Updated May 1, 2021
This post is one of the first I ever wrote. It laid the groundwork for a lot of my thinking about post-PhD careers that ended up in my book, Doctoring: Building a Life After a PhD—read a sample for free on Amazon.
Leaving academia isn’t like switching jobs. It doesn’t just entail finding ways to plug your “transferable skills” into a resume or figuring out how to talk about your research in non-academic terms. Here’s the real shit the university career counselor didn’t tell you.
It’s more like part of you dying.
For a lot of students studying for PhDs or Master’s, especially the ones who are in fields that don’t have a lot of obvious “real world” applications, leaving academia is a death.
It’s a death of what you thought was important and devoted your life to, of hopes and dreams you’ve nourished for a long time.
You feel betrayed by the university that recruited you, by mentors past and present who reeled you in with their stories of your great chances of making it as an academic. You realize that your unpublished work, much of it representing years of blood, sweat, and tears, is going to end up on the back of your hard drive somewhere and never be seen.
I’ve gone through it all, and I’ve learned a lot as I did. So from the good, the bad, and the ugly, here is what nobody told me about leaving academia.
1. Getting a job isn’t the hardest part
In Maslow’s PhD hierarchy of needs, getting a job often trumps finding what makes you happy. So for the months I spent unemployed as I was finishing my PhD, worrying that I’d be a barista at Starbucks or a construction laborer, the job was my concern.
Then I got a job. It was a big kid job with a pension. And in a lot of ways it was a great job. I did some really cool stuff.
And I wasn’t happy.
Aside from dealing with the loss of my academic identity (which I wrote about in this post), getting out and into a job was the easy part (I know it doesn’t feel like it if you’re unemployed). It took months rather than years. From that moment on, I had great experience on my resume and the potential to be employed for life, with a pension and dental! My post-PhD story could have been written then.
But the search for a meaningful career was much more than the search for a job.
The bigger story of your post-PhD life is finding out once again what makes you happy.
There are two main parts to this in my experience:
- The first is to try as many things as you can until something clicks and you love it.
- The second is to slowly take apart the blueprint you’ve built for your life. You know, the one that says “I will only be happy if I have a tenure-track job at an R1 university.”
Most PhDs will never achieve that blueprint, as L. Maren Wood says, “it’s the math; it’s not you.”
You know what’s ironic about this?
One of the strange secrets I’ve discovered since starting Roostervane is how many tenure-track professors are miserable. I get a message from at least one a week telling me that they are considering a career change and that they are figuring out how to transition. Some hate working in the university in all its brokenness. Some are tired of discrimination. Some found that they got what every PhD dreams of and it wasn’t as great as it’s cracked up to be. Some live far from family. And, by the way, many make no money.
Now I’m not knocking a tenure-track job if you can get it.
But I am suggesting that, if it’s not in the cards for you, it’s not worth being miserable for the rest of your life.
Tear up that tenure-track happiness blueprint and start building a new one. Redefine what success looks like for you and what makes you happy. And then let yourself find that happiness.
2. You might occasionally look back
I had a conversation with a very senior person in the government of Canada once. She had done a humanities PhD years earlier and had gone on to have a very successful career in government. Do you know what she told me?
In the darkest hours of her career, when she had bad moments, she often looked back. It was something that didn’t make sense to me until I failed at my first attempt at consulting and found myself looking back too.
Like any other nightmare job, or train-wreck relationship, or vacation from hell, you may look back fondly on your time in academia, especially on a morning when you have to put on pants and go in to work and you’d rather be sitting in bed. When your boss shoots down your idea or you get passed over for a promotion, you may start to dream of the academy. Like your drunk uncle who rambles on about the good old days, as humans we all have something nostalgic in us that manages to remember the good instead of the bad.
And some days you might want to go back.
3. You can go back if you really want to
I heard this week about someone whose professor wouldn’t let them go to a conference, then the prof went and presented the student’s research! While this story is bad, it’s not even rare! Maybe you and academia just need a break. Maybe you need to get out for a while.
And maybe you’ll come back.
