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In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the common experience of grief in higher ed career transitions. In this piece, we share strategies for navigating grief while transitioning roles within higher ed. In the upcoming third and final piece, we’ll share strategies for navigating grief when transitioning to a career path beyond higher ed. 

Higher education as we once knew it no longer exists. Long gone are the days of widespread academic freedom; civil discourse; espoused values of diversity, equity and inclusion; and the protections promotion and tenure once enjoyed.

To this point, many colleagues we have spoken with and clients we have coached have shared that they are at a crossroads in their higher ed careers. For many, their choice to transition to a new role within higher education, whether within their institution or to another institution, has come with great trepidation about the current state of affairs in higher education and the desire to move into a role that would give them the opportunity to better align themselves personally and professionally.

The widely known Kubler-Ross model defines grief as occurring in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although we acknowledge here that grief does not occur in a linear fashion, it is important to note that we may find ourselves grieving as we move on to the next chapter in our careers. Perhaps in this ever-changing higher ed landscape, transitioning to a new career chapter can bring up sadness about moving on from a position that once felt like a dream job. Perhaps your reasons for this move may be due to finding a role that is better aligned with your values and goals or a stepping-stone as you determine what your options may be as you grapple with the complexities of higher education. Either way, grief has an uncanny way of showing up as we make these career shifts. As we reflect on the ways grief shows up in the midst of our career transitions, we want to provide a few examples of how this may unfold.

Recognizing that grief is a natural human response that is elicited when we lose something of personal significance can help us better prepare for the support we need in the midst of our career transitions. For example, if you are moving from a faculty to an administrative leadership role, you may find yourself grieving the time you once had to do your research or the classroom interactions you had with your students. On the other hand, if you are transitioning as a graduate student or postdoc to a staff role in higher ed, you may be grieving the fact that your original career aspirations may have shifted. For instance, many Ph.D.s who go on to fulfilling staff or alt-ac careers first go through a process of grieving the faculty career that most doctoral programs prepare us to anticipate and desire. On the other hand, if you are moving into emeritus status, you may be grieving the long career you had and grappling with the next phase of your life as your academic career ends. If you are higher ed support staff, perhaps you have chosen to pivot to another institution due to limited opportunities, financial worries or other concerns. The grief of leaving behind trusted colleagues and students may be a part of your transition.

While we are often excited and eager to move into our new roles, experiencing grief alongside other emotions is common. Even if we are remaining at the same institution, we are often leaving behind some or all of our previous work, commitments and professional relationships as we transition to a new role. Making space to process the grief that comes with those we are leaving behind is an important part of the transition. Though these examples are far from the only career transitions we experience during our higher education careers, they serve as examples for how grief can unfold when we move on.

Strategies for Navigating Grief in Transitions Within Higher Ed

While grief is a common and normal aspect of career transitions within higher ed, intentionally leveraging strategies to navigate that grief can support a smoother transition.

  • Whether you’re staying at the same institution or moving to a new institution, be intentional about making time to continue to connect with colleagues with whom you’ve built meaningful relationships even as you build new relationships in your new role.
  • Seek out and take advantage of opportunities to continue work that was important to you in a previous role, even if in a less involved way than you did in your previous role. For instance, if you’re moving into administrative leadership from a research-focused faculty role, while you may no longer be leading multiple research projects, you can be strategic about choosing one collaborative project to participate in each semester or academic year. Similarly, if you’re moving out of a teaching-focused role, while you may not be teaching multiple courses a semester anymore, teaching a special topics seminar every other academic year may be feasible and help you keep connected to students and to your identity as a teacher if those are important to you. Don’t simply assume that if you’re moving from a role with one focus to a role with another focus that you will automatically never be able to do any of the work you did in a previous role again. Be intentional, creative and curious about how to build a professional portfolio that allows you to continue to pursue the kinds of work that are most meaningful and important to you.
  • Connect with other colleagues who have navigated a similar transition and ask their advice about their experiences, including how they navigated giving up or scaling back aspects of roles that they previously enjoyed while moving into a role similar to your new role.
  • Create space for yourself to experience the full human range of emotions common to career transitions and seek community and support from others who do the same.

While we may not be fully prepared to navigate the aftermath of emotions as we move on, we can be intentional about building awareness of the grief that can exist in the midst of career transitions and how we choose to navigate grief if it is a part of our career journey.

In the next and final piece in this series, we discuss the grief that often accompanies the decision to leave higher ed and share strategies for navigating that grief while transitioning to a postacademic career.

Chinasa Elue (she/her) is an associate professor of educational leadership and higher education at Kennesaw State University, grief coach and the CEO and founder of True Titans Consulting Group and professional speaker who shares on how grief and loss impact our daily lives. Brandy L. Simula (she/they) is an award-winning consultant; ICF-certified executive, leadership and career coach; and professional speaker who works at the intersections of leadership development, DEIB and well-being and human flourishing.

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