Leaving Academia 3

There’s been a big ol’ gap here since I last wrote, promising a little piece about getting your first non-academic job. That’s mainly because I’ve switched jobs myself!

I left the startup I was working for and have taken a job at NTT Data Services. This is a dream job, the kind of job I never, ever thought I would achieve, the kind of job I didn’t even think was a possibility for me three or four years ago, much less nine or ten years ago. It has amazing compensation, the kind of benefits package that most people my age don’t get anymore, responsibilities that will challenge me to grow as a professional in ways I probably still don’t foresee, coworkers who are supportive and brilliant and driven, supervisors to look up to, and the kinds of clear goals that I love to work towards. The position is technically “flex,” with some time at home and some in the Plano headquarters, but the company has delayed in-office work until at least January 2022. I have a beautiful home office setup. [Including a huge new desk that I ordered from Pottery Barn when I accepted this job. Highly recommend a big desk. I love having a full computer work station and room for my manual writing stuff.]

Just since my last post here, two more people have reached out to me asking about leaving academic and academic-adjacent jobs (working within the university and college system). I’m sure this is in part due to the big shift that I’m also a part of: workers are changing jobs a lot right now, hiring is up, and people are seeking positions that better suit their COVID-19 comfort levels and their work-from-home preferences. But I hope it’s also part of a shift in academia itself. I hope people are realizing that their skills and their work ethic can be applied in more lucrative, less abusive settings.

I won’t make this post very long, because leveraging your academic experience means something different for every kind of job you might be applying for. What you might emphasize and downplay when applying for a copywriting position is very different from what you might emphasize and downplay when applying for a position in HR. But these tips are universally applicable.

Do your research.

You’re good at research, right? Dig in and learn everything you can about the field you’re hoping to work in. Look at a lot of company websites, competitor websites, and job descriptions. Ask anyone you know who already works in the field if they can give you a quick rundown. Don’t be surprised if you feel totally lost: the way people talk about, for instance, software marketing is completely different from how people talk about teaching undergraduates.

Learn the basics of the industry, and then learn all of the slang words and acronyms that apply to the job title you’re seeking. Then take some time to learn the very basics of any platforms or softwares listed in the job descriptions you see. You don’t need to become an expert at using Excel or WordPress or Figma, but familiarity with them and the terms used when using them will help you talk about your skills and what you hope to learn next.

Aim high, but manage your expectations.

Go ahead and apply for the jobs you want, but don’t be surprised if it takes you a few positions and a few years to achieve those goals. That’s okay. You’ll probably still have better work/life balance and more income in a borderline entry-level position outside of academia than in any position within it. If you land a really desirable job right off the bat, keep in mind that those who hired you probably expect you to focus on your learning curve and get up to speed quickly. You may need to dedicate some time watching Youtube tutorials and meeting with coworkers and mentors so that you can rise to the level if your new position.

Focus on your strengths, but never tell a lie.

Emphasize how your teaching skills can easily translate into mentorship for less experienced writers, but don’t say that you have supervisory experience when you don’t. Emphasize how the dedication and focus you applied to your dissertation research and writing can easily translate into great project management skills, but don’t say that you’ve managed a corporate project when you haven’t.

You can make yourself sound like the incredible potential employee you are without misleading anyone! It can be tempting to dodge these types of questions, but being honest will only help you long-term. You don’t want to end up in a position where you’re immediately expected to display mastery of something you’re clueless about, and you also don’t want a job where there’s no room to learn. If you’re honest with your interviewers, you’ll eventually find a position you can use as a stepping stone, or a position where you can be trained and mentored and invested in. Both options are great.

Have confidence.

Don’t use self-deprecation or tell too many jokes about academia, or you’ll come off sounding bitter and hung up on your past disappointments. When I was interviewing, I was very honest about why I didn’t want to teach anymore: I wanted better work/life balance and to feel appreciated in my work. I got nothing but respect for that! Don’t put yourself down or make it sound like this career path is a disappointing second choice.

Leaving Academia 2

What It Fixes (sort of)

I’m not going to tell you that leaving academia for an industry job will solve all of your problems. No job is perfect. Any job you stick with long enough can become boring, or spring unpleasant surprises on you, or end without warning. But I did find that pursuing a career in professional writing/content management/marketing has allowed me to meet the needs that weren’t being met (and that I realized would never be met) by academia:

  • Eliminating guilt and distraction
  • Reclaiming my hobbies
  • Avoiding feelings of betrayal and disappreciation

I’ll go through these one by one and explain how my current career helps me with them.