While I talk all the time about leaving academia, I don’t talk as much about the multifarious ways that people can and will connect to a university through their career (a university even–ahem–signs one of my consulting checks). I know lots of people who keep a foot in the door. Some go back and teach a course as an adjunct (which is not as bad of a gig when you’re making 6 figures in another job). I even know one adjunct who was paid $20k to teach a single half-semester course in his area of expertise, at a school (that shall remain nameless) where the regular adjuncts are paid $7k.
There are post-docs you could take on, or get affiliation and start applying for huge grants for your research projects. Or maybe work in the career center or admin office while you teach a course in your area of interest.
I’m not saying to do any of these things, but I am saying that in some disciplines you can take some time and do something else. The door to academia isn’t as shut behind you as you think. If I wanted to get back into studying immigration full-time as a post-doc, the stint I did in the Canadian Department of Immigration is not going to hurt me. I got to study the program from the inside and I know a ton about it as a result.
There are certainly disciplines where leaving academia may be the kiss of death for an academic career. But it’s not true in every case.
4. You might be angry for a while
People acknowledge problems with the university. Sure it’s too bad we rely on adjuncts, but that’s just budget. It’s a shame the academic job market is so bad, but it’s going to get better. But the real truth is the realization that dawns upon students as they go through an advanced degree program. That the PhD in the modern world is fundamentally broken, it prepares you for little, costs an inordinate amount of money, and takes a toll on your health and sense of self-worth.
This is the bad news. And I hear it a lot among my peers. We’re mad, and rightly so.
I was angry all the time.
Then I realized something. I was privileged enough to be paid more than most people make to go and study something that was interesting to me. Someone, my government in fact, made an investment in my mind. I got paid to travel the world, learn languages, and live my dream.
I was angry because I expected that life to continue forever. I had gotten used to it. I bought the lie that it was normal and could be my future.
One day I got tired of being angry.
I started being thankful. Thankful that I had a chance to do things most humans don’t get to. Thankful that I got paid to have my brain turned into a finely-tuned machine that can solve big problems.
To my surprise, I was even thankful that I got to leave academia. I was lucky enough to go through the difficult process of reinventing myself for the second time in my life. It made me stronger, and it made life a lot more interesting. As someone told me on Twitter this week, “I got to see what I was made of.”
Life’s too short to be angry.
5. You can do almost anything
“You can do anything you want to in this town.”
It was a CEO who said that to me.
I didn’t believe him at first, but I eventually understood.
I didn’t start Roostervane because I guessed that PhDs could do things outside of academia. I started it because of the avalanche of PhDs I met in Ottawa, and now across the world, who do damned amazing things with their degrees. I’ve met PhD power-players sitting at the pinnacle of government and politics. I’ve met PhD CEOs and brilliant public intellectuals.
So when people ask for a list of what jobs they can get with a PhD, I never want to give them one. If you can think of a job, and it doesn’t require a professional designation or license you don’t have, you can probably do it. The sky is the limit really. Just ask Mayim Bialik, Rachel Maddow, Condoleezza Rice, Angela Merkel, and Shaquille O’Neal.
You can take control of your future. Whether you’ve just started, you’re ABD, or graduated, you really can turn your degree into a kick-ass career outside of academia.
I know this can be hard to wrap your head around. You’ve been around academics for so long that it seems like that would be a failure. You’ve heard the hushed whispers of others who went non-academic that make it sound like they joined a rival biker gang. You’ve started to believe the nonsense that this is the most important thing in the world, and that if you do anything else you won’t be happy.
You can do almost anything with your PhD. And since you can do almost anything, surely you can find something that makes your soul come alive.
This blog is about my journeys outside of academia put together with the advice I’ve had from talking to dozens of people about getting a job as a PhD.
It’s not a perfect science, and there’s still a lot I’m figuring out.
I’ve had a whole lot of bruises, and I’ve looked back a lot. At the heart of the transformation out of academia is not a job, skill set, or a salary–it’s transforming your mind to believe that you could be happy in another reality. That you could be a whole and fulfilled human being if you never teach another undergraduate, give an awkward conference paper, or write exclusively in the passive.
That’s what nobody told me about leaving academia.