“When did you decide to leave academia?” This question, or some version of it — “How did you know that you didn’t want to be a professor?” for example — is one I’m regularly asked. It comes up in conversation, on Twitter, or when I’m on a careers panel. It’s a fair inquiry, and the questioner tends to ask because she is wrestling with making a decision about her own future. But it’s a question that I can’t answer. There was no one moment when I knew the tenure-track wasn’t for me, and there wasn’t an easy process to come to that decision either.
The reality was messy; the reality was that I spent months, even years, unsure about what path to take.
Let’s take up this path metaphor. It’s one that also comes up regularly, because the wondering behind the question is really about this: what career path should I follow? In what direction should I go? The paths in this case are clearly marked: “Academia” or “Something Else.” But the markers need not be so clearly defined. And there doesn’t have to be just two paths. What if there were many?
In October, I was part of a career panel at the Universities Art Association of Canada conference. One of the moderators presented a variation of the path theme, taken from a talk given earlier that month by Paul Yachnin at Queen’s University: academia as a highway with many exit ramps (and, ideally, just as many on ramps). The idea is that the academy isn’t so far removed from other careers, and that taking an exit now — getting an “alternative-academic” job — doesn’t mean one can never come back. The highway is a useful metaphor, and a hopeful one for academic job seekers worried about taking a non-faculty job only to find they’re blocked from ever getting a tenure-track gig.
The highway metaphor helps job seekers envision a much wider array of next steps, none of which need mean the end of one’s academic aspirations. Good. But let me take out my map and show you . . . look: that highway is just one of many! There are lots of highways. They all have lots of on- and off-ramps, and they all connect to each other directly or indirectly. Some roads may be better for you than others.
If you’re struggling with the “what path?” question, take heart: you are doing this correctly! Get clearer on what your ideal destination is like. You don’t need to know what industry, company, or job title suits you. If you don’t, the roads you need to be on now are ones that get you exploring your options (conducting informational interviews, for example) or identifying your priorities, goals, values, strengths, interests, and skills. Once you’re more comfortable travelling these routes, you can plan the rest of your journey. And, you’ll know you’ve been on the right path all along — your path, unique to you.
As for me, learning about and focusing on what was actually important rather than on what others, including academic culture, told me was, got me to where I am now. Letting go of old thought patterns took time, but the process went much faster when I stopped worrying and got in the driver’s seat.