Eliminating guilt and distraction

I’m sure this isn’t an issue for everyone, but I know for a fact that it’s pretty widespread in academia because my husband certainly deals with it. It also occurs in other fields too, but it’s less prevalent. I’m talking about the ethos of constant busyness and the inability to “turn off” your work brain. Some people like to be super busy, some people are passionate about their jobs, some people are natural workaholics, but there’s a tendency to feel compelled to behave this way in academia because it’s so competitive and because people engage in busyness Olympics. I hate that. I never want to feel like I ought to be working when I’m hanging out with my family, or for that matter even when I’m reading a novel or watching TV. I never want to feel like I “should be” thinking about a work-related problem on a Saturday. 99% of the time, you aren’t rewarded for that level of dedication anyway.

In my experience it’s much easier to disengage mentally from the kind of job I have now. I can be finished at 5pm and genuinely not give a thought to work until the next day. I’m sure that sounds like a bad thing to many people–shouldn’t I be dedicated to my work?–but I find that if I think about work 24/7, I burn out pretty fast. It’s healthier and often more productive to limit the amount of time spent concentrating on a single thing.

Reclaiming my hobbies

This is so closely related to the item above that I should probably combine them, but oh well. I love reading and writing, but when I was completely immersed in literature and writing about literature every day, it became difficult for me to find pleasure in reading and writing anymore. I’ve had so much more fun doing those things since I stopped studying them. Of course my job involves a ton of reading and writing, but in very different modes. I don’t find that reading and writing about software and technology affects my enjoyment of reading novels and writing fiction.

Avoiding feelings of betrayal and disappreciation

Academia can be awfully personal. You get attached to the people you work for and with, and forget that schools are often run like factories churning out graduates. I found that my feelings got hurt a lot in graduate school, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever admitted before. In retrospect, I think there’s often a show of forming relationships and creating friendships when the reality is that a lot of students are colleagues are just numbers. Schools are institutions just like big companies are, and I prefer institutions that don’t try to cover up their intentions or sugarcoat their processes. I’d rather know I’m just an employee than labor under the delusion that I mean more.

Depending on your job, the particular business you work for, the particular boss you have, your coworkers, etc., you can still be vulnerable to all of these issues anywhere you work. But in my experience, it’s easier to avoid them in a non-academic setting.

Up next: getting your first “real” job.

Leaving Academia 1

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.

The Problems

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.

Life Update, November 2020

Although it feels like the rest of Texas has “gone back to normal” in the past couple of months, we have not. I continue to work from home. My husband teaches only half of his classes in-person, and those are reduced, distanced, and masked. All performances are outdoor. Our children won’t be going back to childcare until May or June 2021–we’re lucky enough to have family to help us, and lucky enough to have kids too small for school.

It’s very difficult. Everyone is bored, everyone longs to socialize, everyone conversely longs for time when they aren’t with other people. The paradox of the pandemic, for us, is that although we’re isolated socially, we’re always with family, and that wears on you in its own way.

There was a lot of backyard water play in the summer. Halloween was actually fantastic–our neighborhood did a great job of making it safe and fun. Thanksgiving, which is tomorrow, should be nice. My father drove here from Florida after isolating for over a week (he is quite isolated anyway, but he didn’t even go on his usual weekend bike ride with his best friend). My father and brother will be here for Christmas, all without flying.

I’ve thought a lot over the past several months about how lucky we are to be financially well-off, to have a nice house with a safe yard, to live in a safe and beautiful neighborhood, to have our own transportation. All of that has enabled us not only to stay safe, but to stay relatively happy.

Now I’m going to move on to some more trivial things: what I’ve been doing for entertainment when I’m not working, parenting, or sleeping.

Doing

A few weeks ago now, I bought an exercise bike (no, not the ubiquitous Peloton). We aren’t returning to OrangeTheory any time soon, and running so regularly was starting to affect my knees. Both of my parents have had knee surgery, so I decided to back off and do what my dad did: start spinning.

