‘Leaving Academia’

Author discusses his book on how to leave an academic career. He provides advice based on his own experience.

October 9, 2020
 

Christopher L. Caterine seemed on the right path toward tenure-track success. He earned a Ph.D. in classics from the University of Virginia in 2014. He was several years into a visiting assistant professorship at Tulane University, and he had more time to go. Still, he made a decision and left academe. He tells the story -- and offers advice -- in Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide (Princeton University Press). In the book, he offers advice on finding a good job as well as on the specifics of a job search (cover letters, CVs -- for nonacademics).

He answered questions about the book via email.

Q: You had a Ph.D. in classics and a good (visiting) assistant professor gig. What prompted you shift to a nonacademic career?

A: The immediate cause was a change in perspective prompted by my wife's decision to turn down a tenure-track job. The short version of that story -- I tell it in detail in my book -- is that we stopped asking how bad an academic position would have to be for us to turn it down and began to ask how good it would have to be for us to uproot ourselves from New Orleans. That bar was higher than either of us had realized -- especially as we had only moved here 18 months prior. Since her position was renewable and mine was not, I decided to explore other careers.

Of course, there was a confluence of other factors lurking in the background. I've already alluded to the fact that my wife and I faced the "two-body problem." After spending five years of our relationship long-distance in grad school, letting our careers separate us again was out of the question. I had also grown weary of teaching the same courses over and over and wasn't sure I wanted every semester to feel like Groundhog Day until I retired. Lastly, my work as chair of the Contingent Faculty Committee for the Society for Classical Studies had made me aware of how bad job outcomes and working conditions were for the majority of faculty in the U.S. An upside of that work, however, was learning that I have a knack for project management -- and that the idea of spending more time on strategy execution than research excited me. Those realizations made it easier to start down the path of seeking a new career in the spring of 2015.

Q: Networking is a subject in your book. How is networking different for nonacademic careers than for academic careers?

A: I was such a firm believer in meritocracy that it never crossed my mind to network while I was in academe! At best, I saw it as an imposition on other people's time; at worst, I viewed it as a type of cheating -- trying to convince someone to hire you because of a relationship instead of for the quality of your scholarship. I think part of that block was that I assumed networking was solely about helping yourself get a job. That's one of the reasons why you do it, of course, but if it's your only goal, you won't get very far. To be good at networking, you need to make it about learning from others and positioning yourself to help them. Enter every meeting aiming to learn as much as you can about your contact’s professional history, goals and current challenges. That knowledge allows you to connect them to people who can help them solve their problems faster than they could in a vacuum. At that point, you’re returning value to them on the time they invested in your meeting. The benefit to you is information about their line of work, the skills required to do it and an improved perception of what it would be like to do that job on a daily basis.

To my mind, scholars could be much more effective and efficient in their work if they applied these skills inside the academy. But the culture of grad school seems to condition most people not to behave this way. When I first started networking, I was terrified that I would annoy people by asking for their time. Most -- maybe 80 percent -- quickly volunteered an hour to tell me about their career path when I emailed my request. That's probably what's most different about networking between academia and the rest of the professional world: nonacademics prioritize networking and relationship building even though their calendars are far more constrained and far less flexible.

When I was just starting to write my dissertation, my director of graduate studies cajoled me into driving a senior scholar who had just given a lecture 75 minutes to the airport. We had a nice chat, but nothing came of it at the time. Four years later, I asked the individual to read a chapter I was revising for publication. He had some good feedback, and we began to correspond. Months later, one of his contacts invited me to write a chapter for an edited volume. That invitation came weeks after I had committed to leaving academia -- while I was walking up the steps to a night class I was taking to pave the way for that transition. I decided to write the chapter as a hedge, thinking maybe there was a chance I'd find academic success after all. I finished my chapter in early 2017, but the other authors were delayed. Ironically, the volume is now set to come out next year -- four years since I left academia and after I've written and published an entire book in the intervening period!

Q: What are the main things academics need to learn about communicating with nonacademics?

A: First, it's your job to convey the value of your experience by explaining it in terms that make sense to your audience. As a general rule, lead with why something should matter to them, then get into what it is and how it works. Don't assume that others will value what you do, and don't take offense if they can't connect the dots unassisted.

Second, nonacademics are people. Treat them as such. Be curious about what they do, how they got there and what their frustrations or aspirations are. It's hard to build a relationship if you only talk about yourself or view a new contact in instrumental terms.

Third, be likable. People tend to help those they enjoy spending time with. If you only talk about the negative aspects of academia and the challenges of changing careers, it's unlikely someone will refer you to their contacts or recommend you for a job.

Most importantly, be brief. You risk alienating your audience if you provide extensive preambles and irrelevant details. If they want more information, they'll ask.

Q: How should academics deal with academics who think there is only good work in academe?

A: I would challenge both the idea that the work is good and the notion that it exists! Today, academia is the alternative career for most U.S. Ph.D.s, with only about 7 percent of entering grad students in the social sciences and humanities eventually securing a tenure-track job. COVID-19 has almost certainly shrunk that number. Of the remainder, less than 20 percent end up in contingent roles. Some of those positions work for some people, but the majority are abusive -- low-paying jobs with no benefits and limited institutional support.

The academics who think there is only good work in academe aren't responsible for that situation, but they have an ethical obligation to account for it in their teaching and advising. Their students, colleagues, deans and provosts should push that issue as each is able. That might mean asking for faculty to solicit grad alumni outside academia to speak on their career journey since leaving or defending. It could mean forming a LinkedIn group to foster sustained discussion among alumni, faculty and students. It might even mean asking an outside consultant (!) to moderate a workshop exploring how to modify graduate seminar projects to enable exploration of diverse careers without diminishing the rigor of doctoral study. To get back to the numbers where we began, roughly 75 percent of entering grad students are already working outside the professoriate. That means it should be fairly easy to act on these ideas.

Of course, if you're stuck with a contrarian adviser, PI or recommender, you may prefer to seek out other mentors quietly and explore career options without indicating your intentions. I did that for the first six months, only "burning my ship" with a public declaration when I had completed one last outing on the academic job market.

Q: Can you describe your job outside academe and how you came to get it?

A: I'm a communications strategist and proposal writer for a global consulting company. On a fun day, I work with senior members of the firm to craft a compelling sales message or collaborate with the rest of our creative team to convey that message as memorably as possible. On a boring day, you might find me applying a style guide to a massive technical document or checking to make sure that everyone's name and title are correct in an organizational chart. Essentially, I apply a wide array of skills I learned earning my doctorate: synthesizing information, weighing ambiguous evidence, writing clearly and framing what is usually quite boring information in an exciting way that can hold an audience’s attention. I used to travel almost weekly to work with teams on site -- and will be first in line for a COVID-19 vaccine if it means I can do so again!

I found the job through networking. Someone I had cold contacted for an informational interview put me in touch with someone he knew at the company, and a good chat with that individual led to a call with a superior of his who had also been an academic. The focus of that call -- and this is important general advice -- was that people with advanced degrees look overqualified when applying for entry-level jobs: to his mind it was far better for people like me to seek midcareer positions. At the end of our discussion, he hesitated slightly before asking me for a writing sample. He was apparently happy with what he saw: shortly after receiving it, he referred me for a position that was about to become available. I didn't even know I was being considered for a job until I was asked to schedule the first interview! At the time that seemed crazy, but I now know that most midcareer positions are filled by referral rather than application. That fact makes it essential for academics to step outside their comfort zone and learn how to network. It really is how you create your own luck -- especially in a job market as competitive as today's.

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