How to talk about leaving academia without sounding miserable
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
I hesitate to jump on the bandwagon of writing a blog post that underscores just how uncertain “these times” are because I don’t personally find that kind of statement very helpful. So let’s just say: due to COVID-19, due to murders and violence against the Black community, due to the uprising that has rightfully resulted, there are many people out there right now, academics and non-academics alike, who are truly unsure of what is happening or what is about to happen with regard to their employment status. For those academics who do not yet have tenure, for those cobbling together many adjunct positions and hoping for something to come through, for those who are 9 months into a 1 or 2 year post-doc and are anxious about their continued funding, even for those tenured faculty in underfunded departments all around the country, the anxiety must be fairly acute. Many are either rightfully nervous about future academic job scarcity as they hit the job market or they are worried they will lose the perhaps already tenuous positions they do have.
Suffice to say: there are a lot of people out there thinking about making a change, and hoping that change will insulate them from the volatility around all of us. And perhaps there is a way in which the prospect of a global pandemic and subsequent economic collapse, ongoing civil unrest, and an upcoming presidential election gives us all permission, even in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety, to imagine other possible futures for ourselves; at the very least it may alleviate some of the pressure and angst many academics feel over admitting their unhappiness, for there is now a very practical reason for reevaluation of priorities and for preparation for an uncertain future. What this all means is that, if you are an academic starting to think that maybe you should look for a non-academic job, then you are in good company.
But how do you talk about yourself in this context? How do you position yourself as the best candidate for a role when, most likely, what is pushing you toward that role isn’t necessarily passion for the work or interest in a particular industry, but more negative emotions of fear, desperation, or misery, or more transactional concerns over needing better pay or more time off? Career coaches and advice blogs will all tell you that it is a cardinal sin of the interview to cast your former employer in an even remotely negative light, or to suggest that you were ever even a smidge unhappy in the past, or to intimate that something about your current situation is less than ideal. In fact, if you listen to the advice, your interview is supposed to frame you as someone who sincerely believes that you were put on this earth to do the job for which you are interviewing, and that everything in your life has been preparing you for this moment. So what do you say when the truth doesn’t quite lend itself to these polite, optimistic answers and instead runs the risk of making you seem like a complainer, a quitter, or, even worse, just miserable? And, how do you ask questions that really matter, that give you real insight into the company at which you are interviewing?
When I decided to quit academia and started to apply and interview for jobs, I remember being asked over and over in various interviews at various companies: why did you leave academia? I had read my fair share of those aforementioned career advice blogs, so I felt strongly at the time that telling the truth was simply not an option, sure that my answer would reveal me to be a highly disgruntled feminist or maybe a slightly unstable person in the middle of an existential crisis, with nothing positive to say about academia and nothing of value to offer to the current role. So I tried on different answers to see which one would fit. I said: “I have some experience in [insert job title] and I’ve always wanted to get back to it” (nope, not really). I tried: “I’ve always been interested in [insert name of industry]” (not even a little). I even found myself saying: “I have a friend who is a [insert job title] and I’ve always been curious about their work” (not even close, also: bad answer). Invariably I would follow up these statements with a few short, explanatory sentences while secretly crossing my fingers under the table, hoping I would sound like a well adjusted, reasonable person. The problem, of course, is that I no doubt came across as insincere. I absolutely was insincere: I was straight up lying.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that sometimes what motivates us can feel like a negative emotion, but at the root of that there is often something far more positive. For example, the other side of the coin of fear of the unknown and anxiety about the future is of course the desire to feel secure, and to have a sense of confidence in and control over your life. Similarly, what may seem purely transactional, for example, the desire to make more money or have a better emotional relationship to your work or, for many academics who are BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+ and/or who identify as female, to go to work and not be actively discriminated against, also have their roots in a wish for safety, stability, balance and overall happiness. What I also didn’t realize at the time is that it’s OK to be truthful, that any place where you would actually want to work is also a place where the interviewer won’t recoil in horror if you say you had a fraught relationship to academia or that you want to work in a place with more psychological safety, and will likely be receptive to expressions of ambivalence and sensitive to the nuances of what motivates people to make life and career changes. If they aren’t, then, great, get out of there fast because they just helped you dodge a bullet.
If I could answer the question now, I would absolutely tell the truth, and I would say something like this. “So much of what I did as an academic I truly enjoyed. I loved teaching, reading, writing, all of it. But there were also aspects of that work that didn’t suit me; for example, generally speaking academics have poor boundaries between their academic and their personal life, generally speaking they aren’t compensated for the full spectrum of their responsibilities, generally speaking they are stressed and work too hard and that hard work too often goes unrecognized both by their peers and by the institutions that employ them, generally speaking academics who are BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+ and/or identify as female have the added burden of working in a place where there is little psychological safety and where they suffer from discrimination and harassment. I left academia because I realized that it was possible to pursue what I loved about academia - the relationship building, the research, the writing - in a role where I would be more equitably compensated, where I would have a better work/life balance, and where I can be more fully myself. Furthermore, as an academic, the more specialized you become in your research and in your work, arguably the fewer and fewer people benefit from your knowledge and your experience. I am interested in pursuing a career where, as I grow in my experience and knowledge, I am able to positively impact more people, not fewer. I am now exploring career paths where I can use the skills and experiences I have honed over years in the academy but in a context that is more suited to my own happiness and in an organization that better aligns to my values.” That would be the truth, and it would be a good answer, too.
Of course, any good interview should also feel like a conversation, ideally a conversation with someone who expresses genuine interest and curiosity about you as a human. It should not be a monologue or an inquisition. What this means, practically speaking, is that you should prepare some questions ahead of time about what matters most to you. If I knew then what I know now, I would have been sure to ask questions that mattered to who I am and what I care about. I would have asked: What are your company’s values? How do you bring those values to bear on your day to day work? What is the composition of your team? What is the proportion of people who are BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+ and/or identify as women in positions of leadership? Do you have team goals and objectives related to diversity, equity and inclusion? What are they? What’s one thing you think the company needs to improve with regard to your workplace culture? If the interviewer gets uncomfortable or doesn’t know or can’t really give you anything other than a straight up answer, that’s a strong indication that you aren’t in the right place, especially if you are a person who identifies as a woman and/or LGBTQ+ and/or BIPOC.
Now, while we are all waiting to see what happens next in the world, it is a good time to think about your own narrative, to align yourself with your own values, motivations and priorities. Perhaps you want to feel like you are paid according to your worth, or you want to spend more time with your family, or you want to work in an organization that has a strong, antiracist culture, or perhaps you want a stronger sense of certainty about the future. Or, hey, maybe all of those things. As we all inhabit this strange limbo, it’s a really good time to take stock, a really good time to push yourself out of your comfort zone to learn new things and a really good time to prepare for change.