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As a new academic year begins, there may be several colleagues who have made the choice to move on to different roles, whether within higher education or beyond. What often is undiscussed during our career transitions is the messy middle—the excitement and joy of the next professional move coupled with the fear and grief that may be following close behind. Transitioning to a new job often comes with its fair share of emotional baggage that warrants time to process so that we can flourish in our next professional role.

In this series, we draw on the ways grief has shown up in our own career transitions as well as the career transitions of higher ed clients we have coached who have chosen to pursue other professional opportunities. Chinasa is bringing into this conversation her experiences as a grief researcher who examines how grief shows up in the various intersections in our lives. She is a certified grief coach supporting clients in professional transitions in their careers and has personal experiences around her own career transitions from higher ed staff to faculty, coupled with becoming an academic entrepreneur.

Brandy draws on her experience transitioning first from a faculty to a staff role and then to work beyond the academy. She also brings her experiences as a certified career coach supporting clients in professional transitions to roles both within and beyond the academy and her background as a social psychologist who studied identity transitions and processes during the faculty chapter of her career to inform this work.

What Does Grief Look Like in Career Transitions?

A working definition of grief is the natural and universal human reaction that arises when someone or something of personal significance is lost. The losses we experience in career transitions are vast, from the loss of professional identity, key networks, purpose and meaning, and relationships to financial compensation, just to name a few. These losses contribute to the overwhelming grief that is often present when we are transitioning to a new role.

But few talk about the grief that lingers when we transition to a new role, whether that role is within our organization, in a new organization or on an entirely different career path. What do you do when you have acquired credentials, skills and years of experience but come to the realization that you need to move on? For others who may have been laid off, the grief lies in being terminated from an organization you made significant contributions to and having your professional identity and relationships involuntarily taken from you. When these transitions happen, oftentimes there is a deep sadness in knowing that our professional identities are shifting and the relationships and networks we have built over the years are gone.

Necessary and Unanticipated Grief

If we can be honest, navigating grief is challenging but imperative to avoid carrying the residual impact of our previous experiences into our next career chapter. We must address the necessary grief that accompanies our career changes—whether we are transitioning to a new role within higher education or beyond. The necessary grief we are referring to here is the emotional process of mourning the professional lives we may have formerly led and the responsibilities, networks and experiences we are leaving behind. Going into a new role without processing your lingering emotions may stunt your opportunities to engage authentically in your new role and fully embrace your new professional identity.

In this same vein, there is the unanticipated grief that we must navigate—the grief that exists when our professional aspirations or desired outcomes do not materialize. For professionals transitioning within higher ed or beyond, this grief may be present when unpacking how one’s professional opportunities did not materialize into the career path once hoped for. When this is the case, we are forced to move on out of necessity. This is often the case for graduate students, faculty and staff who may have poured many years into higher education but find themselves in a precarious position when they are not able find the financial and professional stability they need.

Further, navigating grief in higher education is particularly hard because a large part of our socialization in our professional roles is wrapped up in our academic identity and defined expertise within our respective fields. Leaving and untethering ourselves from this identity requires various shifts in perspective and the space to process the lingering emotions that remain. Faculty navigating the transition to an administrative leadership role, graduate students, postdocs and those leaving academic careers for staff roles within higher ed or roles beyond higher ed commonly experience both necessary and unanticipated grief.

Preparing for the Next Chapter

For many who are transitioning to a new role, you may feel like your feelings of grief are inappropriate since you are supposed to be celebrating your new role and moving on to the next chapter. Yet moving into a new position often involves grieving the many enjoyable aspects and relationships that accompanied a previous role. Allowing yourself space to experience the full, normal, complex range of human emotions that often accompanies moving to a new position is an important part of successfully navigating to your next chapter. Importantly, experiencing grief or sadness about the relationships, accomplishments and enjoyable aspects of a prior role that we necessarily must leave behind does not mean that we made a wrong decision or should second-guess ourselves.

Part of preparing to successfully navigate a new chapter involves creating space to experience the full range of emotions that we commonly experience during career transitions. While grief is an often-silenced experience during career transitions, giving yourself permission to grieve the aspects of a previous career you will miss is an important step in preparing for your next career chapter, whether that chapter is within or beyond higher ed.

In the next piece, we’ll discuss how to navigate the grief that often accompanies transitioning between roles within higher ed, whether one is changing roles within an institution (e.g., from faculty to administrative leadership), navigating a transition to a new institution as part of taking on a new role or transitioning out of higher education, and we will share strategies for working through grief while navigating these transitions.

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