I love the bike. I do a Global Cycling Network workout 5-6 days per week, weight training 1 day per week, and take 1 day off to just walk or do nothing. No knee pain and I find it easier to push myself on the bike than while running.

Watching

I’ve watched a lot of “comfort TV” recently, which for me means British detective shows like Midsomer Murders, Morse, and Cracker. But I’ve also got into Coronation Street, an excellent British soap that updates in almost real time on BritBox. Highly recommended for some engaging but easy-to-watch TV.

Because my oldest son is obsessed with bikes, we started watching the Tour de France when it began in August, and this has evolved into a near-daily habit of watching cycling. Because of the pandemic, the season was heavily condensed, so for the past few months there has nearly always been an event to watch in the mornings, or to catch up on the following morning. To my surprise, I’ve become very invested in cycling and have been following it very closely. I’ve always loved watching the Tour–since 2010 when I worked at a bike shop–but this is the first year I’ve really followed all of the road events.

Reading

In that same vein, I’ve been reading cycling books. First The Secret Race, then The First Tour de France, then Slaying the Badger, and now The Beautiful Race. All great.

I also finally read Portnoy’s Complaint.

Listening

Cycling podcasts. Food podcasts. True crime podcasts. And I’ve been rediscovering a lot of older Bob Dylan albums after listening obsessively to Rough & Rowdy Ways for a while.

Vicarious Living Through Anders Timell

I’ve followed Anders Timell on Instagram for years now, since sometime in 2017. He and his partner’s first baby was born just a few weeks before my first child, and some algorithmic vagary led me to his account. I was enthralled, as a prospective and then as a first-time mother, by the differences in our babies’ daily lives. While my son slept in a barren crib with a thin, tightly fitted sheet, Timell’s daughter slept amongst bow-tied bumpers, frilly pillows, plush blankets, and stuffed animals. While my son was neurotically monitored every moment of his waking life and during much of his sleep, baby Timell was sometimes left to nap in her stroller outdoors. While my house was baby-proofed and toddler-safe, Timell’s fashionable city apartment stayed chic as hell and included enviable touches like a loaded bar cart, a roaring wood-burning fireplace, and huge vases of flowers pouring over the edges of coffee tables and window sills. Timell also has a twenty-something son from a previous marriage or relationship, frequently pictured drinking and smoking openly in company with his father.

These aren’t parenting failures–Timell’s adorable daughter is fine and will soon be joined by another sibling–but cultural differences. You see, Anders Timell is Swedish. I don’t speak the language, so you’ll have to forgive me for misconstruing any of his biographical details. He’s not a celebrity with any cachet in America despite his apparent ubiquity in Stockholm, particularly at the gorgeous and popular restaurant Taverna Brillo where he works in some indeterminate professional capacity (owner? co-owner? promoter?). The vast majority of information available about him has to be passed through the sausage machine that is Google Translate, rendering it unreliable at best, but from this I’ve gathered that Timell is a “presenter and restauranteur”; that he appeared on the Swedish television show Let’s Dance; that he is involved in some way with professional golf; that his brother Martin used to host a popular home improvement television show; that Martin was acquitted of sexual assault allegations in 2018; and that the brothers sometimes appear in Swedish tabloids including the fabulously named Stoppa Pressarna! (A recent article’s title translates, “Martin and Anders Timell’s New Giant Bang.”) The Timells’ social standing is difficult for an English-only speaker to determine, but they certainly appear to be living well.

As our children grew, I kept watching Anders’ account because we share a keen interest in food. He regularly uses his Instagram Stories to depict the time he spends in restaurants, most notably the aforementioned Taverna Brillo, where he puts in a daily or twice-daily appearance to show off chilled bottles of wine, pizzas topped with caviar, and the consistently beautiful diners. He also eats in or picks up sushi at a particular spot more than once each week, and is a near-daily regular at a high-street coffee shop apparently staffed by a rotating collection of Europe’s most attractive young people. His Instagram posts often depict him sitting down to a lovely solo meal, captioned either “Kämpa Anders!” (Fight Anders–whether this is a provocation to the reader or an encouragement for himself is unclear) or “Ensamlunch nu!” (Alone lunch now!). This isn’t even to mention the meals Timell prepares for his family and guests: a steady stream of tomahawk steaks, all manner of fresh seafoods, salads doused in homemade dressings, and potatoes cooked in all styles, always with appropriate drinks.

