralization. In fact, a recent study found that a 55 percent of faculty—including more than a third of tenured faculty—are considering leaving.
If you’re considering whether you, too, might want to explore options beyond the academy, this series is for you.
Drawing on my experience coaching dozens of graduate students, postdocs, staff, faculty and higher ed leaders who have transitioned to careers beyond the academy—along with my own experience of moving to industry after a decade in faculty and staff roles—in this multipart series I’ll share strategies for deciding when to consider career paths beyond the academy, exploring careers outside higher ed, launching a successful search and flourishing in a career beyond the academy.
When and Why to Explore Career Paths Beyond the Academy
There’s no right or wrong time to consider careers beyond the academy. Many people have experienced languishing, frustration and burnout during the pandemic, and it’s useful to consider whether the pandemic or your job itself may be driving your current feelings about your career.
Some indicators that it may be an appropriate time to explore other career options:
- Your curiosity about other career paths started before the pandemic.
- Your sense of dissatisfaction or frustration with your current career has lasted more than a semester, especially if it has extended across more than a single institution or position.
- You have the nagging sense that there might be another career in which you could be happier, less stressed and/or more fulfilled.
People decide to explore careers beyond the academy for a wide variety of reasons, all of which are valid:
- Wanting to change career fields
- Being excited by the prospect of applying your skills and experience in a different context
- Experiencing chronic burnout
- Wanting more opportunities for career advancement than are available in many academic contexts
- Wanting better compensation than is available in higher ed
- Experiencing consistent undervaluing or lack of appreciation for yourself and/or your work—especially if you’ve already changed roles and/or institutions
- Realizing that the culture, values and/or mission of the academy are misaligned with your own personal values and ethics
- Wanting greater job stability than is available in many non-tenure-track higher ed positions
- Wanting work-life alignment options such as geographic mobility or remote or hybrid work that may not be available in your current academic career path
The quit lit genre—writings of academics who have left the academy for other career paths—is a rich source of narratives of how and why academics have decided to leave and how they navigated their career transitions. Books including Christopher Caterine’s Leaving Academia, Joseph Fruscione and Kelly J. Baker’s Succeeding Outside the Academy, and Jennifer Brown Urban and Miriam R. Linver’s Building a Career Outside Academia provide a wealth of information on career paths and job searches beyond academia. On Twitter and LinkedIn, the hashtags #LeavingAcademia, #HireHigherEd, #PhDCareers, #BeyondAcademia, #AltAc, #PostAc and #TranslateAcademia are full of advice and resources from academics who have made the transition or are currently in the process of doing so.
As you are exploring whether a career beyond the academy might be a fit for you, it’s also worth considering whether changes to how you’re doing the work of your current position could help you reconnect with the joy, meaning and purpose you may have previously experienced in that work, as well as whether a similar career path at a different institution or a different career path within the academy could provide the change you may be seeking.
Importantly, even if you do decide to leave the academy, you don’t have to separate entirely from academia unless you choose to. A plethora of academic adjacent career paths exist: ed tech, academic publishing, academic and professional organizations, research organizations, applied research, K-12 ed, etc. Whether you decide to pursue academic adjacent or other roles, you can choose to conduct research as an independent scholar, teach through adjunct appointments or community programs, etc.
At the end of the day, remember that deciding to explore options beyond the academy doesn’t commit you to leaving, just to exploring.
In the next piece in this series, I’ll share strategies for exploring career paths outside the academy, researching potential employers and taking care of yourself while navigating a career transition.
Brandy L. Simula (she/her/hers) is a consultant, coach and professional speaker working at the intersections of leadership and organizational development, people and culture strategy, DEIB, and well-being. After a decade working as a scholar, teacher and administrator in higher ed, she transitioned to a leadership development role at a Fortune 50 in 2021. Read more about her work at brandysimula.com.