This piece is the third and final one in this series on navigating grief in higher ed career transitions. In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the common experience of grief in higher ed career transitions. In Part 2 we shared strategies for navigating grief while transitioning roles within higher ed. In this piece, we share strategies for navigating grief when transitioning to a career path beyond higher ed.
We have witnessed a sea change happening in the ivory tower. Faculty, administrators and staff alike have had an opportunity during the pandemic and beyond to engage in deep introspection, and many have come to the conclusion that it is time to set their sights beyond the realm of higher education. As the Great Resignation has impacted several industries, higher education has not been immune to professionals making the choice to take their talents elsewhere. In fact, a recent study found that more than half of higher ed employees are considering leaving. For some colleagues , arriving at this decision may have come after careful deliberation on the impact of projected enrollment declines, political interference, increased inflation amidst low wages and other critical issues. For others, making the decision to leave higher ed may also be attributed to a shift in personal and professional values and the desire to better align themselves in ways that support their long-term success.
Colleagues ranging from newly minted PhDs to tenured faculty members have cited their decisions to leave higher ed due to increasing cognitive dissonance experienced during and after the pinnacle of the COVID-19 pandemic. These sentiments were heightened during a time when leaders espoused a commitment to inclusive, healthy vibrant workplace cultures but pursued or maintained policies that prevented employees from thriving. Further, many were forced out of their institutions as an act of self-preservation amidst a lack of psychological and physical safety. One question that arises across these scenarios is this: Is it time to go?
Whether you are still grappling with that question or have arrived at the decision to leave, grief is a highly common part of the experience when we decide to move on. For many, leaving a career in higher ed is a decision that may have resulted from the work losing its luster and excitement. Some of the contributing factors for this happening may include disillusionment, burnout, exhaustion, chronic under compensation and overwork, and/or betrayal. Additionally, for those grieving higher ed careers, grief often may involve grieving the imagined future—the idea of a career that never materialized or even the ideal version of academic institutions we were led to believe in that conflicted with our lived experiences in these academic cultures and systems. Even for those who choose to leave higher ed primarily because they are excited by the possibilities of a new career path rather than being pushed out by the more negative experiences common to many, grief is common.
Strategies for Navigating Grief When Leaving Higher Education
Making the decision to leave a field you may have once thought would be your permanent professional home requires taking the time, we need to process the many emotions that remain once you exit your role.
For several of the colleagues we talked with who made the decision to leave, the choice was made after experiencing harsh treatment from colleagues and leaders who simply put their goals and agenda items over the well-being and success of others. When colleagues made the decision to go, they often questioned why they tolerated such treatment or stayed in a such a toxic place for so long.
Wherever you are on the continuum in your decision to leave higher ed, these strategies can help you navigate the grief that is a common experience in transitions to post-academic careers:
- Be strategic in deciding when and how to scale and step back from your academic commitments, prioritizing work that brings meaning and purpose and stepping back from commitments and projects that drain you or do not align with your values. Meaning and purpose help buffer grief.
- Be intentional about connecting with trusted friends, family and colleagues with whom you can share your intention to leave. Too often, we see higher ed colleagues navigating the decision-making process and the transition out of higher ed alone. Navigating grief alone often exacerbates the severity of grief and accompanying feelings of isolation.
- Understand that the lack of acknowledgment of your contributions and decision to leave that are often experienced by those transitioning to a post-academic career are not a reflection of your actual contributions, worth or value, but are reflective of a system that recognizes and rewards only those who stay. Consider whether and how you want to stay connected to the academy—to your previous work, colleagues, etc. There is no right answer, and your answer can and often will change as you move forward in your career.
- Give yourself space to process the often complicated emotions that commonly arise in the transition to a post-academic career. Over and over, we have coached and connected with former academics who also experience a series of secondary losses—the additional losses (i.e., loss in income, networks, potential opportunities)—they have to navigate once they make the choice to move on. We often see those who are leaving second-guess their decisions when they experience feelings of grief. Grief is not necessarily indicative of a wrong decision or flawed decision-making process, but is, instead, a normal part of transitioning away from the institutions, work and colleagues we have been affiliated with.
Whether you are excited about your career transition and experiencing only minimal grief or are experiencing a significant amount of grief, giving yourself permission to experience the full range of emotions that are actually present is critical to moving forward.
It is OK—and, we suggest, important—to give yourself space to grieve. Doing so does not invalidate your decision to leave or hamper your ability to thrive in your next career chapter. Just the opposite: giving yourself space to process grief supports the healing process that will deepen your ability to thrive in the career chapter that lies ahead.