Every year, in the spring, friends and acquaintances start asking me about “leaving academia.” For some of them this means quitting their academic program before it’s complete. For others it means ending their pursuit of an academic job. For a few others it means leaving an academic job they’ve already achieved. It comes up in March, April, and May because this is “job season,” when applications and processed, interviews are conducted, and offers are made (or not made).
I’ve met with several people every year since 2016 about this. Most of them want to hear how my life is different from the life of someone working in academia. Some of them want advice, which I’m happy to give with the caveat that my experience is very limited–I’ve never worked a full-time academic job, and I’ve only worked in what we call “industry” for 6 years, and in only a couple of roles. But I thought I’d cover some of the questions I usually get here on my blog, where they can be referred to by anyone at any time.
Let me clarify my own background, because my experience won’t be useful to everyone who is thinking about this issue. I started graduate school for English in 2011, and got my MA (2013) and PhD (2017) both from the University of Texas at Austin. For most of grad school, I worked as a TA and then as an Assistant Instructor, but in 2015 I moved out of state. That summer I did a paid research fellowship in California, and then returned to Utah with my husband, who had started his first academic job. I spent the fall of 2015 working on my dissertation, but I hated having it as my only project–I wanted to be busier. So in December 2015, I started working as a Senior Copywriter for a retail business. In May 2016, I moved on to become a Content Manager at a large software corporation, where I was part of a big multinational marketing team. I had my first child in January 2017, got my doctorate in December 2017, and had my second child in November 2018, while working for that same company.
In August 2019, we moved back to Texas so that my husband could start working at a school that suited him better, and I started looking for more challenging jobs. That search led me to start as Content Manager for a smaller post-startup software business in March 2020, a job I’m still doing. Because this business is much smaller, I have more responsibilities and face more challenges, and I like that.
The biggest questions I get are, “Why didn’t you want to teach?,” “How is industry better than academia?,” and “How did you first get a job outside of academia?” These, especially the first two, are really difficult to answer independently of each other, so I’m going to group my writing in my own way here.
Just keep in mind that my experience isn’t universal. Not everyone faces the same challenges in academia. Many people face a hell of a lot more. If you’re in a different field, a lot of this won’t apply. If you don’t want children, a lot of this won’t apply.
I started seeing three big issues with an academic career. There are more, and different people encounter different problems, but these were mine.
The first one is that academia is incredibly competitive. This is true of all fields, but English is really alarming. By the time I reached the dissertation stage, I felt pretty hopeless about getting the kind of job I wanted, or any job at all, and being married threw another wrench into any potential plans: you have to find a school that will hire both of you. This feeling of hopelessness is what first made me wonder if I should stick with the teaching trajectory.
The second one is that academia doesn’t pay very well. Even a tenure track job doesn’t provide enough money to support an entire family (in my opinion, anyway), and if you end up forced to adjunct, you often don’t even have health insurance coverage. I started to see academia as exploitative. And I’m a very privileged person who didn’t even go into debt for school!
Finally, there was a more amorphous problem: I noticed that the students who ended up with the kinds of tenure track jobs everyone dreams about were either 1) male, or 2) almost entirely dedicated to their careers.
This is because achieving a TT job requires most of your time and energy. I knew plenty of men who were able to devote this kind of time and energy to their academic careers, but they tended to have wives who managed the vast majority of the rest of their lives. If they had children, they inevitably had partners who managed the family, often by bringing in most of the income at the same time. Women who were on track to achieve their dream jobs usually didn’t have families. I know many people will bristle at these old-fashioned-sounding descriptions, but they’re completely true in my experience.
I personally could feel my career coming to a crossroads as I advanced to the dissertation stage. I could increase the amount of time and energy I put into school and power myself onto the job market. I could maintain my current level of effort and simply see what happened. Or I could maintain my current level of effort and experiment with a job outside of academia. I chose the third option.
To be totally transparent, my husband’s job played a role in this, too. He was already a TT professor. He didn’t want to pursue a different career. I didn’t see a way for us both to succeed in academia while also having a family, and once I realized that I really did want children, I knew I needed to at least try a different path.
So you can see why that third problem is so complex. I felt like I was failing as a feminist when I admitted that I needed to do something “easier,” and when I saw that even relationships that seemed equal from the outside weren’t. I felt like a failure as an academic when I admitted that I wasn’t “passionate enough” about my subject to suffer for it, and when I admitted that I wanted to be financially rewarded for my work. I felt like I “should” be happy teaching at a high school or a community college, and at the same time I felt like I “should” have the drive to compete for top jobs.
For a long time, I felt very conflicted about my career path. I spent a lot of time ruminating about what was important to me, who I wanted to be, and what would help me achieve the life I wanted. The realization I had that helped me move on was: My job doesn’t have to be my life. I didn’t want a job that was my life. I didn’t want to identify as my job title, I didn’t want to be thinking about work when I went to bed at night, I didn’t want to work more than 40 hours a week, and I didn’t want to feel unappreciated in my career.