How to Have ‘The Talk’ About Leaving Academe

Karin Johnson offers a graduate student’s insight into how she had the conversation with her adviser -- and how it went.

July 23, 2020
 
 
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I recently completed my Ph.D. in social sciences at a research-intensive university. When I began my doctoral program, I aimed to become a tenure-track faculty member at a similar university.

But over the years, my professional goals changed for numerous reasons. Those ranged from the negative (dealing with threats and sexual harassment) to the positive (discovering internships and that I love researching with a team). Perhaps most important, they included the neutral: realizing the academic market is constrained and that with my skills I could obtain a comparable job outside of the academy.

So in the spring term of the year before I completed my doctorate, I began looking for alt-ac jobs. And that summer, I had The Talk with my adviser about leaving academe.

I was nervous. But why? My adviser and I had had a good working relationship, and I didn’t rely on him for funding. (I know this is not the case for everyone.) Yet even with the knowledge of his support, I didn’t want to disappoint him. In previous years, my adviser had expressed his preference for me to get a job as a tenure-track faculty member. When I first broached the possibility of leaving academe early in my degree program, he had appeared dejected. Another time, he had dismissed the results from the myIDP quiz that reflected my interests, which ranked the tenure-track path in 10th place. Ultimately, I wanted him to back my decision, be proud of me and approve my choice to search for employment elsewhere.

Before having the conversation, I read a lot of blogs for advice, but none addressed what happens and the outcome. So in this essay, I’d like to share with you how I had The Talk and how it went, and to offer some lessons I’ve learned from the process.

Three Key Steps

I took three steps to prepare myself, including:

Identifying what I needed and what made me happy. Over the past five years, I have participated in various academic and alt-ac workshops and events hosted by my university’s GradSuccess program that help inform and assist graduate students during their studies and in transition to a career. I also took professional quizzes. That helped me articulate to myself what I like to do, what I value and what I want in life and a future job.

Likewise, I have had candid conversations with different people in my mentoring circle. I talked with one of my mentors about the expectations of taking a postdoctoral research fellowship and what that would mean for my future career trajectory and mental health. With other people, I networked and asked questions. Unabashedly, I would inquire about someone’s job, how they got it, what they do, what the vibe is like and how they interview candidates. One informational interview clarified that I would prefer not to work in a particular field. Another conversation led me to an internship at an agency where I had a great experience.

Making the decision. Over the months, I applied for jobs in both the public and private sectors, as well as a handful of faculty and administrator positions in higher education. I had publications, teaching and grants, and I knew that if I pursued a career in academe, I would be successful at it. But would it be what I wanted? Would it be a good fit? In other words, I did not make a sudden decision to take myself off the academic market or say no to academic jobs. It came down to applying to the jobs that I felt were the best for me.

I used to think that the clarity as to whether I would work in academe or industry would hit me like a bolt of lightning or shine on me like a ray of sunshine. That is not how it happened. I did not have an epiphany. Instead, the progression naturally transpired as I built application materials for certain positions. I applied for a slew of grants and fellowships, of which some were academic positions. Knowing that the tenure-track market is tight, I told myself I would only apply to jobs that fit my needs and happiness criteria. I also applied for other interesting positions in similar areas on recruitment websites. Before I knew it, I had to admit that I was fully on the job market because my spreadsheet was filling up quickly. Quickly I found myself only applying to nonacademic jobs that fit me, as opposed to any call that I fit.

Preparing for The Talk. After acknowledging that I was on the job market and not interested in applying for academic jobs, I wondered if I would be a failure if I quit. Admittedly, I dealt with anger with academe. Even before deciding to leave academe officially, I used to feel that someone owed me an explanation as to why I should stay. I expressed these feelings to a friend. She told me that no matter what decision I made, I would still be the same person to the people near -- and even far -- to me. After mulling over the situation and what my friend said, I realized that I was the only person whom I had to convince that I was doing the right thing.

Having The Talk

Once I was comfortable with my decision, I needed to tell my adviser. I turned to blogs for advice. What I took away was that my goal was to be positive and confident, to describe what I was doing and the types of jobs I had applied for, and to lay out expectations for him and me. I was afraid to forget something, so I wrote a list of things to talk about with him.

When. One question that is not easy to answer is “When should I tell me adviser that I want to leave academe?” Some blogs I read suggested not telling your adviser at all if you fear a negative response. A colleague related to me that at a workshop she attended, the advice was to tell your adviser after you’ve defended your dissertation so they can’t refuse to confer the degree. Is there a good time?

For me, I needed to act now. I was in the early stages of applying for nonacademic jobs. I not only needed support to finish my dissertation and to graduate, but I also needed my adviser to act as a professional and personal reference. As such, I had to tell him my plans sooner than later. It’s better not to go at it alone. If you can’t tell your adviser, find someone who will champion you.

Where. When I asked my adviser if we could meet to talk about my dissertation progress, he suggested we go to lunch at a place “where they don’t keep coming over to ask you how things are and to hurry you out.” It was a good idea to talk on neutral territory, as opposed to at work, to avoid the temptation to work.

What I said. A fellow graduate student asked me if I pitched to my adviser that I had decided to look for nonacademic jobs due to the lack of fit or the tight academic job market. The fact is that my adviser already knows that the market is not at its best. I approached it as, “This is what I’m doing.”

I told my adviser I had been applying for jobs, and after I described some of them, he was enthusiastic, saying they were good fits for me. I explained that I was still looking into some academic paths and attending conference career fairs. Although the bulk of my efforts were on nonacademic jobs, I applied to jobs that fit my criteria.

How It Went

Over all, my adviser was positive and supportive. He has continued to be the biggest advocate that I’ve had.

We discussed expectations -- what I needed to do to complete the dissertation and what he needed to do to help me graduate and obtain a job. We set parameters to track my progress and the feedback from other committee members. We laid out a timeline and clarified short-, medium- and long-term mile markers. Finally, I asked my adviser if he would be willing to help me navigate and negotiate job offers, and he happily agreed.

Next Steps

I then told my other committee members. Then my former boss. Family and friends. And other graduate students. And something happened -- everyone was supportive. The most common response was questions: committee members asked how they could help and what this meant for future career paths. When I expected other graduate students to be judgmental, I was surprised when they were interested in knowing more.

I offer the insight into having The Talk with the hopes that if you need to do it, you can adapt my experience to yourself and feel more reassured. Good luck!

Bio

Karin A. C. Johnson is a political economist who researches and writes on how national policy shapes skilled migration. She earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Riverside.

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