Anders’ lifestyle, like his country, is foreign to me. He works, but his work doesn’t seem to exert much control over his schedule or interfere with his clearly deep enjoyment of food, friends, and family. He has children, but neither he nor his partner ever seem stressed about what they’re eating, when they’re going to bed, or whether they’re learning enough. He exudes a combination of relaxation and high energy that is addictive to watch. I love following the laid-back yet stimulating rhythm of his world: stops by the restaurants he must hold some stake in; parties alongside his beautiful now-wife; games of golf and squash with male friends so well dressed that they would put Ina Garten’s luncheon guests to shame; regular trips to a beachside cottage in Flaxenvik and sometimes farther afield to Dubai or Portugal; long midday jaunts through parks with his young daughter; visits to salons and spas for cuts, shaves, and facial treatments; sunsets viewed from the beautiful bay windows of his downtown Stockholm abode.

I feel no jealousy when it comes to Timell’s apparent wealth, but I often feel envious of his carefree attitude. I would love to enjoy the sunset on a dock with my toddler and not feel an undercurrent of anxiety over the child falling into the dark water and drowning. I would love to indulge in a lavish weeknight dinner party with no thought of the incipient hangover. I would love to ride a bike through trafficked streets, helmetless and laughing into the camera, not fearing death by speeding bus at any second. Timell seems to expect the best at every turn, and what’s more, he seems to get it.

Being a relatively optimistic person myself, the contrast between Timell’s life and my own didn’t strike me as too painfully stark until the coronavirus pandemic kicked off this past March and April. I watched on Instagram as I always did, checking my Stories in the intervals between conference calls for work or while stirring risotto for dinner in the evening. Every day I expected to see some mark of These Unprecedented Times on Anders’ life–after all, a significant portion of his leisure time and presumably his work is to do with restaurants, and they were having to shift their operations to accommodate the pandemic. But as the weeks went on, Timell seemed immune not only to COVID-19 but also to its bummer side-effects.

You may have seen Sweden in the news recently. Coronavirus reached them, but they never shut down, and now there’s some debate over whether this strategy was brilliant or disastrous. At the very least, they’ve suffered much less economically than America and the rest of Europe. And from the view of Sweden that Anders provides, everything seems… fine. Even at the height of the virus panic in April, the only sign of a change in Timell’s Stockholm was a few outdoor dining areas taped off to create more social distance; but those may have been for some unrelated purpose, because diners still poured into Taverna Brillo for their glasses of rosé and plates of shellfish pasta at tables that didn’t seem to have been rearranged at all. So far, the only visible change in Anders’ life is the location of his summer vacation. Since I began following him, he has typically gone abroad for a while each summer, while this year he’s spent his time on Sweden’s beaches instead. Still, that hasn’t stopped him from hosting and attending some of the most beautiful summertime dinner parties you’ve ever seen, living it up at Midsommar, golfing constantly, and careening around adorable seaside villages on bikes with his son.

Since coronavirus hit, Anders’ Instagram account hasn’t just been a series of beautiful images of a laid-back life. It has become a glimpse into another world, an alternate reality where no one is worried about school, work, illness, or the economy, where no one is lonely or isolated, where life has gone on without either heightened anxiety or downtrodden resignation. I have to acknowledge of course that this glimpse is narrow, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt the combination of refreshment and disorientation that I feel when I look down at my phone and see Anders panning live over a table full of laughing, drinking people in a lovely setting without a mask in sight. Friends hold each others’ babies, clink their champagne glasses together, and gather in restaurants, living rooms, back gardens, and on boats. Women walk down the streets together in elbow-to-elbow groups, dropping their children off at creche, buying groceries, meeting for coffees. Men hit the gym to lift weights, wander around golf courses carousing while playing, and drink beers at clubhouses.

And far from feeling outraged by their carefree days and nights, I feel hopeful and uplifted. I don’t know if Anders’, and his country’s, approach to COVID-19 is right or wrong. I have no idea how problematic, or not, the Timells might be in Sweden. Anders’ life might be one of unmitigated privilege. But I can’t help loving him and the alternate universe he shows me through his phone.

Kämpa, Anders! You do my mental health a power of good.